JUST before the UK government locked down the nation and brought football to a close, I visited Salford City and indulged in something of a rare experience – standing on the terraces at a Football League game.
Like many fans, I graduated from the crumbling terraces at my favourite club, Chelsea, and invested increasingly greater sums of money in seated accommodation down the years. By the time most big clubs had gone all-seater, I was happy to be sitting down for 90 minutes.
A couple of dodgy knees later, the prospect of standing for an entire game doesn’t appeal to me, although I have to say, I actually enjoy the age-old ritual of leaning against a rusting barrier, craning my neck here and there to catch a glimpse of the action. But not every week.
At Salford, I was caught in the middle of a skirmish, quite literally, as a handful of Bradford City fans got involved in a turf war with the home supporters. Strangely, I felt a rush of adrenalin! It took me back to days as a Chelsea away fan in the old second division, games of cat and mouse with the likes of Bristol City, Cardiff City and, the most foolhardy trip I ever embarked on, Millwall, September 4, 1976.
I was no hooligan, far from it, but occasionally, my afternoon out was disrupted by being too close to those that enjoyed the art of “sticking the boot in.” I will never forget the emotions that swept over me when I alighted at New Cross station that lunchtime, a mixture of fear and indecision – should I get back on the train and return to London Bridge, or seek safety in numbers? I chose the latter and came through unscathed, but by the time I got back to Fenchurch Street, my legs were like jelly and I vowed “never again”.
From 1977, I sought refuge in the “new” East Stand at Stamford Bridge, a more sanitised environment where most people sat in near silence. Sometimes, I looked longingly at the Shed End terracing or even the top of the North Stand end which I also used to frequent. But I was still a teenager.
It’s clear the terracing is where the real fermentation of the football spirit takes place. You make more noise if you stand up and somehow, being seated makes people more sedate while standing allows you to get “lost in the melee” which provides more anonymity. We should not be too surprised that since all-seater stadiums were introduced, the decibel level has declined at English football matches. They seem to have been more successful at grounds around Europe at retaining some of the old vibe.
We shouldn’t kid ourselves that people adhere to the rules, though. Behind many goalmouths you can see the crowd is standing up for the best part of 90 minutes, refusing to be restricted in movement, although there’s precious little room in most stands. There’s so much hypocrisy on the part of clubs, stewards and indeed, the police when it comes to controlling this. For example, the home fans can stand for the entire game, but when the away fans do likewise, the stewards try to enforce a sit-down, especially if the away team is winning.
This does imply there is a section of the crowd that really craves the atmosphere of the terrace. So why not introduce a limited terrace area that enables those that want the experience can enjoy it?
At present, there are a number of hurdles for the introduction of terracing, even if it is only the modern “safe-standing” approach. The Coronavirus, and the blow to public confidence and sensibilities, could shape any plans clubs have, albeit temporarily.
The virus has shown that despite all the technology in the world and scientific developments that would have been way beyond expectations 50 years ago, an unseen disease can stop the most sophisticated societies in their tracks. Everything we took for granted is now being questioned – the ability to socialise, personal hygiene, food supplies, family, infrastructure and globalisation.
Where does that leave football? It’s a game that relies on the mass gathering of spectators to provide finance, atmosphere and substance. Modern football is also an intensely globalised industry. A multinational squad can, in such circumstances, be a hotbed of contagion if the players all go home for the holidays.
From the spectator’s point of view, what is more hygienic – sitting closely together or standing side-by-side? There’s an argument there’s little difference, but at the same time, there’s a strong case to suggest that being on a terrace (not the sardine-like experience that epitomised swaying crowds of the 1960s and early 1970s) gives more scope for movement. In theory you can give yourself as much room as you want if the crowd capacity is kept to a modest level. In a seat, you have very little control, other than to get up and leave.
On the other hand, crowd control is made a little more challenging on the terraces, as I witnessed at Salford, where the high-vis staff were ill-equipped to deal with the trouble, even though it was a minor incident.
Some people long for the days when a sea of humanity would provide the soundtrack of matchday. Today, so many crowds are lacking in humour, volume and passion. In the past, giant “ends” like the Kop and the Holte would be admired and envied, not the construction that housed them, but the size, sound and support that came from them. As for seated stands, it is invariably the structure that is the point of reference, not the sheer weight of numbers.
I believe that a carefully controlled terrace, in terms of numbers, could provide a solution for football spectating in the post-virus climate. It won’t be to everyone’s taste – it may not be to mine – but it would be sheer stupidity to restart football and not allow people the room to breathe their own air as we come to terms with a more vulnerable world. Over to you, scientists and doctors.