It began in 1985. A decade of supporter-associated disturbances eventually triggered the Sporting Events Act, immediately placing a blanket ban on drinking alcohol in sight of the pitch, and effectively kicking off a thirty-four year disconnect between beer and football.
Many have experienced the symptoms. You’re in the concourse of the stadium, five pounds lighter after a heavy hit to the wallet, but it’s weight you swiftly regain as you put the plastic cup to your lips and swig the mass-produced lager, hurrying every sip in order to be in your seats for kick-off.
Or maybe it’s Super Sunday, sitting at home in front of the TV isn’t too appealing or perhaps a Sky subscription is beyond your pay packet and there isn’t a stream in sight, so you Google the best place to watch the game in your area. However, you discover on arrival that it’s rammed and selling only a sorry selection of lager and a couple of badly kept ales. You enjoy the game, standing up of course, from behind a pillar with half the screen obstructed as a dickhead Brexit voter with the West Ham calf tattoo spills his drink over your back.
Numerous reasons are readily employed to maintain the disconnect. Many in positions of power will inevitably point to a history punctuated by stadium incidents or to the alcohol-fuelled misconduct of English football fans at home and abroad, what the Home Office likes to depict as football’s ‘unique public order risks.’ Yet these concerns are primarily rooted in the tumultuous 1980s, a period from which the British footballing world has moved on immeasurably.
Indeed, this is the view put forward by Shaun Harvey - the man in charge of the English Football League - who maintains that contrary to public perception, football fans are actually pretty amenable. There has been only one arrest for every 25,000 supporters at EFL matches.
More often than not though the debate centres around the aforementioned Sporting Events Act. However, I suggest we depart from this tired discussion – one riddled with complications - and move it beyond the seats of the stadium.
Yes it’s not perfect but I’m actually rather satisfied with the current arrangement, not least because I find eating and drinking whilst spectating, whether that be at a match, a theatre or a cinema, to be a tedious distraction from the actual event you’ve paid money to enjoy. In short then, while the implementation of the Act was no doubt the cause of the disconnect, seeing it repealed would not be my solution.
The fix instead lies in restoring the established links between football clubs, breweries – see Burton Albion or The Brewers – and the communities they serve. These links are rapidly deteriorating in a globalising world where corporate values continue to tighten their grip on the footballing apparatus.
Nowhere is this more visible than in the selection of beers both in and around stadiums. Rather than being continually subjected to the insipid tang of a brewing megacorp like Heineken, a multinational corporation with an annual revenue of 22 billion euros, surely we should surround ourselves with our local breweries and the superior beer they produce?
It can certainly be done; a recent visit to Leyton Orient’s Brisbane Road in East London included a stop at the supporters’ club where there are 8 locally micro brewed cask ales on offer, all at a very reasonable price – my 4% Pale Ale from ELB cost only around £3. Moreover, they have regular tap takeovers and tasting sessions, all of them not-for-profit and where the proceeds are invested back into the club. Most recently, these proceeds have been used to install a hand rail in one of the stands where the stairs are particularly steep. This is what football in the community is all about.
Taking it further still, clubs and breweries could come together and produce a collaboration brew. Relationships such as these are commonplace in the US: in Ohio for instance the Land- Grant Brewery have partnered with the Eastern Conference side Columbus Crew SC to create an American wheat ale called Glory.
Let’s bring this concept across the Atlantic, in fact why not all the way to Oldham Athletic? They’re coming up to their 125-year anniversary and what better way to both celebrate the milestone and temporarily forget their languishing League 2 status than by enjoying a couple of pints of session ale brewed in collaboration with a local brewery like J.W. Lees? They could call it – fittingly – Keep the Faith.
Obviously there needs to be an appetite for this higher quality – and potentially more expensive – real ale and craft beer. A scenario looking increasingly likely as the game continues to gentrify. No longer is it an exclusively working-class pursuit, its fanbase is instead swiftly becoming populated by a bourgeoise contingent who thirst for better and more varied beer.
And, of course, this is all occurring against a backdrop of shifting consumer preferences in wider society whereby every day a fresh drinker discovers the merits of leaving the mass-produced lager behind in favour of more interesting tastes. It is surely then only a matter of time until economic and social forces take hold. Indeed, they already have in Tottenham where the new stadium boasts its very own Beavertown-branded bar and brewery.
By reintegrating beer and football back into their communities, the possibilities are endless. You could have tasting sessions with players, club-run classes to educate people on the dangers of drinking excessively. You bring together two celebrated cornerstones of British culture while simultaneously emphasising their best sides, thereby restoring their reputation and ultimately removing the 34 year disconnect.