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SPORTS EDITOR'S COMMENT: The disaster that changed football forever

PUBLISHED: 17:49 15 April 2009 | UPDATED: 16:32 25 August 2010

THE EFFECTS of the Hillsborough disaster have changed the face of British football.

THE EFFECTS of the Hillsborough disaster have changed the face of British football. After 96 fans were crushed to death during the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in 1989, the Taylor Inquiry was set up to look at how such a tragedy could have taken place.

The subsequent Taylor Report, published in August 1989, came up with 43 practical and 76 longer-term recommendations for football clubs to introduce.

In the 20 years since then, football supporters are certainly safer than they once were. The days when a top-level stadium held a throbbing, pulsating mass of fans that surged forward 15 yards to celebrate a goal, are long gone. Instead, clubs in the top two divisions of English football must have all-seater stadiums. In practice, that means that any club with aspirations of playing in either the Championship or the Premier League, must rid its ground of all standing areas.

The spiked, perimeter fences that encircled the pitch and upon which so many of the 96 lost their lives as they were crushed to death, have also disappeared.

However, the causes of the Hillsborough disaster were multiple. In his report, Lord Taylor criticised the leadership of British football, the old and decrepit stadiums found in so many grounds, the behaviour of players, and the general presence of a hooligan element within the sport. Specific to Hillsbrough, the inadequate response by the police has also been the subject of much criticism.

As a result of the Taylor Report, not only are there many all-seater stadiums but fans today are instructed to watch the game while sitting down for safety reasons. They are banned from standing up to cheer on their team. For some, this should not matter - why, after all, should we compromise safety just so some fans can watch a match on their two feet?

However, while most football fans are meant to watch their team while sitting down, it simply does not always happen like that. When 2,000 away fans jump to their feet and start singing songs in support of their team, it is not practical for stewards to ask such a large group of people to sit down. But what is the point of having all-seater stadiums, if thousands of supporters can still watch the match while standing up?

In 2007, the Football Licensing Authority (FLA), the public body set up under the Football Spectators Act 1989 to ensure that all spectators are able to attend sports grounds in safety, rejected arguments put forward by the Football Supporters' Federation calling for designated standing sections at matches.

The letter quoted the Taylor Report in reaffirming all-seater stadiums as "effective crowd control, especially the reduction of disorder". On the issue of supporters standing up in all-seater sections, they washed their hands, saying "this is a matter for clubs and local authorities to deal with and manage".

It is an issue that has long concerned supporters of Charlton Athletic as well. Addicks fans, who don't have much to cheer about at the moment, are on the whole, very good at remaining in their seats, but there is a growing number that at least want the option of being able to stand up.

Last year, the club's supporters' director - and former Times columnist - Ben Hayes, tried to represent these feelings and broached the subject of turning sections of The Valley into designated standing area with the FLA.

Using Germany as an example, where there are a number of top level stadia with sections designated for terraces, his proposal that Charlton be used as a possible trial club for such a scheme in England were rejected out of hand.

It was not up for discussion.

The Hillsborough disaster was certainly a heartbreaking tragedy, of which the presence of standing terraces was a contributory factor. However, the game has modernised beyond all recognition in the past two decades and it is time that the sport's regulatory bodies began to modernise their thinking as well.

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