We’ll be giving over a lot of time to the non-league game over the next few days on Twohundredpercent out of deference to Non-League Day, which is to be held this Saturday. We’ll have more on this later in the week, but first of all here’s NLD’s co-founder, Mike Bayly, on the decline of terrace wit.
As a child of the 1980s, I was cocooned from the problems of a troubled decade: debt, worry and dwindling job prospects were just things other people talked about. Football – in particular football grounds – occupied a similar rose tinted part of my social education. Although plagued by hooliganism and appalling facilities, they represented the zenith of my supporter experience. There were occasions when matches were genuinely frightening, like the violence tinged Sherpa Van Trophy clash between Hereford United and Wolverhampton Wanderers, but it did little to dampen my interest in this fascinating parallel world. If anything it merely reaffirmed it. On occasion, we even mimicked the more ‘sinister’ elements of crowd behaviour.
I still vividly recall climbing the cages at Shrewsbury Town’s Gay Meadow like a rabid baboon when the home side scored a rare goal of beauty against Peterborough United. It wasn’t an act of petulance or a response to draconian segregation methods, and I certainly didn’t fit any sociologist’s troublesome demographic. What I did feel was utter elation, the joy of being part of something special – something untold government research grants have truly failed to grasp. A catalyst for this indoctrination – and I choose that word carefully – was the idea that attending football matches could be a genuinely funny experience: camaraderie in the case is too glib a word. The biggest common denominator of the pre Taylor Report match day experience wasn’t any notion of hostility, but that of terrace humour – specifically those individuals who would hold court on the crumbling concrete steps and provide a repertoire of material rarely seen outside of the Edinburgh Fringe.
Naturally, not everything from the terraces was profound. You would be hard pushed to return from a football match in the old Division Four and claim “the man behind me says when you are tired of London you are tired of life.” More likely, the man behind you would spend the whole match shouting “you fucking bastards: why do I pay my money every week to watch you lose?” Nonetheless, terraces were synonymous with wit, best embodied by that ubiquitous figure of acid tongued rhetoric, the terrace fat bloke. I should stress that any notion of body shape is not a pejorative swipe. In fact there were probably just as many amusing emaciated people in attendance on any given match day. Rather, it is a nebulous amalgam of my fondest football memories, a vehicle for expressing a zeitgeist; being in their rotund presence, was like basking in the company of a Rothman-smoking Oscar Wilde.
The terrace fat bloke was always part of the hardcore support and certain mores had to be observed for anyone wishing to get close. Like the fabled Boys Pen of Liverpool’s Kop in the 60s, terraces across the country had a rites of passage associated with them: standing with the most vociferous men at the back of the steps was deemed the elixir of manhood and not something you could casually swagger into. For all the naivety and carelessness of youth, we weren’t stupid. Terraces – even to a child’s eye – could be hard unforgiving places, like school yards for grownups. This problem was exacerbated by my own tendency to flit between local clubs (Hereford, Shrewsbury and Kidderminster) meaning I was a relative unknown wherever I went.
My presence at games could be described as innocuous, hovering between the much maligned stoicism of the seated area and the fuck-you masculinity of the terrace. It would be easy to dismiss the association of football support and humour as merely yobbish obscenity, but this would do a disservice to the spontaneity and originality of those halcyon times. You knew the difference between someone making a tired and offensive joke about a black player, and someone coming up with a moment of comedic gold, like the heckler at Hereford United’s Edgar street who shouted in pitch perfect Tom Baker fashion “you have a woman’s throw” after an opposition goalkeeper accidentally hurled the ball out for a corner whilst trying to find one of his own men.
Shrewsbury and Kidderminster both had terrace fat blokes. I remember Shrewsbury’s particularly well – a leviathan of a man with a shock of flowing hair and moustache. He would stand there for ninety minutes delivering a masterful soliloquy, stopping only to fumble in his bomber jacket for a packet of cigarettes. With particularly risqué jokes – always accentuated by a heavy regional accent – I would exchange knowing glances with my mate, stifling a laugh for fear of being picked on like a stand-up comedian would to anyone who dare sit in the front row. Despite the gulf in age and background these people were a form of antihero to me, viewed with a mix of caution and admiration. You were never sure if they would be more inclined to boot you up the arse than take you under their wing, which only added to the skewed and incongruous respect I had for them. They were, looking back, a symbol of everything I held dear about football: cocky provincial pride; a rugged, almost maverick disregard for authority; a joy of braggadocio with complete strangers. Looking up to these people made me feel like a character in a Vernon Scannell poem.
It would be wrong to suggest that these kinds of supporters have disappeared from the game completely because they clearly haven’t. There are Jurassic Parks of terrace fat blokes all over the country, although they remain the Golden Eagles of football support, forever being moved on or culled through terrace deforestation. It might be a platitude, but the image of working class men stood on a terrace taking the piss is not one that marketing companies find particularly alluring. Far better to show a genetically blessed couple leaving their Georgian Townhouse, driving to a game in the latest Ford Focus and then taking their seats in the same manner as one arriving for a Barry Manilow concert.
The fun – real fun, not a bland corporate interpretation of the word which manifests itself in cheerleaders coming on before a game – is being sucked out of modern football. When all seater stadiums began rolling out across the country, there were many cultural side effects, not least that much of the kinship and humour that comes from large groups of assembled males was eradicated over night. Seating has made these traditions impotent; in analogous terms, it’s the difference between watching a lowbrow blue comedian in the back of a pub with your mates, or surrounded by complete strangers in the Wembley Arena watching Michael McIntyre.
More than anything, people don’t seem to laugh at football matches anymore. Certainly not in the modern all-seater wet dream, where my heroes of youth have been replaced by three fuckwits called Keith, Ian and Andy, the monstrous creation of a focus group with too much fondness for the word ‘demographic’ and not nearly enough understanding of the word ‘cunt’.
Football just seems to take itself a bit too seriously these days. The whole idea of going to the game for a bit of banter seems to be quietly eroding. Pubs are replacing the terraces as the last bastion of match day bonding and frivolity, the last garrison of sensibility before being strip searched on arrival at the ground for any concealed humour. Granted, you still get amusing chanting, but this orchestrated mirth isn’t the same thing. Football grounds are no longer pantheons of comedy, their once fabled protagonists now wedged in plastic seats surrounded by people who would barely give them the time of day. At least on the terraces you knew your place in the order of things. Now it’s a disparate sprawl of supporters instructed to stay seated and behave on pain of death. No wonder the fun has gone. After all, whoever heard of a sit-down comedian?