It was the early 1990s and the face of English football was to change forever. Grounds were becoming ‘all-seater’ so as to make the game safe. Soon we would sit through matches instead of stand and jostle and occasionally fall with excitement. And my dad, like many others, lamented that that his son’s generation would be the last of the boys to stand on the Shelf.
I remembered that lament recently while thinking about the impressive new White Hart Lane that will soon be built. It will be at the same location as its predecessor, but will be shifted somewhat north. So I lamented that a younger generation than mine will be the last to stand in my beloved Park Lane.
And that made me realise my dad was wrong.
My generation was the last to remember the century old weekly regime of shallow concrete steps bordering famous touchlines. We were the last to fight for our place at the front with an old blue milk crate to stand on. No one younger will ever duck under the wide metal beams placed up and down the terracing to ease the pressure of the surging crowd. And we were the last to suffer the shrill clanging of the murderous fences.
But we were not the last to stand.
Over 100 years of tradition and natural behaviour didn’t end just because some one grafted cheap plastic seats onto our space. And for all their arm waving and verbal requests, stewards simply won’t throw out hundreds of fans for standing in support of their team. So I would imagine that dads in the Kop, the Shed, and dare I say it even the Clock End, got it just as wrong when they thought just as mournfully about their sons and grandsons never standing.
For many, and certainly in select corners of each old ground, plastic seats go unused. Perhaps they take the weight of an old fan at half time, or of a child raising himself up to get a good view. But the Park Lane is still for standing, and it is not unique.
So why, since we all stand safely anyway, can we not just take some seats away and give ourselves some room to move? Why will the new White Hart Lane not include a section behind each goal without seating and with shallow steps for traditionalists? Why can we not learn from countries like Germany where seats are removed and then replaced, depending on the nature of the upcoming match?
I ask that question knowing that part of the reason is fear. There were of course accusations that decision makers owned shares in firms that provide stadia with seats. But fear is the real problem.
Many still associate terracing with violence. And it is hard to break that prejudice with no peaceful terracing to point to. It is also understandable that authorities stay risk averse, keeping things the same in case change is blamed for mishap.
So we should not take the plunge. We should not hope beyond hope that terraces might magically return. We should not expect people to do something that frightens them the way football crowds can.
Instead we should set the conditions and change perceptions. People need to be won round, and two simpler changes might help do that.
First, we should simply let fans stand when they want to.
Yes you read that right. At present every fan at every ground for every Premier League match is required to sit throughout the match. The seats are not a benevolent gift to let us rest our legs if we choose. We are obliged by law to use them. We can be banned from future fixtures for standing. Grounds can be closed down and kept empty on match days if fans stand in large numbers. Sitting is mandatory.
In other words, there is a lie at the heart of the matter. Those of us who stand throughout football matches are officially seated. So let us simply change the rules so that I, like thousands of others, need not break them. Nothing would change in practice. The chairs would remain, and fans would still stand. But we could then rightly argue that we already stand safely at football.
Not that sitting is the only aspect to seating. There was also a cinematic anarchy we have lost when the chairs were bought in.
On the terracing there was no regimented grid in which we each took a pre-determined position within the well ordered crowd. With seating there clearly is. So let football learn from cinema. Most screens on a Saturday night do not allocate each seat. Instead you must arrive early to get two seats together in the middle of the back row, or seven seats together near the front. Those who turn up late still find a place, but have less choice and tend to fit in amongst the crowd. Even in cinemas that serve beer and wine I’ve never seen a fight break out because of this.
Surely England can do what Italy’s many ‘curva’ do just fine. Surely we can sell tickets to a section of the ground rather than a specific seat. Those who want a particular space can turn up early. And by encouraging earlier arrivals, maybe more fans would stand and wait and sing and chant and build the atmosphere that many feel seating undermined.
I know these are tiny steps. They are a small nod to the past rather than a headfirst lunge to reclaim it. And that matters. This gradual move could reassure people that perhaps the chaos was not so chaotic as some now imagine. These small technical changes would invoke little fear and people would probably back them. That way the culture of the terraces might return to the stands, and then maybe people would fear safe standing a little less too.