There are a number of adjustments that we will all have to make now that we have been promoted to the upper echelon of non-league football, and for me personally the most frustrating change is going to be that none of our supporters will be able to drink alcohol when they are in ‘view of the pitch’.
Yes, you did read that right - this now takes effect at all first team games, exactly the same as we have all got used to when we play FA Cup matches.
After five years of being able to walk into any of our four bar areas here at the Gallagher Stadium order a drink and casually either stand and chat or sit down and consume the contents while watching the game has now gone – it is not allowed at this level under the control of alcohol Act which came into force in England and Wales in 1985.
It is my opinion that there are now a couple of very valid reasons why this Act should be revisited. The first is that without doubt the average match day experience has changed significantly since banning football supporters from consuming alcohol ‘in view of the pitch’ happened back in the 80s. And yet, nearly 30 years later, it still remains the case that drinking and watching football while cheering on your team is a crime potentially punishable by a prison sentence!
Even grounds at our level now bear little resemblance to the pre-Premier League environment of the 1970s and 1980s. The make-up of crowds has shifted dramatically. The affluent middle classes feel that they can attend football stadiums with their families, with little risk of encountering danger.
Secondly, there is a very clear disparity with other sports. Why should a Rugby supporter be able to drink a pint while sitting in their usual seat, simply because the game in front of them involves an egg-shaped ball rather than a spherical one? Or similarly the Barmy Army, famed for following the England cricket team all over the world, are lauded for their drinking culture; yet lazy stereotypes associating England football fans with alcohol-fuelled hooliganism persist. If there remains concern that drinking alcohol while watching football matches poses any more risk than doing so while at rugby or cricket, such a view needs in my opinion to be objectively re-evaluated and substantiated.
The justification for the more general Licensing Act in 2003, which allows premises the option of flexible opening hours and the potential for 24-hour drinking, was that it would discourage binge drinking by enabling people to spread their alcohol consumption over a longer period. This more liberal approach was a welcome acknowledgement that the out dated restrictions aren’t necessarily the most effective way of influencing behaviour.
However, this legislation contradicts the situation which we are all going to have to face in the Gallagher Stadium, where our fans will be indirectly encouraged to drink as much as they can, as quickly as they can before the match and at half time, to compensate for not being allowed to do so while the match is taking place. In this contradiction lies an inherent, outdated suggestion that football fans are unworthy of the privileges enjoyed by the general public at Rugby and Cricket.
There is pressure on non-league clubs to be self-sufficient; revenue generated from match day food and drink sales has become more crucial. I believe that relaxing the pitch side alcohol ban could make a difference to clubs’ like ours quest for survival.
In the current, vicious political climate, it is inevitable that some tabloids would sensationalise the idea of reversing the legislation as a gateway to the return to the hooliganism of the 1980s, but evidence contradicts that. The assumption that football fans can’t control themselves is again in my opinion an antique relic that bears little relevance to supporters of today.
But we are for now where we are and all of our supporters understand the law of the land and more importantly the rules that abide here now at National League level. We all understand that we will have to adapt to an FA Cup type mode every week and behave accordingly. But it still doesn’t make it right and I hope that someone, somewhere, more powerful than me argues the case with the authorities sooner than later, as I have seen nothing wrong with our clubs approach to drinking over the past five years that warrants this change in approach.