Don’t stand for it

West Ham have banned fans for 'persistent standing': another restriction on our freedom to support teams the way we want to.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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What on earth is going on at West Ham? Takeover rumours and the arrival of the two Argentine stars Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez have had an unsettling effect on the team. Sunday’s win over Blackburn halted a dismal run of eight defeats on the spin but the Hammers are still mired in a relegation scrap.

A club in trouble needs all the backing it can get from its own supporters. So, what does West Ham do? It punishes its fans for standing up too much. Last week, 20 season ticket holders received letters from the club saying: ‘You have ignored repeated requests to remain seated and are therefore placing the club in jeopardy of losing capacity. As a result you are banned from attending Upton Park for two matches.’ Don’t you just love traditional cockney hospitality?

There are a lot of stupid, petty regulations at football these days. There’s a law, for example, that prohibits spectators from drinking alcohol within sight of the pitch. Why? Well, God knows what might happen? A tantalising glimpse of luscious green turf, the heady scent of freshly mown grass…it’s enough to drive an Englishman stark raving bonkers. There are all sorts of silly edicts about what you’re not allowed to take through the turnstiles – I remember a blind caller to Danny Baker’s radio phone-in show recounting how his white stick had been confiscated by stewards.

But the ban on persistent standing at football match has got to be one of the most asinine rules ever invented. The Football Licensing Authority says that persistent standing is a health and safety hazard. Run that past me again? I can see how setting off fireworks or hurling missiles might be dangerous. But persistent standing? It’s got to be one of the most unthreatening, innocuous activities known to mankind. Persistent standing isn’t considered hazardous in any other social context. People persistently stand all the time – at bus stops, on railway platforms, in banks, at supermarket checkouts – and nobody bats an eyelid. But stand up at a Premiership football match and you’re a hooligan. Ridiculous! Persistent standing isn’t even proscribed under Sharia law – a measure of how draconian this ban is.

The Football Licensing Authority claims that persistent standing could lead to fans toppling like dominoes or else falling off the upper tier of a football stand. Have these things ever happened? No. How many football spectators have been killed our seriously injured as a result of persistent standing in all–seater stadiums? None. ‘What about Hillsborough?’ say the football authorities. It’s a tired old refrain. Invoking Hillsborough is not so much an argument as a dishonest method of closing down any debate about standing. But did anyone die at Hillsborough because of persistent standing? No. The overcrowding which led to 96 Liverpool fans been crushed to death was caused by what Lord Justice Taylor’s official report described as the ‘failure of police control’.

West Ham fans have waged a protracted battle with the club over their right to stand during games. A group of enterprising fans have set up the Stand Up Sit Down campaign which is calling for ‘safe standing’ sections at football grounds (1). Now, I’m all in favour of fans standing up if that’s how they prefer to follow their team. And yes, dishing out bans for persistent standing is a very shabby way to treat your own season ticket holders. But I’m not sure I want licensed standing sections either.

Stand Up Sit Down argue that enforced seating is responsible for the muted atmosphere at many Premiership stadiums. Excuse the pun but I don’t think their argument stands up. The minority of fans who prefer to stand up are usually the ones making all the noise anyway. Give them their own safe standing enclosures and they’ll still be vocal but it doesn’t follow that everyone else will join in. Enforced seating is just one of a number of factors that have contributed to the deathly hush at football grounds. The restrictions on alcohol consumption, the rules governing obscene chanting, the piped music blasting out over PA systems: these measures have all contributed to the pacification of football crowds.

What I object to isn’t so much being forced to sit down but no longer being free to support my team as I see fit. It’s not just enforced seating; it’s the broader regimentation of fan conduct that’s the problem. I don’t want official permission to stand any more than I want to be forced to sit down. But nor do I want a raft of rules circumscribing drinking, chanting, swearing, and smoking. And it’s the unshackling of fans from all these killjoy constraints that we should be standing up for.

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) To find out more about the campaign visit the Stand Up Sit Down website.

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Topics Politics


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