My first ever Sunderland match consisted of three memorable issues - the person, the player and the place.
The person was my father. Like most adoring young sons I was thrust into a life-changing sporting addiction by a larger than life dad, who, along with his three brothers and two sisters were born in Monkwearmouth - a stone’s throw from Roker Park, and only a hop, skip and a jump from the Stadium of Light.
The player was Clive Walker. He scored a hattrick that day and pulled us back from being 0-2 down to Manchester United to winning the game 3-2. Not necessarily a player that’d grace the front page of Vogue magazine, but this balding, skinny fella was electric and he played his part in enabling a footballing addiction that still burns my veins to this very day.
The venue was Roker Park, but the place was the Roker End. There I stood, side by side with men. I’d never before felt such a kinship with older, grizzly blokes, whose scars and wrinkles were forged from the back breaking industry that had made our region famous and productive. It was a little scary as I recall. The shouting, the hollering, the odd piece of foul language. The cold pasty thrust in my face, washed down with the volcanic might of a nuclear fused Bovril - and being thrown around in a goal celebration by chiseled fellas I didn’t even know, all added to the mix of feeling different... of feeling at home.
I loved standing with fellow believers, in a church of our choosing, in a form of worship that seemed unique to us. Standing at Roker Park was electric, and for many - life changing.
But only five years later after my first match experience, and after the tragic events of Hillsborough, standing like this, as I did as a young child was understandably and for very good reasons about to end. Old stadia, much unchanged since the football league’s inception, were out of date and no longer safe for traditional standing. As Hillsborough tragically proved, football could no longer take risks with supporter’s lives.
The horrific and appalling events of Hillsborough in 1989 ultimately led to the Taylor report - an inquiry which was overseen by Lord Justice Taylor, into the causes of the Hillsborough.
The Taylor Report found that to safeguard the welfare of supporters, it was recommended that all major stadiums convert to an all-seater model, and that all ticketed spectators should have seats.
As a consequence of these findings, the first English professional football club to convert to all-seats following the watershed of the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster were Ipswich Town and their Portman Road ground in 1992.
The compulsory introduction of all-seated stadiums in the upper echelons of English football saw the demolition of several famous terraces that were so famous that they were preeminent all over the world. The first such notable casualties were Manchester United’s famed Stretford End and Arsenal’s illustrious North Bank, both of which were demolished in 1992 to be replaced by new all-seated stands. Two years later, Liverpool demolished their astonishingly iconic Spion Kop and replaced it with an all-seater stand, while a similar redevelopment occurred with Aston Villa’s acclaimed Holte End.
Other clubs, such as Sunderland opted to update entirely and change to brand new, all seater stadiums that were built with safety in mind - and thus the landscape of football spectating morphed into a new phase as stadia evolution continued at a pace.
Stadiums became family friendly, a rise in children and women attending games has been embraced and rightly so. The game has transmuted into a different form of experience, which has seen a decline in drunken trouble and hooliganism and has increased the overall feeling of inclusivity and acceptance.
But as the technological advances in architecture have continued to improve the question has been posed again: Should safe-standing return to the game?
A survey by the Football League last month indicated 94% of 33,000 fans asked wanted safe standing to be introduced. For such legislation to be debated or overturned, it requires a petition with over 100,000 signatures to guarantee the subject will be discussed in parliament.
In bullish fashion, football fans have stepped up to the political plate and a petition calling for Premier League and Championship clubs to allow safe standing, with well over 100,000 names on it, has been handed to the Department of Media, Culture and Sport. Therefore the sensitive subject of safe standing in football will be discussed in parliament, and it will be soon.
This is a celebratory elevation for campaigners who have long presented expert opinion that safe standing will reduce, rather than increase, the danger to fans inside football stadiums.
The sports minister, Tracey Crouch, has previously been unmoved by calls to overturn the ban on standing which has been in place for more than 20 years. Even in the last two days she appears to be sticking to her guns. Crouch delivered her views in a letter on Monday to Labour MP Liz McInnes, who had asked her about a return to standing on the behalf of a Manchester City supporters’ association in her constituency.
All-seaters are ‘the best means to ensure the safety and security of fans,’ Crouch told McInnes.
However, she is willing to have the debate and listen to sharp, savvy advice from the elite professionals within stadium design - which is a major step forward. With the petition in hand and with expert testimony confirming the safety benefits of safe-standing, there is also a groundswell of support inside parliament for this policy to be reviewed. Crouch is due to address a Westminster debate on safe standing on the 25th of June.
More positive news from parliament on this issue stems from shadow sport minister, Rosena Allin-Khan, who is set to announce that Labour is backing a change to the law following a two month consultation with club representatives, fans’ groups, leading architects and structural engineers.
Breaking: Significant development on “safe standing”.— Richard Conway (@richard_conway) June 4, 2018
Government understood to have started a review of the all-seated stadium policy for English football’s top two divisions.
Safety remains paramount - but a Whitehall source says “the time is now right” to look at the law again. pic.twitter.com/JyaqmjpiQV
While some families of the victims of Hillsborough remain opposed to the introduction of safe standing, it has to be recognised that there are obvious sensitivities around the issue and without question they should be taken into consideration. But a survey by Liverpool supporters’ group Spirit of Shankly last year showed 88% were in favour of safe standing. It has proved successful across Europe, particularly in Germany’s Bundesliga and in Scotland, where Celtic have trialled a safe standing section for 2,600 fans for the past two seasons.
Celtic have successfully introduced a safe standing area in recent years, while Sky Bet League One side Shrewsbury Town have recently been given permission to add ‘rail seats’ to their stadium.
Indeed, Liverpool fans who went to inspect Celtic’s safe standing area say they were impressed by what they saw. Members of the Spirit of Shankly group travelled to Celtic Park for the match against Ross County as part of ongoing discussions around rail seating.
They were accompanied by fellow supporters, Hillsborough families and survivors so that a full and thorough understanding of the facility could be gained and completely understood.
Many of the Liverpool supporters group were understandably sceptical about the idea when they arrived in Glasgow, as their scars run deep and their experiences were undeniably life changing. But with first hand experience of safe-standing, their views were optimistically altered, and their outlook on the proposition more encouraging.
One fan commented:
It’s a much safer environment because people will stand at the match anyway so if they are going to stand they may as well do it in a much safer area like this.
Another supporter who was at Hillsborough said:
I was, until half an hour ago, opposed to the idea of introducing rail seating but this visit has been a real game-changer for me.
Only last year West Brom were rejected for their potential pilot scheme that proposed altering the design of their ground to accommodate 3,600 safe standing rail seats. But times are changing and the wind of progression is blowing around Westminster - and even the reticent Sports Minister can feel it.
As a Sunderland supporter, I would welcome a safe standing area at the Stadium of Light.
Such spectating has been outstandingly successful in Germany for many years. In a survey carried out by the Football Supporters Federation, 9 out 10 supporters want the introduction safe standing. It would increase safety, decrease cost (as it has done in Germany) and add some old fashioned fire back into the more sedate environments of modern English Stadia.
For a man old enough to remember the joys of standing in a football stadium and the fervour it can bring, as well as the sense of undeniable brotherhood and unity, I would advise our new owners that to return us back to the good old days, then the ideology of safe standing must come with it.
Besides - we hate the pink seats anyway.