Many have lamented the death of the terrace wit. Whatever happened to the singing, the gallows humour? Is it gone forever from top flight English football? On his return to the UK, we asked James Goyder to sample atmosphere this week.
This week I witnessed a match at the Emirates for the first time in two years and was struck by just how much stadium etiquette has changed since I started watching live football.
I was indoctrinated into supporting Arsenal by my Dad at a very early age and can remember standing on the Clock End at Highbury in the days before terracing was abolished altogether.
Since emigrating to Asia in 2007 I have been forced to make the transition from the stadium to the sofa. My appetite for watching televised football remains voracious but I have become more of an analytical spectator and less of a full blooded fan, although I did make a bit of a scene in a Bangkok bar when Sunderland scored an injury time equalizer earlier this season.
Cultural changes occurred throughout the course of the two decades I spent regularly attending Arsenal games but they appear to be have accelerated dramatically in the years that I have been away. If Highbury was a library than the Emirates is a mausoleum and the tiny minority of supporters who do exercise their right to sing seem like the last of a dying breed.
At Highbury I used to have a strong preference for the Clock End because of the atmosphere. For me the major appeal of the area immediately behind the southernmost goal was the relentless banter and steady stream of amusing chants, ranging from the rude to the ridiculous. These days anyone attempting to sing a song which cast aspersions on the character of the Tottenham Hotspur manager’s Mother would probably be unceremoniously ejected from the Emirates. Back then obscene chants would be sung with an almost choral precision.
My Dad, who sings as loud as any football fan you will ever find, always favoured the upper tier of the North Bank due to the superior view. There was a man who used to always sit towards the top of the adjoining West Stand, I have no idea what his name was but we used to refer to him as ‘West Stand Man’. Arsenal would have to enjoy some sort of monumental success for the West Stand to find its voice but that didn’t stop ‘West Stand Man’ from spending almost the entire 90 minutes attempting to inspire the lethargic spectators in the surrounding seats to sing.
He could presumably have chosen to sit in the North Bank, where he would have found several thousand co-conspirators to share a song with, but instead he chose to devote himself to the thankless task of trying to whip up an atmosphere in the West Stand. For the people in the immediate proximity who just wanted to watch the football in peace he was probably a source of constant irritation but for me he was always an inspirational figure.
Characters like this used to be part of the fabric of live football but there was not a single spectator at the Emirates Stadium this week who made any sort of a lasting impression on me.
The timing may be coincidental but as the quality of the football which Arsenal play has improved so the atmosphere at the stadium has diminished. I remember distinctly watching the team play in the pre Arsene Wenger era. The footballing fare was frequently dire and it is doubtful whether the likes of John Jensen or Steve Morrow would get a look in at any of today’s Premier League sides, let along trouble the Arsenal first team. In those days the back and forth banter between the opposing sets of fans provided a welcome distraction and was often much more entertaining than the game itself.
The stereotyping of regional areas was a source of constant amusement to me. Whenever either of the Merseyside teams were in town a derogatory version of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ would be sung with the lyrics altered in order to draw attention to the historically high rate of unemployment in Liverpool. The inevitable response would be a resounding chorus from the away fans of ‘we stole your stereo’, the Scousers reveling in their reputation for being a little light fingered.
Politically correct it probably was not but it certainly enhanced the experience for both sets of fans. What was intended to be straightforward abuse actually manifested itself as a form of social commentary which celebrated the perceived difference between the various parts of the country. If a team from an area which was regarded as being remotely rural, such as say Middlesbrough, came to Highbury someone would inevitably take advantage of a lull in the action to taunt them by singing, ‘we’ve got electricity’.
When Arsenal took the lead against Chelsea not a single person attempted to take the opportunity to remind the away fans that the scoreline was now ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’. A decade ago this would have been unthinkable, even the most reticent of fans seemed to burst into a brief song when the team scored an important goal.
Arsenal have come a long way since the days when a mediocre Dutch winger called Glenn Helder seemed like an unimaginably exotic addition to the squad. The standard of football has improved immeasurably and football’s appeal has totally transcended any last lingering boundaries of class.
Women and young children could sit anywhere in the Emirates without ever feeling threatened or offended which might not necessarily have been the case at Highbury. My Dad has even been known to take his elderly Mother to matches, something he might have been reluctant to risk a decade or ago for fear that someone would inadvertently end up offending her.
The quality of players in the Premier League has undoubtedly improved due to the influx of expenditure this new breed of football fans has brought, but I can’t help thinking that an important part of English culture has been eroded.
You can follow James on Twitter @JamesGoyder