So where did we go?
I’ve just finished reading the excellent book “And the Sun Shines Now” which studies the impact of the Hillsborough disaster and the advent of the FA Premier League on how modern football has developed. The book is worth reading if only for the first and final chapters which describe the author’s survival on the fateful day in 1989 and then the final vindication of the families’ campaign for justice for the 96 innocents who died that sunny afternoon. The Taylor Report was a catalyst for change in the game and the book details the chances spurned along the way. The journey from the late eighties certainly sparked some memories for me. Those days are now in sharp focus with how the current game is set up, many of us of a certain age will sometimes look around us on a Saturday afternoon and wonder if the product has become a little sterile, has the match-day atmosphere improved as the stadium facilities have over the years? It’s easy to become nostalgic for how we first watched football. I suppose it’s ever thus. Watching the Martyrs or whatever we were called in the aimless seasons of the early eighties was both easy, we never did anything to excite anyone really, and also dangerous. Our away support often ensuring the local numpties turned up to have a go, if you were at our 2-2 FA Cup draw at Weston-Super-Mare you will recall the majority of the local Bourneville estate walking across the pitch to challenge anyone in a black & white rosette (it was all you could buy in the club shop then which had the same opening hours as Brigadoon). There are other examples across that decade from Cheltenham to Rugby via Atherstone where we had to stand our ground to defend ourselves and the wider support from Merthyr because as usual there would be no stewards and definitely no police presence. It was definitely no different in the professional game either. Policing was a lot more confrontational in the eighties, I can remember going to the Hawthorns one mid-week night to watch West Bromwich Albion play Watford. We went in the away end as it seemed easier at the time. There were only about 100 away fans in that huge terrace behind the goals but there seemed to be as many policemen too who spent the whole match ejecting fans for nothing. It culminated for us in my brother-in-law Mick being eyeballed up close by a copper for the duration of the second half with the threat that if he moved he would be nicked. It was a long night in the West Midlands and that sort of policing set the tone for the decade and how we viewed both the football authorities and the police. The miners’ strike certainly cemented how the police were viewed in our communities; supporters’ buses being stopped on the border to look for flying pickets and maybe one day the police tactics at Orgreave will finally face an enquiry too. It’s often said that it was Gazza’s tears during Italia ’90 that changed how Britain view this dysfunctional game of ours. That may be true for those who have never stood on a cold terrace with an inedible pie in hand, trying to follow the match through barbed wire but for those of us who had endured this nonsense and stayed loyal to our clubs I think it was the realisation amongst us that there was more that united us. As we all redefined the punk ethos of “do it yourself” by producing fanzines that told our stories we ensured that we finally controlled how we reported terrace life so that every fan realised how their experience was repeated throughout the leagues. The Football Supporters Association (FSA) was formed to finally provide a coherent voice for us, I remember seeing Rogan Taylor speaking in Cardiff on how we needed to unite. At that meeting in Cardiff there were probably as many Merthyr fans as City, we had woken up at Penydarren Park. The message was being delivered everywhere and we didn’t miss out in the Pearl. The professional game moved quickly to all-seater stands, TV deals and blanket media coverage. Meanwhile in non-league we carried on with the same grounds, players and ever diminishing crowds as the satellite era took hold of the UK’s attention so that it’s either a live game with Chelsea or X-Factor and its’ contrived competition to satisfy everyone’s weekend needs. I think we’re fighting back now though and we’re beginning to realise that you can’t really beat those eighties days on the terraces if we can remove the aggression and desperation to provide a new experience based on a fresh environment where the sometimes sterile all-seater professional game is forgotten and where you can buy a pint, eat cob & chips, stand where you like and just remember how to enjoy terrace life without the aid of those rose-tinted glasses. It’s better now watching the Martyrs and many football fans from both Cardiff and Swansea are finding their way up Park Terrace to enjoy the familiarity of Penydarren Park, not all are converts as yet but it’s noticeable that our crowds so far this season have been steady around the 500 mark. There is so much for us to gain if we seize the moment and build on how the eighties and maybe even nineties are perceived by many of us. It was pretty dreadful to be honest at times but it was also fun and in that conundrum we have an opportunity to create a new experience for the football fan who wants to try a new but familiar match-day. The club is Merthyr Town FC and we’ll be here for you all.