FOOTBALL is a sport built around nostalgia. We remember our heroes, draw comparisons between the past and today and don the rose-tinted glasses of experience to complain about contemporary trends and behaviours. Not everything was marvellous in the past, not everything is bad in the 21st century, but as we all become our parents and grandparents, we inevitably believe music, football, pubs, TV and the world, generally, was great when we were young.
That’s partly because when you are young, you don’t have to worry about much. No bills to pay, no mortgage, no career to manage, no kids to fret about. Therefore, we concentrate on the unimportant and trivial and we try to live as hedonistic life as we possibly can. Then we grow up. At least most of us do.
Going to a football match in the early to mid-1970s wasn’t necessarily a pleasant experience. For a start, the stadiums were uncomfortable places comprising crumbling terraces, prehistoric toilets, inedible food and, of course, crowd trouble.
Football crowds were often feral, lacking in basic manners and full of aggression, and that is not taking into account the battle between two sets of fans. The environment was an extension of an all-boys school, except the school playground had a large percentage of the “naughty boys” that hung around the smokers’ corner!
Being part of a mass body of men, most of whom gave off a heady odour of sweat, tobacco, booze and onions, was something you had to endure. Jostling for position on the terrace could be hazardous, occasionally when the balance of play shifted to your end, there could be a rush of bodies, pushing you out of your position, against a rusting barrier or down a few steps where you might twist an ankle.
A goal might result in a Dante’s inferno-like maelstrom in which your head, neck, back and knees might be assaulted by dervishes intent on celebrating the team’s success. And in a big crowd, you might find yourself so compressed that your feet could not touch the ground. Terrace life was not for the feint-hearted, let along women, but it could be fun.
You basically knew what you were in for. The terraces were a cheap way to watch the game and if you were young enough to hold your own, a bit of excitement, a rush of adrenalin and an excuse to flex muscle and release testosterone into the atmosphere. It was no wonder that an air of anticipation would stir in you as you made your way to the match, walking along roads that would later be strewn with horse manure, mashed newspapers, discarded burgers and unwanted match programmes.
Pre-match, the pavements were a mixture of touts, loitering youths, souvenir sellers and burger trolleys getting into position, hawking the foul concoction that was a Westlers’ patty that was simmering away in hot water for hours before being slapped between buns of cardboard and squirted with toxic-red tomato ketchup. It is nothing short of a miracle that half of the 20 million people who attended football matches in England in 1975 didn’t fall ill with food poisoning. There’s no doubt about it, football food in the 1970s was largely disgusting and really only fuel for the desperate.
Before you engaged the turnstiles, the purchase of pre-match reading was mandatory because the 1970s really were the golden age of the football programme. Whether it was Jack Helier’s “Hammer”, Albert Sewell’s Chelsea programmes or the innovative efforts of West Bromwich Albion, Coventry City and Derby County, most clubs made an effort, and not one that was tinged with commercialisation, anodyne interviews or attempts at portraying the club as an all-sharing, all-caring institution. You got your notes from the top, profiles of the opposition, results and tables, an interview, a look back on previous games and that was it – but it was enough.
Turnstiles were often rusting, rickety-old things, not the high-security, electronic cattle gates of today. But the past and future had something in common, the gates were built for super models as opposed to the average male supporter. I recall at Upton Park going to watch a game between West Ham and Liverpool circa 1976. As we made our way through the South Bank turnstile, there was a scam going on, two supporters going in at the same time for the price of approximately one and half times the admission price. This practice was common at many grounds but I only saw it in operation at Upton Park and White Hart Lane.
Inside the stadium, the “end” would start to fill up from about 2pm with the first tepid chants from the enthusiasts. This would gradually increase in volume as the clock ticked towards 3pm. There was no exhaustive pre-match ritual of players limbering-up in training kits, the teams would come onto the field five minutes before kick-off, shoot at the keeper, perhaps do a couple of sprints, but one hoped they had been going through their paces in the dressing rooms. The crowd would invariably chant the name of each player as they warmed up, earning a raised arm or “thumbs up” from their favourites.
Somehow, you felt closer to the players than today, even though there was less information, fewer TV appearances and scant space for interviews. The interaction between fans and players was more authentic in so far that they were just normal “blokes”, not a term you could use often to describe today’s stars.
Just before kick-off, if the away team had a following, the fans would often arrive from their “football specials”, usually ushered-in by police officers. The chant would go up from the home end, “you’ll never make the station”, referring to the post-match journey.
Sometimes, the home fans would infiltrate the away end and a scuffle would break out, notably if the home side were losing. Before the authorities discovered segregation, if an away side’s fans were bold, they would attempt to “take” the home end, resulting in a scene resembling a “wall game” where the balance of power shifted periodically.
You could miss a goal due to being distracted by the action going on at the opposite end. Occasionally, a pitch invasion would take place, the most famous one being the Manchester derby in 1974 that signalled United’s relegation to the second division.
Fast and furious
And so, the game itself. Football today is faster, more furious, more strategic and the players are fitter, more agile and athletic. The tactical switching that goes on can be confusing for some spectators and would certainly be very alien to a crowd from the 1970s. The managers would sit in their dugouts, on a perch in the top of the stand or even in the directors box. There was very little touchline choreography. The game was more about teams and players rather than the cult of the manager. The game in the 1970s looks very slow when you watch it today and, as everyone is quick to point out, the pitches could be dreadful – there are no longer any Baseball Grounds, to name but one suspect surface.
