It was not just the third away win in a week that made Burnley’s trip to Brentford so enjoyable last night. Nor was it merely that the 3-1 victory was secured by first half goals from Scott Arfield, Joey Barton and George Boyd that would not have looked out of place had the venue been the Nou Camp Barcelona rather than Griffin Park Brentford, and their names Neymar, Suarez and Messi.
A big part of the pleasure came from Burnley fans having a choice about whether to sit or stand to enjoy it all, and I am pretty sure the ones who stood enjoyed it more than the ones who sat. On the rare occasions we get that chance, we always do. Though it was a Friday night, and the match live on Sky Sports 1, the away end was packed not least because supporters knew they could for once have that experience.
Given all-seater stadia have been compulsory in the higher echelons for some time, it is something of an anomaly that Brentford have terraced sections behind each goal; and whilst I understand the club has to conform, and want to increase capacity, it is something of a sadness that they too are moving to what could easily become yet another purpose-built, modern, all-seater, antiseptic stadium that strips matches of atmosphere. There are enough of those already.
Non-football fans tend not to understand why this issue of safe standing matters to some people, me included, as much as it does. I guess for my generation there is a nostalgia element to it all, the feeling of a link to the kind of experience we used to have when first falling in love with going to away games (provided it didn’t involve getting your head kicked in). But for those who have grown up with all-seater stadia, the reasoning cannot be the same. For them it is the straight forward fact that the match experience is so much better.
Atmosphere matters in sport. Noise matters in football. It is part of the event. Even if fans do not directly effect the outcome – and I think sometimes they do, though there is no way of measuring it – they are certainly a big part of the quality of the spectacle. I know that myself when channel hopping European games and being more likely to watch the one in the loud, full stadium than the one with banks of empty plastic seats and the shouts of players audible above the sound of the crowd.
There is no scientific reason why fans should make more noise, and show more wit, standing than seated, but they do. Of course supporters always love to see their teams score a goal, but take a look at some of the crowd videos I put on kicca.com and on twitter last night. The joy is all the greater if you can run about hugging complete strangers standing several yards away rather than just applaud and make a knowing happy nod to the season ticket holder in the next seat.
In the second half, though the quality of our football dipped a bit, and Brentford dominated, the fans sang one chant non-stop for about half an hour. ‘We are the Longside, Burnley, we are the Longside, Burnley,’ repeated again and again and again until the final whistle went. At which point nearly everyone stayed and sang their praises to the team until Barton and Arfield, the last two to leave after doing their after match interviews for Sky on the pitch, had disappeared down the tunnel. Again, those who don’t speak football – and I live with one such – do not understand why any of this matters to anyone. But it does. And though our fans sing that chant every game home and away, it had a very special resonance last night, because the Longside is the name for the old terraces that many of us knew, now a modern stand in what is nonetheless still one of the best old grounds in the country.
Just as emotion exists in sport, so it exists in politics and decision making about political issues, and in my view it is only emotion that prevents Parliament from reversing its stance on all-seater stadia and giving clubs and fans the right to have terraces if they want them. I tried at the last election to get Labour to commit to this but Andy Burnham, who played a big part in the campaign for justice for victims of the Hillsborough disaster, was among those adamant that the feelings of people in Liverpool made this impossible.
Yet watch any Liverpool match and, as we shall see against Manchester United tomorrow, the whole of the Kop tends to stand and ignore the seats behind them other than at half time. It is the same at many grounds. What that underlines is that Hillsborough was less about whether fans stood or sat than how many people were crammed into the same limited space, and what quality of policing, stewarding and security existed to make sure the numbers matched the space.
I was a journalist at the time of Hillsborough, the Bradford City fire, the riots at various grounds which led the Thatcher government to respond to the ‘something must be done’ pressures, and the Big Something became all-seater stadia.
Mrs Thatcher knew little about football, and cared less. David Cameron, who can’t make out his Aston Villa from his West Ham, is not much different. That doesn’t matter. No politician can be expected to share all the passions of those who elect them. What does matter is that politicians should be able to make judgements about the issues they deal with based on a proper, rational assessment of today, not merely emotion understandably aroused by events in the past.
I do understand, given the culture of the 80s, and the awfulness of the rampant hooliganism and that succession of tragedies and scandals, why change had to come. I can even see why, back then, they came to the view they did. When a culture needs to change sometimes it takes big symbolic acts to make that happen. But as many of us were saying to each other coming out of the ground last night, guided by friendly stewards and a reasonably low key police presence, it makes no sense today when a barcode will be sufficient to decide whether you can get through a turnstile that would otherwise require physical force no human possesses.
Hooliganism still exists though thankfully not on the scale it did. But I was never convinced football violence was directly linked to the existence of terracing, any more than I am convinced that its relative decline was directly caused by the move to all seater stadia. Better police intelligence, more professional stewarding, CCTV and other technological advances on ticketing and entrance, have played a far bigger role.
The Germans, a footballing nation superior to us in so many ways, cannot understand either why we are even having to campaign on this, let alone why football has become so expensive. Their commitment to cheap standing has helped get more people into the same space and their understanding of the role of the fan in the spectacle has created the environment for much cheaper access to the top matches. And for all that the Sky Sports/Premier League propaganda machine likes us to think our League is the best in the world, and the fans the most passionate, I think I side with the German view to the contrary.
Later this month Burnley fans will be heading to London again for a Cup tie at Arsenal. Win or lose it will be a good day out for the few thousand who will travel. But it won’t be as good as last night. Yes, the seats at the Emirates are comfortable and there is plenty of legroom even for someone as tall as I am. But there is much less noise than there used to be at Highbury, and there is something sad and soulless about watching the first ten minutes of the second half confronted by banks of empty seats as the corporate sections amble back from their half time nosh.
Both the government and Labour have bigger challenges right now than deciding policy on football stadia. But I do hope that when they get round to it, they understand that the issue is being decided according to the emotions aroused by scandals and tragedies in a world that was, not the reality of a world that is. That is not a good basis for policy making. Both the policy, and the way we think about it, needs to change.