A few days ago, after Sunderland (my one true footballing love) were finally confirmed as having been relegated to League One, I attempted to console myself by crawling into a rabbit hole of YouTube videos from 30 years ago.
It was back then when we last found ourselves in football’s third tier, and fortunately we won the league (then called Division 3) at the first attempt. For supporters, football 1987-88 football was very different – the all-seater stadiums we take for granted now were a thing of fantasy, with only Coventry City and Luton Town having made the switch from terracing.
Speaking of which, at one end of Wigan’s Springfield Park in that glorious season, there wasn’t even the traditional concrete terracing – just a muddy slope, which our fans made full use of at half time during our trip there.
As I cyber-wandered down YouTube’s memory lane, recalling that glorious season when the unlikely pairing of Marco Gabbiadini and Eric Gates turned Sunderland into a behemoth that steamrollered their way straight out of the division, there was one particular clip that froze me and turned my stomach – the ugly away day at York City.
Just like now, Sunderland had a hardcore, hugely dedicated away following, and the trip to Bootham Crescent was the closest thing we had to a local derby that season. It didn’t end well…
It’s the scenes from around 45 seconds in that video that chilled me – Sunderland fans, already crammed on to the terracing behind the goal, passing their tickets over the wall at the back of the stand so that more fans could get in without paying. And then the sight of supporters climbing over the (thankfully feeble) wire fences around the perimeter of the pitch as the crowd swelled and bodies began to crush together.
I’m sure it wasn’t the first time it happened in a football ground in the 1980s, and as we all know, horribly, it wasn’t the last either.
I then found myself thinking back a few years before that, to a Milk Cup fourth round tie at Roker Park in November 1984 – I was 12, Tottenham were the visitors and I stood with my dad and my younger brother in what was a jam-packed Roker End.
The match finished goalless but there was one particular spell where Sunderland were stringing together a few chances and putting pressure on the Spurs goal, in the end where we were standing. As the excitement grew, the crowd began to sway and move in that concertina way that was part of the standing experience.
At one point, there was a surge towards the front of the terracing and I found myself right in the centre of it, my feet barely touching the ground and my lungs struggling to function as I was pressed right up against the back of the bloke in front of me.
It felt as though it took minutes for the crowd to move again and for space around me to open up but in truth, it was probably only 20 seconds at the most. Either way, it was the most terrifying thing that has ever happened to me in 35 years of going to football (my brother didn’t go back until he was an adult) and I’m glad that it’s impossible for it to happen again during a match under normal circumstances.
That’s why it’s so infuriating that the government seems hell-bent on swatting away calls for the introduction of safe standing into the Premier League and Championship, where all standing is currently banned.
I say banned, but I’ve been to Sunderland away matches where we’ve all stood for the entire 90 minutes – and there’s a ‘singing section’ at the Stadium of Light (they’re the ones that don’t leave early), and its occupants stand throughout each match with no safety or security issues and blind eyes turned by the stewards.
I’m sure it’s the same throughout the rest of the top two leagues – standing at football matches in 2018 is a completely different experience to standing in 1988. Nowadays, every seat and its occupant is accounted for and it would be exactly the same if safe standing were introduced, with everyone in an allocated spot in the allocated area of the ground.
There would be no possibility of crowds flooding into safe standing areas and causing displacement and crushing – that culture has gone following decades of all-seater stadiums and the gentrification of the game.
Safe standing has been proven to work across Europe, most notably in Germany, and it exists at the top level in Scotland, with Celtic’s 2,600-capacity rail seating.
True, not everyone wants to stand these days – some of us are old and have grown too accustomed to our seats, but polls have shown that around 90% of supporters would like to have the choice between sitting and standing.
After West Bromwich Albion’s recent safe standing proposal was knocked back by Sports Minister Tracey Crouch, a petition calling for its introduction into the top two leagues was launched (https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/207040) with over 100,000 fans signing it, meaning that it now has to be considered for debate in Parliament. The fact that its inevitable introduction is facing so much blinkered opposition from the authorities is another example that their 1980s opinions, when fans were treated as brainless cattle, still prevail.
Safe standing – the clue is in the name. It’s time for it to happen.