English Football

Terraces – careful what you wish for…

Back in fashion soon?
Back in fashion soon?

Football fans are getting all misty-eyed about the golden age of the terrace. That vast sea of humanity that used to sway with the rhythm of the match. The working class unleashing a cacophony of sound sprinkled with sardonic humour. Older generations talk of being lifted by the sheer force of numbers and carried along in an early form of crowd-surfing. Others may recall some of the terrible accidents that, eventually, led to the demise of the terrace.

English fans have been glancing across the channel towards Germany with envious eyes. They still have terracing in the Bundesliga, and guess what? It works well. You would expect that if anyone would get it right, it would be the Germans. It looks very orderly: “barrier seats” that can be folded up when terracing is required.

Terracing does exist in England at the lower end of the game and in recent visits to Accrington, Morecambe and Carlisle, I have taken the opportunity to stand behind the goal to savour the experience and atmosphere. Of course, overcrowding is not a problem at grounds such as Brunton Park, but it was, nevertheless, a novelty worth preserving. Personally, I have no desire to be herded like cattle and left standing for two hours in conditions reminiscent of a packed London Underground train. Thinking about that, I don’t recall anyone urinating on me on a tube train.

Ah, yes, amber liquid trickling down the terrace. I have seen it, smelt it, paddled in it and even been splashed by it. The downside of a life among the sardines. The rich pot-pourri of smells that accompanies the hordes, fuelled by copious amounts of lager, cheap food and cigarettes, can cure the worst sinusitis, especially in some far-off places not yet reached by the deodorant missionaries.

Of course, in the halcyon days of the terraces, when you could stand in your favourite spot and due to the ebb and flow of the crowd, end the game 20 yards away, was in an age when the rich bouquet of “all boys together” was not something to complain about. But since then, male grooming and metropolitan man have both emerged, donned in designer labels and drenched in duty-free after-shave. The stadiums are also non-smoking, so nasal cavities are that much more sensitive.

You didn’t see a lot of the game if you were on a packed terrace. I’ve been to some of the great “ends” of pre-Hillsborough football: The Stretford End, The Kop, the Holt End, The Shed, The Paxton, various North and South Banks, and even ventured to The Den. Often, it was difficult to watch the entire game from these vantage points. On more than one occasion, I lost my footing, but the kinetic energy of the crowd enabled me to roll with the rapids. I recall thinking at the time, “if I fall over, what would happen?”. When you’re a teenager, it’s fun, but when you reach the age where you look over to the seats with longing, the rough and tumble of the terraces is not for you.

Whereas this middle-aged man won’t be subscribing to a life back on the concrete steps – with or without barrier seats that bear the claim,  In Deutschland hergestellt – they’ll be plenty that hanker for the atmosphere that accompanies terracing. Somehow, sitting down and chanting doesn’t go together, unless you belong to some religious cult.  Just go to the Emirates, Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge to see the ambience of the crowd has changed dramatically over the years. It’s bloody quiet! It’s amazing how even a small bunch of Eastern European fans, cheering on their team, can outsing 25,000 home fans, but stadium life today, in homogenous all-seater grounds, is fairly sedentary.

But would bringing back the terraces change things much? Invariably, if you go to a game, you spend 50% of your time standing up and sitting down as play shifts from one end to the other. Some fans stand up for almost the entire 90 minutes, unchallenged  by the high-vis jackets unless they come from Barcelona, Turin or Riga, that is. If you’re a visitor and flaunt the rules, you get a threatening message telling you to sit-down or face ejection!

Terracing will inject some life into the sterile stadiums of England. I’m not advocating a return to the “You’re going to get your f****** heads kicked in” soundtrack of the 1970s, but some form of terracing, on a limited scale, will allow those that want to share in the experience to do just that. But if they do come back, clubs must resist the temptation to use it merely as a way to maximize profitability. In the 21st century, spectator safety and comfort must come before exploitation – lessons from the past have to be heeded.

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