Independent Decade : Hot pasties and cold realities

This sporting life
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The Independent Online
In the late 1970s, during Liverpool's astonishing 21-year run of success in Europe, a friend dragged me - an Evertonian - kicking and screaming across Stanley Park to watch his team from the Kop.

At half-time, grudgingly enjoying the match, I sat on the terraces to read my programme and was immediately tugged up by the hair. "You don't want to sit down," he said.

Seconds later, I was grateful for his warning as steaming yellow rivulets welled about my feet. This was how football supporters used to be treated. When you have 16,500 people crushed together on a concrete bank, when there is only one small set of toilets and when getting to those few urinals involves fighting through hordes of beer bellies, what can you expect?

Years later, in 1989, that same friend found himself pinned, straining for breath, against a barrier at Sheffield Wednesday's ground, Hillsborough, as the man standing next to him, and 95 others, died.

He survived, but he doesn't go to football matches anymore. Which is a shame, because since those terrible times, since the day in 1985 when 56 people died in the Bradford fire disaster, since the day in the same year when 39 people perished at Heysel, and since the day when the Hillsborough victims were packed tighter than sardines behind cruel, unyielding, steel fences, football has really, truly changed.

Not everyone likes the changes, but most people do. Those that can afford it, that is. For as stale pork pies and lukewarm cups of Bovril have been replaced by corporate dining and Champagne, so too have standing tickets at a fiver a time been superseded by seats at anything up to pounds 25.

We first began to be treated like human beings after the publication of Lord Justice Taylor's report into the Hillsborough disaster, which brought in all- seater stadiums. Those that loved the culture of the terraces howled, but there was no going back; that much, at least, was owed to those who died.

We may not all have liked having to sit down at first, but sitting didn't just mean you bent your knees and put your backside on a seat. Suddenly, there was an entire culture change. Once you allocated someone a space, gave them a number, ticketed them properly, they became a customer, not just an anonymous face in a huge crowd.

There are still people who like cold pasties, just as there are people who tune in to Match of the Day to watch Jimmy Hill. But face it, you're in the minority. The injection of money has benefited the average supporter, too. Not financially - how can a 300 per cent increase in admission charges be beneficial? - but those who still go get decent surroundings, clear views, clean toilets . . . respect.

In Lord Taylor's report, he said the clubs should not use ground improvements as an excuse to increase admission prices, particularly since more than pounds 130m has been made available by the Football Trust as a result of a drop in the football pools levy.

Thousands complain that they can no longer afford to go to matches; a recent Premier League survey showed that active supporters spend an average pounds 60 a week on following their team.

Still, as Brian Clough said to a sheepskin-coated interviewer in 1973: "You lot have a choice. You either pay what you do now and get nowt, or you pay a fortune and get the lot."