Written by: Mark Richards of Heroes & Villains
I remember standing on the Witton End, wide-eyed at the colours and the noise that were all around me. I can see in my mind’s eye even now the size of the Holte End, and the way it used to gradually fill up, then at about half past two the singing would start.
Like everyone else who used to stand there I can remember how we used to run round, in and out of the crowd, ignoring the match and enjoying ourselves by running up and down the bank at the back. Except we probably never did, because anybody who behaved like that would probably have had a clip round the ear from some miserable old git we’d bumped into then another one when we ran back to tell our dad what had just happened. I know there used to be some trouble on there but we never saw any of it; the closest we got to violence was when my dad threatened to thump somebody who turned up at five to three once and tried to push in front of us.
I remember in 1977 how we moved away because the Witton was being demolished to make way for the brand-new state of the art North Stand – and it says how long ago this all was when you think that such an out of date eyesore was then the most modern in the country. It had that goalpost design and the AV seats – no other club had ever done that before. Me and my dad and a couple of his mates moved into the Trinity Road downstairs, where if you were lucky you could see the ball when it went past the halfway line on our side of the pitch. I spent a couple of seasons there, stuck by some other moaning old git and his wife, who tutted loudly every time my dad used ‘unseemly’ language or I jumped up when Brian Little did a bit of aqua-pedestrianisation.
We gave up after about 1979. My dad never was one for sitting down at the match and I was old enough by then to persuade him that I could be trusted to go to the match on my own, or rather with a bunch of carefully-vetted mates from school. He was getting a bit fed up of football by then and to be honest I think he’d only kept going because he loved taking me. When I started thinking that going to the match with your dad was the uncoolest thing in the playground he had the perfect excuse to spend more time on his allotment.
So there we were, our little mob of half a dozen or so, depending on how the pocket money was panning out and which mom could be talked into emptying her purse to make up the difference. Fred Perry, Harrington and Doc Marten; the Holy Trinity of late seventies matchwear. We used to stand at the back of the Holte, singing, swaying and making plans to go to away matches we knew we’d never go to. Everyone was there because they wanted to be. If you wanted to stand where it was quieter you’d go further down. If you were getting on a bit you’d be in the seats. Everybody knew their place and everybody was happy.
I stood on the Holte for another fifteen years until it was forced to be knocked down. We all know the reason why – Hillsborough and the Taylor Report. This isn’t the place to go into that particular can of worms; it was obviously a face-saver for the government to scrap the identity cards nonsense that they were threatening us with but I could never understand why the bigger terraces like the Holte had to go.
Hillsborough happened because too many people were stuck into too small a space, with fences stopping them from escaping. The Holte, and the Kop, the South Bank at Wolves and the rest, didn’t have that problem. If you were a bit crowded where you were standing you could walk a few yards and be happy again. So why couldn’t we carry on doing what we’d been doing for almost a hundred years? I didn’t know then and I don’t know now, but I do think that it had something to do with the destruction of working-class communities and lifestyles that had almost been completed by the mid-nineties. The ruffians went to football and gathered on the terraces. Get rid of them and you can have a nice, safe, middle-class pastime that more importantly the business classes can make money from.
We know that Hillsborough could have happened to any of us, particularly on the semi-open prison conditions that made up many away ends of the time. But, and here I enter into controversial territory, part of the reason for how we were treated was how we behaved. We might not all have been hooligans, but that sort of behaviour was tolerated right up until Hillsborough, and in some cases for a few years after that. We thought it was all a bit of a laugh, part of going to the match. And for our part, looking back me and the lads I went down with used to be a right pain in the arse if you happened to be standing where we were. We’d jump up and down, bump into anyone around, and have mock fights. It was how we enjoyed ourselves and like kids down the ages, if you didn’t want to be a part of it that was just your bad luck. In the words of Fr. Fintan Stack, I had my fun. And that’s all that matters.
By the time I was entering my thirties I’d moved down to a more sedate part of the Holte, sometimes standing with my dad on the odd occasion when he turned up. Even in his sixties he preferred to stand than go in the seats. I enjoyed the packed celebrations of Inter and Tranmere but deep down I know the terraces had to go. Our enjoyment was nothing compared to 96 lives and nobody was ever going to take the risk of another tragedy on whatever scale.
But that was then. 25 years ago. The world has changed. Nobody talks about working-class communities and pastimes now. Thankfully, nobody goes to the match hoping to come back in one piece. Nobody goes into the ground hoping that it won’t be them that a particular policeman takes a dislike to, so that the first time they look the wrong way they’ll be out on the street, probably with a few slaps to go with it. Supporters, or customers to be more accurate, won’t put with that sort of behaviour anymore although we do have to put up with the aggravating bastard we’re stuck next to, or in front of, for the next ninety minutes.
And still people talk about returning to what they now call safe standing. In fact the calls are getting louder and it now seems inevitable that areas for standing will become the exception rather than the norm for every new ground that’s built. When a club such as Spurs, the last word in corporate football, can make allowances for the common man, or as close as they’re ever going to get, you know that something’s afoot.
It’s not going to be perfect, because we’ll all have our own allocated space so you won’t be able to wander around at will. But it’s better than nothing.
Personally, I’m sad that its happened too late for me. My dad went to the match because his dad took him and they could stand together watching the War Cup final and all those matches after the war when sixty thousand paid in and another ten thousand kids snuck under the turnstiles while the firm but fair bobby was looking the other way. My dad took me. But I was never able to take my lads down the match in the same way. No matter how much I filled them with pop and crisps, they got bored after a bit (hardly surprising as this was the end days of John Gregory and then David O’Leary) and there was no grass bank to slide down. They had to sit there and it was no wonder that after a couple of times they didn’t want to go anymore.
One of them has no interest in football now while the other goes to the odd match when the mood takes. People who’ve been Sky-washed into thinking that football is some sort of a religion assume that I must be disappointed but I’m not. It’s their lives and if they don’t want the Villa to be a part of them, then so be it. But if they’d been able to stand with me during their formative years then things might have been different, perhaps when they have kids my grandchildren will go down the match with me. But in the meantime we have an opportunity to embrace the future while acknowledging the past and when that new North Stand gets built, which please God it surely must soon, it needs to have a proper standing area. At the back, with a bit of grass behind it.
H&V no. 240 is it now and available at https://shop.exacteditions.com/gb/heroes-and-villains