BY ASHLEY GREB
â€œCan you get down from there?â€
It wasnâ€™t really a question. His stern lilt definitely hinted at an even firmer instruction.
Somewhere over to the North East, a fantastic match was quickening apace in the chill night air; below us, to our left, a determined steward â€“ just out of the floodlightâ€™s glare â€“ was trying to be heard above the partisan hullabaloo. Momentarily staring back, I wondered if this possible void of intuition was real. Of course I could get down; Iâ€™d clambered up safely enough. We all had.
Glancing to my right, it was fairly obvious the others wouldnâ€™t be paying him any heed but me… I was closest, I was the one whose eye heâ€™d caught and I, not for the first time, couldnâ€™t help but respond. â€œNo!â€ I yelled back, as another roar from the away support signalled my attention needed elsewhere.
Whether it was the modest amount of Dutch courage Iâ€™d very briefly knocked back in an enjoyably noisy Putney Bridge tavern, or an unfailingly adventurous streak, that lead to me being one of a number perched on the front of these Craven Cottage â€œexecutiveâ€ boxes weâ€™ll never know. One thing was clear; if pushed, this matter was going to be got off my chest.
â€œYou canâ€™t stand up there. Get down!â€ The steward wasnâ€™t giving up. Fair play though, as with many other Cottage employees on Friday, whatever his demands; said steward was both cordial and efficient. I on the other hand â€“ like those sitting nearby â€“ was fairly incredulous that THESE seats were actually ours.
Much earlier; entering the playing arena from below the stand, one after another, lemming-like supporters obediently strolled down the uneven stairs to allotted rows before heading out to the correct seats. Turning that corner â€“ each and every one â€“ checked first the number nearest, looked Thames-wards and furiously calculated the distance they still had to go. As the reality of their bearings struck them, the pallor of their away day glee seeped from their faces.
Annoyed at the situation whilst being slightly amused by the stewards unenviable predicament, I now threw back a playground â€œWhy?â€ testing the water to see where this was going.
â€œYou have to sit in your seats.â€ Without even mentioning health and safety, he gestured towards the throng below us, hemmed into spaces, with a perfect view of little else than the side of another stand.
Behind the disabled enclosure, which incidentally also pointed away from the pitch, rows of upstanding fans were craning their necks awkwardly towards the action. Families and friends of all shapes and sizes desperate to watch their heroes; elderly folk who probably couldnâ€™t stand for a full ninety minutes, children standing on seats clinging to parents for balance. It wasnâ€™t dangerous; it was just a joke. Not being at the game was a joke but, being expected to actually see what weâ€™d paid for when our seats pointed 45Â° from action. Surveying the scene like Ray Reardon at the baize, the steward frowned up at us â€“ the Putney End six â€“ and then with his best Paddington stare affirmed â€œYou canâ€™t be up there. Come down.â€
â€œNO! We canâ€™t see down there.â€
â€œYou cannot stay up there. Youâ€™ll have to get down nowâ€. I snapped an instant retort without thinking â€œGet me a full refundâ€ and then suddenly I was off… â€œThirty quid to sit there… itâ€™s not worth five. Weâ€™re almost outside the ground… thereâ€™s a better view of Barn Elms than Craven Cottage. The view of the pitch is frankly appalling. YOU CANNOT SEE THE GAME FROM THOSE SEATS.â€
By this point Iâ€™d no idea what persuasive techniques were being adopted down below. I was positive his â€œYes you can.â€ was being politely put across but this middle-aged Hornet â€“ with one eye on a stunning first half display â€“ was edging full tilt towards a mix of rage against modern footballing greed and a hint of pantomime. â€œOh, no you canâ€™t!â€
â€œThatâ€™s because the fans are standing.â€ Was he really still there? Was that the best he was going to come up with? If nothing else he was incredibly patient; I on the other hand… â€œIT IS NOT. You cannot even see the Cottage corner when seated. Weâ€™ve tried earlier, and unsurprisingly failedâ€
As I turned back for good to what would end up a totally magnificent Almen Abdi influenced victory; the last thing I saw was my new favourite steward â€“ walkie talkie in hand â€“ convening a meeting of the hi-vis parliament.
Letâ€™s not be under any illusion that this is an attack on Fulham or their stewards. Thereâ€™s evidently a lot to admire about both. Not being part of the plastic elite is very commendable position for any right-minded club to be in. For Watford fans, being in a not dissimilar atmosphere makes blending in fairly straight forward, even if the locals have a slightly more desirable post code. Like other more traditional venues â€“ thankfully now without Jacko statue â€“ Craven Cottage is also a wonderfully unique ground, with some delightful architecture on Stevenage Road. What afflicts Fulham however, is a disease that blights so many other clubs; the burdensome impact of the modern game.
