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Time to bring alcohol back to the stands?

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Daniel Storey writes on the issue of alcohol in grounds – does the ban on drinking within view of the pitch make sense in the context of the modern game?

All season the virtues of the Bundesliga have been preached to us, driving many to unadulterated jealousy. An ownership model that stops fans being exploited, comparatively cheap tickets to watch high quality football and a stadium atmosphere that is almost incomparable outside of South America all combine to form an attractive package, and then comes the cherry on top – fans can enjoy such positives with a beer in their hand. Whilst watching the game.

Such a status quo seems alien to English football supporters, given the banning of alcohol consumption while watching football was introduced in 1985. This prohibited not only the possession of alcoholic products when entering the ground, but also consumption “within view of the pitch.”

The reasoning behind such sanctions was clear. English football was enduring its worst hooliganism epidemic in the game’s history, and May 1985 saw two particularly unsavoury incidents. Firstly, on May 11, a 14-year-old boy died at St Andrews when police were forced to push back fans after violence between Leeds United and Birmingham City supporters. And then came Heysel, and the crushing to death of 39 Juventus fans under a wall that had collapsed after retreat from Liverpool hooligans. English clubs were banned from European competition for five years, and such behaviour needed to be seriously addressed.

It is important, though, to remember that Heysel happened 28 years ago, and English football is a vastly altered beast. All-seater stadiums and rising ticket prices may have effectively eradicated the opportunity for working class families to attend, but it has also helped to curb the loutish element within a large percentage of clubs. Perhaps Hillsborough changed our conception of how football matches should be attended, or maybe we all just grew up a bit, an increase in disposable income and standard of living lowering society’s desire to rage against the machine. Morons remain, and always will, but now make up the minute minority.

In such cases where idiocy is displayed, banning orders are swiftly issued to deal with the perpetrators after complaint by police force or Crown Prosecution Service, and the availability of prison sentences for the breaking of an order has dissuaded the proven lowlife to stay away.

The Home Office’s arrest statistics for 2011/12 demonstrate the effective elimination of football hooliganism across the board. Football arrests had dropped by 24% from 2010/11, and figures calculated that one arrest was made for every 15,782 supporters, and covered a wide range of offences over an extended period of time, before, after and during a match.

But whilst football, its fans and its place in society have all shifted markedly, the ban on consuming alcohol remains.

Is this not rather out of touch? A fan can drink on a five-hour train journey to a match, go to a designated away pub for an hour before the game, even drink at the bar in the back of many grounds’ stands, but for the 45 minutes either side of half-time (when alcohol levels can be topped up) we have a blanket ban on intake. If that seems ridiculous, then the cap fits.

Furthermore, football is the only sport in which such a ban exists. You can attend a rugby match or sit and drink continuously for nine hours in a cricket ground, a pastime that is actively encouraged, so why not football? Are football fans really such animals that we cannot be trusted with the frothy stuff for fear of dribbling out onto the pitch or resorting to brawls with our neighbour? It all seems rather archaic.

Consider the example of the KC Stadium in Hull. On 2nd April, Watford fans travelled to watch their side play Hull City, a game watched by 20,043 people, none of whom (to labour the point) could drink while the game was in progress. Just three days earlier, the stadium had hosted a rugby league match between Hull FC and their greatest rivals, Hull Kingston Rovers. This derby game was watched by 19,064 fans, all of whom were free to consume until their heart was content and their liver doubtless discontent. That seems strange for such similar sporting scenarios.

That is certainly the view of Simon Clegg, the former Chief Executive of Ipswich Town, who is leading a campaign for the current law to be repealed. In an open letter to FA chairman David Bernstein and Football League chairman Greg Clarke, Clegg insists that fans “continue to be treated differently to other supporter groups in British society.”

I can see Clegg’s point. I’m not suggesting that we have a free-for-all, but different games have hugely diverse policing requirements, so why not drinking regulations? The time for a trial period has surely arrived at certain, low-risk fixtures: the 74% of games that saw no arrests last season, or the 64% that required no police presence, perhaps?

As unthinkable as it was 28 years ago, football has thankfully reached a point where some football grounds now have mixed areas for certain matches. Opposing fans sat together, without fear of mass violence. Women, children and families now feel that (if they can afford to do so) a football match is no longer the last bastion of raucous loutishness and to be avoided at all costs. With that in mind, surely it’s time to rethink such an antiquated measure, and allow fans to have a mid-match drink? After all, it might be as close to the joy of German spectatorship as we will get.

Daniel Storey is a freelance football writer who can usually be found on Football365 and Sky Sports. You can give him a follow on Twitter here.

The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed on this blog are those of the author – they don’t necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn’t be attributed to the FSF. Have your say below and play nice…


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