A 0-0 draw at home to the league’s bottom side on a cold Wednesday night might not be an obvious candidate as a match of significance. However, for fans of Kilmarnock, the game against St Johnstone on 4 December 2019 may ultimately live long in the memory as the start of the safe standing era at Rugby Park.
At first tentatively, and then with more conviction, Killie fans in the East Stand started to fill the small area at the back set aside for safe standing. There was no immediate change in the atmosphere, but as the match wore on the pioneering standees seemed to realise that the burden of starting chants now naturally fell on them, and responded accordingly. By the end of the 90 minutes, it was as if everyone there had been standing at matches since time immemorial. There was a general murmur of approval for the “new terraces” and a feeling of positivity, despite the poor quality of a game in which the home side had just one shot on target.
Safe standing – the Killie way
Kilmarnock are the second SPFL Premiership team to install rail seating at their ground, following on from Celtic inaugurating a 2,900-capacity safe standing area to host its Green Brigade ultras in 2016. The Kilmarnock experience is different in two key ways, however, and unique in Scottish football.
Firstly, the entire installation was initiated and funded by fans: organised by the Killie Trust and paid for out of its ongoing “Trust in Killie” campaign. This is just one example of impressive supporter engagement by the club in recent years, which has seen the Trust purchase shares and attain a place on the board for one of its directors, the former Labour MP Cathy Jamieson. Jamieson explains that this dynamic allowed the whole process to be inclusive of fans: “We were engaging with supporters from the outset. We held a meeting for people to come along and hear about safe standing, see the type of rail seating that we would put in and ask questions.”
Secondly, the safe standing provision does not only accommodate the hardcore support (as is the case at Celtic Park) but is instead split into two equal areas in the East Stand and the Family Stand. “As a club, we are trying to promote facilities for fans of all ages and encourage young people to come along,” explains Jamieson. “So we decided to put a safe standing section in the Family Stand, to allow young people the chance to meet up and enjoy the match with their friends, while adults could be located nearby and keep a watchful eye if needed.” Kilmarnock believe that they are the first club in the UK to have taken this forward-thinking measure.
Will others follow Kilmarnock and Celtic’s lead?
With their combined capacity totalling a humble 324, the safe standing areas at Rugby Park are in no danger of overtaking Dortmund’s famous Gelbe Wand any time soon. But could Kilmarnock and Celtic’s tentative engagement with safe standing lead, in time, to a wider embrace of the concept within Scottish football?
The benefits of allowing fans to stand at matches have long been discussed among Scottish football fans. Supporters of standing at football believe it is a more active, participative way to experience the match, allowing supporters to take part rather than to simply watch passively from a seat. Traditionally, fans of lower league clubs who rose up to the Premiership would bemoan the loss of their traditional terracing, with Ross County’s atmospheric Jail End the last victim of the old rule forbidding standing. Meanwhile, clubs such as Falkirk and St Johnstone, who moved to all-seater stadiums in the relatively recent past when chasing top-flight status, have found that, for all of the advantages of their swanky new arenas, they perhaps lack the atmosphere of their historic homes.
And then there is the German factor. Whilst there is a risk of over-fetishising the Bundesliga, anyone who has attended a match in Germany’s top flight will attest to the fantastic atmosphere created by its standing tribünes. This does not happen in a vacuum (a different fan culture and the availability of alcohol at matches both play their part too), but the standing sections of German stadiums seem to provide an energy that the entire ground feeds off. Whilst Ibrox and Parkhead are both well known for their raucous (and at times hostile) atmospheres, even Rangers and Celtic fans must look on in envy at the noise being generated by equivalent numbers of supporters in Köln and Gelsenkirchen.
The case against safe standing
So why have Scottish top-flight clubs not rushed to bring back standing since the change to league rules which permitted its return? Why is it that only two of Scotland’s 12 top-flight teams have safe standing sections, which constitute only a fraction of their respective capacities?
As is so often the way in Scottish football, the most obvious impediment to a wholesale return of standing to Scottish top-flight stadiums is cost. It cost The Killie Trust around £40,000 to create a total of 324 safe standing spaces, and a wider conversion of Rugby Park would perhaps be beyond the means of either the fan organisation or even the club itself (although the Trust have said that, should there be sufficient demand, they may look to expand). Celtic, with their vast support, European income and significant incoming transfer fees, may well be able to afford to bring wholesale safe standing to Celtic Park, but it is doubtful how many of their peers have enough “spare” money to join them – at a time when money continues to be tight, clubs may feel that making aesthetic changes to their stadium layout is not a good use of limited resources.
Another factor that must be considered is the memory of past tragedies. Whilst the 1989 Hillsborough disaster does not loom quite so large as it does in England (and the legal mechanism banning terracing, the Football Spectators Act, does not apply in Scotland), there is no doubt that the death of 96 ordinary football fans in a neighbouring footballing nation has scarred the Scottish fans’ psyche. Scottish football is also not without its own black memories of crushes, the 1971 Ibrox disaster being perhaps the most awful (albeit this took place on an exit stairway, rather than on the terraces). There is a general recognition that the new generation of safe standing bears little resemblance to historic terracing and includes rigorous built-in safety mechanisms, but there remain some who, understandably, shudder at the thought of moving away from the current era of sterile, but unquestionably safe, all-seater stadiums.
The way forward?
Scottish football must be bold and ambitious, however, if it is to compete and offer its supporters (current and potential) something unique and attractive. Provincial clubs have long had a fight on their hands to keep local people from falling for the charms of the Old Firm, but the increasing globalisation of football means that the likes of Manchester United and Barcelona can be added to that list of potential predators. Kilmarnock can’t compete with the money or glamour of these clubs, so they must do all they can to ensure that their live matchday experience offers an atmosphere of noise and colour that can’t be replicated on a television screen. At its best, football can offer a feeling of belonging, of being a small part of a wider picture – a feeling that appeared to radiate more readily from the standing terraces of yesteryear than from the cold plastic chairs of the modern era. Safe standing, if done correctly, offers the possibility of a return to that stronger connection between club and fan.
There is one particular piece of low-lying fruit in the upcoming years which may give some indication of whether safe standing is likely to catch on more widely in Scotland’s top flight: Aberdeen’s new stadium at Kingsford. Without the “conversion cost” factor faced by other clubs, the Dons have an opportunity to be as bold as they like with safe standing provision. The possibilities range from a single terraced stand behind one goal (a ‘Red Wall’?) to something more akin to Union Berlin’s Alten Försterei (a 22,000 capacity masterpiece where three packed stands of covered terracing face a single all-seater main stand). The club has so far offered no indication as to whether and to what extent it intends to incorporate safe standing, but if it decides to settle for a bog-standard all-seater bowl (think Middlesborough, Derby County or Coventry), many fans of the club will feel a golden opportunity has been lost.
It isn’t hard to imagine a near-future where Scottish football gives itself over to safe standing and reaps the benefits of improved atmospheres at some of its established clubs. Imagine the noise and colour that the Motherwell Bois or St Mirren’s North Bank Aggro could generate if they had their own standing areas? Imagine if Hibernian’s single-tier East Stand, already one of Scottish football’s finest locations when Sunshine on Leith is in full swing, was converted to safe standing? The potential is there for a better match day experience, for more goosebumps moments to help ensure football stays or becomes part of people’s weekend routine. The only question is whether Scottish football’s big clubs have the vision, bravery and (crucially) finance to make it happen.