Graham Kelly: Terraces once renowned for wit now resound with banal obscenity

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The Independent Online

I can't remember when football first gave me a problem. I have loved the game for as long as I can recall.

I can't remember when football first gave me a problem. I have loved the game for as long as I can recall.

At junior school we played for house teams, school teams and town team, then, at secondary school, we ran up the hill on the sound of the bell to the teacher's house (it was many, many innocent years ago) to watch England matches on television.

Not so very many years ago Watford were winning accolades as the original community club under Graham Taylor's leadership. The nastiness caused by the visit of some yobs purporting to support local rivals Luton in the recent troubled Worthington Cup tie clearly spread quickly for in the terrace seats in front of the main stand – the area formerly occupied by youngsters able to buy confectionery from a jolly lady with a stall – there was all manner of vile abuse in the hearing of kids, completely unchecked by any stewards or other officials.

Fifteen minutes before the scheduled kick-off time, 50 fans came over the barrier from the Luton end apparently in response to provocation from the opposing fans. At this time there were no police whatsoever in the stadium and it was a worrying five minutes before order was restored. The match then took place, quarter of an hour late, against the menacing backdrop of a line of officers with riot shields.

Then there were the pitch invasions in the Birmingham City versus Aston Villa derby last week, including the taunting of Villa goal-keeper Peter Enckelman by one Blues supporter. Full credit to the Birmingham managing director Karren Brady, who took a hard line after the chairman David Gold at first soft-pedalled by saying that as it was the first derby for so many years allowances should be made. Whether he was referring to the fans' high spirits or the match arrangements is not clear.

The pictures of tots abusing Rio Ferdinand on his return to Elland Road brought to mind the kids in pushchairs outside a Peterborough court recently. What in heaven's name are their parents giving them for values?

Once again, the national anthem of Portugal was treated with utter disrespect at Villa Park last week.

Every week in football we see euphemisms misapplied casually. "Passion", for instance, is used to mask all manner of excess.

Watching professional football, like playing the game, has become a grim business. What happened to the humour?

Where have all the inflatable bananas gone? Banished when the seats came in? Since the really big money came in to the game some fans believe they have the right to sling foul abuse at the players, sometimes even those from their own team if things are going badly.

The terraces were once renowned for their ingenuity and wit. Now all we hear is banality and obscenity. And we tolerate it.

Every so often pleas are made in the match programmes which are promptly ignored. Inside the grounds nobody protests because we have a remarkably high tolerance level.

And gradually the abuse increases in vileness and somebody, misguidedly, takes the law into his own hands. And it won't always be a corner flag as it was at Watford. It could be a knife next time. Where will tolerance have led us then? For, as a series of tragedies demonstrated only too well in the 1980s, the enemy of safety is complacency.

Why should the behaviour of what is, after all, a minority of supporters oblige us to apologise for being football followers time after time? Why should we so often be embarrassed?

As Karren Brady said, there were 30,000 inside St Andrew's and the number who invaded the pitch was minuscule in comparison. Joe Kinnear, the Luton manager, objected to giving publicity to the few out of the 14,000 who attended Vicarage Road.

There's a whole industry of writings by reformed hooligans – at least I hope they are reformed. I don't want to know how many degrees of hardness distinguished the Inter City Firm from the Chelsea Crew. Why should thuggery be glamourised and accorded a faux respectability in the name of academia?

I still love football. I'm just not sure I like it all the time. So what can be done to improve the atmosphere inside grounds?

The stewarding has been taken so far over the last decade or so, to the extent that policing levels have been drastically reduced at many matches. The stewards now meet a vocational training qualification, monitored by the football authorities.

But I believe clubs should now be encouraged to work with the stewards and the police to improve the standards of behaviour and eliminate the worst abuse with tighter control.