Howard Pattison ponders the etiquette involved in watching a Premier League football match and worries where it is all heading

A young man was invited by his employer to attend the fixture between Manchester United and Aston Villa. Their seats were in a home section of the ground, even though the young man supported the visiting team. Aware of his predicament, he watched the game in near-silence, careful to make only comments that were either objective or altogether non-committal. When the time came for Villa to score, he showed a foresight that was not evident in the United defence, recognised the imminent danger and took decisive action by sitting on his hands. Another Villa fan sitting nearby, less aware of the situation, instinctively threw his unrestrained arms joyously into the air and was immediately ejected from the ground.

To declare this a true story seems unnecessary, since many readers will surely be able to recall similar experiences. I’ve had a few myself, most notably at Villa Park – which I guess might suggest that you reap what you sow. On my last visit there, having been told by my Villa-supporting friends that I could not join them on the Holte End in the interest of my own safety – and presumably their own dignity – I was sent to another part of the ground, to sit by myself. My team scored twice and I applauded on both occasions.

There was nothing brazen or triumphalist about this. Nor for that matter was there any immediate objection from those sitting around me, presumably because most football fans are able to accommodate each other’s varied interests and opinions, and perhaps also because at the time they were more preoccupied with their own team’s appalling defence. So I was shocked at the end of the game to see a woman with two children complaining to a steward about my behaviour.

I had not been violent or threatening, loud or obtrusive. I had not used foul language or been in any way offensive. Like the banished Villa fan at Old Trafford, I was guilty only of applauding in the wrong place.

There has been much talk of the progressive gentrification of football as a spectator sport and it would now seem to confer a code of behaviour far more rigid than anything described by Jane Austen. Propriety is everything, and knowing when to applaud is as crucial as knowing which spoon to use with your soup. This must excite the orchestrators of the Premier League, who, since they oversee a competition where the admission prices are often not dissimilar to those charged at international opera houses, probably have ambitions to create the same kind of genteel ambience. It all seems to make sense, since the only other place I can think of where mistimed applause is subject to the same scrutiny is the orchestral concert hall.

Trouble is, no one gets kicked out of the concert hall for emitting an audible whoop between the movements of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony. I don’t think anyone at the Premier League has noticed this. I suspect that it’s not really etiquette that bothers them and they’re booting law-abiding citizens out of the ground because their real concern is the prospect of unrest.

If so, someone should point out the utter nonsense of it. People who intend to cause physical damage try not to draw attention to themselves until the actual moment they do it. Standing up and cheering when your team scores, especially when you’re surrounded by hundreds of opposing fans, is probably more indicative of trust than anything else. And if the club tries to tell you that they’re only removing you for your own safety, first of all express your human right to be unsafe, and then ask them if that’s the case wouldn’t it make more sense to kick everyone else out instead. After all, it’s with them that the imputation of unrest lies.

The committee of the London Symphony Orchestra must be ecstatic that they don’t have to worry about these things. Actually I suspect they don’t think about it at all, which is courageous of them as historically concertgoers have their own feisty reputation. Dissatisfied patrons slinging things onto the stage is not unheard of but no one gets searched at the door. Famously there was a riot at the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, but it never led to strict crowd control regulations or people being cautioned for clapping in the wrong place.

And booing seems still to be acceptable. You can jeer to your heart’s content at La Scala, no matter where you choose to sit. Perhaps this lack of protocol is tolerated out of respect to the form’s history, for as elitist as it is now often considered to be, much of the music of Mozart and Beethoven was originally performed before the general masses who would pay to stand, cheer and burst into hearty rounds of applause whenever they felt like it.

I’m sure the Premier League knows that it’s not really cut out for high culture. Nevertheless, it does endeavour to appeal to a higher socio-economic group. The disreputable elements of football’s past are a problem in this regard, but it should not use them as excuses to ride roughshod over perfectly acceptable behaviour. It has its past, whether it likes it or not, and it needs to be respectful rather than afraid of it. Otherwise it risks a loss of identity that might lead to its marginalisation. The crowds who stamped and cheered at all those operas and plays were eventually excluded and encouraged to find something else to do. Prices soared, concert halls became all-seater. It could not have been very much later that the first professional football clubs began to emerge, and a whole new popular culture developed. Strange to think that it might have been Notts County that did for Beethoven.

From WSC 277 March 2010

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