Safe standing: Why backing the standing ban harms the fight for justice

In the latest in our series of articles on safe standing, Peter Caton looks at what causes stadium disasters, what doesn’t cause them and why he believes that supporting the ban on standing undermines the Hillsborough campaigners’ fight for justice.


After one of the worst stadium disasters of the 20th century, the subsequent judicial inquiry found that the primary cause of the terrible loss of life had been a catastrophic failure by the relevant authorities to ensure the safe admission of spectators.

Lessons from previous games at the same ground had not been learnt; known problems with admitting large numbers of fans within a short space of time via the entrance concerned had been ignored; there was a breakdown in communication between individuals responsible for crowd safety; fans had not been adequately guided to the correct areas of the ground; there had been a failure to realise that a commotion in the crowd was the result of a crush; the game had begun while fans were losing their lives; and no one body or individual had taken responsibility for crowd management or safety on the day.

Referring to the failure of the authorities to plan properly for the match and to anticipate potential problems, the judicial report noted that “no plans were in place to deal with a capacity crowd” and that there had been a “failure to learn from the lessons of the past.” It added that all bodies responsible “were remiss in not adequately taking previous experiences into account in their planning”.

In reference to the allocation of responsibilities between police, stewards and others, the report noted: “In some cases, there was either a disagreement or a confusion as to areas of responsibility… No one was tasked with or accepted the responsibility of monitoring the crowd inside the stadium… precisely because there was no effective monitoring of the crowd… [the commotion] was not picked up early enough, nor were the distress signals by the spectators… The result was that the situation worsened and despite this, play commenced and continued for [some time] before it was stopped.”

A lack of communication between those responsible for stadium safety in the crucial minutes before kick-off was severely criticised: “Most senior personnel responsible for safety and security were at various places around the stadium without properly communicating with each other or sharing vital information that would inform corrective strategies.”

As the crowd built up outside, others inside, who could have potentially delayed the kick-off, were unaware of the problem, as the report noted: “due to lack of co-ordinated information, some of the officials inside the stadium, including the referee and senior soccer officials, were not aware of the scenario outside the stadium.” Inside, as a dreadful crush began to claim the lives of scores of fans, cries for help went unheeded: “Spectators also shouted at the top of their voices for help, to no avail. Despite all these attempts, and also what ought to have been a visible commotion in the affected area, the security personnel failed to take notice.”

To anyone who has read The Taylor Report into the Hillsborough Disaster the remarks above will be all too familiar.

Yet they originate not from that report into the events of 15th April 1989, but into the events at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, twelve years later, on 11th April 2001.

It is a stadium well known to football and rugby fans around the globe. If you watched the 1995 Rugby World Cup (or have seen the dramatised version in the film ‘Invictus’), you’ll recall it as the ground where a beaming Nelson Mandela handed the Cup to Springbok captain Francois Pienaar. As a football fan, you may recall it as the venue of Spain’s quarter-final victory over Paraguay on their way to winning the 2010 World Cup.

It is a first-class stadium. As was recorded in the judicial inquiry into the disaster, in which 43 people lost their lives due to crushing, “the capacity of the stadium was sixty thousand (60,000), comprising fifty thousand (50,000) seats and ten thousand (10,000) seats in the suites” (hospitality boxes). Ellis Park was and is an all-seater stadium.

As at Hillsborough, it had not been the form of spectator accommodation in their area of the stadium that killed the victims of the disaster, but rather the failings of people charged with ensuring their safe admission to the ground. Indeed, if we look at the causes of numerous disasters at large public gatherings, the most frequent cause is poor management of crowds as they enter or leave the venue, totally regardless of whether it is all-seater or a venue offering standing accommodation as well as seats.

An online list of stadium disasters catalogues some 20 events where large public gatherings ended in a tragic loss of life. Below is a summary of all the fatal disasters listed there from the 20th and 21st centuries, which starts with an event not in a football stadium, but in an all-seater concert hall and which shows quite clearly that the most common cause of such disasters is poor crowd management at the point of entry or exit:

Riverfront Coliseum, Cincinnati, Ohio, December 1979
11 dead in a rush for seats at this all-seater venue ahead of a concert by The Who

Accra Sports Stadium, May 2001
127 dead, falling on stairs trying to escape tear gas in this all-seater stadium

Stade Armand Cesari, France, 5th May 1992
18 dead as a temporary all-seater stand collapsed

