Part of the reason that football in England is heralded as the best in the world is because of the unique atmosphere. The FA is threatening this. Their unwillingness to try something new and not just abide by the rules is wearing thin not just with me, but many others.
There would be no question about standing at a match nowadays if it hadn’t been for the fateful events at Hillsborough in 1989. Since then, there has been paranoia about standing up at football grounds.
The Taylor Report of 1989 recommended that all top flight clubs in England and Scotland switch their stadiums from terracing to all seaters. Clubs acted fast and subsequently millions of pounds have been spent doing just this.
Yet the passion still burns strong. One only had to be at Stoke’s Britannia Stadium on the 29th December, where Stoke took on Southampton to see and hear this. The Britannia, well known for its daunting atmosphere, was left stunned as Southampton raced into a somewhat fortuitous 3-1 lead.
At 3:45 pm, the cheers rang out from one corner of the ground as the Southampton faithful voiced their support for their team in its changed yellow strip. Come five o’clock, the Stoke fans were making the most noise as their team completed a superb comeback following Cameron Jerome’s 89th minute screamer. Yet the Southampton following still proudly applauded their team off, with them coming so close to breaking Stoke’s 16 match unbeaten home run, which stretches back to their defeat at the hands of Sunderland in early February 2012.
It has become somewhat of a tradition since all seater stadiums were first introduced that away fans have distinguished themselves by standing throughout the match. In my opinion, this makes for a better atmosphere with away fans attempting to give their side as much support as possible as they battle against a home team, sometimes with over 70 000 home fans urging their own team to win.
If there is enough support for it, the FA no longer has an excuse for not even trialing the safe standing zones. The model is in place in Germany. Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park is a prime example. For any visiting team, if the 80 000 capacity wasn’t imposing enough, to be greeted behind one goal by 25 000 people all crammed into a standing area is enough to make even the most seasoned professional quake in his boots. This is what British football has lacked since 1989.
The famous Anfield Kop no longer has such a big effect on visiting teams. Without being disrespectful to Aston Villa, it would have been unheard of for a team with the quality that Villa possess to take a 3-0 lead at Anfield as they did earlier this month, with the fortress that Anfield was in years gone by. It’s not just the lack of world class players that has contributed to the demise of a team that regularly competed for and won the title.
The atmosphere at Anfield when they played Aston Villa shocked me. I had heard that the buzz of a match day had somewhat diminished since Liverpool had fallen away from challenging for the title, but instead of the home team dominating the atmosphere, it was the Villa fans who made it sound like they were the home team. The Villa players fed off this and played some brilliant football on their way to beating the Merseyside team 3-1.
At times in the second half, Steven Gerrard seemed to be the only Liverpool player trying to salvage something from the match. But with most of the support being generated by the away fans, the Liverpool team looked lost as they struggled to find any motivation.
At St. Mary’s Stadium in Southampton, the setup of the home fans is simple. The Chapel Stand behind one goal is the family stand. It is 100% made up of Southampton fans and standing is not permitted. It may not be the loudest but it’s a place where families can go with younger children to watch a high quality game of football without parents having to overly worry about hooliganism. Behind the other goal, is the Northam End.
This stand is split into two, with away fans occupying the easterly half and the loudest section of home fans occupying the westerly half. The home fans here always stand up, leading to a better atmosphere in the ground with the home and away fans competing to make themselves heard. To the east is the Itchen Stand, which is exclusively for Southampton supporters.
Here is where the executive boxes and changing rooms are found, with the players’ tunnel located on halfway. The home fans seated next to the away supporters also join with the home section of the Northam End to create a hostile atmosphere for the away supporters and get behind their own team.
To the west is the Kingsland Stand, which is again made up of 100% Southampton fans. The stand is predominantly seated throughout the match, but has been known on occasions to create a hostile atmosphere for visiting teams.
With fantastic views in all parts of the ground, St. Mary’s really is a wonderful facility where over 32 000 fans can watch some magnificent football being played. It also provides another example to the FA of how standing areas in British football can work.
I fully support the campaign for safe standing areas in British grounds. I feel it will bring back the buzz to stadiums, such as Anfield, where it is has gone missing. And there are fantastic facilities, such as Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, which have always lacked match day magic. Only on cold European nights does the Emirates really show what kind of atmosphere it could facilitate every Saturday.
It is clear that the noise fans generate does have a massive effect on the way players play and their commitment. Whether they’re prepared to go in for that 50/50 with the opposition’s imposing centre-back, or whether they want to put their neck on the line to compete in the air with the opposition goalkeeper to try and create a goal out of nothing.
To take British football back to its glory days, safe standing zones are a must.
Written by Ben Higlett
Follow him on Twitter @BHiglettSFC
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