The game was tougher – isn’t that what the popular narrative tells us? Certainly, there were uncompromising tacklers, such as Ron Harris, Norman Hunter and Tommy Smith, but sometimes, the term “hard man” was used to describe someone who actually couldn’t play.
On the other side of the coin, the 1970s were supposed to be awash with skilful mavericks who, in truth were wholly unreliable, ill-disciplined, petulant and often played for themselves. It’s interesting that people, naturally, love players like Tony Currie, Alan Hudson, Charlie George, Rodney Marsh, Peter Osgood and Frank Worthington, yet between them they won one league title (George, 1971) and just 41 England caps.
People scratch their head and wonder why they never received more international accolades for it was widely recognised they could be brilliant. They were unable do it every game, though, and if you were running a national team, you didn’t have enough games to work the percentages. Today, if you are a decent English player, you will get a cap or 50.
Half-time in 1976 was not an opportunity to be blasted with noise from a sound system that, for all the technology we have, is almost inaudible. For some reason, the “Beginners guide to stadium management” insists that as much booming as possible is a necessity, either to send the crowd into the bowels of the stadium to buy overpriced food, or to distract the fans from a poor game. Wembley is very good at this practice. The technology offers the chance for real-time information, vintage video clips and pushing the merch, but sound is a problem at many grounds. Still.
In the 1970s, the half-time scores were frequently recorded on a manual scoreboard with the games given a letter – A – Arsenal v Wolves; B – Birmingham v Leeds United; C – Coventry City v Sheffield Wednesday – and so on. Appointed staff would place numbers next to the letters to indicate the score, although the obligatory “man with transistor” who would often be someone with a disability, would inform the fans around him of the scores from BBC Radio 2 and Maurice Eddlestone or Peter Jones. Many was the time when the placement of a score against a rival’s letter would prompt a cheer from the crowd.
This is where the modern game knocks spots off the past – information flow and media connectivity. Everyone in a stadium now has a computer in their pocket that would have sent man to the Moon in the 1960s and 70s. In 1976, unless you were close to “man with transistor” you had to wait for info. The first opportunity was to buy a Saturday evening paper such as the London Evening Standard or the Evening News, who both ran classified editions with the results, first-half reports with short summaries to complete the story and league tables. And, importantly, it also told you which games were being featured on TV on Saturday night or Sunday lunchtime. Highlights, of course, because we were far from the live football era.
The journey home could be fraught with obstacles, starting with getting clear of the ground before the away fans were released from their end. In London, leaving Stamford Bridge would involve running the gauntlet past Earls Court, Victoria and Charing Cross (Embankment) where fans from other clubs who were visiting the capital might be hanging around. If you negotiated that stretch, there was also the chance of bumping into West Ham fans at Barking or Fenchurch Street. For me, if I got to Upminster unscathed, I knew I was OK.
Personally, I find the stadium experience better in terms of comfort today, but I am 61 years of age. To be honest, I never liked the terraces much and would often retreat to the East or West stands at Chelsea, even in my early 20s. I am glad hooliganism is less frequent than it was in the 1970s and clubs definitely treat fans better than they did back then. The police have a better attitude than they did in that era, fans are not seen as a breed of sub-humans.
Gentrification, of a sort, has taken place, but at the expense of atmosphere at some grounds. That tingle of promise and the passion of getting behind a team. While nobody misses hooliganism, the average football crowd seems to be passive and waiting for the action to inspire the people, rather than the crowd spurring on the players. The animal spirit of the crowd has, in the main, been replaced by tourists and experience collectors. The people who created the atmosphere of old are now in their 60s and 70s, they cannot be expected to provide the spirit. It is arguable, of course, the atmosphere of old would deter the crowds from being as high as they are today and in some respects, the football vibe reflects many of today’s social trends. So, we have to live with it and appreciate that this is the modern matchday.
But this is why travelling home today is easier, why the game is possibly in a better shape socially than it was 40-plus years ago. It would be foolish to think there’s no problems – racism is on the rise, clubs spend too much money, players live on a different planet and there’s still the odd bit of trouble, but stadiums are better today (they should be given the price of tickets) and security is tight. These are the prices that have been paid to make football a more attractive product – we may not like clubs with inflated investment, the corporatisation of the game, the owners who want to make lots of cash out of their investment but look at the crowds – somebody out there likes what they see. It is fashionable for a 60 year-old to say “it was better in my day”, but I am not so sure it was. It was a less complex world, for sure, but at 17 or 18, your biggest problem is hormonal.
My heroes of youth will stay that way – it is hard and a little sad to say you have heroes when you’re 61, especially if they are younger than your own children, but the overall package is probably better today. Let’s remember that in the current era, we have seen two of the all-time greats – Messi and Ronaldo – and the top level of the English game has some of the world’s best playing week-in, week-out. When I compare that to watching teams with dour, clogging defenders and defence-minded away teams playing for 0-0 in half-empty stadiums, the modern game has more going for it. Despite that, I will remember seeing players like Best, Keegan, Osgood, Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Bell and Moore play long after I have forgotten most of today’s big names.
Pictures: PA Images