Why the fans don’t have anything to sing about as they sit in their seats

A 1960s crowd sang songs, a 2010s crowd films itself


It was reported last week that among the 76,000 people at tonight’s Manchester derby will be an acoustic engineer who has been hired to work out why it is that Old Trafford isn’t making enough noise.

This engineer has a thankless task. Admittedly, the piecemeal expansion of Old Trafford over the past 20 years has been guided by the principle of how to pack the maximum number of seats into a limited space rather than by atmospheric considerations. The resulting design may well be acoustically sub-optimal.

Yet the atmosphere problem has little to do with stadium acoustics, and it’s hard to see what a sound engineer can do about it.

Many assume that the tradition of singing at football matches is as old as the game itself, but the football writer Arthur Hopcraft traced its beginnings to the early 1960s and specifically to Liverpool’s Kop end.

Hopcraft’s 1968 book, The Football Man , described the conditions in which the singing culture first arose – conditions that are no longer to be found at Old Trafford or at any other stadium in the Premier League. “[The terraces] are hideously uncomfortable,” he writes. “The steps are as greasy as a school playground lavatory in the rain. The air is rancid with beer, onions, belching and worse. The language is a gross purple of obscenity . . .”

Hopcraft believed that the fervour of the crowds was inseparable from the physical conditions in which they watched the game: “When the crowd surges at a shot or collision near a corner flag a man . . . can be lifted off the ground in the crush as if by some massive, soft-sided crane grab and dangled about for minutes on end . . . In this incomparable entanglement of bodies and emotions lies the heart of the fan’s commitment to football . . . it is the physical interaction which makes the monster the figure of unavoidable dreams it becomes.”

In 1964, Panorama sent a crew to Anfield to film the phenomenon. The BBC reporter stands before the Kop, which then held nearly 30,000 people – two and a half times as many as today’s all-seater stand. His tone is one of jaunty anthropological enquiry. The terrace has “as rich and mystifying a popular culture as in any South Sea island . . . The swaying is an elaborate and organised ritual . . . ”

As he speaks, the random eddies and surges in the crowd give the lie to his words, as sections of fans stumble uncontrollably down the steps onto those beneath. Close-ups show supporters wedged together, wriggling with shoulders and elbows to stay upright. The shorter ones have to fight to catch a glimpse of the pitch.

Sweating flesh
Here is Hopcraft’s monster in action. The people on that terrace are part of something greater than themselves in a literal physical sense, they can feel it pressing in on every side. They are more conscious of the crowd than of themselves. The terrace contains not 28,000 individuals but a single heaving mass of sweating flesh. There’s nothing like being sweated on to dissolve your inhibitions.

As if to prove the point, the swaying mass of hard men belt out the Beatles’ She Loves You , complete with falsetto flourishes, and follow it with a soulful rendition of Cilla Black’s Anyone Who Had A Heart . The Panorama man seems genuinely impressed. When he says, “I’ve never seen anything like this Liverpool crowd,” he’s probably telling the truth. At the time, this kind of crowd behaviour really was something new.

There is a technological reason why singing started in the 1960s and not before. Public address systems that could amplify music to a stadium-sized outdoor space without distorting it beyond recognition became widely available only in the 1950s. The 1960s technology remained primitive, to the frustration of the Beatles, who gave up touring in 1966 because their music could not be heard over the crowds.

Early sound systems that were inadequate for the Beatles were perfect for football, because they were loud enough to give crowds something to sing along to, but not loud enough to drown them out. Today’s sound systems easily drown out the crowd and most fans despise them for bulldozing the atmosphere.

Technological progress has changed the stadium experience in other ways. Fans can hang around in stadium corridors watching Sky Sports News until a minute before kick-off, then spend the match recording videos with their phones. A 1960s crowd sang songs, a 2010s crowd films itself.

Maybe United’s sound engineer can recommend that the club asks everyone to switch off their mobile phones. He can’t change the fact that the swaying, singing terraces, the vast uncontrolled spaces that fused supporters into a single deindividuated mass, are today considered unacceptably dangerous.

On dangerous grounds
All-seater grounds protect fans by separating them and fixing them in position, and in doing so they block the “incomparable entanglement” that Hopcraft saw underpinning the emotional intensity of the old crowds. The result is a stadium full of individuals who feel too self-conscious to sing.

Nostalgia for a time when crowds sang like they meant it is understandable, yet a return to the days of people being picked up and moved around by that “massive, soft-sided crane grab” is unthinkable. Such an experience would terrify today’s fans, who know too well what the worst consequences can be. If atomisation is the price we have to pay for safety, then football made that decision long ago.

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