Saturday, 3 March 2012

Terrace Nostalgia


I normally blog about law.  For a change, I’m blogging about football.  And more specifically about my club.  Brighton and Hove Albion.  We’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen etc.  Let’s see how it goes, bear with it.....

It was twenty and more years ago.  The walk down the Old Shoreham Road to the Goldstone Ground.  In short sleeves in the spring, huddled against the cold in the winter.  A scarf on whatever the climate.  Past that pub on the Sackville Road cross-roads (but never in it).   Skirting the West Stand with only one destination in mind.  The North Stand.  Turn right, push through the big iron turnstile with blue flaking paint.  Ticket to the turnstile operator behind the mesh grille.  The unmistakeable and satisfying clank of the turnstile as you pushed it.  And you were in.  Away from the worries of the world, whatever they might be, where for 90 or so minutes nothing else could get into your mind.

Through the turnstile.  The stench of the men’s toilets at the foot of the North Stand steps – nothing more than a brick shack with a huge metal trough attached to the wall.  Jog up the steps.  Turn right.  Pass the first entrance to the stand, turn left into the second entrance, the splendour of the pitch in front of you, down a few steps, duck under the barrier and now you were really in.  Into the pen towards the top of the North Stand, behind the goal, just to the left.  We’re the north stand, we’re the north stand, we’re the north stand Brighton boys.  Murmuring an hour before kick-off, volume building in that hour and rocking at 3 o’clock.

The smell of cigarette smoke.  Jostling on the terrace steps to get your place.  A tribal place.  Definitely an edge to the atmosphere, it never would go “off” but it sometimes felt like it just might.  A strange mix of the safe and friendly but ever so slightly edgy.  I was young, not one of the stand’s “top boys” (and I don’t mean that in a hooligan sense), I was there to observe and enjoy rather than as one of the master of ceremonies.  This was a place miles away from village boredom, from school monotony, from ‘A’ Level stress, from anywhere.

What a place this was.   The surge on the terrace when a goal went in that dragged you along like a rough sea.  You could end up yards away from where you had been standing.  And if you were unlucky, end up painfully pinned against one of the terrace bars while the hoards surged around you.  The added magic of a night match, the floodlights only adding to the atmospherics.  Maybe even a few seagulls circling above for posterity, their spiritual home as well as your own.

Enjoying that we were the North Stand.  Affectionately mocking the quiet West Stand (can you hear the West Stand sing), encouraging the altar-boy sounding family South Stand (South Stand South Stand give us a song), never quite sure what to make of the stalwarts who stood on the uncovered terrace that was the crumbling East Stand where grass could sometimes be seen between the cracks in the steps.  And loving it when one of our heroes applauded our efforts, we used to imagine that they’d like to be in there with us.

A clear pecking order even within the North Stand – I never stood right at the top, it would have been discourteous do so, that was where the leaders stood.  You would never start a song, which was the job of the mighty Krispies (he still exists apparently).  You would never contradict a view you heard that you disagreed with.  But despite that, you belonged.

Some great days and nights and memories.  Kurt Nogan scoring a late winner in front of the North at a night match, the first game I took my girlfriend  to sometime in the early nineties (she is now my wife which is somewhat amazing considering that I thought that was a good early date).  Losing four-nil to table-topping Sheffield Wednesday and managing to chant for most of the second half “We’re going to win the League”.  Almost beating Liverpool in a cup replay until Rush and MacMahon turned on the style.  Dean Wilkins (brother of Ray for non-Albion readers) scoring a last minute free kick against Ipswich to take us into the play-offs.  Beating Millwall in the play-off semis.  “Bravely” taunting Leeds fans one lovely sunny day only for the North Stand to scarper back down the Old Shoreham Road once the Leeds support took our invites literally and invaded the pitch, seemingly intent of invasion of our stand (I have never seen a stadium empty so quickly).  Thrashing Luton (then a top flight team) in the cup.  Heroes like Digweed, Keeley, Nelson, Bremner, Chapman, Curbishley, Byrne, Small and of course Crumplin.  And what seemed like every week celebrating Brighton-based celebrities who would be paraded on the pitch – Sir Des of Lynam, Chris Eubank and most surreally Detective Inspector Burnside (Burnside Burnside give us a wave), or at least the actor who played him.

90 enjoyable minutes, even if the football was not always so.  Because those minutes were so far removed from the mundanity of normal life – which for me at this time was school or being home during student holidays (something the more seasoned North Stand congregation would enjoy recognising with the intra-stand banter of “It’s back to school tomorrow”).

Twenty or so years ago.  And then the ground closed in 1997.  Sold, thanks to the actions of a fewindividuals who didn’t love the club (euphemism).  Homeless and so came the wilderness years.  The club lost thousands of fans as it camped first in Gillingham and then at the soulless and non-atmospheric Withdean. 

Fast forward to 2011 since when we (the Albion) have one of the best stadiums in England.  The Amex (or the American Express Community Stadium to give it its full sponsored title).  Padded seats, video screens for replays, good views from everywhere, no surges after a goal, the toilets don’t stink, people don’t smoke, you can buy edible food, we have fan zone on the video screens before the game, Sky Sports in the bars - the edge to the terrace atmosphere has gone but there is still a great atmosphere, it’s just different.  It’s a safe environment where I’m happy to take my Dad and young children.

And our stadium really is amazing.  I’ve visited Elland Road and Anfield in the last few weeks and I’d take our stadium ahead of those two British landmark stadiums any day of the week (although I will add as a footnote that I find the evocative traditional terraced street atmosphere around Anfield something very special to behold, walking through the Shankly gates an almost privileged experience given the history they represent.   And most importantly of all, seeing the Hillsborough Memorial, a rightful and painful reminder of English football’s most tragic day which, as a result of the Taylor Report, led to the all-seater stadia that allow us to now  enjoy football in a safe environment.  A basic right that ‘The 96’ who so awfully lost their lives that day, were so very wrongly denied).

I wouldn’t swap the Amex for the old Goldstone.  That was then and this is now.  But occasionally, just occasionally, I miss the pungent atmosphere of a rocking terrace as a goal goes in, the gallows humour as  a result goes awry.   Rose-tinted spectacles?  Maybe.  But that’s what memories are made of.  Above my desk at home I have a wonderful framed photograph of the North Stand taken by that most brilliant photographer of football stadia, Stuart Clark.  His photos bring memories to life.  And a good long look at that photograph brings those memories very much alive for me.  

If you got this far you must be a Brighton fan.  Or someone who is very tolerant of a lawyer’s musings on a subject he is not qualified to write about.  Thank you for reading this far.  And if you are going to any match today, whoever you support, enjoy, and remember what a beautiful game this is.