WITH the debate about the atmosphere at Anfield — or lack of it — never truly going away and envious glances being cast towards Celtic Park’s rail seating section, which has brought noise, colour and occasion to matches where once there was none, I travelled up to Glasgow with Paddy Hoey for Celtic’s game versus Kilmarnock to experience it for myself.
WITH the league title already in the bag and Kilmarnock not the most mouth-watering of opposition, I wondered if the safe standing section at Celtic would be in full swing as we headed north bright and early on a sunny Saturday morning.
Paddy reassured me it would be. While tucking into a fry-up complete with haggis at the gloriously picturesque Tebay Services, the Celtic-supporting Ulsterman, who regularly makes the 430-mile round trip to Parkhead from Crosby, said the 2,975 capacity section had transformed the atmosphere — even for the most meaningless or lacklustre of fixtures.
It’s a crucial clarification when talking atmosphere. We all know Anfield can do it — only a year ago we were celebrating a famous European night of noise and passion after the Reds defeated Borussia Dortmund 4-3. It was up there among the very best. But it doesn’t happen enough. Could it, and should it, happen routinely? And does the current situation at Anfield — an all-seater stadium with no officially designated section for those wishing to create a noisy and colourful backdrop — help matters?
In a way, this was a better test. Had we been heading to Scotland for an Old Firm game or a European match the impact would have been harder to judge. Of course they’re up for this…
After arriving in Glasgow, and following a pint and a chat with some lads from the Green Brigade, who campaigned for the safe standing section and worked hard with the club for five years to make it a reality, we leave the Celtic Supporters Club and head for ‘Paradise’.
As it happens, I stood for 90 minutes on my last visit to this ground 14 years previous — a 1-1 draw in the UEFA Cup sadly best remembered for that gobshite El Hadji Diouf spitting at Celtic fans. On that night a steward informed me that my allocated seat had been forcibly removed by a Rangers fan in an Old Firm match just a few days before. Standing it was then.
It helps makes the point, though, that standing at football happens anyway. I’m a Kop season ticket holder and home and away this season I’ve stood in a seated section for 90 minutes-plus alongside thousands of others. The problem is it isn’t particularly safe to do so. You can fall back, you can fall forward — everyone is sporting bruises and cuts to their legs. More worrying is the impact on younger fans. We all love a wild celebration when limbs are flying everywhere and strangers embrace, but what of the fans with their kids, trying to protect their little ones from the madness all around? It’s not a great environment for them — and there’s the added bone of contention when some fans want to sit and some want to stand. Who’s right and who’s wrong?
We meet John Paul Taylor outside the ground, Celtic’s Supporter Liaison Officer (SLO). It’s clear that he’s front and centre, as per his role, in representing the fans to the club — he chats away and says hello to scores of passing supporters as we stand in the sunshine before handing us tickets for the safe standing section and staying with us to watch the first half. Like every other Celtic fan I talk to on the day, he’s clearly proud of what has been achieved.
It’s my second positive experience of people in this role having been similarly impressed with Borussia Dortmund’s SLO. It’s a role advocated by UEFA. At Liverpool, I couldn’t tell you who the SLO is. Compare and contrast Celtic’s SLO page with Liverpool’s. It’s a side point, but it’s an important one. The section has been achieved because of a direct and meaningful relationship between club and fans.
Once through the main turnstiles our tickets for the safe standing section are checked twice more by stewards before we reach our allocated space. And this is another key point. I first stood on The Kop in 1990 for a less-than-glamorous League Cup tie versus fourth division Crewe Alexandra.
Then, you paid on the gate, climbed the stairs to the back of The Kop and found your way once inside. Most regulars had a preferred ‘spec’ — but you could go where you liked. In the big games, on the big nights, you could end up anywhere when Liverpool scored — swept from your feet, caught on a wave of celebration, dodging crush barriers; the atmosphere was often wonderful, the experience often terrifying.
