1 April ~ In May 1988 Chelsea were preparing for a season in the Second Division and football grounds were hostile and dangerous places
Nominations for the coveted McAlpine Award have been a bit sparse in the last few months, and last month it got left out because of lack of space, so no doubt you're all frothing at the mouth to hear about the latest candidates. For any new readers, this prestigious trophy, a tubular steel structure surrounded by wire mesh and mounted on a tasteful asphalt base, is awarded to clubs with the very worst facilities for away fans. Past winners have included claustrophobic Carrow Road, the matchless Manor Ground and hideous Highfield Road.
M Hutton of Milton Keynes writes of the pleasures of a day out in the wilderness of Stamford Bridge: "The away supporters' terracing at Chelsea is divided into four sections – two are directly behind the goal and the other two are flanking the central ones.
On arrival, we found dozens of fans milling around the path between the turnstiles and the terracing. We soon discovered why – the police were shepherding the fans into the furthest section of terracing, one that isn't directly behind the goal. The loiterers were waiting for a central section to be opened up. As we reached the terracing, one of these section was opened, and we found a reasonable spot, behind a barrier and far enough back not to have to observe the game through the perimeter fence.
We settled down to read the jokes page of the Chelsea programme – 'Ken Bates Writes' – only to be interrupted by a cry of 'Oi, you, come down here'. This is a Metropolitan Police force phrase meaning 'Would you kindly stand at the front of the terracing'. Having no desire to watch a game with our faces pressed up against a fence, we decided to adopt John Motson commentary tactics – ignore the voice and hope it will go away. But alas, this was a persistent policeman. A Sergeant, no less, not one of those fresh-faced teeny-coppers, and we were further accosted.
My next ploy was to try satire and I enquired whether he would like us on the terrace side or pitch side of the perimeter fence. This was obviously not to the Old Bill's liking, or so I inferred from his 'One more word out of you and you'll be ejected Sunny Jim' riposte. And he meant it – very soon after, he ejected two fans for climbing over the fence separating the sections. So we were forced to the front of the terracing.
Now the issue at stake here is this – surely if you pay your entrance fee to the terraces, you are paying to be able to stand where you choose, within reason of course. But it seems at Chelsea you pay your money (£4.00) and are shown exactly where you are to stand. Visits to Chelsea's away enclosure have never exactly been one of life's delights – long waits after the game has finished, no shelter, poor facilities etc, but we've learnt to expect these. This new policy will surely deter people from watching their team when they are playing at Chelsea. And surely any decrease in away supporters will not help to swell the coffers of the 'Save the Bridge' campaign."
Meanwhile, Andy Taylor has been looking at, and through, some of the splendours on offer at the grounds of two Second Division promotion challengers. "Following on from the debate about accommodation for away fans at Middlesbrough in recent issues, I feel that another heart-warming feature of grounds in the late 80s ought to be highlighted. Watching the Middlesbrough v Everton cup game on TV in February, I noticed the fence in front of the home fans' enclosure has been crowned with a row of plastic spikes (possibly installed after the coin-throwing incident at the Sutton cup match?).
The use of these five-inch spikes is not exclusive to Ayresome Park; my first experience of them was when I visited Hull on the Saturday before Christmas. On pulling into Boothferry Park station I looked at the away end and the fence seemed to be festooned with tinsel – on closer inspection it dawned on me that the 'tinsel' was in fact a rather less festive row of the aforementioned spikes, albeit tastefully decorated in Hull's colours of gold, red and black. The effect was made worse by the spikes being placed in the line of sight between us and the far goal, a problem which cannot be avoided thanks to Hull's poxy 14-step supermarket away end.
I have a feeling that this phenomenon may well spread across the nation's grounds in future months – it could already be at others that I am not aware of. The worrying implication is that it is now apparently acceptable for crowd control to involve the possible maiming of fans.
This being the case, I have a suggestion along those lines; why don't they go the whole hog and dispose of those annoying fans by simply stretching a trip wire around the perimeter possibly with a low-voltage electric current running through it. If breached, a controlled explosion occurs. Of course, one effect of this would be to deter most people from coming to matches, but then I think that's what the police want isn't it?"
Finally, a word about Millwall. No, not that word – cynics. On being shown round the ground on our recent venture into darkest New Cross (see last issue), it was a pleasant surprise to see how bright and well-kept it all was, neatly painted in blue and yellow and really looking, as Dan Maskell might say, a picture. However, despite the vast amounts of terracing available (there are only 3,200 seats), the away supporters pen is tiny, and stuck right in the corner, with views from most of it totally obscured by a floodlight! For those of a nervous disposition (and that probably includes most away fans going to Millwall), this must be scant reward for the considerably achievement of actually finding the ground.