Life throws up some glorious combinations: Lennon and McCartney, bacon and eggs, Xavi and Iniesta, Paul Chow and the FA Vase, Derek and Clive, Watson and Crick, Bunk and McNulty, and, not least, beer and football.
Unless, in the latter case, you have the misfortune to be a football fan in modern-day Britain, where the Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act 1985 restricts the sale and consumption of alcohol in designated sports grounds on the following basis:
Glasses, Glass bottles or cans containing alcohol are not permitted outside of the Clubhouse and MUST NOT be brought into the grounds. NO ALCOHOL is to be consumed in the ground or premises during the period of any match, except as may be governed by the terms of the club licence with regard to its own members, but, not withstanding such, NO ALCOHOL is to be taken or consumed outside the licensed clubhouse or any other authorised area during such match period or brought into the ground.
Which, translated from the legalese, means supporters have absolutely no chance of enjoying an open-air beer. Or does it? As this makes clear, the rules only strictly apply to grounds at Conference level and above. In practice, any club in the Blue Square North and South can make an application to the FA for permission to serve (and allow their fans to drink) alcohol in view of the pitch (below that, aside from FA-organised cup competitions, it really shouldn’t be an issue for anyone but the clubs themselves). A seemingly radical step, perhaps, but one which, as Stuart Fuller, a director at Isthmian Premier League side Lewes, points out, comes with several major benefits to non-league football clubs:
“For an average home game the equivalent of 400 pints will be served to a crowd of around 600. We are very lucky to have Harvey’s Brewery as a club sponsor so we get our beer at a very good price. They also give us a 36 pint polypin to give away to every away club we visit this season. There hasn’t been an arrest inside the ground for over five years so I understand. We are currently looking at options as to how we can serve beer on the open terrace without fans having to walk all the way around the pitch to get a pint.”
Ryton and Crawcrook sponsored by Wylam Brewery? Whitehaven by Jennings? Fuller, an author and football blogger, has already highlighted the hypocrisy of the current rules, drawing comparisons between the game in Britain and abroad:
Germany has the highest average top-level crowds in Europe. The Bundesliga has better stadiums, cheaper tickets and a more relaxed policy on stewarding. As a result crowds flock into games each and every week. And guess what, you can buy beer to your heart’s content.
The same is true in countries as diverse as Denmark, Japan, Holland, Austria, Poland, South Korea, Belgium and Latvia. Even in Britain, you can freely buy and consume alcoholic drinks at rugby or cricket grounds despite the fact that, as Fuller suggests, “75% of people who go to cricket also go to football when in season too”. Andy Hudson, a fan who’s watched games at over one hundred grounds in the past two years, concurs: “I’ve been to several Northern League grounds where just before kick-off the curtains are drawn or shutters pulled down, leaving people to finish their pints in semi-darkness. Compare that to places like Werder Bremen, where fans are free to drink where and when they want. There was a great atmosphere, absolutely no trouble, and if you tried to tell people there they couldn’t drink while watching the game they’d look at you as if you were mad.”
Northern League chairman Mike Amos, while promising to revisit the 2005 management committee edict which reaffirmed the ban on alcohol being consumed anywhere outside a clubhouse, has questioned whether fans actually need to drink during a game, stating “My own view is not just that the prohibition is sensible but that if someone can’t last 45 minutes without a drink it’s not a football match he should be seeing, but a doctor.” I’d argue that it’s less a matter of need than of providing people with choice. At a recent game in Penrith, writer James Williams and I were able to watch the opening fifteen minutes of the second half through the window of the bar. We weren’t absolutely sure whether alcohol was allowed in sight of the pitch; we decided, in the Northern League, there probably wasn’t much risk of hooliganism. It could be argued that there are already plenty of opportunities for drinking pre- and post-match but, as was the case with us at Frenchfield Park, not every supporter turns up in advance or hangs around after the full-time whistle, while at busier grounds much of half-time is taken up by having to queue to use the facilities. In a day and age where people can watch football from almost any country in the world on a Saturday afternoon without ever having to leave the pub or their armchair, stopping fans from enjoying a drink while taking in a game could have an adverse effect on crowds. A pint or two with your mates can enhance the day-out, providing an accompaniment to the game in the same way that other people use wine with their food. In the straitened economic climate, why not allow fans the choice of putting a few more quid into their club’s coffers?
Will we see people enjoying a drink on Northern League terraces anytime soon? Maybe not, though anecdotal evidence suggests some clubs are already interpreting the rules more flexibly than others. If it’s any consolation, anyone travelling to Brazil in 2014 will be able to enjoy a beer after pressure from the world governing body forced the Brazilian authorities to relax their ban on drinking. “Alcoholic drinks are part of the World Cup, so we’re going to have them,” said FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcker.
Freedom of choice, a little common sense and a decent pint of beer. That really is all we’re asking for.