Friday, November 13, 2009

A rite of passage

In a post which first appeared on his marvellous personal site Crinklybee, occasional guest contributor Jonathan muses on the demise of terracing, recalling the day when he quite literally nearly died for the cause.

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It may or may not have something to do with Newcastle United's megalomaniac owner taking it upon himself to tear up 130 years of history and rename our ground after his own chain of fucking sportswear stores, but I've been thinking about the days of the terraces a lot over the last week or so.

If you are much less than twenty-five years old, your knowledge of football terraces will be limited to vintage goal clips on YouTube. Watching them now the swaying masses of humanity - reeling about at each end of the pitch, and uncontrollably crashing forward in waves towards the eight-foot-high fencing whenever a goal was threatened - really do look quite frightening. Did my mother really quite blithely pack me off on Saturday afternoons to be put to the mercy of the inhabitants of what constituted, to all intents and purposes, giant, crumbling, sloping, criminally overcrowded cages? (Actually, as I found out a few years later, my mother was putting a brave face on things. Years before Hillsborough made the dangers horribly apparent to everyone, she used to worry about what could happen in there, and on a February Saturday afternoon in 1987, when I was one of those penned in against the perimiter fence at Tottenham's White Hart Lane, with the combined weight of 20000 away supporters amassed behind us in an enclosed space designed to hold half that number, her worst fears came just a Newcastle goalmouth chance away from being realised).

Thankfully for us Newcastle never scored that afternoon, and I kept on spending my Saturday afternoons on the terraces, even as the clubs' gradual response to the post-Hillsborough safety legislation rendered their days numbered. One of the last clubs to replace its standing areas was Manchester City, where, on what may have been my last two hours on a truly iconic terrace, my iconic John Lennon-style glasses were sent flying into the crowd during the euphoria attending a David Rocastle goal versus Arsenal. In response to my panicked wails - "Me glasses! I've lost me fucking glasses in there!" - the massive crowd parted good humouredly, for just a moment, exposing a two-foot square of concrete. I had just enough time to dive in there and retrieve my mangled eyewear before the assembled humanity knitted helplessly back together under the pressure of its own weight. I stumbled away and took in the rest of the game from the comparative safety of the back corner of the giant stand.

That was all a long time ago. Nowadays the big stadiums are identikit all-plastic-seater affairs, and the nearest we can get to the terrace experience is by going down to our local sports bar on a Sunday afternoon, leaning on the bar, and craning our necks to get a glimpse of the action on a giant plasma screen screwed high into the wall. Occasionally this is a life-affirming experience - such as on Saturday teatime, when I popped out to take in the second half of Wolverhampton Wanderers versus Arsenal, and fell into conversation with an urbane native of the Black Country. We covered subjects such as the ongoing travails of Newcastle United, and the classic mid-80s Wolves forward pairing of Steve Bull and Andy Mutch, before parting at full-time with hearty, half-drunken handshakes.

Other times - more times than I care to admit, really - the plasma screen experience can be just depressing. Such as on Sunday afternoon, when I stopped off in the same bar to take in the second half of Chelsea versus Manchester United. Maybe it was the addition of local partisanship to the occasion, but the atmosphere was, quite simply, vile. At one point the Chelsea centre-forward was accidentally caught in the ribs by a flying kick, and fell to earth, crumpled, immobile and, quite possibly seriously injured. Amid great hilarity, the bloke behind me yelled out:

"Get up, you lazy fucking bluenose arselicker!"

That wasn't the depressing bit though. The depressing bit was the same words, repeated just a moment later.

"Get up, you lazy fucking bluenose arselicker!"

The venom was just as apparent - but this time the shout had come from somewhere at knee level and a couple of octaves higher in pitch. I looked down to see a child, dressed in United replica kit. Maybe about six years old. Presumably the bloke's son. Brought along for the afternoon, maybe, to take in the big match atmosphere for the first time. Get a taste of the banter. A rite of passage, if you will.

All of which - I hope - goes some way towards explaining why, for all the attendant drawbacks (casual racism, loss of vintage eyewear, inhalation of pipe fumes, unspeakable pies, death) associated with the terraces, I still, you know, miss them a bit. And I'll be damned if I'll let that bastard Ashley play about with the heritage of a club I damn nearly died watching, one Saturday afternoon in the eighties when he was presumably earning his first fortune as a till assistant in the Aylesbury branch of Foot Locker. Damned if I will.


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