Monday, 8 March 2010

Football's Guilty Pleasures Part Deux

The Fence Connection

By Larry from Lancing

Fences. Not lap, panel or picket and not a drop of cuprinol or creosote in sight. From the late 70’s through to the early 1990’s the football landscape was defined by twisted, cold steel and football fans themselves were defined as a species best kept in cages.

In the days where Sky now offer a rather surreal 3D visual football experience (err isn’t that called going to the game?) for 15 odd years we had to endure fence vision. That’s where a game of football is enjoyed through small square holes in the fence. If you’ve never enjoyed this visual treat then next time you go to a game whip out the mesh that sits on top of your grill pan (kids, ask your mum before putting your head in the oven to remove it), strap it across your chops and hey presto you can enjoy the beauty of fence vision.

So, why a guilty pleasure? Well, fences were a killer, it took the tragedy of Hillsborough for the world to see that caging people into small spaces wasn’t particularly clever, it says a great deal about the world that various breeds of animals had won this debate many years before football fans. Chickens of course remain divided on the issue, some enjoy the free range lifestyle, whilst others still endure a cramped and caged existence ala a 1980’s football ground. Trust me, their day will come as Hugh Duncan Fearnley Cricket Bat Whatshisname banishes fences from chicken houses, just as Lord Taylor did from football grounds. Of course fences weren’t the main reason for football tragedies, but they were indelibly associated with the conditions that contributed to them.

Dangerous, inhumane and demeaning. I would never want to see them back, but there was something about them wasn’t there, and here’s the guilty pleasure. They defined an era when football grounds weren’t particularly pleasant places to be, which was good because that meant only people who loved football, fighting and sometimes both together, were attracted to them. It meant that admission was affordable and sub cultures and a way of life flourished untainted by the gaze of the media, or the ill gotten gains of the Russian mafia and the omnipresent “Eastern based businessman.”

Fences also served an important role as a life preserver. When in 1985 the bearded, lumbering goal poacher Mick Ferguson netted late on for the Albion to end Millwall’s long running unbeaten home record, if you’d asked the 500 or so travelling fans if they thought fences were a good idea you would have been met with an enthusiasm akin to that displayed by Tiger Woods when asked to present the awards at the Waitress of the Year conference. A resounding yes.

The soothing yellow fences of the Den, in contrast to the general menace of the place. Nice twizzly spiked things for added loon deterrence.

Some things though never change, and it seems the top clubs had the best fences. Div 1 teams of the day had fences that fitted the architecture of the ground. Everton’s had a lovely symmetry to them, nice wide squares to aid the viewing experience and a bar across the top which enabled the much missed art of fence hanging in celebration of a goal. Old Trafford’s were red lengths of steel which lent themselves perfectly to having a bar scarf lovingly tied to them.

Today’s high flying Chelsea were by and large scrabbling around Division 2 when fences were in their prime. As JT continues to demonstrate, Chelsea rarely display any class in anything they do and so it was with fences. Captain Bates topped the Bridge fences with barbed wire, and get this, electrified them! You couldn’t make it up, but yes it happened.

Ken proclaims the future. Like fascism and Esperanto, it never caught on in the UK.

Take a trip to the lower leagues and the fences were more like the ones you see on a 1970’s housing estate, horrible concrete poles binding together a cheap chicken wire creation. The epitome of this approach was demonstrated by the Heysel stadium. That fencing wouldn’t have kept back Bernard Matthews’ turkeys, let alone thousands of scousers. Not footballs, or come to that, fences finest hour.

Northampton Town take my top prize in the fencing stakes. On my first trip there the crowd segregation and fencing was provided by the boundary rope from the neighbouring cricket ground. Very quaint, but one felt it left the club a tad exposed to the more excitable elements. So it proved on that day, as each goal was met with spillage onto the pitch. Roll the clock forward a few years and Northampton had invested in a spare aviary cage from the local zoo. Not only were we fenced in to the left, right and front, those forward thinking burghers had added a wire roof. Genius, can’t think why it never caught on.

The away end at the County Ground, Northampton Town.

