Football: Standing up for the poor old fans

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Give us back our huddled masses, yearning to be dry. Let us ebb and flow up and down the terraces in search of half a view. Hand us the well-watered Bovril and allow our teeth once more to encounter the gristle of a friendly pie. Test our bladders to bursting point and beyond... When Labour's Tom Pendry last week announced plans to consider restoring a certain amount of standing room at our top football grounds he brought nostalgic flashes back to the minds of those who remember what our game is founded upon, while at the same time arousing torrents of indignation from those who are grateful that it has distanced itself from its vulgar past.

Pendry, destined to be Minister for Sport if his party is elected, appeared to be putting forward a suggestion worthy of debate if not serious consideration but he received a trouncing for his troubles from the smarter end of the media and was condemned for using football as a vehicle for vote trawling.

I wouldn't put a bit of fancy political footwork past our Tom, him being an experienced bruiser in that direction, but if he was merely seeking electoral ingratiation he would have avoided barking up such a sensitive goalpost. Anyhow, I thought that New Labour were aiming their appeal at chubbier cats than the discredited football fans of the past.

The football authorities greeted the suggestion with doubts that clubs would contemplate the expense of creating standing room having so recently invested in all-seated grounds. They did, however, concede that the subject might be worth an airing if enough clubs and supporters so wished. It is not difficult to foresee circumstances in which some clubs could be interested in making a small provision for standing spectators but it was more immediately fascinating to study the bristling stance struck by Pendry's critics.

Reaction varied from invoking the memory of the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 to a fear of a resurgence of hooliganism and to a defence of the more acceptable profile of present-day spectators; a cut above the old cloth-capped, Woodbine smokers of yesteryear.

Hillsborough's 96 deaths are too deeply etched into the game's, and the country's, conscience for the subject to be lightly dealt with but neither is it right to fasten on to that tragedy as the fundamental reason why standing should be forever removed from the football-watching experience. Their memory is hardly blessed by the implication that they were the sort of people the game would prefer not to have to cater for again. The Hillsborough victims were hemmed in by the need for fences to protect the pitch. No one would argue against the necessary measures to combat the hooliganism that spread through football's standing areas. But was it spawned there? Fans were treated like the scum of the earth for 70 years before some of them began to act like it. The late Ted Croker might have been right; the thugs belonged to the country more than they did to football.

That hooliganism, by no means completely defeated, is now much less of a problem is taken as another triumph for the plastic seat. Pendry was also subjected to an attack from someone who referred to the "homo-erotic camaraderie" of the old terraces. Please God, save us from the sporting wing of the political correctness movement.

But the real and most regrettable clue to the reason many bridle at the mention of the word terrace is that it reminds them of a past they would prefer to forget. "Football is no longer a working-class ritual" was one comment aimed at Pendry. I may be slow on the uptake but I hadn't realised there was so much rejoicing in the game's gentrification that seats and high prices brought. The social level of those who watch may have risen a notch or two but the game remains rooted in the support of the masses, whether or not they get to games.

If, on its foundation in 1888, the Football League had started off with all-seated grounds at fancy prices, it probably wouldn't have made it to 1889. Like it or not, our national game is founded on the willingness of millions to stand in squalid conditions and support a game they had to strain to see. The only advantage enjoyed by the stars of the past over their pale imitators of the present was the glitter that intermittent visibility added to the efforts. What you thought you saw was far better than what television proves you saw.

People still stand to watch top football. While Sunderland have been waiting to move into new premises, they have had dispensation to continue to have their standing accommodation at Roker Park. As far I am aware, no harm has resulted. At the National Stadium, Cardiff, on Saturday, just over 10,000 will pack the Westgate Street end to cheer Wales from as close to an upright position as you can get after a few pints. The Welsh Rugby Union could replace them with 2,500 seats. And in addition to the roaring power they would lose they would have to charge pounds 35 a seat to equal the income.

That point might swing the argument. Clubs might spare a thought for those who can't afford the lofted prices of watching their favourite club. By replacing 1,000 seats - behind the goals would be a good place - they could make room for 4,000 standers in controlled safety. If the ethics of that don't appeal, perhaps the fact that more money can be made might edge them towards the charitable view. I trust Tom Pendry won't be deflected from his intention of opening a debate on the subject.

STILL they come, the multi- millionaires attracted by the new glitter of football. And they get more unlikely by the minute. Michael Tabor, a horse-racing and property tycoon, is offering to invest pounds 30m in West Ham but he might struggle to match the impact that Peter Boizot has had on Peterborough since he acquired his home-town club last week. Boizot, a jazz enthusiast, was pictured playing a saxophone on the pitch. He doesn't play sax but he made a good job of pretending. He was also pictured eating a pizza - an obvious snap considering that he made his fortune by founding the Pizza Express chain.

The enterprising photographer who had the idea sped off to get a sample of Boizot's product but encountered a snag. There isn't a branch of Pizza Express in Peterborough. So he bought one from a place called Deep Pan Pizza. Boizot didn't mind biting into a rival for the cameras. Let's hope the Peterborough team don't pretend when they get on the pitch.

THE TORY MP David Martin has been attempting to set up a new worId record for back-tracking after his gaffe in a House of Commons committee investigating bingo hall advertising. Martin compared bingo halls to "soul-destroying betting shops and the dregs of humanity" to be seen in there.

A number of us dregs have been quoted as taking extreme umbrage at such a slur. But the majority of those who inhabit such places in search of a fortune will know that in every event there is a hidden suggestion for a winner. The good Lord always chooses odd ways in which to send us tips. Thus, when they heard the utterances of the wretched Martin the real punters would have turned to the racing lists to see if there was any horse running with the word prat in its name.