‘Where were you when you were shit’ has been a common chant from the away end at Sincil Bank this season, and let’s face it, a sentiment that is shared by many of our own ‘diehards’ when labelling thousands of new Imps, ‘plastic’.
As far as I’m concerned everyone is welcome. We were all new fans once and I would wager that for many of the older fans, their own first game was during a period of success, such as we had under Taylor, Murphy or Keith. There’s a touch of bandwagon jumping in all of us.
I did however find myself slipping into such fan snobbery, when I read on social media some of the feedback on the facilities, or lack of them, in the away ends at Luton and Cambridge. I’ve been to the Abbey and Kenilworth Road many times, knew their limitations and had a wry smile on my face when some of the new away hordes discovered what I already knew. I didn’t travel recently because a few niggly health issues mean I need facilities that I knew just weren’t there and as I read all the moans and groans it was on the tip of my tongue, ‘where were you when ….. ‘you know the rest.
It also got me thinking about how times have changed since I went to my first away game in 1986 at the County Ground, Northampton. This was not out of a desire to make myself appear superior to all the new supporters sampling the leg room at Luton for the first time, but a realisation that the whole, unfortunately termed, ‘fan experience’, has changed over the years.
In 1986 Northampton Town shared their ground with Northamptonshire County Cricket Club. The Stadium was therefore a three-sided affair with a cricket pavilion far in the distance on one side. The away end consisted of a terrace behind a goal which was little more than a crumbling lump of concrete, exposed to the elements with no roof. It was freezing, damp and lacked even the most basic of facilities, the sort of ‘end’ that was common then. When I first went to the Abbey for instance, where there is now an all seater stand behind the goal there used to be another uncovered lump of decaying concrete, as there was at Mansfield, Chesterfield, Notts. County and many more. At least Peterborough had a roof.
It wasn’t just the grounds that were different, the away day experience often meant keeping your head down on the way to the ground, avoiding eye contact with passers-by and most definitely keeping your wits about you. Anyone who went to Enfield and Kettering during our Conference season will know exactly what I mean. Finding the ground meant keeping a lookout for the floodlights rather than consulting your phone and once inside you often walked into pens designed to prevent you from either getting on the pitch or reaching the home fans. It was also often the case you watched the game over the heads of a line of police, often stood on the pitch at the bottom of the terrace staring back at you for the whole ninety minutes, looking for the slightest opportunity to throw you out. Once the game ended you couldn’t just leave with everyone else, the police kept you locked in until the streets outside had been cleared of home fans. I think Mansfield holds the record, for me personally, after our Second Round, FA Cup game in 1987 when I’m sure we were kept back for nearly an hour on a freezing December day. it’s the one thing I clearly remember about the ‘experience’ other than the legendary Dave Clarke free-kick and my mate losing his shoe in the celebrations.
People would not stand for it today. Can you just imagine the meltdown on social media? They were different times, hooliganism was rife and clubs would rather spend what money they had on the team rather than the ground. Stadiums were neglected and at times dangerous but no one seemed to complain. I was a young lad, starting to find my way in the world and I loved it.
The home game experience was no different, Sincil Bank was like most other grounds, run down with not much having changed since the 1940s. There was certainly no Fanzone, Travis Perkins suite or pre-match display. If you were hungry at half-time you might get a stale cheese roll and a nuclear hot Bovril but that was about it. There were no replica shirts or merchandise and the toilets such as they were, consisted of a wall with a gutter at the bottom and no roof at the top.
And the violence. I remember the visit of Sheffield United in 1983 when it really went off, inside and outside the ground and not just a few shifty looking fellas in fake Stone Island hanging around on a street corner, I mean hundreds of lads fighting and running amok on the streets around the ground. Visits by Derby, Hull and Bradford brought pitch invasions and trouble. I recall walking along the High Street to a game against Burnley when it all went off with lads swinging not only punches but scaffolding poles they’d got from a nearby building site. Once in my favoured spot in the Railway End, the referees whistle to start the game was greeted by chants of ‘Burn-a-lee, Burn-a-lee, Burn-a-lee’ from a group of about a dozen Burnley fans who thought it would be a good idea to watch the match in the Lincoln end. Five minutes later they were on the receiving end of a proper hiding as the Lincoln boys successfully defended their territory.
It wasn’t just the violence, if an opposing team played a black player at the Bank, I’m afraid they got appalling racist abuse. There were very few women at games, perhaps one of the problems being there were no toilets for them but if a woman was spotted or did something to provoke attention, they were often serenaded by the old terrace favourite asking them to get something out for lads. Like most supporters, I put up with it or ignored it. I loved going to the match, it was all part of life back then and yet unbeknown to all of us, things were about to change.