Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Geordie Chronicles

Time for the second installment of Jonathan's Geordie Chronicles series. In this piece, which originally appeared in The Mag a few years back and which can now be found on the Bonkworld site, Jonathan reflects on a bout of fisticuffs, all-seater stadia and the bad old days.

The bovver boys

Shock, horror - hooliganism is back! Well, it had to happen sooner or later. And sure enough, fully ten years since the advent of all-seater stadia brought about the gentrification of the working man's game and the long-overdue consignment of the multi-scarved boot-boy into the dustbin of 70s nostalgia, that vile creature has raised its ugly head again.

It happened during the Leeds game. Just before half-time. The signs of impending "bother", familiar to any veteran of the dark days. A heated exchange of words. A sharp movement in the crowd. A flurry of fists separating alarmed bystanders. The whole thing over with in seconds, but a bitter taste left in the mouth. A full page editorial in the following morning's Sunday Express.

Recognisable enough? Well, of course, this sort of thing was until recently a weekly occurrence at any ground in the country. But hold on a minute - these hooligans differed from the tired stereotype. They weren't skinheads for a start, even if they were receding a bit on top. And they were members of no "firms", unless you count their respectable city-centre workplaces. Last but not least, they were wearing no opposing colours - the fighters were two slightly out-of-shape, forty-something season-ticket holders, and - wait for it - supporters of the same team! Our team, to be precise.

Now I've no idea what difference of opinion brought about this sudden loss of decorum among my near-neighbours in the Sir John Hall Stand. It may have been about the selection of Acuna, or over whose turn it was to get the half-time pies in. That's not the point. The point is - in the supposedly dark days of the 70s and 80s, this never used to happen. It was the away crew you had to look out for at St James', not the mild-mannered looking fellow in the checked cardigan in the seat behind you. So what's going on?

Well, I've a theory, and it's to do with the advent of the sold-out all-seater stadium. For, as most of you will remember, when you used to be able to stand, you could stand exactly where you liked. And by exercising that freedom of choice, supporters of a feather tended to flock together, if you like. So the West Centre Paddock was the domain of pipe-smoking schoolteacher fathers and their programme-wielding pre-adolescent offspring, while the Gallowgate East Corner was - well, let's say it wasn't for the faint-hearted, especially when Sunderland came to town. Between these two extremes, you could make your stand among those closest to your own breed of supporter. Myself, I was a Gallowgate scoreboard man. In among the noise and the craic, but not too close to the cracking of knuckles, if you catch my drift.

Anyway, back to the theory. Sometimes a particularly obnoxious individual would come and share your Gallowgate scoreboard crash-barrier. A pissed racist, maybe. Or just a wannabe Jimmy Hill, all pontification and wisdom after the event. What did you do? Well, you turned round, made yourself a gap in the crowd, and walked away. Not too far, either - you didn't have to. The noise of the crowd in those days would drown out the loudest of individual loudmouths at five paces.

Fast forward 15 years or so. The obnoxious neighbour is no temporary problem. Thanks to his season ticket, he's moved in next-door for good. And thanks to your season ticket, you can't turn and walk away. And thanks to the funereal silence pervading the modern-day ground, you can't help but listen to him droning/ranting on. For season after season after thankless bleeding season.

So what happens? Well, it's clear enough. One day, mild-mannered though you are, you snap. You target the individual with a few choice words, and the next thing you know, you're flinging fists, maybe for the first time since secondary school. It's all a bit embarrassing, and it's only ended when some bloke next to you both - the author of this here article, if you care to know - steps in and asks the two of you to stop being so bleeding daft.

Of course, if all-seater stadiums were fine apart from the occasional outburst of male-menopausal fisticuffs, maybe they wouldn't be so bad. But we all know that with the loss of standing areas we've really lost much more than the freedom to move about. The anonymity of the terrace has been replaced by a stifling familiarity more akin to the suburban street, the variety and spontaneity of the crowd lost among sullen rows of identically clad, stressed-out strangers. Blimey, half the time at the game, I feel like I'm at work.

So - a return to terraces it's to be then? Well, don't hold your breath. Our Minister for Sport is pretty much in a minority of one in favouring, or even daring to mention, that possibility - that much was made clear by the knee-jerk "seats are safe, terraces are for hooligans" response of the clubs, the Premier League, and the rest of government to Kate Hoey's perfectly sensible if fairly half-hearted recent murmurings.

The good old days, meanwhile, will remain just a memory. Getting in at half-past one to book your crash-barrier. Soaked to the skin by five-to-three, not seeing half the game, fifteen thousand of you squeezing out of a five-foot wide gap at twenty-to-five - fond recollections all.

On second thought, maybe the seats aren't so bad, eh?

(The first installment in the series, "Between the sticks", can be found here.)


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