I was taken aback to see this story in the Telegraph today.
I defer to no one in terms of my respect for the Hillsborough families and campaigners, as you can see from the blog I was moved to write after last week’s inquest verdicts
I can appreciate why some families and individual campaigners – including Margaret Aspinall – take a very strong line about standing at football matches. That is their prerogative, and to be honest, if I was in their position I might well feel the same. But regardless of that, even if you profoundly disagree with them their view deserves to be heard. Because these are people who merit the utmost respect and who are in the unenviable position of being able to speak about what it is like when things go devastatingly wrong on the terraces.
But it IS OK to disagree with the view articulated in that Telegraph article, which has been picked up by a number of other papers including the Daily Record.
And I do disagree. I don’t think it was at all disrespectful of Celtic to confirm a safe standing section next season a few days after the Hillsborough inquest verdicts. I have two reasons for holding this view.
Firstly it came as no surprise to anyone. Celtic’s groundbreaking (in the UK at least) initiative around safe standing has long had acres of news coverage. And it has been widely welcomed. I think most people seeing this week’s announcement (which was not all-singing and all-dancing) probably thought “oh right, at last”.
Secondly, any notion that Celtic Football Club would allow itself to show disrespect towards the Hillsborough victims is simply incorrect. Yes we all make mistakes from time to time, but Celtic’s approach to the announcement of safe-standing had no element that could fairly be described as a ‘mistake’.
From the outset, this has been a carefully-planned initiative. The club has jumped through a bewildering array of hoops and regulations, and it has engaged with the concepts of health, safety, and crowd management in a way that was never less than profoundly respectful to the memory of those who died at Hillsborough. In short: if people were ever to be allowed to stand at Celtic Park again it had to be done in a way that offered fans the sort of safety that was unlawfully denied to the 96. And then some more on top.
Then there’s the wider context. Celtic were Liverpool’s first opponents after Hillsborough, and played their part in a remarkable occasion. Liverpool fans have repeatedly complimented the club on its support and solidarity in the most horrendously difficult times. And this solidarity continues, with the Hillsborough Justice Campaign being invited to Celtic Park on 8 May to be saluted by the Celtic family.
To be fair to the Telegraph, the article isn’t a hatchet job. Alongside the comments of Margaret Aspinall, there is a mention of the benefits of safe standing, an acknowledgement of the 1989 memorial match between Celtic and Liverpool (as well as a YouTube clip), and an account of the protracted steps taken by Celtic to implement safe standing – learning from the experience of clubs in mainland Europe.
Nevertheless, the notion of ‘disrespecting’ the Hillsborough victims really grates.
Partly because it could be picked up by others and unfairly used as a stick with which to beat Celtic.
But mainly because it raises questions about the commitment of a club and a global fanbase who – in the most heartfelt way – ensured that no one affected by Hillsborough ever has or ever will ‘walk alone’.
Let’s be clear. The Celtic family doesn’t ‘do’ disrespect for the 96 or the heroes who continue to work tirelessly for justice.
I hope that Margaret Aspinall – like others affected by Hillsborough – gets an invitation to visit Celtic Park, and receives the applause she deserves for all her amazing work. I think she is wrong about the announcement of Celtic’s safe standing initiative, but she will always find friends at Paradise.
Because we continue to stand together.