Britain Considers Stadium Changes : May Bar Areas for Standees, a Factor in Soccer Tragedy
Home Secretary Douglas Hurd told Parliament on Monday that the government may move to ban from major soccer stadiums the kind of standing-room-only spectator viewing areas in which 94 Britons were crushed to death last weekend in the country’s worst sporting disaster.
In a report during which he also named one of the country’s premier judges to head a public inquiry into Saturday’s “devastating tragedy,” Hurd tacitly acknowledged that such a sweeping and expensive change is bound to be controversial.
However, he said, “we have to set our sights high and find a better way for British football” (soccer).
Design deficiencies, something common to all of Britain’s aged soccer stadiums, and questionable police handling of the crowd at Saturday’s semifinal league championship match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at the neutral Hillsborough ground in Sheffield got most of the blame Monday as the British media continued to devote extraordinary space to the tragedy.
There were heart-rending profiles of a number of the victims after police released a final list of fatalities.
17 in Intensive Care
In addition to the dead, 40 of 174 people injured in the incident remained hospitalized Tuesday. Seventeen were in intensive care, and doctors said they feared that six may have suffered permanent brain damage from near-asphyxiation.
Thirty-four of the dead were teen-agers, and 35 were in their 20s. Seven women and girls were on the list. The youngest victim was John Paul Gilhooley, 10; the oldest was Gerard Bron, 65.
Businessman Trevor Hicks took his daughters Sarah, 19, and Victoria, 15, to the game as a birthday treat for Sarah. The father survived, but the daughters did not.
Father-to-be Peter Thompson, a 30-year-old electronics engineer, was a seasoned fan who swapped his sideline seat for a place “in with the crowd” on the “terraces,” as the wide, sloping, shallow concrete steps in the standing area are called. It cost him his life.
Kevin Williams, a Liverpool schoolboy, would have been 16 next month. His epitaph was written by schoolmate Michala Garloch, who tacked a last, hand-written note to her friend on the gates of the local club’s soccer field. “Dear Kevin,” it read. “It’s Michala. I just want to let you know we all love you and don’t want to believe you won’t be with us any more, but I know it’s true.”
Even before the government inquiry began, three top professional clubs were said Monday to be on the verge of tearing down the perimeter fences at their stadiums that separate viewing stands from the playing field. At Hillsborough, such a fence became what the British press termed a “cage of death” when fans were crushed against it with no means of escape as other spectators surged into the back of the enclosed terrace.
One of the clubs was Liverpool, whose supporters were the victims of the disaster. Club officials said their angry and grief-stricken fans should not be confronted in their own grounds with the same kind of fence that they watched turn into a death trap for so many of their friends and relatives.
The fences were installed in the stadiums of most top British teams in response to more than a decade of soccer violence. They are meant to keep rival fans off the field and away from each other.
The newest soccer facility here is 70 years old, and many were built in the last century. Most are squeezed into what are now residential neighborhoods, causing extraordinary congestion.
The physical limitations of the stadiums means that the burden for trying to maintain order at games falls even more heavily on the police.
“The government believes that the future of football in this country lies in a national membership scheme in designated grounds, and now it seems, also in providing all seated accommodation at major football clubs,” Hurd told Parliament on Monday.
“This would involve the disappearance of terraces at those grounds,” he added, and he promised that “we shall be considering these matters urgently.”
Interviewed by British Broadcasting Corp. television later, Hurd said he knew that getting rid of terraces would be expensive and unpopular with many fans, who consider them a vital part of the atmosphere of the game. However, he said, “we do believe the time has come to move as rapidly as possible in the big games to all-seated stadiums.”
Peter Garrett, co-founder of the country’s Football Supporters Assn., said in an interview that such stadiums were “a Utopian dream” that would raise the price of tickets so sharply that “football would be taken away from the very working class people” who have been its principal supporters.
Club owners would be doubly penalized, noted Richard Faulkner, chairman of the Football Grounds Improvement Trust. “Where seating goes in onto a terraced area, a standing area, two things happen,” he told a British television interviewer. “First of all you lose something like 45% of the capacity; and second, the average cost per seat is between 30 and 35 pounds ($51-$60).”
Even Hillsborough, which is the third largest stadium in the country and considered among its best, counts nearly 60% of its capacity in standing-room-only terraces. To replace those 31,000 standing spaces with seats would cut the stadium’s capacity from 54,000 to 40,000, at a cost of nearly $1 million.
Not all club officials are opposed to modernization, however. Des Burr, chairman of London’s Milwall club, said, “We ought to have all-seated stadiums, and we ought to have much better facilities. In many cases, our grounds are in the same state that they were when people had outside loos.”