Stand and deliver – the return of terraces

UNLESS something dramatic happens, it does look as though football in Britain will soon welcome back terracing of some sort at the highest level of the game. For a generation of fans, terracing has never really been an option, unless they watched lower league or non-league football. As an example, my youngest son, aged 26, seeing the swaying hordes behind the goals in a 1970s game on TV, couldn’t believe the authorities took such huge risks in cramming people on concrete steps with just a few barriers in place. We have, to our cost, learned.

That’s not to say that standing at matches isn’t commonplace, for fans seem to reject their seats for the entire 90 minutes at some grounds, ignoring any appeal to sit down and threats of ejection. In most cases, the stewards have given up and allow it to continue. But this tells us there is a segment of the average football crowd that really does want to stand up.

In theory, the reintroduction of standing on an official basis should reduce ticket prices, although it is unlikely to change much as there will be costs involved in recalibrating stadium seating plans. In the longer run, one can only hope clubs try and introduce a more acceptable pricing structure.

This is important because the majority of people who will warm to the return of terraces will be the younger members of the footballing community. Like many fans, I graduated from crumbling terraces and moved into the stands when I was no longer prepared to tolerate the hustle and bustle, and when I could afford the admission. Today, I might occasionally stand at my local club and I do enjoy the age-old ritual of leaning against a rusting barrier, craning my neck here and there to catch a glimpse of the action. 

It’s clear the terracing is where the real fermentation of the football spirit takes place. You make more noise if you stand up and being seated makes people more reserved. If you want further proof of that, just consider a music gig where artists often encourage the crowd to get out of their seat. 

We should not be too surprised that since we went all-seater, crowd noise has declined enormously. The other factor is to do with demographics – the football audience has become older and that’s because many younger folk cannot afford the tickets. Quite simply, 60-somethings don’t generally chant and sing songs at football matches. If you want a feral, passionate vibe at a game, make it more user-friendly for youngsters.

A few years back, I attended the Zurich derby, FC Zurich v Grasshopper. It was a Friday night, FIFA was in meltdown over the other side of town with people being escorted out of hotels with sheets on their heads to preserve anonymity and Zurich was quite sleepy. Inside the ground, one end of the stadium was heaving, banners, flares and loads of singing. The crowd was essentially young and standing. Meanwhile, in the seating area, you could hear a pin drop. This was Zurich, a conservative, well-heeled city and here we were, looking at one of the most passionate crowds I had ever witnessed. Standing and liberated.

Will we feel comfortable using terracing again? With covid-19 in its post-vaccination stage, how will we react to being shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of people in a confined area? From the spectator’s point of view, what is more hygienic – sitting closely together or standing side-by-side? There’s an argument there’s little difference, but at the same time, there’s a strong case to suggest that being on a terrace (not the sardine-like experience that epitomised swaying crowds of the 1960s and early 1970s) gives more scope for movement. In theory you can give yourself as much room as you want if the crowd capacity is kept to a modest level. In a seat, you have very little control, other than to get up and leave.

Some people long for the days when a sea of humanity would provide the soundtrack of matchday. Today, so many crowds lack humour, volume and passion – like Britain’s political landscape, there are no rivals or opponents these days, just “enemies”, so often vitriol is the order of the day. In the past, giant “ends” like the Kop and the Holte would be admired and envied, not necessarily the construction that housed them, but the size, sound and support that came from them. 

I believe a carefully-controlled terrace, in terms of numbers, could provide a solution for football spectating in the post-virus climate. It won’t be to everyone’s taste – ultimately, it may not be to mine – but it would be sheer stupidity to restart football and not allow people the room to breathe their own air as we come to terms with a more vulnerable world. I’m heading to Cambridge United to try their terrace out. OK, it’s not the yellow wall of Dortmund or the old Stretford End, but it will be a new experience. I might not want to stand up at every game, but I would probably like the option.

This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine

Commentary Box: Edge of your seat?

