In April 1987, Glenn Hoddle rounded off 13 years at White Hart Lane with an individual goal in a 3-1 win over Oxford United that sent the crowd into raptures. A week or so shy of my sixth birthday, I joined my dad among them for the first time. Then, and in the years that followed, it didn’t occur to me that I was often the only little girl to be seen amid rows of men and boys in club scarves, but I remember seemingly huge members of the throng–strangers–would happily lift me over heads to the front, from where I could see most of the action, and form a barrier to stop me being crushed as the crowd pushed forward.
They were gentlemanly and protective, at least until Spurs scored, at which point they might forget themselves; away to Oldham in the FA Cup, I had to be taken out of the crowd having been accidentally knocked out by an especially lively celebration. It remains one of my fondest football memories, however, because the St John Ambulance crew took me past the dugout, where Paul Gascoigne leaned forward and asked, with a wink and a grin, if I was OK. Sod concussion!
These are some of my most treasured moments as a young football supporter accumulating match-day savvy, but there are plenty that lack such warm, sepia tones. At that time, and for a long while beyond, not only was the average crowd overwhelmingly male, it was also predominantly white: after signing for Liverpool in 1987, John Barnes was subjected to racist chants, monkey noises and bananas being tossed onto the pitch towards him by opposing fans.
Terraces–no longer the piss-drenched slabs of concrete they had been, but not far past that–could be bristling places on the brink of violence that often erupted as the stadiums emptied after full time. “Make sure you shove your scarf in your pocket, hold my hand and walk as fast as you can. Don’t talk about the game until we get to the car.” Running to keep up, I secretly found it quite exciting, but I almost certainly failed to grasp how ugly clashes between two sets of supporters could be.
So the latest figures released by the Premier League, which show that top-flight crowds in the 2008-09 season were more diverse than ever, make for pleasant reading. Some 19% of seats were occupied by women (who account for a third of supporters that started attending matches in the last five years), and 8% by black or ethnic minorities (who account for 16% of the new attendees); 13% of season tickets sold during that campaign were to juniors (up from 10% in 2004-05). I don’t make a habit of agreeing with the Premier League chief executive, Richard Scudamore, but he’s right to hail the figures as “hugely encouraging, because it confirms the hard work that we and the clubs have put into improving the quality of experience both on and off the pitch”.
There are plenty who would quibble with that assessment of what happens on the pitch; as early as its first season, the Observer’s Hugh McIlvanney described the Premier League’s “lamentable mediocrity”, and those dedicated to the glories of the 1960s and 70s (and some besides) find it hard to abide the 24-hour soap opera that Sky Sports perpetuates. But there’s no doubting that the Premier League has made football more accessible to groups that were often invisible, sometimes endangered at grounds as recently as 20 years ago.
In that short time, efforts such as the Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football campaign and the implementation of the Taylor report (which, in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster, recommended all-seater stadiums) have tamed the worst of the game’s tribalist culture with enough success–not only do more women, children and ethnic minorities now attend, but arrests at all league matches in 2008-09 numbered around a third of the total in 1988-89–to now shift its sights to tackling the ongoing problem of homophobia.
This gentrification of the game isn’t universally well-liked: the proliferation of corporate hospitality seats has added “prawn sandwich brigade” to football’s vocabulary, while there are still supporters who would prefer to have the option of standing (something that a number of stadia in Germany have managed safely, but is unlikely to be seriously considered here). It would be terrific to be able to get a ticket and a programme for a “category A” match for less than £50. But few can genuinely pine for the days of being pressed against steel fences, dodging missiles containing dubious-looking liquids. I’ll take looking around a ground and seeing all kinds of people communing in the joy of a great goal or the despair of defeat on a soggy December evening any day.