So many aspects of modern football are nonsensical. The vast web of ethical and logistical issues surrounding the inherently flawed decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar is a topical example. So, too, the negligence of so many directors in steering their clubs headlong into financial catastrophe, despite fully understanding the risk they take in offering players wages that far exceed their clubs’ ability to generate revenue. To those of us observing from afar, it’s the inevitability of some of the game’s woes that is so frustrating to witness. Elsewhere, certain flawed elements of the football sphere exist simply as a manifestation of the prevalence of the status quo. As in wider society, flaws can often only be rectified when people begin to recognise their emergence. The ban of alcohol ‘in view of the pitch’ at football matches in England is one of these cases.
Whether the rapid ambush of change within football is to everyone’s taste or not, the law should (theoretically, of course) be rooted in an objective analysis of the factors influencing the scenario. The matchday experience has changed virtually beyond recognition since 1985, when alcohol consumption within the view of the field of play was banned in England. At the beginning of that year, Mikhail Gorbachev had not yet been installed as the Soviet Union’s final head of state. It is hardly necessary to describe the political changes that have taken place since, both globally and domestically. The major injection of money into football since the inception of the Premier League, coupled with the consequences of the hooliganism and violence that characterised the eighties, has led to a safety-conscious, often sanitary environment in stadiums. The socioeconomic makeup of crowds has also changed in line with the increasing cost of supporting a football team. The affluent middle classes feel that they can attend modern stadiums like the Emirates and the Etihad with their families, with little risk of conflict or danger. To persist with a law imposed in the pre-Taylor Report era seems stubborn and lazy. If the game as a whole is open to such huge, unregulated investment, then it must be equally flexible in exploring and accommodating consequent requirements for change.
Brighton & Hove Albion are a case in point. A ticket for Albion’s next home game costs nearly £40, and the matchday catering offering at the Amex includes £4.00 “gourmet burgers”, award-winning £3.90 “homemade” pies and a £3.90 pint of local Sussex Harveys Real Ale. This could not be more symptomatic of the changes taking place in the composition of football crowds. It is absurd to serve up this gastro pub-inspired fare at half time, but to ask supporters to down their pint of real ale in the 5 minutes between queuing up to buy it and the start of the second half. It’s bad enough downing a warm, watered-down bottle of Fosters before rushing back to your seat.
When the Licencing Act 2003 came into force in 2005, allowing flexible opening hours and the potential for 24 hour drinking, one of the key arguments in its favour was that it would discourage binge drinking by encouraging people to spread their alcohol consumption out over a longer period of time. By abandoning the traditional 11.00pm pub closing time, the perceived need to drink as much as possible before last orders became defunct. There seemed in the implementation of this law an acknowledgement that you can’t hope to curb people’s drinking by imposing draconian restrictions on it. Yet the situation in English football grounds completely contradicts this. Fans, knowing that they won’t be able to drink in their seats, are indirectly encouraged to drink as much as they can before the game, and to drink their half time pint as quickly as they possibly can. The current law within football reinforces an approach to drinking that the wider law effectively condemns.
Evidence cited by Geoff Pearson in his excellent article Alcohol and Football Crowd Behaviour shows that “alcohol restrictions…did not have a significant impact upon levels of alcohol consumption. Where fans were part of a match-going culture based upon social drinking, the restrictions would typically not reduce the amount of alcohol consumed”. He suggests that supporters tend to amend their routine to facilitate drinking when faced with alcohol restrictions – usually resulting in avoidable pre-match binge drinking. Pearson also highlights evidence that appears to show that alcohol is not necessarily conducive to violent behaviour or hooliganism at matches. If academic research suggests that restrictions are futile, are we simply witnessing an unsubstantiated infringement on individual liberty based on outdated stereotypes?
The fact that spectators of Cricket or Rugby Union are free to drink while they watch further reinforces the need for parity. The announcement earlier this year detailing which football stadiums had been selected to host games at the 2015 Rugby World cup in England demonstrated how ridiculous it is that a Newcastle United or Leeds United season ticket holder, used to being unable to drink alcohol in his seat, will be able to sit in the same seat clutching a pint of beer, simply because the sport in front of him involves an egg-shaped ball instead of a spherical one.
The England cricket team’s Barmy Army are famed for following their team around the world, partly motivated by the enviable pastime of standing around in the sun drinking beer. Unlike football fans, they are celebrated rather than vilified for wanting to do so. Understandably the past colours people’s thinking, but lazy stereotyping of football fans is unhelpful. The Barmy Army, if anything, should be held up as an example of how a liberal stance on alcohol can help to facilitate a vibrant, positive crowd. Manchester United’s decision to trial an artificially created ‘singing section’ in their upcoming Champions League game against Real Sociedad highlights the increasing issue of reserved, unenthusiastic football crowds.
2013 has seen the gradual emergence of a consensus that it is time for a re-evaluation of alcohol prohibition in stadiums. Simon Clegg, the former chief executive of both Ipswich Town and the British Olympic Association, has been vocal in calling for a re-think, and has proposed a system whereby responsibility for regulation is delegated to a regional level, taking into account individual circumstances. Is it, for example, fair to place sanctions on fans attending a low-risk fixture, with no history of trouble? Conversely, it would be naïve to potentially put fans at risk at a game where there have been multiple instances of violence in the past. Clegg’s proposal seems reasonable, but any changes would have to be carefully considered. The English game has moved on immeasurably since the seventies and eighties, but that is not to say that trouble does not still occur, and the safety of supporters and players clearly must not be compromised.
A similar debate is also taking place in Scotland, where alcohol is banned from stadiums entirely. The leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, has argued that football is “a far more civilised experience than it was 30 years ago”, and highlights the potential revenue boost for financially struggling Scottish league clubs, were they permitted to sell alcohol. This is an argument that can be extended to the English leagues, where the chasm between the elite and the rest is growing at an alarming rate. The impact of Financial Fair Play regulations means that lower league clubs are more reliant than ever on revenue from matchday food and drink sales. If relaxing the law to allow fans to drink in their seats meant that 50% of attendees bought one additional drink, this would still make a significant difference in some clubs’ Darwinian annual fight for survival.
For those in charge of the FA and the Premier League, applying caution to anything that might damage their ‘product’ is understandable. Any opportunity for the blood-hungry, working class-hating tabloid press to portray a ‘return to the dark ages’ would doubtless be pounced upon. But the evidence suggests that relaxing the law would not result in hooliganism at all, let alone to the extent of the eighties. There has been a profound cultural and societal shift since then, and allowing people the option of sitting down in their £50 seat with a pint will not reverse that. Fans are owed the freedom to take responsibility for their actions, and a successful re-think would be a striking way of highlighting to those commentators who persist with typecasting football how far the sport has moved on.