The Hillsborough Inquest concluded that 96 football fans were unlawfully killed as a result of a series of catastrophic failures by the police and ambulance services. Geoff Pearson says now it’s time for a shake-up of the laws and regulations governing football matches to prevent dangerous crowd management strategies.
The finding from last week’s inquest was welcome and long overdue. Yet it would not have come as a surprise for football fans who experienced the appalling crowd management and policing methods that prevailed in the 1980s. It also won’t have been a surprise for anyone who read the Taylor Report that followed the disaster and laid the blame firmly at the door of the South Yorkshire Police, and also strongly criticised the role of Sheffield Wednesday FC, Sheffield City Council, and the Football Association.
Arguably the most significant outcome of the Taylor Report for future football crowd management was its recommendation that the standing areas in large football stadia – the terraces – should be closed and replaced with all-seater stands. At the time there was little opposition to the recommendation, and cabinet papers released by the Hillsborough Independent Panel in 2012 revealed Government support for removing the terraces because it believed this would make football crowd disorder and violence (or ‘hooliganism’ as it was known at the time and still is in many quarters) easier to police.
However as yet another investigation into the disaster reveals that terracing was not to blame for the fatalities on 15 April 1989 it is time to revisit the decision to move to all-seater stadia. It is also time to challenge the continued reticence from those responsible for safety at football grounds, most notably the Department for Culture Media and Sport and the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, to consider safe standing areas. It was naïvely assumed that football fans would grow accustomed to not being able to stand at matches and in the decade following Hillsborough it seemed that the changes had been largely accepted. But this is no longer the case.
Over-regulation of football culture
Research into football supporters and fan culture in Britain has identified a significant resistance to what many fans perceive to be the over-regulation of football; evidence of this resistance can be seen from the vastly increased use of (illegal) pyrotechnics at matches. Independent fan groups, supporter’s trusts, and ‘ultra’ groups have developed across the country to challenge what they consider to be unfair rules and laws that stifle expression of non-violent football culture. Many stadia in the country now have areas where fans never sit down in their seats, and travelling supporters in particular typically stand and migrate between seats to gather together with their friends. Clubs and councils responsible for issuing safety certificates for stadiums initially threatened the closure of stands but now generally turn a blind eye.
Furthermore, standing in seated areas brings with it its own dangers. It can lead to restricted views from some seats which can result in migration, fans standing on seats, and fans gathering on radial stairways. Tumbles and bruises following goals are commonplace, and minor crushes and broken bones are not a rare occurrence. This is of course nothing to compare with the disaster at Hillsborough, but should be considered in the context of major stadium disasters that have occurred elsewhere in the world in all-seater stadiums (most notably the 2001 Ellis Park disaster in South Africa when 43 fans were crushed to death in a recently refurbished stadium) and the regular safe use of large, modern, standing areas elsewhere in Europe, most notably in Germany.
Out on the lash
The prohibition on standing areas in British football stadia is not the only ineffective and arguably counter-productive regulation that we should revisit. The Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act 1985 was introduced to attempt to reduce drunkenness amongst match-going supporters which was considered to be a contributory factor to disorder at matches.
However there is no evidence that the legislation has had a positive impact upon levels of alcohol consumption by supporters and ethnographic research carried out over a period of 16 years suggested that the restrictions were inadvertently increasing the risk of disorder related to congestion around alcohol outlets in stadia, crushing at turnstiles and stairwells, and risk of confrontation between fans drinking in pubs near the ground.
Restrictions imposed upon the possession of alcohol on official transport to and from matches was also resulting in supporters arriving at times and locations unknown to the police, in turn reducing opportunity for dialogue between the parties which research has been shown to play an essential role in reducing the risk of disorder. But why can’t football supporters have a drink while they enjoy a football match, when this (and standing) is acceptable at other sporting and cultural events?
Now more than ever there is an opportunity to revisit some of the unnecessary and at times counterproductive restrictions on match-going football supporters. The safety improvements that followed the Taylor Report combined with the continuing improvements in the policing of football matches in the UK means that we should now be able to confine such outdated laws and regulations to the history books, along with the type of dangerous crowd management strategies that led to the Hillsborough disaster.
It is time for a grown-up conversation about the treatment and management of football supporters.