Before it's too late, Tom Davies records the relaxed conviviality of chatting in the quietest part of a quietish ground, pausing only for the odd barbed reference to the game in the background
Those who have campaigned for the retention or return of terracing at football have aimed their fire too narrowly. In highlighting the mystique of a terrace as a throbbing, heaving mass of partisan passion, they’ve missed what makes an awful lot of terraces – particularly a lot of those that still exist – special: their quiet, easy-going affability.
The place where I’ve stood for the last 16 years, Leyton Orient’s North Terrace, is one such place. Not long for this world now, it won’t be fondly remembered for singing, intimidation and rabid fans “sucking them in”, but because it’s none of those things. Sure, there are songs, but more often than not of the sarcastic Send in the Clowns variety; sure, there’s passion, but it manifests itself as much in withering scorn against the team’s deficiencies as in raucous encouragement. Above all, there’s eccentricity and conviviality. People wander about, catch up with friends, sit down at half-time and read the Guardian. And, of course, they moan.
These things are as important to the terrace experience as the much-celebrated swaying masses. Third Division boredom can be alleviated by a quick stroll to see who’s in today. And our cold open terrace – deprived of a roof to amplify any co-ordinated chanting – instead reverberates (if that’s the appropriate word) to the contented and occasionally discontented burble of several hundred private conversations. Distilled, it might sound something like: “How’s the family?” “Yeah, not too bad, keeping well yerself?” “All right... oh sort it out Brush you useless tosser!”
If the Kops and Holte Ends of old were wild, sweaty nightclubs, ends such as ours are cosy backstreet locals – friendly, in need of a lick of paint, with a quirky jukebox and an unshiftable collection of irascible old gits sat at the bar. And all the worthier of preservation because of that.
We like it that way, even if the club probably doesn’t. Partly because of the acoustics problem, ours is the quietest part of Brisbane Road, and that’s saying something – as anyone who’s been part of a 50-strong away contingent that’s out-sung the Os faithful could attest. This could be paranoia creeping in, but I’ve noticed the terrace’s patrons are often the last to be ritually applauded by the players. The noisier denizens of the small but modern South Stand, the decrepit West Stand and the durable old Main Stand are usually acknowledged before us. You can sense the team saying to themselves: “Oh well, better do these miserable sods too.”
But they will not have to grudgingly put their hands together for much longer. The game on April 26 against Rushden & Diamonds – themselves an emblem of “modern football” – may well be the North Terrace’s last. It is unlikely to be sent on its way with a big flag day or many, or even any, tears. Quite a number of Orient fans probably won’t care, for the uncomfortable truth is that a whole new generation of fans is now growing up with no real awareness of what terracing meant, for good or ill.
In its place will be a small but perfectly formed all-seat number, part of redevelopment plans that involve the construction of blocks of flats by all four corners and more community facilities and “lettable areas” than you can shake a stick at. Oh, and some seats. There will be room amid all this for just 9,400 spectators. As recently as the late Eighties, around two-thirds of that number could squeeze on to the North Terrace alone (though they hardly ever did). All this may well secure the club’s financial future, and that’s not to be sniffed at, but one can’t help feeling that as identikit ground facelift follows identikit new stadium development up and down the country, we’re getting neither pumping, jumping nightclubs nor cosy locals, just a whole load of chain pubs. Is that a future worth drinking to?
From WSC 194 April 2003. What was happening this month