A few friends and acquaintances of this writer have been reeling off a familiar tale recently, “I’ve stopped watching my local Premier League/Championship team and have started going to the Non-League ground just up the road from home”. “Ok, any particular reason why?” is the stock answer. The list pours out, “1. It’s 25, 30, 35 pounds to watch football where I do at the moment. I can watch the game, grab a couple of beers in the social club at half time and still have change out of my 25, 30, 35 pounds – times are tight, you know. 2. Isn’t it heartening to see football free of diving, play-acting, with players who care and you can talk to after the game? 3. It’s really good fun, I mean, you
Now there is no doubt that a trip down the football pyramid is a wise move if you are basing the decision on a simple matter of economics. Indeed, if people did not generally have their clubs in their bloodstream then I am sure wives around the Uk would be trying to make this rational case to their spouse on a weekly basis. The truth is that football fans do have their clubs as part of their DNA, and so unless you physically do not have the money, the argument of going somewhere else to save a few quid has a hollow ring to it. It is reasons two and three which are the more likely to influence such a decision and it is the issue of standing up at games which this writer would like to focus on.
Go to Germany and you will see that the concept of going to a football match and standing up remains a strong part of the culture there. The Bundesliga is the highest-supported league in Europe, with the main reason being a general feeling that supporters are listened to, cared for, and treated like paying customers as well as human beings. In the early 1990s all-seater explosion, German fans objected to the notion of absolutely no terracing and grounds, and the clubs and the authorities gave way, putting a rule in place that at least 10% of a stadium hosting league football should be for safe terracing. The reality is that in this country, many fans genuinely miss the experience of standing while participating as much as spectating. They were somewhat muzzled at the time of the Taylor report, manipulated into a sense of post-Hillsborough guilt that was in bad taste, unnecessary and needs to be explored.
The truth is that in this writer’s opinion, the terraces were not wholly to blame for what was probably the most tragic human day in British football history. The unnecessary loss of 96 lives was blamed, albeit tacitly, on the fact that they were stood up at the game rather than sat down. There is however, a more widely held view that inept policing and the fences at grounds, that penned supporters in like cattle, had far more to do with it, and that the corporate manslaughter charge pursued by the Hillsborough Justice Campaign should have stuck. In the end, the Taylor report concluded that all-seater stadia were the only solution.
To draw a more recent parallel, this writer takes the view that the laws on gun ownership are too stringent, not because he wants to own or fire a gun. It just strikes him as absurd that the British pistol-shooting team should have to train in Norway. Now, in the wake of Derrick Bird’s massacre in Whitehaven, imagine how hard it must have been to express that view amid the calls to ban handguns, BB guns, water pistols, the lot. The cocktail of emotion and conventional wisdom is potent and sometimes it is easier to keep one’s mouth shut when faced with its fumes. So supporters of terracing were drowned out or cowed into silence, and the widespread and expensive change had the appearance of almost universal support.
Nobody doubts that seating is on the whole a more comfortable experience, but that additional comfort comes at a price even long after the development of the stadia involved has been paid for. The knock-on effect is that football has indeed become an expensive business. A man who takes home £300 a week has to find a minimum of £50 to get into the game, buy a programme, park their car, grab a pie and a beer at half time, and that is someone who does not have dependants. If his son happens to like football too, then we’re looking at more like £80, even with the decent concessions that most clubs now offer for children.
The effects of this are numerous. It takes an innocent pleasure away from people on modest means in what are difficult times – after a hard week in a job you might hate, going to the football might be the only thing that keeps you sane. It also takes their children away from the game and jeopardises the next generation of supporters. At a Championship game a few years ago, the man next to this writer asked, “Why are we here? Tonight’s gonna cost me £70 and United are on the box – I could have parked my lad in front of the TV and saved a fortune”.
It has indeed gone beyond the point where many hard-working people do not have the money to actively support their team, or at least justify it against the backdrop of other family commitments. Knocking the ‘prawn sandwich’ brigade is so easy it’s tantamount to bullying, and it should be made clear that many affluent people genuinely love the game. However, introducing a new clientele to the sport should not automatically mean binning the old one.
So besides comfort, the other main argument for seating centres around safety and security. Well, this is probably half-true and half wishful thinking. It is certainly harder to start a fight in a seated stadium, or wander across and cause trouble with opposing fans. But anyone who goes to games will tell you that filing out of a seated ground at the end of a game is a slow, painful business. In the event of a bomb scare, or a need to evacuate the ground quickly, this writer’s money is on a terraced part of the ground emptying faster than a seated one.
There is also the unsavoury attempt by some to link all-seater stadia with the decline of hooliganism. It is never explicitly stated, but just as some blame terraces for Hillsborough, you can hear the implied meaning in their argument. They are effectively saying that terracing and hooliganism are the same thing, which is an insult to the millions of ordinary people (this writer included) who stood up at matches and never once thought of starting a fight, launching a banana at a black opposing player or joining the National Front.
The reality is that football got its act in order on this front after Heysel in 1985. Once the Thatcher started talking about ID cards for football fans, and the prospect of European football disappeared for all of us, clubs and the game as a whole began to take this issue much more seriously. Hooligans have been a declining breed in stadia for over 20 years now, and are reduced to pre-arranged fights in car parks in secluded areas. They were very much a product of the time, and said as much about working-class alienation and society as a whole as they did about football itself. Moreover, the explosion of CCTV in grounds, while unpleasant to the peaceful fan, has done more good in deterring the thugs than all-seater stadia ever could.
If the Kop, the Stretford End, the Kippax and the Gallowgate had been anything other than stands at football grounds, then the National Trust would have stepped in to ensure the history around them would be protected. It was indeed correct that money be spent on stadia, as fans had been neglected for so long in facilities that were barely fit for human use. It is also a good idea to give people the choice between sitting and standing at a game, and the move to broaden football’s appeal to the middle classes and families was both welcome and refreshing. However, there is a sense that the people who put the game in the position where it could do this were neglected, abandoned and are no longer feeling a part of it.
Maybe more than 20 years on we can dare to mutter th