Friday, July 17, 2009

Stand Your Ground

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.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

One draw, four wins – mimitig

Two of the great sporting events of summer 2009 are now underway. Le Tour has faced its first great hurdle – the Pyrenees – and the first Ashes Test came to a dramatic conclusion at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff.

England posted a nondescript first innings score of 435 and none of the specialist batsmen made the most of a flat wicket. When Australia got in, they certainly did. Four made centuries and England were under the cosh. One session was lost to rain and on Sunday, England had to find some steel and try to bat out the day for a draw.

Early wickets were given away and it was only the nuggetty grit of Durham man Paul Collingwood – who batted for nigh on six hours – that gave England the sniff of a draw. When he fell with 12 overs to go, most thought it was simply a matter of a few fast balls before the tailenders would be back in the pavilion.

Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar, however, were dogged and determined and admirably held out against the Aussie bowlers. Ponting whinged about England’s “gamesmanship” after the match. Someone in the England dressing room sent on first the 12th Man and then the Physio in the last few overs. True it was a bit questionable but this is the Ashes, we want to win and any chance to get under Ponting’s skin should be taken Anyway, the Aussies took questionable gamesmanship to new heights at the MCG in 1981. A bit of flim flam with new gloves is hardly comparable to underarm bowling.

The Second Test begins on Thursday 16 July with the score 0-0.

While five days of not exactly high-octane, but nail-biting, cricket were being played out in Wales, nearly 200 questionably sane men were hurtling round France, Monaco, Andorra, Spain and France again.

The Paul and Phil show was underway.

Le Grand Depart had been spectacular and the next stages have not disappointed. Mark Cavendish became the first Briton to take the Green Jersey since its introduction in 1953 by taking wins on Stages Two and Three. He lost it to Big Thor Hushovd, but as the race resumed after the rest day on Monday 13 July, two flat stages from Limoges to Issoudun and Vatan to Saint Vargeau provided the opportunities for bunch sprints.

As was to be expected on Bastille Day, French riders made the breakaway and Sammy Dumoulin, Thierry Hupond and Benoit Vaugrenard (accompanied by Mikhail Ignatiev) led for most of the 194.5 km. The peloton, however, while happy to let the French boys have their time in the sun, never lost control and lined up for a bunch sprint with 2 km to go. Columbia HTC led the train and Mark Renshaw delivered the fastest man in the world at exactly the right point. Hushovd retained the Green Jersey but only by six points and a situation Mark rectified on Stage 11, with possibly his best ever Tour win, and relegating Thor to fifth place.

Cavendish has now, in just two Tours, equalled the all time British record held by Barry Hoban of eight stage wins. His post-race interview is here:

In the higher echelons of the General Classification – ie those riders who are favourites to win the race itself, there has been plenty to hold our interest.

Lance Armstrong has proved his mettle by riding almost as well as he ever did and is only a few seconds off the lead. Contador holds a lead of just 2 seconds over the Texan and the battle for the leadership of Team Astana will carry on well into the Alps, maybe even all the way to Mont Ventoux on Saturday 25 July. These two lie currently third and second respectively with the Maillot Jaune remaining with Italian Rinaldo Nocentini – who is not a contender but did a fine job holding on over the Pyrenees.

Levi Leipheimer has lost a few seconds – now 39 back and Britain’s own Bradley Wiggins is sitting high in the General Classification at fifth, just 46 seconds behind the leader. He has transformed his World Championship and Olympic Gold medal winning track performances into sheer class on the road.

The French have had the best start in a Tour for most of our lifetimes. Finally with the peloton transparently cleaner than it has been for decades, what the French have been saying for years really does ring true. The sport in France took steps to be drug-free long before any other nations or teams were prepared to admit the problem. The result has been that for years, French teams and riders have not featured much in big stage races. In the Tour they have often managed to pull off a spectacular breakaway win on Bastille Day but not much else besides.

This year, Frenchmen have won three stages in the first nine days. Fedrigo’s win on Sunday was a triumph for France and French cycling.

Paul and Phil continue to make Tour commentary one of the best in sport. As well as being informative and utterly professional, with both men drawing appropriately on their own experiences of riding the Tour, there are moments of delightful eccentricity. So far this year we have heard Paul’s unusual pronunciation of Monaaco, and Phil’s best so far – as he described the “violent”seconds leading up to the bunch sprint finish on Stage 10. I think he meant “vital” but violent is so much better and works so well with his and Paul’s continuing use of “killermeters”.

I leave you with my Tour highlight so far: it can only be Cav.

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