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Safe standing: a matter of life and death?

Bill Shankly

The mighty Bill Shankly

When one of history’s most famous football managers uttered one of history’s most famous football quotes, some accused him of hyperbole. Some still do. I don’t think they get it.

‘Football is not just a matter of life and death: it’s much more important than that.’ Bill Shankly

Spurs fans may know this more than most. Like football on Merseyside, the game in north London has its origins firmly rooted in the Church. Unwittingly perhaps, men of the cloth helped nurture what was to become a new form of fervour and devotion, eclipsing their own religion.

If you know your history, so the song goes, you’ll know that Spurs grew out of All Hallows, Tottenham’s original parish church situated a stone’s throw from Bruce Castle.

A group of local grammar school cricketers had approached their Bible class teacher there, the Reverend John Ripsher, to organise them into a football team. They wanted to keep in touch and keep themselves busy during the long winter months.

Rev. John Ripsher. Great beard.

Of course, money was tight in the early days. Revenue from Satellite TV was a long way off, and the boys sometimes worried they might not even afford a ball on match days. Ripsher assured them the Lord would provide. And, sure enough, he’d turn up, with one – perhaps two – under his arm.

The father of Spurs always stood by those pioneering young Spurs, despite them letting him down often; getting into fights, getting drunk and thrown out of pubs… even getting caught playing cards in church on occasion, heaven help us!

Of course, mischief making has a long, long history on the mean streets and estates of Tottenham. Then as now, local youngsters needed a sense of pride, purpose and belonging. They found all that and more under Ripsher’s firm leadership and moral guidance.

And not just the players but also hundreds of other locals who’d started following the team’s exploits on the Tottenham Marshes. And then those hundreds turned into thousands – and then tens of thousands – as the club moved to its spiritual home at White Hart Lane.

Then as now, Tottenham was a poor area. Working class commuters were settling there, attracted by cheap fairs into Liverpool Street on the recently established railway line. Most had precious little time and precious little money.

Then as now, football was a positive diversion, a reason to stay on the straight and narrow. In a real sense, for many local young men, Spurs made life worth living.

Tottenham Hotspur Football Club’s hugely important role in the local community continued for a whole century, right through till my day as a teenager, in the early 1980s. Not much had changed for the club’s devoted followers since White Hart Lane had been established.

Many if not most young supporters would walk there on match day; we still lived near enough: large mobs of us, from all the local schools, marching proudly to the ground. Tottenham was our area as well as our club. We’d queue up outside the Boys Entrance an hour before kick off and pay our 90p before flocking together in The Shelf, The Park Lane or even The Paxton.

A blue and white sea of passionate young Spurs – most no older than our on-pitch heroes ­– willingly packed inside the ground, our feet, quite literally on occasion, not touching it.

We’d sing our hearts out from way before kick-off to the very end. Every thrill and spill on the pitch resonating loudly off it as we pushed and pulled – our selves and our team ­– back and forward, forward and back.

I eventually got a Saturday job in a local department store so could only get to mid-week games, but there were plenty of those. And my Spurs fix cost less than 10% of my £11 weekly income. Happy days!

Fast-forward to 2012. A seat now will set you back around £50, as much as a teenager can earn in a day, that’s if they’re lucky enough to have a Saturday job.

No way would I have been able to see a match in such circumstances – nor would many thousands of others like me…

On the odd occasion I visit White Hart Lane these days, it seems many, if not most, fellow spectators are near my own (now middle) age. The few teenagers around seem to be chaperoned by their fathers or grandfathers.

This sad state of affairs was brought home recently on The Fighting Cock Forum when a 19-year-old fan appealed for other youngsters to make themselves known, so they might all congregate together for games. Other youngsters posted to say they rarely attended because of the cost – and when they did manage to they rarely came across others their own age.

Where have we got to since 1882? Where has football got to, when the very people it was established to give a sense of pride, purpose and belonging can no longer afford to get to the games and enjoy them en masse?

I can’t smile without you… so the song goes. But if youngsters can’t afford it, what choice do they have?

It’s worth noting that suicide has become the biggest killer of young men. Substantially more take their own lives than are killed in road accidents or through knife and gun crime. According to the Office of National Statistics there were more than 3,000 male suicides in England and Wales in 2010. Of those, nearly 30% were aged between 15 and 35, three times more than for women in the same demographic.

Societal breakdown is one explanation for these worrying statistics, with social isolation identified as a major risk factor. As the recession bites and unemployment rises, young men seemingly have less and less opportunities for meaningful contact with others, less and less opportunities to release their pent up emotions.

Has the prohibitive cost of attending matches contributed to this? Who can say?

What’s more certain is that the religion of football may itself now be unwittingly sowing the seeds of its own demise, sacrificing longer-term sustainability for short-term greed.

Where is the next generation of supporter going to come from, at home or even abroad for that matter, if passionate local teenagers aren’t given the opportunity to get addicted to their local club? If they aren’t given the opportunity to let off steam and create an irresistible atmosphere, both within the stadium as well as for the worldwide television audience… like how their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers were able to, in the good old days?

Safe – and inexpensive – standing may provide the answer. Tottenham Hotspur Football Club – all football clubs – need to look at this seriously.

It’s not just a matter of life and death: it’s much more important than that.

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