Changing Times (A guest article penned by Real EFL writer and Imps’ fan Roy Thomson, which first appeared in A City United)
‘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.
1985 has been called Football’s ‘Annus horribilis’. If the 56 deaths at Bradford, including two Lincoln supporters, confirmed the decrepit and neglected state of many of the nation’s football grounds, a further death at Birmingham as rival fans battled, a televised rampage by Millwall fans at Luton and the death of 39 Juventus fans after a Liverpool ‘charge’ before the European Cup Final at Heysel, illustrated that football hooliganism was out of control. The Times referred to football as ‘a slum sport played in slum stadiums watched by slum people’. The government inquiry into these events, The Popplewell Report, mixed the issues of violence and safety, and even though it proved Bradford had nothing to do with hooliganism, the government responded with new legislation focussing largely on controlling the fans rather than forcing large scale investment in stadiums.
Nevertheless, things did slowly begin to change. Fans, the clear majority of whom were not hooligans and fed up of being labelled as such, began to find a voice through the self-depreciating and satirical fanzine movement. The tense atmosphere in grounds gradually started to dissolve as many young men discovered the new drug ecstasy and a more ‘loved up vibe’. The fun slowly started to return to football grounds, inflatables replaced knuckle dusters and the tabloids moved on to panicking about illegal raves as the new scourge of society. Italia 90, Gazza’s tears and New Order were just around the corner. Football was starting to become trendy.
However, things did not change overnight. I went to the City Ground with a Man United supporting mate in the late 80s and stood in the away end, an open terrace in a corner of the ground with a terrible view of the game. Looking back, it was dangerously overcrowded, badly policed and quite frankly frightening. I watched the game wedged between drunk Mancs with my feet struggling to touch the ground, at times battling to fill my lungs with air.
I thought about this day when I turned on the TV to watch Grandstand on a Saturday afternoon in April 1989. Once again supporters were dying at a football match on live television, penned in and crushed at Hillsborough, a stadium which, it has since been proved, was not fit for purpose.
The resulting inquiry and Taylor Report with its main recommendation for all seater stadiums and the call for a new ethos for football was the catalyst for the changes which ultimately led to football club’s redeveloping their grounds, changing forever the way football is watched in this country. However, many people argue the report was also the catalyst for all that is wrong in football today and hark back to the great days of the terraces, a less commercialised era of working-class male solidarity of the ‘people’s game’, the atmosphere ruined by the prawn sandwich brigade and being forced to sit rather than stand to watch the match.
In my view this argument comes from people who never regularly stood on the terraces in the 1980s. I loved football back then but would I go back? Absolutely not. Whilst I might not agree with all the changes in football since 1989, one thing is certain, football grounds are now much more welcoming and safer places than they were thirty years ago. It should also never be forgotten that ordinary people lost their lives going to football back then.
The effect of all this locally was that Lincoln redeveloped Sincil Bank from the late 1980s into the early 1990s into what we have today. But over twenty years later it is looking a bit dated, rough around the edges and with the current crowds, bursting at the seams. It looks like the club will be moving soon, consigning Sincil Bank to memory along with Vetch Field, Bell Vue, Boothfrerry Park and the Old Show Ground. It’s obviously not a popular idea with some but in my view, their opposition is based in a similar misguided nostalgic sentiment others feel about the perceived great days of the terraces. You have just got to move with the times, and whilst match day routines, in existence for decades for some, will change, I think it will be worth it, because if nothing happens it will only get worse. Just as today we don’t accept the way we watched football in the eighties, supporters in thirty years will not accept how we watch football today.
I reflected on all this having a drink in the bar underneath the away end at Barnet. I liked Underhill but life seemed more comfortable at the Hive, under the stand, having a drink in relative comfort watching the lunchtime game on the TV before taking my seat for the game. If the Board and Liam Scully are influenced in their planning for the new stadium by facilities such as those then the move will surely be a success.
It seems criticism of Sincil Bank is perhaps tempered by the fact it is home but the social media reaction of many of those at the Abbey and Kenilworth Road just confirms what we all really know, times continue to change and with it people’s expectations and values. Whilst I dislike the term ‘fan experience’, getting a drink and some decent food, having sufficient number of toilets and If forced to watch the game sitting down having enough leg room are now amongst the basic requirements for many supporters, whether their love of the club began at the Oldham match last year or on the bleak open terraces of the 1980s.