`For years our football stadiums were the sort of places that animal rights activists would get unhappy about if calves were held there'

ON SATURDAY

At Ewood Park on Thursday night, something happened to the crowd occupying the Blackburn End stand. There appeared to be, among their number, a spontaneous out-break of celebration. The impending arrival of the ugliest trophy in sporting history to their club was being greeted in the traditional football-following manner: they were standing up and singing that they were going to win the League. It looked, at least for the last couple of minutes of a scrappy, shapeless, tension-drenched game, as if they were really enjoying themselves in there.

It is a statistical certainty, however, that in among the leaping and chanting hundreds would have been a significant number of people who were not having fun. These were not masochistic Manchester United fans there to watch the moment the title they fondly assumed to be their own going north. Nor were they disconsolate Crystal Palace followers wishing Colin Noades had told them to boycott this one, too. These were instead Blackburn supporters: the elderly, the infirm, the very short, desperately hoping the celebrating hundreds around them would sit down quick so they could see the rest of the match from the comfort of their own seat, people whose pleasure was being compromised by the behaviour of their neighbours.

This is the conclusion I have drawn, not from empirical evidence, but from the letters that came in following the piece I wrote on these pages a couple of weeks ago. It was about the campaign conducted by a group of Manchester United fans against a new by-law at Old Trafford which made standing up in the stadium an ejectable offence. Not fair, was the gist of my argument.

Steve Cawley, a United regular, however, was particularly incensed:

"I found the article dangerously out of date and written as if the Taylor Report never happened," he said in his letter. "It is championing the Club 18-30 view which lionises the screaming drunken invective which is more forcefully delivered from two feet than from a sitting position." Like Graham Jenkins, an Arsenal season ticket holder, and Susan Whalley, a Leeds fan, he was more than happy to see serial standers ejected along with the loud-mouthed and the racist:

"The section of the ground I have been fortunate to sit in," Mr Cawley continued, "is a well marshalled, safe environment giving an excellent vantage point of the proceedings... The only time such a quality environment is spoilt is on Cup games when Club 18-30 arrive bemoaning the lack of `atmosphere'."

Annie Smith, a Blackburn fan and partially disabled, wrote to say her enjoyment of the game had been compromised by standers in the seats. In the days of terracing, she would prop herself up in a place where the view was unlikely to alter. Now, as a slow riser, she misses much of the action. Which at Ewood Park at the moment is a considerable loss.

They all make a point which cannot be easily dismissed. For years the state of our football stadiums was a disgrace; in the 1970s and 1980s it was a joke. They were the sort of places that animal rights activists would get unhappy about if calves were held there on their last trip Francewards. Not suprisingly, given the environment, the patrons tended to behave like caged animals, if only in the manner in which they tended to urinate wherever they were standing. Since the grand rebuilding precipitated by the Taylor Report, grounds are now a pleasure to frequent, to take your children to, to take your wife to.

Only the most blinkered Luddite would contend it was preferable to be hemmed in on the terrace - the back of your trousers warm and damp with, at half-time, the queue for the Bovril longer than the McDonald's queue in Moscow -than it is to sit in comfort, view unobstructed, with an under- stand refreshment selection of seven different varieties of polenta and sun-dried tomatoes.

But the problem, it seems to me, is that in the haste to update, the clubs have not accommodated the wishes of all their patrons. While Mr Cawley, Mr Jenkins, Ms Whalley and Ms Smith are entitled to watch a game with their view unencumbered by the large behind of the person in front, surely the fan with the large behind is entitled to stand up occasionally in his or her excitement. "But people don't stand up in the theatre," wrote Mr S Carlton, another United fan. True enough, but then, whatever Alex Ferguson might fondly imagine, Old Trafford isn't a theatre: it's a football ground.

The point I was trying to make in the column, and the one the United Independent Supporters' Association will be making in greater numbers and more volume at today's mass meeting in the Manchester Free Trade Hall, is that there should be areas of the ground which are dedicated to the excited, just as there should be for those who prefer to remain seated. This can be achieved by pricing, by locating the family stand away from the areas behind the goals, by a bit of imagination.

It appears to be possible at grounds such as the Nou Camp and the San Siro, where the slickly dressed in their Continental overcoats sit to the sides, and smoke their cigars, while the Ultras gather behind the goal and bang their drums. Each knows their place, and neither interferes with each others' pleasure. But then imagination, and football administration have never been comfortable bedfellows.

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