Back in the day it was impossible to imagine a ground without fencing, now they are long gone and as all TV clips only go as far back as the re-invention of football by Sky in the early 90’s, there’s a whole generation who have never experience or seen on TV “fence vision.” They will never have seen those fences separating fans with that little bit of no mans land a line of coppers. Visually a much more exciting sight than that awful strip of carpet used to separate fans these days.

My favourite fence moment came at the Goldstone some time in the late 80’s. The Goldstone North Stand fences were a bit worse for wear, many of the spikes got damaged in a mad scramble to get away from invading Arsenal fans during a League Cup tie in 1980. With the away fans in the North East corner, on the day in question we were stood next to them, within good old fashioned baiting distance. As we scored, a chap called Merlin decided to take a running jump onto the fence in celebration, not of course realising that this was an exit fence on which the lock had been slow motion and with Merlin clutching on the fence gently swung backwards into the no mans land area. Delight and delirium was quickly replaced by a feeling of being somewhat exposed!

A bit like other guilty pleasures of youth, they are not something to be particularly proud of, though they felt right at the time and added to the sense of theatre that is so lacking today.

- Feel free to comment below -


Adrian Ludbrook said...

Ipswich had 'the cage' for away fans, which encircled the right hand side of the North Stand, then a terrace. As a young teenager I spent many a game staring into it, either from the relative safety of the adjoining West Stand Terrace or if I was feeling flush (as there was no under 16 ticket and in theory no under 16's) from the left hand side of the North Stand itself. What was happening in the ground was often far more fascinating that the game itself (we are talking post Sir Bobby era John Duncan hoof-ball) and even writing this I'm going all misty eyed thinking about dark cold winter nights and games against Portsmouth, Leeds, Birmingham and various other nutters rattling around in Division 2. Adidas 3 stripe was the uniform, topped off with a ski jacket. The characters were larger than life, some I still see to this day. We were kids on the fringes of much older lads, one was my mate's big brother. On a matchday we were the scouts before the game, then baiters during the match itself. Even a chubby teeneager like me could outdance a 30 year old Northerner full of Double Diamond, so I never got slapped, but one day four mates got cornered, lined up against the wall, and then an enee - menee - minee - mo system was used to determine who got the slap! Cue three of them walking round the corner ten minutes later giggling followed by a fourth looking moody and nursing a fat lip. As a kid growing up it was the most fun possible, it had everything a boy could want, danger, swearing, pies, winding up coppers, even a bit of underage drinking if you were lucky. My son's now 13, and I find it sad that he'll never have those same experiences.
As for the cage, it went in the late 80's when the away fans were moved to the seats in the Upper Cobbold. However, when the old North Stand was demolished (R.I.P.) we did climb over the security fence and liberate some seats (seats had been laid over the terrace when the away fans were moved) and those superb spinning spikes that used to sit at the top of the fences, all painted in the glorious blue. Despite having three times the capacity the new Sir Bobby Robson stand is a shadow of the old North.

Jason Fenner said...

Can you remember the fencing at Hulls old ground which had the coloured swivel spikes and a razor sharp skewer running through the middle, believe Bradford’s valley parade had the same. Obviously a job lot going on sale up north at the time.
Also Brighton away end when the away fans had the north end of the east terrace, the fencing was so close that if a big team came and filled the away end only 30% could see the pitch as the angel they were looking at the pitch through it made it into one long line of steel.
Northampton was also the same for viewing wise but just managed to see Gerry Armstrong score the equalizer up the in the league 87/88 season. Believe if memory is right Southampton were the first to have fans caged in all over at the Dell in the early eighties.
Don’t miss those views at all now.

Danny Last said...

Ipswich was one of the classic awaydays. It had every visiting fans dream which was a terrace, split into two between home and away fans with a token divide and a roof. The noise used to be fantastic. Leicester City (Filbert Street) and Aldershot were also pretty good.

The best away end in the Football League now is probably at London Road, Peterborough. A huge terrace with a roof.

Christmas gifts for employees said...

The epitome of this approach was demonstrated by the Heysel stadium. That fencing wouldn’t have kept back Bernard Matthews’ turkeys, let alone thousands of scousers. Not footballs, or come to that, fences finest hour.