Sitting in judgement

wsc302The problem with all-seater stadiums is that you have to stand up, argues Huw Richards 

It was nice of Arsenal to provide the away fans with padded seats, if somewhat less charitable to retail them at £35 a shot. It was too bad that the only time we were able to sit in them was during half-time. Swansea’s first trip to the Emirates earlier this season epitomised what you might call the all-seater paradox. The theory behind all-seater grounds, compulsory in the top two divisions since 1994, is that they stop people standing. In practice, particularly if you are an away fan, everybody stands.

Terrace culture was deep-rooted by more than 90 years at the Vetch Field and one explanation offered for the desire of many Swans fans to stand on away trips is the firm discouragement of standing at the Liberty Stadium. Away from Swansea it is a different matter. While we only graduated to the levels where all-seaters are universal four years ago, our experience goes back to encounters with Northampton Town’s tin box in the 1990s.

The approach taken by fans depends largely on the stewarding. One female steward at Port Vale went around our standing supporters one by one asking them individually to sit down. Disarmed by such a direct and polite approach, most complied. Other clubs do not seem to mind what away fans do so long as they do not burn the ground down or molest the home following. That reticence has been the common approach in the Premier League. Having been to eight of Swansea’s 11 away league matches, I have yet to see any attempt to discourage standing.

At one level it makes sense. Stewards are there to prevent trouble, not provoke it. To an English club steward, wading into a couple of thousand Welshmen who seem bent on standing might look like reckless provocation, if not suicide. But to do nothing – to not even make a token effort to get anyone to sit down – is to ignore the interests of many of those fans.

How many of that apparently solid block really want to spend the game on their feet? We do not know, of course, but I would guess that a hardcore of committed standers are at least matched, and probably far outnumbered, by a grumbling mass who have to put up with it. Asking the person in front to sit down is simply not practical. There is the possibility of an earful (or worse), but there is probably somebody else standing in their sightline. It does not take many people standing, particularly if they are at the front or blocking the view of the goals, to force pretty well everybody onto their feet.

What is merely irritating and uncomfortable for those of us who are comparatively young, fit and tall is much more of a problem for the youngest spectators or my father, a Swans fan since 1946, who is 82 years old and 5ft 7in tall. In theory, all-seater stadiums should guarantee them a view. In practice, they obstruct it.

Fans who insist on standing in seated areas may kid themselves that they are acting in resistance to authority and to a stupid rule, but in practice they are simply being selfish. Insistence on watching the game their way is not at the expense of the other club, its stewards or the police, but fellow supporters of their own team. It came as no great surprise when the middle-aged fan single-handedly obstructing the view of half of the away stand at Hartlepool a few years ago was identified as a
prolific website contributor whose postings betrayed a similar disregard for others.

The real problem goes beyond passive stewarding or the solipsism of some fans. Football fans are a diverse group who want to watch in different ways, but the all-seater model forces them into the same space. If the prime pleasure of lower-league football is the absence of Premier League bombast, a close second is that choice still exists. You can stand or sit. I have done both this season – and the narrow gap between prices makes the decision more a matter of preference than cost.

Andy Holt of the Association of Chief Police Officers might protest that the introduction of safe standing would be “rewarding football supporters for breaking the law”. He misses the point that the current set-up punishes the law-abiding. Those who want to stand are doing so anyway. The real beneficiaries of safe standing would be those who would like to sit.

From WSC 302 April 2012