Drinking it dry

Mark Segal explains a campain to allow fans to watch games with a pint, like in other sports

It is the age-old quandary for a football fan. Do we leave the pub now and get to the game before kick-off, or have another and miss the first five minutes? It happens every week and inevitably it is always the wrong decision. But what if there was a third option? What if you could get to the ground in good time, buy a beer and take it up to your seat in time for the start of the game?

That’s what happens in cricket and both codes of rugby, but if you tried at a football ground you would be breaking the law. A new campaign is trying to change this anomaly. At their most basic the arguments calling for the scrapping of the law, which was first enshrined in the 1985 Sporting Events Act, are hard to dispute. The campaign’s backers claim that it is finally time to remove the stigma of being a football fan and give them the same matchday experience as supporters of other sports.

The campaign was only launched in June but already has the backing of 40 of the 92 Premier League and Football League clubs and various other bodies including the Football Supporters’ Federation, who claim reversing the ban would stop the last-minute crush as hundreds of fans knock back their pint and rush up from the concourses for the start of a game.

Supporters say it will also stop binge drinking among fans and help increase revenues for clubs who are feeling the pinch during a prolonged economic downturn. So the first instinct of many who are faced with discriminatory law against football fans is to support this cause. But, even as someone who has experienced the worst excesses of “crowd control” down the years, this campaign leaves me feeling uneasy in the extreme.

The first thing to point out is that football crowds haven’t really changed that much since the Act was first introduced. The way they are forced to watch a game is certainly different and, in most cases, far more pleasurable. But in a crowd of 20,000 there is always going to be a not-insignificant number who don’t necessarily go looking for trouble, but will not back down if trouble finds them. 
We need to admit that not all football fans are like the ones to which the Sky cameras are 
always drawn.

Now add into this group constant access to alcohol during a 90-minute period where events are not always going to go their way and you are opening up a new point of 
potential conflict. Fighting between rival sets of fans may no longer take place inside grounds, but there are plenty of examples of fans of the same team wading into each other during matches.

There is also the constant movement in the stands as you have to shuffle up and down as someone slips to the bar every five minutes, and comes back again, and do you fancy being showered in beer when an important goal go in?

Comparisons with other sports are also fatuous. While it’s hard to claim a football crowd is any more passionate than those that watch rugby, they are certainly more volatile. And again adding more alcohol to the mix is not going to calm things down. While canvassing opinions I found support for a reversal of the ban to be about 50-50, so it’s interesting then that a recent report claimed that all the clubs who had voiced an opinion so far were right behind the campaign.

Could it be that clubs, already fleecing fans at the turnstile and in the club shop, are looking for more ways to make money without fully thinking through the consequences? Some argue that the law could at least be tweaked to end the ludicrous situation where corporate clients are forced to draw a curtain in their executive box to shield the pitch before they can open a bottle of beer. But then you can’t support a campaign based on ending discrimination, only to discriminate against those who can’t afford the best seats in the house.

At its heart there is something a little naive about the whole endeavour. In case it had escaped their attention, crowds don’t gather in large numbers every week to enjoy a huge communal session, they go to watch a football match. And even the most hardened of drinkers among them would admit they can wait 45 minutes between each pint.

From WSC 296 October 2011