- Oxford English Dictionary definition of a generation
You cannot talk about terraces in English football without Hillsborough. No matter how long you avoid the topic, the loss of 96 lives in South Yorkshire remains unavoidable. The ineptitude of the policing and its tragic consequences for the families of those who died are being played out in the public arena as the inquests into those deaths are conducted in Warrington. Suspicions of an Establishment cover-up have been confirmed and those who promulgated the lies in the ensuing days, weeks, months and years have been unmasked and eternally shamed.
Yet it is exactly that separation that needs to happen when talk of safe standing begins. The notion of terracing at football has moved on with improved stadia but crucially, improved awareness of safety. It is only the implementation of that knowledge every week which gives Hillsborough a positive legacy from such tragic circumstances.
Terracing at football matches is romanticised by those of us who stood week in, week out. I’ll confess quite happily that by the time the North Bank closed, when I was in my late-20’s, we had moved to the West Lower during the 1989/90 season. Good seats as well, on the halfway line. Some returned to the North Bank on that May afternoon in 1992 when it had its’ final hurrah. Fittingly in the month it was demolished, so were Southampton.
When you consider terracing in cold hard facts, you are left with crumbling concrete upon which we stood, week in, week out. The facilities were sub-standard and people treated like cattle. Worse than cattle; had anyone treated animals the way police and clubs treated supporters, the RSPCA would have launched criminal prosecutions. The violence which besmirched the English – the world – game led to increasingly fanciful measures, culminating in Ken Bates infamous electrified fence at Stamford Bridge blocked only by the GLC.
Arsenal considered a moat in the early 70s , the first in English football along the bottom of the North Bank and Clock Ends, expanding to the paddocks in 1972. Or it would have done, had the club continued with the plan. Bob Wall’s assertion that only 1,000 would have been cut out from the capacity of Highbury at the time, underlines how tightly the terraces could be packed.
Even when you were stood on the concrete, avoiding weeds was the least of your problems. Streams of urine tumbled down the steps toward the bottom row, no life jackets required but an unpleasant aroma. Toward the mid-80s, things began to improve with Arsenal redesigning the ‘catering’ facilities where your bucket of beer could be purchased, ready to watch the newly installed Jumbotron screens to relive the club’s greatest moments.
It was light years away from today.
And yet, at the time, it was a fantastic experience. Which is the point, it wasn’t the terrace themselves but the culture. Forget the stereotypical violence which the media peddled and continue to do so, it was about the sense of belonging to a set of like-minded people. There were differences of opinions and I am sure the language was no more matter or any less abusive than social media at times. Actually, I don’t recall it being as abusive among our own supporters, which highlights the strength some feel through anonymity.
You had the identity and your status in life meant nothing. Professionals mingled with tradesmen, all swapping stories of the night / week before with frankly some of this country’s finest legal minds telling bewildering tales of parties, drugs and cross-dressing. They might have gone to the finest schools but on the terraces, they were held in no higher esteem than those of us who went to comprehensives. Indeed, for ninety minutes, all men were equal.
There were great nights, when the terraces were packed and the energy surged, igniting the crowd to find their voices. But the terraces didn’t have to be packed for that to happen. Like-minded individuals congregated in the same places, knowing their urgings would find more volume together. And this is where perhaps the biggest element of romanticism creeps in. Highbury could be a library before the stadium became Taylor-made. There were plenty of dull and lifeless afternoons where the likes of Birmingham City could pitch up and create a Leyland factory across the penalty area, working to the foreman’s whistle at forty-five minute intervals. The silence cloaked the stadium in a pall for English football; a goal or waspish tackle could shake the slumber and in those days, the latter was as likely as the former.
You don’t sense the same camaraderie in the stands now. You didn’t then, either, to be fair. We knew the people around us, we talked and chatted, shared a beer at half-time but it was mostly season ticket holders with less of a climate where people didn’t turn up for games. Weddings, funerals and very little else were offered as an excuse for absences; certainly ordinary life was not one brokered very often. It doesn’t mean that we were better supporters then, just a different attitude but football was different then.
Ticket prices are often cited as changing supporter mentality. I don’t know if it’s true or not; I can only speak for myself and age changes behaviour but as a sweeping generalisation, there are more infrequent visitors to The Emirates than there were to Highbury. Let’s be clear though, it isn’t just the cost of the tickets which is an issue, travel is as well. When I take my children, I will be spending £150 or more just to reach London. When I started going to Arsenal, it was £6 for a similar length journey; the equivalent now should be £33. Football isn’t the only industry to suffer hyperinflation in its ticket prices.
The Football Supporters Federation has run a long campaign to allow safe standing at football stadia. That the Welsh Assembly has recently backed the proposition lends political support in a small way. The return of standing in top flight football is not the panacea that some believe for atmospheric problems but it is a way of helping to solve those issues. It allows ticketing structures at clubs to accommodate lower prices which is the key battle. Football has become an arm of the entertainment industry; do you want theatre or the drama of a charged atmosphere.
And would I stand again, if terracing returned? Probably, once, just to roll back the years. It’s far from certain. I had a good time, it was part of growing up. Can that terrace culture be recreated? Should it? I don’t think so, let the new culture emerge, one that has its own distinct identity. Only that way will it be guaranteed any chance of success.