What I experience at Celtic isn’t that. Far from it. It’s not an open terrace. It’s not an easy bunk from another section of the ground or through ancient turnstiles. It’s a strictly stewarded standing section with barriers front and back. It’s roomy — there’s plenty of space to jump about. But you can’t fall forward, or back, your shins are safe and so are your kids. Plus you have an allocated, ticketed and numbered space — a space that can be transformed with a key to unlock seats into a seating area for European nights (as UEFA don’t allow standing in their competitions).
The section quickly fills up — men, women, children, teenagers — fans of all ages. There’s a good vibe and any fears over standing are not reflected here.
To my left, a representative of Liverpool’s Supporters’ Committee is also in attendance. JP tells me a string of representatives of English clubs have been up to experience the section this season, from fans to club officials. In Glasgow, it’s rightly seen as a success story and there is a waiting list for season tickets in the area. Fans are hopeful that at some point the section will be expanded.
Before the match has even begun, flags swirl, scarves spin and the songs are underway. At the front of the section, two lads sacrifice much of their match-watching to cajole and choreograph, kicking off a songbook celebrating club, manager and players stretching throughout the duration of the match.
There’s a Poznan-style “Huddle” (gloriously sang in the Glaswegian twang) and an old-school back and forth from opposite ends of the ground (for older readers, think “Main Stand, Main Stand give us a song”, that kind of thing).
On it goes, into the second half. And all this despite a largely pedestrian-paced game of football. Kilmarnock show little in the way of attacking intent, and when they do nick one, Celtic simply up their game to ensure the three points is theirs.
“Can you imagine this section for the Rangers match?” says JP. And I can. Because not everyone’s going mad. They’re moving about and singing and shouting, getting behind the team — but you can tell there are more gears to go to for the bigger tests. Yet it still beats Anfield hands down for a routine fixture.
“How does it compare to the Premier League?” JP asks.
I credit Stoke and Palace, who create good noise at their grounds from my experiences there. But at Anfield? It’s up and down and that the debate over atmosphere and culture continues and is reignited so often — by fans, by Jürgen Klopp — says it all, as do the depressingly unoriginal chants from the away section of Anfield Road: “Is this a library?”, “Where’s your famous atmosphere?”.
It’s easy to romanticise the past, but Liverpool does have a history of passionate support. How much has gone and how much remains will always be the subject of debate, but what’s more important is the desire to defend the heritage remains. Many match-goers try to maintain The Kop tradition of singing, of flags, of colour — of what we have traditionally known as Liverpool support.
When The Kop made its last stand in 1994 there was a campaign led by Kopites against seats. Since then we’ve seen Reclaim The Kop — a campaign to try to save the traditional cultures of the terraces, there was the relocation of fans to Kop block 306 to create an unofficial singing/standing area of sorts, and now we have Spion Kop 1906 and others, who focus on continuing the tradition of bringing flags and banners into the ground.
Spirit of Shankly this week have announced final steps towards an official stance on rail seating with a vote to be announced inside a month.
The direction of travel on the subject suggest that, at the very least, a debate, a true discussion with consideration of the facts, around safe standing is worthwhile. The desire to stand is on show at every Liverpool match. Not from everyone. But why not create a section and give people the choice? Anyone with any doubts about its effectiveness and value within a football ground should visit Celtic.
Right now the debate is closed down. It’s a flat no from Liverpool FC minus consultation with regular match-going fans en masse.
Hillsborough is the driving force of this, with the official stance of the Hillsborough Family Support Group influencing the club’s stand.
References to the Taylor Report are also frequently made.
Yet by know we know the truth of Hillsborough. It is established fact. The disaster was not caused by standing and the Taylor Report primarily blamed overcrowding, stadium layout, and poor policing.
Further, as detailed above, the rail seating sections proposed in 2017 are a million miles from the caged open terraces of the 1980s.
Safe standing, meanwhile, has since been successfully, and safely, introduced in Europe, the USA and Canada.
On the way out of Celtic Park I spot a man with his son, who is wearing a Liverpool top. They too have travelled up for the day to sample the atmosphere and take in the match in a standing section at a more affordable price. It was smiles all round.
Maybe one day he can have the same experience at the ground of the club he supports. I for one hope so.