Football: The end of the End approaches: Football supporters are being forced to change their sporting habits of a lifetime. Henry Winter reports

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The Independent Online
NOT SINCE THE Blitz have the terraces of England's football clubs taken such a battering. Arsenal, West Ham and Manchester United, all badly bombed by the Luftwaffe 50 years ago, will have sections closed this season as standing areas are turned into all-seater blocks in line with the Taylor Report's recommendations. The great old banks, where thousands would stand and sway and sing as one, are disappearing this season. The end of the End is nigh.

The two most famous absentees at Highbury and Old Trafford this season are not Rocastle or Robins, but the North Bank and the Stretford End. Arsenal's most famous terrace is now masked by a mural, while a two-tiered stand rises from the rubble. Those evicted could be forgiven a wry smile at the word 'stand' - a beloved activity that is in the process of being proscribed.

Former North Bank devotees are now scattered throughout the ground or locked out. Last Saturday, the Arsenal chant that used to echo from one end to the other - 'We're the North Bank . . .' and 'We're the Clock End . . .' - rang out again, but both strands came from the Clock End. The spirit, if not the structure, survives. When Ian Wright was taking in the applause on receiving the golden boot for last season's goalscoring feats, he instinctively turned to wave to the North Bank, his biggest source of support last term. Faced with a sea of painted faces, he smiled.

It may be mere coincidence but Arsenal and Manchester United, deprived of their traditional wells of support, have had disastrous starts to the season, both losing convincingly at home. The cost of rebuilding the Stretford End may deny United another challenge for the Championship. 'Four England internationals have been sold over the summer and we have not had a look in, which we normally do,' Dave Bagshaw, who runs the London branch of United's supporters' club, said. Money which could have been spent on Alan Shearer is going on bricks and mortar.

Shearer is at least guaranteed one trip to Old Trafford this season. With such a dramatically cut capacity (down 14,000), thousands will not get in on match days. United, contentiously, have restricted the number of tickets available to visiting fans to only 690. 'The club has to look after its own,' Bagshaw said, 'but it's a pity. Away fans add to the atmosphere.'

When Shearer and Rovers do visit Old Trafford in May, Blackburn could probably sell their allocation 20 times over. 'Blackburn fall over backwards to help the fans,' John Knight, an Ewood Park regular, said. 'But there is nothing they can do.' Other clubs, like Forest, are reducing quotas (see table).

The mood of the home fans has changed. 'There is a move away from violence to a happier atmosphere,' Ron Smith, of the Hammers' Independent Supporters' Association, said. 'Life is shitty enough as it is, so let's have some fun on a Saturday afternoon.'

Last season, at Upton Park, West Ham and Arsenal held a joint demonstration against the bond schemes that both clubs have introduced to finance the rebuilding work. 'That togetherness would have been unheard of five years ago,' Smith said. 'People realise that the only difference between Arsenal and West Ham fans is that their father took them to football at a different place.' Arsenal fans even injected some humour into the harmony. While the Hammers' supporters were chanting 'sack the board' during the defeat, Arsenal fans joined in with 'sack the team'.

Humour has always been a central part of terrace life, but it seems more prevalent now after the ugly era of crowd trouble. 'Hooliganism appears to have gone,' Bagshaw said. 'Maybe the yobs have all become new age travellers.'

The fan's match-day routine is also changing. The first casualty is the 'five to three' syndrome. Rolling up at a Premier League ground minutes before kick-off does not work any more, unless you are a Wimbledon fan. Football is no longer the working man's right, it has become a privilege that must be paid for and planned for. 'In the past you assumed you would always get in to White Hart Lane because Spurs was one of the biggest British grounds, and all you had to do was turn up at five to three,' Doug Cheeseman, who works for When Saturday Comes, said. 'But now capacities are getting smaller and you have to get there earlier. I was locked out twice last season.

'The other day I wanted to make sure of getting in. I was about to ring the credit card number to book pounds 50 worth of tickets, but I had a massive sense of proportion attack. That this was not the done thing.' But for many it is.

The problem is exacerbated at Blackburn because of promotion and the promise of more success. 'We've had to get in the ground by 2.30 because of the big queue instead of five to three,' Knight said. The queue at the players' entrance has added to the congestion.

When Saturday Comes might need to change its title. 'The main change in going to a match this season is that you have to check the fixture list to see what day the game is on,' Craig Brewin, vice-chair of the Football Supporters' Association, said. 'There is football almost every day.'

The inordinate price rises and increasing difficulties in acquiring tickets have led to fears of the ordinary fan being priced out of the market. Is football being yuppiefied? Smith disagrees, saying: 'All this talk about some yah in a Pierre Cardin jersey going to matches is rubbish. A few will. But football is not their sort of game. It's the passion of ordinary people.' Some things never change.


(Photograph omitted)