Football's last stand: It's the end of the season, and for many clubs the end of the terraces too. As football bows to the Taylor report Giles Smith reflects on myths and meat pies

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It's raining. You're standing on a crumbling concrete step, leaning against a bent, rusty crush barrier. You've dropped your programme in a puddle. Midway through the second half, the rain turns to sleet. It's 0-0 at full time. Afterwards, on the bus home, you discover that half a meat pie has adhered to the leg of your trousers. Who would watch football from the terraces?

People in their thousands. Last Saturday, Liverpool fans gathered for the last time on the Kop at Anfield, perhaps the most talked-about football terrace of all. And many actually wept to be leaving it. Much was written and said about this loss, some of it part of the perpetual mythologising of Liverpool as a centre of humanity, but some of it accurate - about the wit of the place, the community, the songs cooked up out of nowhere.

For the big clubs, all this goes under the builders' bulldozers. Clubs in the lower leagues - where money for redevelopment is short and packed stadiums a rarity - are spared. Which means that grounds like Third Division Hereford's Edgar Street, pictured here, may take on a new appeal for traditionalists: the last bastion of the crumbly, wind-blown terrace, where, blissfully free of intrusion by television schedules, the game still kicks off at 3pm on a Saturday.

From one point of view, they had to go. After Heysel, after Hillsborough, what forgiveness? In the mid-Seventies, as a teenager, I stood on badly-mixed concrete watching Colchester United in the old Fourth (and final) Division and, for a couple of heady seasons, in the Third. It was like these Clynt Garnham pictures, only much less crowded. At half-time, in order to remain behind the goal Colchester were kicking into, you simply changed ends, walking down the scruffy tarmac at the back of the stands, filtering through the contra-flow of visiting fans headed the other way.

This was before crowd trouble seeped down into the lower leagues, bringing the ugly machinery of policing: segregation, metal pens and 'Away Supporters Only' signs even at poorly-attended grounds like Colchester's, where one big hoarding reading 'Any Supporters, Please' would have been more appropriate.

At Colchester, groups of kids would perform jokey parodies of the Kop, as seen on television. Someone at the back would start it, shouting, 'And the crowd comes tumbling down]', then pushing forwards until there was a pathetic bundle of seven or eight 14-year-olds, groaning on the crush barrier. That joke isn't funny any more.

That's the point about terraces: they turned nasty. Where else, it was asked, would someone see fit to urinate in your pocket through a rolled-up programme? Actually, I have never met anyone to whom this has happened. Nor anyone who has attempted it, for that matter. Not with programmes at 2. It may just be a footballing urban myth. But the terraces are decked with them and breed them.

Shortly after I graduated to Chelsea, I gave up standing, partly out of fear of finally experiencing a warm, trickling sensation in the region of my pocket and partly to get around the tedious business that standing consigns you to: arriving at the ground two hours before kick-off in order to find a barrier to lean against; ensuring a view; getting under the roof. With a seat, you know where you are.

There's life in the seats too, though maybe not as football has known it. Even sitting down, you don't spend much time sitting down. A football crowd remains a restless and drifting thing, not like a theatre audience. You are bobbing continually, letting people out to the loo and the chip shop and the loo again; or, in the case of truly terrible games, just letting people out. Also, it is humanly impossible to remain seated when a goal is scored. At every game at Stamford Bridge, you can pick out a row or two of Chelsea pensioners in their bright red jackets. And sometimes we have wondered, do they jump up when we score? But every time, we've been in no state to observe.

We can at least credit seating with all but eliminating football violence, at least inside the ground, and probably the quiescence it induces has a follow-through effect outside afterwards too. Very occasionally, there will be localised incidents - faintly comical upright spats among the plastic tip-ups - but nothing like the sickening, tumbling masses of old.

Something is lost, even so. Making grounds safe also means making them secure for people who don't actually like football. Up to now, the game has chiefly escaped the worst effects of colonisation by business interests. But spanking new all-seater stadiums throw the possibility open again. Watch next season for the creeping growth of executive lounges where the uninterested sit, backs to the pitch, helping themselves from the corporate mini-bar. A crowd can achieve a focused intensity seated as well as standing. When people get boxed off, it may not be so easy.

Arsenal's Highbury may serve as a warning. It is possibly the most beautiful stadium in the country - aesthetically a model for the all-seater age. But the atmosphere there is slow to ignite. There's talk of designating special singing seats - places to go to make a row. Will the club's stewards be charged with removing those who refuse to join in, leading away in disgrace those who have forgotten the words to the second verse of 'Good Old Arsenal'? This would be a rich and modern irony: evicted from a football ground for behaving quietly. At 5.25pm on a Sunday.

(Photographs omitted)

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