INCREASINGLY, football matches are being held up for an emergency in the stands, a supporter being taken ill or an accident causing play to be stopped while hi-vis jackets scurry around the seating areas. In the distant past, such hold-ups used to be a sign that crowd trouble in the form of fierce fighting between rival fans was in process. In the 1970s, no big match was complete without a surge of fans or a sudden huge gap appearing in the sea of humanity that once gathered on the terraces.
Today, games are being suspended while medical teams deal with the problem. It’s not just at the highest level, either, even non-league fixtures are being interrupted by an incident.
There are a number of reasons why this has become a common occurence. Since the Euro 2020 competition and the frightening sight of Denmark’s Christian Eriksen falling to the ground after suffering a cardiac arrest, people have been more aware of trauma and also the need to come to the aid of ill spectators. While some have expressed irritation about this, it is actually a sign of humane behaviour. Too often, people have almost stepped over somebody who is suffering or have looked the other way when homeless or poverty-stricken individuals have sat in the street pleading for help.
People have been sick at football since they first gathered in their hordes on vast concrete terraces or bolted together railway sleepers. As well as disasters such as Hillsborough, Heysel, Ibrox and Bolton, individuals have suffered heart attacks or seizures right back to the early years. We used to cram onto terraces that were so tight your feet rarely touched the ground and when the action was at your end, there were waves of movement that today look quite frightening. It is a wonder more people were not injured.
But when someone was taken ill, the game was rarely affected and it was merely seen as a moment of inconvenience to fans situated around the unfortunate individual.
If you consider the only medical facilities at any ground were the club’s physio/doctor and the voluntary service provided by St. John’s Ambulance, it was clear that spectator safety was something of a nice to have for many years. And the best they could offer was very basic treatment such as a dab of vinegar or TCP on a sting, a sticking plaster or a glass of water. I was stung by a Wasp at Northampton a few years ago and I felt a little odd after the incident. I went to see the St. John’s folk and they couldn’t give me anything because they were not allowed to dispense drugs.
Football doesn’t want to be seen to be ignoring somebody in peril, be it a small, personal trauma or something on a much broader scale. The game has embraced the spirit of virtue signalling over the past few years, out of a desire to produce good PR but also to portray clubs and players as more caring. This has gathered momentum with the welcome inclusion of more women at football matches. You only need look at the average football crowd and the demographic has changed, and along with it has come a more accessible pastime. I have seen this at my local non-league club where just a few women have made a real difference. There’s less testosterone around these days.
Furthermore, the concern shown by clubs and their players when a spectator incident breaks out could just be a sign that the role played by fans is being more appropriately recognised. They are part of the event and therefore, if there’s a problem, proceedings are held up while it is sorted out. This has to be a positive. Perhaps the pandemic has created this, perhaps people are just more community minded.
It would be nice to think this is just the start of a wider movement where we no longer look the other way, or hope that somebody else will answer the call, when we see someone appealing for assistance. Maybe this is just wishful thinking, but in the football world, it may simply be the next step in the gentrification of the game.