Mar 25th, 2010 by 'holic
Conversation on the drinks turned yesterday to the subject of the atmosphere at grounds these days, and the fact that by and large it is the away fans who produce much of the atmosphere at Premier League games up and down the country. It is a point that was proven by the exception to the rule last night. Portsmouth once again kept up a magnificent vocal support for the club in crisis.
I suggested that the change in atmosphere in most grounds coincided with the arrival of all-seater stadia. Indeed those with a long memory will recall Coventry City turning Highfield Road into the first terrace-free stadium in the country in the early eighties, only to rip the seats out of one end after a brief soul-less period..
I was asked today, not for the first time, to explain to someone who wasn’t around before the legislation that made all-seaters compulsory in 1994 just what it was like. There is not one definitive answer. The experience would be different for Saturday and midweek games. Home and away games presented different opportunities and challenges.
‘So tell me what the North Bank was like in the seventies then’, urged one at work today. For the sake of brevity I described a typical Saturday in the early seventies. From 1973 onwards the experience changed after West Ham made their first appearance ‘en masse’ in our spiritual home.
It’s also a good era for me to describe because I was in my teens. Sometimes I was potless so in the ground early, and sometimes with a bit of birthday money or some wages from a paper round or leaflet deliveries. The Gunners was an essential starting point then, and they didn’t seem too concerned about the age of the punters in those days.
Everybody wore a Harrington jacket or a crombie overcoat, tonic or Sta-Prest trousers, brogues or loafers. Scarf tied round the wrist was what identified ‘them’ and ‘us’. If you were in the North Bank early you could take up a prime position somewhere near the middle at the back. Those who witness empty stadiums half an hour before kick-off today would be surprised how many would be getting in position an hour before the start in those days.
“PEANUTS, FRESH ROASTED PEANUTS”. A fair haired and permanently suntanned fella would carry a sack of monkey nuts with him, and blooming tasty they were too for a tanner (six old pence). What I never worked out was how he managed to be in the Clock End whenever I was in there with my old man, and in the North Bank every time I was in there. He was one fit bugger!
There was no piped music. That wasn’t the Arsenal way. Instead the Metropolitan Police Band would be playing the classic marches, more often than not from their position in the front of the East Stand at the corner adjoining the Clock End. You made your own entertainment in those days, so the chanting would start early. Usually when the first of the bigger lads started arriving from the pubs around half past two.
If you had been lucky enough to get a couple of pints of fizzy beer in the Gunners, or maybe the Tavern, beforehand then you would be walking across the North Bank with the late arrivals trying to get a chant started yourself. The players didn’t warm up on the pitch for very long in those days. They would surface from the tunnel five minutes before kick-off, and we would sing a song for each one of them, cheering them loudly when they waved back in acknowledgement.
In those days the singing was by and large confined to the North Bank, although on some big cup occasions the lower tiers might join in with a straightforward Arsenal chant. That would change when a proportion of the support decamped to the Clock End in the mid seventies, but prior to that the North Bank was a noisy and exciting place to spend an afternoon or evening.
At the very back the biggest lads and some of their female admirers would be engaged in dark arts best not shared on a family blog! Providing the game was a good one then the barrage of songs would be kept up by the rest of us until half-time. Rarely in those days did any opposing supporters get in, and the few that did so were soon swiftly evacuated. If they were lucky the police got to them first.
The half-time break meant joining the crush for the curious green wooden shed on stilts at the back of the Bank. A two pint plastic pot of Watneys Red and a pie or pastie was essential refreshment to prepare you for the second half, but you had to go shoulder to shoulder to get served, and didn’t dare show a sign of weakness, or you might be wearing someones beer rather than drinking it!
If the game continued to hold the imagination, and it usually did, then more singing would fill the second-half. When Arsenal scored you would experience zero gravity, a journey scarier than any theme park ride. Sometimes in the sway or tumble that followed a goal you would find yourself twenty or thirty yards away from where you had just been standing, and your feet would not have touched the ground along the way. Brilliant, you would think to yourself as a teenager. There comes an age where that changes to abject bloody terror!
Every now and then the game wouldn’t be a classic. Well we were boring, boring Arsenal. With no opposition fans to goad a fake rivalry, usually between North and South London, would be created by different groups at the back, and off it would kick. It seemed innocent enough at the time. I was born a North Londoner so would join those chasing them from south of the river around for a while, or indeed being chased by them. A few kicks or slaps would be handed out, but it was all harmless, and the following week you would be standing side by side with those same blokes in the Shed, or the Park Lane, or somewhere more exotic, at an away game.
There is still a degree of that camaraderie even now at away games. Most clubs stewards are no different to those at the Grove. They have no real power of veto over the visiting fans, so if you want to stand and sing all game then get on with it. Home supporters however can be browbeaten into conforming to the standards being dictated by the stewards. The threat of ejection can be followed up with the removal of your membership. It’s a powerful method of control.
Every now and again though, the Grove rocks, and when it does it is a magical experience. It hasn’t happened that often yet, to be fair, but a title celebration in May would make a wonderful start to what hopefully will become a new era at the Grove, as the North Bank prepares to return along with the Clock End, and East and West Stands.
No, please, just let me dream for a moment.