Life’s A Riot

Remember the George Best anecdote where he was lying on the bed with some Miss World or other, sipping champagne and counting the cash? A hotel porter came in and asked George where it all went wrong. That’s a metaphor for the game today. In other words, have things gone wrong at all? The 80’s were British football’s Apocalypse Now: a riot on the pitch at the Scottish Cup Final, Heysel, and English clubs (with many Scottish players) banned from Europe. Bradford City’s wooden stand – a much larger model of the one in Breogan – caught fire and led to the deaths of 56 supporters. I wonder if anyone who had made the trip north for that notorious pre-season friendly were among the victims.

Photos from the era show fans caged in like monkeys in zoos; the kind of scene that led to the Hillsborough disaster at the end of the decade. Yet, looking back, some of my favourite images of football are from my formative years. Pitch invasions like the one at Wembley in 1977. How I would love to have been at Hereford when Ronnie Radford scored against Newcastle in 1972. The muddy pitch. The desperate clearance. The strong tackle. The one-two. The raking thirty yarder. The stranded keeper. The fans running en masse under the tape and heading for the goalscorer who is already wheeling with both arms raised in the air. Helmeted Bobbies fail to stem the tide. Saturday kids in beige parkas, duffel coats and black and white wooly hats embrace Ronnie before disappearing back into the vast, swaying terraces of the fourth division club.

Another photo from days gone by: Scottish fans sitting between two stands on Hampden’s ash covered slopes, watching the Rous Cup match between Scotland and England free of charge in 1985. (Thank you, Stanley Rous, for that short lived competition, a cup that Scotland won thanks to Richard Gough’s header.)

Safety then became a priority and over the next few years the game was given a makeover. After attending a seminar in Alicante, I went to see a game at the Martinez Valero Stadium in Elche. The stadium was built for the 1982 World Cup. Hungary beat El Salvador 10-1 there. The number of elderly women at the match I attended caught my attention. And why shouldn’t they be there? Is it really the people’s game or only for blokes of a certain vintage who are hard enough to stand up for themselves?

On the diagonally opposite side of Spain, in La Coruna, where Cameroon played in 1982, repeating Scotland’s ’74 feat of going home unbeaten (though the Africans never won a game either); I walked along the city’s seafront after a derby with Celta Vigo. I overheard a group of old ladies assessing the Deportivo performance player by player. Would they have gone if they had to stand behind cages to watch their local team? What if there was a serious threat of rampant mobs recreating a scene from Quadrophenia on the promenade?

Extract from Countries of the World ©2011 Steven Porter/Breogan Books


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