After a season of empty stadiums, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp is excited by the prospect of further development in fan experience.
“The more people, in the right position, the better the atmosphere is,” the German told media at a press conference ahead of the game against Brentford when asked about safe standing.
“I’m pretty sure the people on the Kop stand most of the time anyway. But it’s good that we’re talking about it again, that we might reintroduce [and] test it.
“I’m pretty sure the people are now responsible enough,” he added.
Liverpool’s coach was responding to the news that the UK government will allow clubs in the top two tiers of English soccer to trial safe standing areas from 1 January 2022.
His enthusiastic response to the overhaul to the ban on standing, which has stood for a third of a century, is a demonstration of just how much things have changed.
The stance, from a figurehead of the club involved in the tragic events which led to it being outlawed, would have been unthinkable in previous years.
Fenced terraces were a major factor in the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, where a crush led to 97 Liverpool supporters being killed and 766 injured.
The UK ban on standing at soccer was a recommendation of the report into the disaster implemented by the UK government.
It resulted in massive improvements to safety, clubs transformed their stadiums from cracked concrete inclines to plush all-seater arenas.
This modernisation of soccer stadia saw many teams abandon the grounds that had been their homes since Victorian times. Those who stayed at their original locations spent billions transforming them.
The impact of these changes transformed the game as it was.
Effect of all-seater
In the aftermath of the Hillsborough tragedy, few could have imagined quite how rapidly the sport would be altered.
The awful events came at the end of the1980s, a decade in which English soccer fans had become demonised by sections of the media and the British government.
As the iconic soccer fanzine When Saturday Comes (WSC) said in the editorial it ran immediately after Hillsborough: “The police see us as a mass entity, fuelled by drink and a single-minded resolve to wreak havoc by destroying property and attacking one another with murderous intent.”
“The implication is that ‘normal’ people need to be protected from the football fan. But we are normal people,” it concluded.
Unsurprisingly, for a group treated with such disdain, the facilities provided for fans in the 1980s were squalid, supporters were treated little better than animals.
The conditions were not only unpleasant for those who attended they acted as a barrier to certain demographics.
It was harder for both women and children to comfortably attend soccer in those days. It often involved squeezing yourself into a subway carriage-like throng of men, some of whom tended to misbehave.
But when those environments began to change in the 1990s so did the fans.
The introduction of individual seats meant children could watch matches more easily and women could attend without being trapped by men who might harass them.
Troublemakers were far easier to identify and eject because their tickets were tied to a specific location.
Families started attending soccer together and stadiums became more inclusive places.
Having more women and children going to games didn’t just change fan behaviour it boosted business.
The number of engaged soccer fans, in an already massively popular sport, was increased.
This encouraged clubs to invest even more in the supporter experience, which in turn enabled them to earn more money from matches.
The largely unfair perception of soccer fans gradually began to shift and the game gained more and more investment.
Atmosphere: Where did it go?
The development of modern stadia has had other consequences, not all of which have been welcomed by fans themselves.
Prices for supporters massively increased and the sport is no longer as accessible. The monetisation of the stadium experience also shifted club priorities away from hardcore fans and towards those in executive suites.
This has meant the atmosphere, which was once the major selling point of English soccer, has been diluted.
Clubs are starting to realise that is not good for their image.
Newer stadiums now seek to accommodate both elements.
For example, Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium opened in 2006, had cushioned seats and an entire tier of hospitality.
But when neighbours Spurs built the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in 2019, traditional plastic seating was kept in most areas and the club installed a singular non-tiered ‘end’ in keeping with the old stadiums and terraces of the past.
The return of standing is the natural evolution of the understanding that having a safe and profitable stadium doesn’t mean you have to abandon the passion of the past. Ideally, soccer can harness both.
The biggest vindication that this marriage can be made came from Margaret Aspinall, whose son James died in the Hillsborough disaster, in response to the safe standing trial.
“Fans will not be treated, and are not being treated now, like they were in the 1970s and 1980s, herded like cattle,” she told the PA news agency.
“Things have changed and we have got to move on with the times. And the times are that the younger ones especially and some of the older generation do like standing, but there needs to be a seat for everyone, that is so important.”