‘Persistent standing is not allowed’.
It’s not just about football. In fact, it’s hardly about football at all, but football is the conduit; the release valve, perhaps.
I don’t go to watch Chelsea Football Club so much now, and it quite hurts me to write that.
My father carried me through the turnstiles at Stamford Bridge when I was just a baby, so keen was he to ensure that I wasn’t swayed by the Tottenham double winning team, or by the lure of glamorous Manchester United.
As soon as my father returned from Palestine at the end of the Second World War, his first thought was that finally he was able to return to London to watch his beloved Chelsea. He’s here in this crowd at in the ground-busting mayhem of this friendly in 1945 between Chelsea and Moscow Dynamo.
“All sorts of people go to football these days.”
Just under a month ago, I did go to Stamford Bridge to watch Chelsea play Bradford in the F.A. Cup.
There was a strange atmosphere in the ground. Because of the rules of the competition, the whole of the Shed End was allocated to Bradford supporters and they made a lot of noise. This seemed to annoy some groups of people sitting near me in the lower tier of the West Stand.
All sorts of ages of people go to football these days. Around me at the game against Bradford, there were some 30-something fathers with young sons and daughters – reminding me of my own father’s mission to engrave a love of Chelsea on my heart; middle-aged couples, wearing Chelsea scarves and hats; small groups of young teenagers, desperately trying to appear older than their years; and a few groups of ‘jack-the-lads’, who had been to the pub and who seemed to bring a sense of ownership and angry aggression with them.
It was the ‘jack-the-lads’ (JTLs) who were the problem.
‘Persistent standing is not allowed’. That’s what it said on my ticket, yet I could see that almost everyone placed in the lower tier of the Matthew Harding stand stood up throughout the entire game. Anyone who bought a ticket and was elderly, very young, disabled, or not able to stand for any reason, would have spent the match looking at the back of the coats and jackets of the people in the row in front of them.
The overwhelming majority of the Bradford fans, in the Shed End, stood throughout the game.
Take a look at this clip from the official Football Association highlights of the game. Don’t bother watching the football (please don’t – Chelsea lost, dismally…), just look at the crowd. It’s hard to find anyone who is sitting down.
Does this matter? “They’re only enjoying themselves…”
Margaret Thatcher was not for turning when football came to her attention. Famously, she asked an F.A. official what they were doing about football’s hooligans causing trouble on the streets. The reply, to which Mrs Thatcher’s response is not recorded, was “When will you stop your hooligan’s entering our football stadia?”
In 1985, a fire in a wooden stand at Bradford City caused 56 deaths. This, and the later Hillsborough Stadium disaster, were key events that led to the Taylor Report which recommended that all major stadia convert to all-seater models.
It seems to me to be to rather pointless to insist on seating if approximately half of those attending football matches stand up throughout the game. Not only does it add a worrying degree of danger, it means that less able supporters have paid huge sums to see only glimpses of the pitch.
At Chelsea, the stewards take no action in relation to people standing up, and this leads to inevitable tensions between groups of people. Of course, football is an exciting spectacle and it is only human nature to leap upwards when your team score. Human exuberance is a wonderful thing. I jumped up when Chelsea scored their two goals against Bradford. I didn’t jump when Bradford scored four in reply.
However, the two men immediately behind me kept standing up for long periods; they were jack-the-lads and they tried unsuccessfully to encourage those around them to join in with chants against the Bradford supporters. Whilst standing for these lengthy periods, one of the JTLs also persistently made homophobic comments about members of the Bradford team.
The middle-aged couple immediately behind the two JTLs tried to reason with them in a peaceful and kindly way, explaining that they couldn’t see the game because of the two JTLs standing in front of them.
The more violent sounding of the two JTLs said (to his friend), “I’m getting really wound up. These people are telling me to sit down. Who do they think they are?”
The situation escalated and, inevitably, the violent JTL threw a punch at the middle-aged man. This caused a hubbub – I became worried and stood up, gesturing towards some stewards who were a considerable distance away. They turned and looked in another direction.
Stamford Bridge is covered, thoroughly, by CCTV cameras. Indeed there is a highly visible ‘police box’ with several people watching monitors throughout the game.
Nobody came to ‘my’ incident. The less violent JTL ushered his friend out of his seat and they left the game (midway through the second half). As the violent JTL was being hustled down the stairs, he kept turning and mouthing insults and threats to the middle-aged couple.
This lack of interest by the stewards and police causes deeper concerns.
Earlier this week, many news outlets showed, or reported upon, a group of men who, on their way to watch Chelsea play Paris Saint-Germain, refused to allow a black man onto a Metro train. The smart-phone footage also recorded these men chanting a song in favour of racism. As I write this, it appears that some of the men have been identified and banned, by Chelsea, from attending future games at Stamford Bridge.
This is a good response, but did Chelsea respond so speedily and with such vigour because it was the right thing to do – or did they act because of the widespread publicity?
At Stamford Bridge, I consistently hear shouts and songs that are extremely homophobic; whenever any ex-Spurs player appears for any opposing team, there are more than a handful of chants of ‘Yiddo’ referring to the supposed Jewish support for Tottenham Hotspur.
The Chelsea team doctor, Eva Carneiro, pays a heavy price for being an attractive woman. If she treats a player on the far side of the pitch and then has to take a walk around the perimeter to return to the dug-out, she is followed by a series of lurid and appalling remarks, and a volley of whistles from a significant number of spectators.
What do the stewards do about this? I have never seen them take any action at all.
So I don’t go to watch Chelsea so much these days. They are my club but I feel increasingly distant from what used to be the joy of attending a match day. I see fathers wincing as their children see and hear the incidents I referred to above; middle-aged couples terrified into submission by ‘jack-the-lads’, aggressive men who seem to be looking for confrontation; and people of all colours, creeds, and ages, looking for stewards, officials, or police to intervene when trouble is stirring. Those stewards, officials, and police are only significant by their absence.
If anyone from Chelsea would like to follow up on any of the incidents at the Bradford game, and in particular would wish to check CCTV to identify the aggressors in the seats behind me – here’s a copy of my ticket. It states: ‘Persistent standing is not allowed’ , you will note…
Terence Dackombe – February 2015