IN RECENT weeks, I have visited Brighton and Swansea and I stood and watched out of necessity. As soon as the referee’s whistle started the game, the fans in my section stood up and had no intention of using the seats they had paid for.

Fine, if you like terracing, but having parted with £30, I wanted my seat and owing to a damaged knee, I actually needed to sit down. Up and down the country, fans insist on persistently standing, but the authorities have been reluctant to change the current legislation. Many are in denial that some form of standing is what people are calling for, especially younger fans who want to create a better vibe at English (and Welsh) grounds.

At Swansea and Brighton, club stewards could do little, if anything, to combat the issue – there were clearly people who were unhappy about having to stand, especially those with smaller children who had no chance of seeing the game with hundreds of people standing in front of them. Standing has been prohibited in the Football League/Premier since 1994, but there are now moves to change that, with increased pressure to install so-called “safe standing” zones.

KPMG’s Football Benchmark  noted that the tragedies of the 1980s have been driving the narrative around standing and highlighted Germany’s Borussia Dortmund (BVB) as a good example of how grounds can be adapted for flexible use. BVB, the world’s best supported club in terms of crowd numbers, convert their stadium for UEFA games thanks to “rail-seating” on their giant terracing normally used for Bundesliga games.

Germany has never banned standing and it has paid-off with the highest attendances in European, indeed global, football. But tragedies like Heysel and Hillsborough are still relatively fresh in the memory and the latter is rarely out of the news. “Since the troubles of the 1980s, stadium design, technology and crowd management approaches have certainly moved on from an age where crowds were packed into football grounds with often outdated provision for safety,” said KPMG.

France are currently experimenting with the reintroduction of standing accommodation and in the UK, Celtic have been using “rail-seating” for two years. There has been pressure on the Football Association to bow to the demands of fans who want to stand at games. Surveys suggest that as many as 70% of Premier League fans want to see standing back in their grounds.

Bringing back standing, either in the form of traditional terracing or more conservative models like “rail-seating” could increase crowds, although replacing current seating configurations with the rails might just be “like for like” in terms of numbers. It is also very unlikely that clubs will be allowed to introduce areas that go for quantity rather than quality of fan experience.

At the same time, installing new seating that can become safe standing areas will require investment and the cynics among us will undoubtedly anticipate clubs passing on the cost to their fans. Optimistically, KPMG says: “The possibility of admitting more spectators may contribute to clubs making football more socially inclusive through more affordable ticket prices in standing areas.”

At present, though, charging seating prices for sections that require people to stand (one man stands up in front of you and that, effectively creates a wave of plastic seats tipping-up as everyone behind them jockeys for position to see the game), is a winner for the clubs. Lower prices mean that they will have to create scale within their stadium to ensure revenues do not drop.

Ideally, a stadium should have both forms of accommodation – standing for younger folk to create the ambience at English grounds that has been somewhat lacking in recent years and seats for the rest. If clubs want people to get to stadiums early, share in the experience, spend money and enjoy it, comfort and safety have to be at the forefront of their planning.

It is probably a matter of time before something shifts in the UK – Tottenham’s new stadium will include “seating incorporating barriers” and in the new Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds (the Green Guide), such seating is featured. KPMG concludes: “With the ongoing trials in France, the government review of its all-seater policy in England, the continued success of standing in Germany and the imminent publication of new best practice guidelines, this is certainly a period of change in the stadium landscape in some of Europe’s top leagues. Many issues – with spectator security at the top of the agenda – are at stake and the continuing shift in the regulatory position gives club Chief Executive Officers and other stakeholders plenty of food for thought.”

Meanwhile, some clubs need to give serious thought to how they can control the persistent standing in areas where people do not want to be leaping in and out of their seats for 90 minutes. “Safe standing” is one thing, but “safe seating” should also be an issue.

Photo: Celtic’s safe standing area – courtesy of PA.

A special thanks to the Swansea steward that helped in moving me to an area where people sat in their seats.

To see Football Benchmark’s paper on safe standing, click here