The worst kept secret at Upton Park is the coded message to stewards that there is an incident somewhere in the ground that needs their immediate attention.
There is an almighty cheer every time it is announced that Mr Moon is in the stadium – and an equally loud one when it is revealed that he has left again. It’s such a natural occurrence – like the rising of the tides and the setting of the sun – that regulars don’t think to mention it to newcomers when they introduce them to the delights of a Saturday afternoon at the Boleyn Ground. I certainly didn’t give it a moment’s thought when I persuaded my close friend and best man to come along and see his first home game. Perhaps I should have. His surname is Moon.
We were sitting quietly in the old West Stand when the oh-so-familiar announcement was made. As is the custom, the crowd roared as if a pantomime villain had suddenly appeared before us. I roared. My wife roared. My father-in-law roared. And my mate nearly jumped out of his skin. It takes a lot to rattle a man who has been brought up near Wigan but Mr Moon was clearly shaken by 20,000-plus people cheering the fact he had taken the trouble to come to the stadium that day.
His look of utter astonishment will live with me ‘til the day I die. Then his expression changed slightly. He clearly thought I had something to do with it! All right, I was helpless with laughter and my denials must have lacked a certain amount of sincerity – but how could I have pulled that one off? I admit he did have grounds for suspicion. What else is a best mate for if it’s not to be on the wrong end of a practical joke from time to time?
The Real Mr Moon and I worked on the Daily Express at the time, and one of our colleagues was an obsessive long-distance runner. He wanted to put together a team to represent the paper in the London Marathon, and was looking for volunteers. Somebody (it might have been me) let it slip that my mate had been a champion fell runner in his native Lancashire and would be an ideal candidate for the team. The only problem was that he was ridiculously modest about his achievements and would deny them if pressed.
But don’t be put off, I told our athletic workmate, you’ll talk him round in the end. And, whatever you do, don’t tell him where you got your information – he’ll never forgive me if he finds out it was me who divulged the glories of his past. My modest friend did deny his achievements, just as I had predicted. That might have been because I had made them up – I’m not sure they even have fells in Lancashire, to be honest.
But that didn’t deter Marathon Man, who pestered the Real Mr Moon for weeks, leaving him increasingly baffled about why his pursuer wouldn’t take no for an answer. I readily accept this isn’t the funniest prank that anyone has played on a mate, but it amused me. (I like a running gag). The Real Mr M had only recently found out the truth and now here he was in Upton Park for the first time, convinced that I had just concocted a far more elaborate practical joke than the one he had just endured.
This was a few months before the tragedy at Hillsborough, which was to change the face of football for ever. We were seated, but that was through choice. There were still several parts of Upton Park where it was possible to stand – behind both goals and in the lower section of the East Stand, for example. The Taylor Report, written rapidly in response to Hillsborough, put paid to that. The needless deaths of 96 Liverpool supporters stunned the nation – and as so often happens in such terrible times there was the universal feeling that “something must be done”.
It’s true that far too many football grounds were dangerously dilapidated. The lessons of the tragic 1985 Bradford fire had been ignored. In many instances the terraced areas into which supporters were herded resembled bomb sites. There were times at away games when it felt that we were being caged like animals as clubs put up the sort of fences that were to contribute to so much loss of life in South Yorkshire on the fateful day of April 15, 1989.
Something did need to be done. Those old stadiums had to be renovated or replaced and the facilities had to be improved. But Taylor never really understood the full story. The key change – and one that has still to fully come about – is for the authorities to stop regarding supporters as an enemy that must be brought to heel and start treating us as the key component in a multi-billion pound industry. That requires respect – from governments, from the owners of clubs, from the police, even from the stewards who are too quick to forget what it is they are there to do.
They could all begin by giving the “safe standing” campaign the consideration it deserves. As things stand, you can’t. Stand, that is. Not at a Premiership ground anyway. Teams promoted to the Championship don’t have to enforce all-seater rules for three years, but if they fail to do so within the time limit they can’t compete in the division. And standing is not permitted at European games. The people championing the idea of safe standing – notably the Football Supporters’ Federation – are adamant they don’t want to see a return to the vast open terraces of the 1970s and 1908s. And those of us who stood on those crumbling death-traps, waiting for the idiots at the back to set off a nerve-jangling human tidal wave by pushing the people in front of them, or the waterfall of piss that began at half-time and was sometimes still trickling underfoot at the final whistle, will say hear-hear to that.
But, more than 20 years after Taylor called for allseater stadiums, some people do still want to stand at football matches. West Ham supporters do it in unison at away games – and some do it at home fixtures too, usually to the annoyance of those sitting behind them. The answer, says the FSF, is an arrangement that is proving increasing popular in some parts of the world, particularly Germany, known as rail seating.
The technology varies slightly from system to system, but the general idea is that in limited areas of the ground there are seats which can fold up flush with their metal housing, and then be locked in the upright position. The structure which encases the seats comes with a high back and a rail, which gives the row of supporters behind something to lean on. You buy a ticket for the seat and stand in front of it – unless your club happens to be involved in a Champions League game and then the seats are unlocked and you sit down. Until your team scores of course, and then you stand up again.
The FSF wants to give the idea a trial run in the UK, which seems eminently reasonable to me. The fact that the Mr Moon announcement is always greeted with merriment at Upton Park indicates that our ground is not the hotbed of seething violence that some people depict. It’s not a library, but that doesn’t mean supporters should be treated like naughty children who might start misbehaving if they aren’t made to sit down. Those who want to stand should be allowed to do so in a way that doesn’t affect the enjoyment of the people around them. (We have a bunch of highly paid players whose job it is to ensure we don’t enjoy ourselves.)
At the very least, there should be a pilot scheme to see how it works in practice. Only one Premiership club has come out in favour so far. The good news is, they play in claret and blue. The bad news is, it isn’t us. There are a number of Championship clubs who are interested, and an assortment of politicians, police officers and safety specialists have given the plan their blessing. But, in general, the response among those at the top ranges from lukewarm to downright hostile.
One of the most powerful voices to speak out against safe standing belongs to Margaret Aspinall, who is chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, which fought so hard to get belated justice for the 96 who died – and were then blamed by some for bringing about the tragedy. One of the victims was her son James, who was just 18. “There are 96 reasons why it should not be allowed,” she says. “Standing should never, ever come back. I don’t think there is anything safe about standing.”
I believe the Hillsborough Family Support Group fought an awesome campaign to ensure the truth finally came to light. But I’m not sure she’s right about this. History must never forget the victims of Hillsborough – nor the reasons for their deaths. But the mere fact those poor people were standing was not a significant factor in the disaster that befell them. What’s more, the technology has moved on to enable those who prefer not to sit be offered a viable alternative. You may appreciate that seat Lord Justice Taylor thought you should have, but I urge you to support those who don’t. So, come on brothers and sisters, stand up and be counted.