In hindsight of course, a liberal distribution of new stadia all-round would have been preferable to fulfil both the Taylor Report and footballâ€™s shiny new image. It would also have averted my discussion with said steward. But like stereotypical Soviet housing, the utterly bland repetition of colour-coded concrete bowls, countrywide, would have torn the soul instantly out of the game.
Along with many other clubs â€“ in a rather tragic Heath Robinson-esque attempt to replace terracing â€“ weâ€™ve seen both Lutonâ€™s Oak Road and QPRâ€™s School End become the straight-jackets of leg room for anyone over the aged of ten. Chelsea opted to build up so high, leaving patrons with a subbuteo scene and obstructed views of the scoreboard. And sticking to the capital, White Hart Lane is almost famed for some rather idiosyncratic â€œrestricted viewâ€ tickets. Of course none of these â€œimprovementsâ€ benefit football supporters either when they were established or now.
Naturally a blinkered and unrealistic push for success has lead to fervent urges, to squeeze every last penny from us â€œrevenue streamsâ€ in order to finance yet another journeyman centre half. Buoyant economy or not, the only way to fund such short-term deals was to get more top price seats for bums to be placed on.
In hindsight, shoe-horning such seating â€“ and fans â€“ into tiny spaces, only encourages spectators to totally ignore seating plans in favour of predictably watching the action. Those who do comply rarely see a full ninety minutes, nor do they do so in any comfort or safety, despite those being the main arguments for the removal of terracing. In most such cases, only a contortionist will exit without aches or crooked necks.
The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy states, â€œResearch shows that ergonomic seating increases comfort and reduces the risk of back pain.â€ before continuing â€œMusculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) such as back pain are one of the biggest causes of sickness absence on any given day and are estimated to cost society and employers around Â£7.4 billion a year.â€
Given this is not earth-shatteringly surprising knowledge, one wonders why footballs clubs are permitted to abuse their customersâ€™ (to use modern parlance) health in such a way. Ergonomics in seating is very simple theory; its tenets lie in a relationship between people and their environment. Thus without sufficient space, comfort and direction, it fails.
In the work place, unions would support and campaign to improve such issues. In English football, fans have very little say on such matters and, the massive prices supporters have to pay often belie the conditions they are expected to suffer. Do clubs care? Does anyone ever get a refund? Have employers ever tried to recoup sick pay from local clubs? Has anyone ever raised the issue of miss-selling?
Thanks to parliament, theÂ Trade Descriptions Act of 1968 preventsÂ manufacturers,Â retailersÂ orÂ service industry providers from misleadingÂ consumersÂ as to what they are spending their money on. Obtained via a friend â€“ who naturally remains both nameless and blameless â€“ my ticket may not be misleading however itâ€™s not totally up front either. It states the games details, the location, stand, directions and seat. Most importantly â€“ to protect all parties allegedly â€“ it outlines terms and condition and, last but plainly not least, a whopping face value of Â£35 is stamped to the right.
THIRTY FIVE BRITISH POUNDS. Thatâ€™s seven times as much as my train fare on the night; three times the cost of a ticket on Dortmundâ€™s famed SÃ¼dtribÃ¼ne. For ninety minutes of Division 2 mid-table output, thatâ€™s almost extortion for a good seat… Thirty-five pounds to sit away from the pitch, below lego-stacked portacabins, facing just concrete and metal. Imagine if that was put on the ticket?
Ok, advanced sales did lower the price to Â£30, but whilst not being a â€œfalse statementâ€ of the kind that might stir courts into action, nowhere does it mention that my view of the pitch would be severely hampered. Nowhere does that ticket state that away fans in this area are only afforded and unrestricted view of the end of the Riverside Stand. For any club to hide such facts is almost unforgivable. To have maintained a very temporary partition, in a half full Putney End stand, whilst away supporters suffer is even worse.
Deep in injury time, as Troy Deeney slammed home our fifth goal of the night, fans rose as one. Fulhamâ€™s melted into the night; Watfordâ€™s celebrated in adulation of a truly memorable win.
Walking back through Bishops Park, that win is all that should have been on my mind. A night out in town, no children to feed for and after four straight losses, a fantastic five-nil win against a local rival… why then did it have to be stained by the unfailing irritation of an overpriced ticket for a poorly positioned seat?