I started doing a bit of stewarding work last week, to pay the bills. My first shift was at the City ground, just down the road from me, where Forest were playing Hull City. As we sat down for briefing, before the stadium started to fill up, the great red stands looming all around me, the pitch a perfect carpet of green, footballers spraying passes to each other juggling effortlessly, it felt overwhelmingly like a decent place to work. Much better than working in a restaurant, with other people and their food, or a warehouse with the pallets and the endless packaging, which I’ve always despised in the past.
The Important Forest Official (green and orange high vis) told us about the details of the match. ‘The Hull lot aren’t particularly troublesome, can be known to set off the odd flare so keep your wits about you…’ So I was to be in the Hull end. Which I liked. Generally, being an away fan is always a far more exciting experience than being among the home supporters, being vastly outnumbered, yet much more united than the opposition. Home ends are often quiet, dull, empty-seated experiences. Hence the ubiquitous away chant, ‘is this a library? Is this a library? Is this a library?’
Before the man finished, he reminded us to make sure we checked tickets, because one of the principal problems crowd control faces is fans deliberately disregarding their allocated seats, and overcrowding certain areas. He said, ‘make sure you are constantly checking the aisle for encroaching feet, telling people to stay clear; THE AISLES MUST REMAIN CLEAR AT ALL TIMES.’
Cut to 2.50, and I am unable to move, in the heart of a sea of rowdy, standing Hull fans, blocking up the aisle. I tried redirecting, but there is only so much one man can do, after the floodgates open. After the aisle was well and truly breached, all I could do was stand there, and via my luminous yellow presence, try and ensure nothing untoward went down.
It was bizarre, being on the other side, on that of the event staff, not the baying mob, as I was accustomed. For example, a few times, as the Hull players came over and clapped the fans, I felt an instinctual urge to clap as well, and had to shun myself at the last moment. This happened all the way through with chants as well.
But what became apparent was the difficulty of the task, to try and control hundreds of excited, possibly drunk fans with little regard for the place they are in. They are so many, and we: so few. It comes down to strong organisation, and perhaps a bit of luck too, but mostly because fans are good. Football fans, though not always the best behaved, agreeable types, largely just want to be left alone, and most of the things they want to do, such as aggressively curse and issue wanking gestures to the opposition fans and vape, are harmless.
This brings me to a larger feeling that I have developed in recent years. When I was younger, and perhaps more ‘instinctually ‘left leaning’, with ignorant utopian ideals about society, I expected everything to go perfectly, and when it didn’t I expected it to be torn down, and rebuilt. But as you become older and smarter, you experience more things, and naturally realise that it is a miracle that any complex systems in society work at all; public transport, hospitality, policing, welfare, education, even the DVLA. And perhaps, sometimes you feel gratitude. In a lot of countries in 2021, these institutions don’t work at all.
The only times I felt it necessary to intervene was when some degenerate kid started standing on his seat, and later, when he decided to rhythmically boot it in order to rouse the away fans. The only slightly rough part was when Hull scored the opener, and some highly-charged old bloke, as robust as a rottweiler, started throwing his weight around, and inadvertently punched me in the eye. But that’s part and parcel of the experience. The Hull city fans were exceptional, ad in great voice, even as they floundered toward defeat.
It’s all good fun.