Bradford City, 11th May 1985
56 dead as a wooden all-seater stand caught fire and fans were unable to escape

Burnden Park, 9th March 1946
33 dead, as poor control of incoming fans led to overcrowding of rudimentary terrace

Estadio Mateo Flores, Guatemala, 16th October, 1996
83 dead, caused by overcrowding before kick-off in this all-seater stadium

Estadio Nacional, Lima, Peru, 24th May, 1964
320 dead, as locked gates trapped fans fleeing tear gas in this all-seater stadium

Heysel Stadium, 29th May 1985
39 dead, as rioting caused a crumbling wall to collapse

Stade Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Ivory Coast, 29th March, 2009
19 dead, caused by fans falling on each other on entering this all-seater ground

Stade Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Ivory Coast, 1st January, 2013
61 dead, caused by a crowd stampede after leaving this all-seater stadium

Ibrox, Glasgow, 5th April 1902
25 dead, as a wooden terrace collapsed

Ibrox, Glasgow, 2nd January, 1971
66 dead, caused by fans falling on a stairway as they left the game

Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium, Athens, Greece, 8th February 1981
21 dead, caused by fans falling in a rush to leave this all-seater stadium

Kathmandu Stadium disaster, 12th March 1988
93 dead, as fans in a tunnel fleeing a hail storm were trapped by locked gates

Kayseri Atatürk Stadium disaster, 17th September 1967
40 dead, as fans fleeing fights were trapped by locked gates in this all-seater ground

Luzhniki disaster, Central Lenin Stadium, Moscow, 20th October 1982
66 dead, caused by fans falling on an exit stairway leaving this all-seater stadium

Oppenheimer Stadium disaster, 13th January 1991
42 dead, trying to escape fighting, trampled or crushed against fences

Port Said Stadium riot, 1st February 2012
79 dead at this all-seater ground, after rioting linked to civil unrest and revolution

Zamalek Stadium disaster, Cairo, 17th February 1974
48 dead, caused by extreme overcrowding and collapsing walls before kick-off

In addition to these events catalogued in that online list of stadium disasters, poor management of moving crowds has also led to tragedy at the recording of a TV show, at music festivals and at annual pilgrimages:

PhilSports Stadium stampede, Metro Manila, Philippines, 4th February 2006
73 dead, as crowds stumbled and fell on entry to this all-seater arena for a TV show

The Love Parade, Duisburg, Germany, 24th July 2010
21 dead, in a crush trying to enter an outdoor festival

Hajj, Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Numerous stampedes causing the death of thousands of pilgrims over the years

Whether it was religious devotees making for a place of pilgrimage, festival goers trying to enter an open-air venue, music fans rushing into an all-seater concert hall or football fans entering or leaving a stadium, if the people responsible for ensuring they could do so safely failed to perform their duties efficiently, this could, and sadly did, lead to disaster. Whether the venue was an open field, an all-seater arena or a stadium with standing accommodation had no bearing on those crowd management failures.

As we enter 2014 with the new inquests into the Hillsborough deaths just around the corner, this is a key fact that should not be overlooked. As Sheila Coleman of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign recently told the Liverpool Echo: “We don’t want the standing issue to be used as a diversion from the investigations that are ongoing at the moment. We need to be clear: standing didn’t kill people at Hillsborough, it was other factors. Our main focus will be challenging the establishment.”

Indeed, one might argue that not only could the standing issue be a diversion from the ongoing investigations, but that to assert that standing is unsafe could actually undermine the fight for justice. For if standing per se is unsafe, then those under investigation for their part in the failings that led to the Hillsborough disaster can claim it was an accident waiting to happen and that they were not to blame. It can help them to get off the hook. Asserting that standing is unsafe thus weakens the case against them considerably.

Photo 21-09-2013 14 25 25
Rail seats enable excellent crowd management for safe standing

As the examples above show, standing does not kill. Poor crowd management kills. Acknowledging that well managed standing is safe will help to ensure the best chance of achieving justice for the 96 over the coming months. Continuing to support the standing ban flies in the face of logic and puts the chance of gaining justice at risk.

Peter Caton is the author of ‘Stand Up, Sit Down: A Choice To Watch Football‘, in which he considers the arguments for and against spectators having the choice to stand. A lifelong West Ham fan, Peter was co-founder of the ‘Stand Up, Sit Down’ campaign and is an active member of the Football Supporters Federation.

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