Anyone who attended VFL suburban matches in the 1980s could attest to the robust nature of life on the standing-room terraces.
Many would recall it as an alcohol-fuelled free for all, with indecent exposure, fist fights and racist attacks.
Still others would remember it as a golden age when good humour overcame the rough nuts and ensured a challenging but, for the most part, safe way of letting off steam on the weekend.
The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. And so it is with the current debate about fan behaviour and the AFL’s alleged ‘soft’ implementation of a stricter policing of crowds.
What seems to be missing in the current debate is precisely what both footy fans and the game’s administrators appear to have lost – wit, nuance, a fair go and most of all, perspective.
These things used to ensure moderation and ensure no one got too far ahead of themselves – in the crowd or the boardroom.
“It’s just a game mate, sit down.”
Despite social media being abuzz about an alleged crackdown by security and police, AFL chief Gillon McLachlan claimed on Saturday that there would be no policy change and that fans themselves would decide what was bad behaviour by calling it out.
“My standard is that you’re actually not offending the people around you and that’s why it’s very difficult,” he told The Age newspaper.
“But we’ve been doing it for 100 years, nothing’s changed the last four weeks.”
The fans though are not buying it, with journalist Nat Edwards tweeting about heavy-handed security at Friday night’s Essendon-Hawthorn match, prompting a lively debate on Twitter and more media discussion.
Since the 1982 esky bans and two-can limit was introduced football’s chiefs have been on a crusade to rein in the worst excesses of boozy fans.
Fair enough, but in the meantime the league chiefs have happily monetised that and every other fan experience to breaking point.
Supporters in the cheap seats at a night match can buy only mid-strength beer in a plastic cup, but if you’re in a corporate box it’s a different story.
And heaven forbid if the kids wander down from the Gods at three-quarter time to sit in the all but empty reserved seats down the front.
AFL security has in the past seemed more intent at protecting the revenue streams than ensuring a comfortable match experience that reflects the reality of attendances.
The AFL clearly now wants to be seen to be preventing crowd abuse, perhaps as a late wake-up call after the recent documentary highlighting the booing of Adam Goodes.
At the time the AFL all but offered consent by silence on the hotly debated abuse of Goodes, only this month acknowledging its massive moral failure.
But ponder this, every Collingwood TV broadcast in recent memory has featured Channel Seven cutaways of Magpie president Eddie McGuire – a central figure in the Goodes fiasco – going off his head about, well, everything.
Little wonder then that with other fans of a similar vintage now being told to stay in their reserved seat and keep their mouths shut that there’s a backlash brewing.
The fans see one boorish 50-something being feted for his ‘passion’ at every opportunity on live TV, while Hawthorn’s ‘too old for the cheersquad’ guy on Friday night gets told to sit down and shut up.
In short, the AFL continues to preside over a game of haves and have nots.
Just as it has in Tasmania, with money instead being pumped into Greater Western Sydney and the Gold Coast.
Hypocrisy and different rules for different folks is what seems to be grinding the gears of the fans. Fans have been told how to drink, where to sit and paid top money to do so … being told how to support their team is proving a bridge too far.
But what can the AFL do differently? The rise of social media trolls, an instant gratification culture and the seemingly endless culture wars have all contributed to divisions in society that seem to be playing out at the football.
The social media types who rail against political correctness are also the same people who booed Adam Goodes and called it sport.
Like the issue of racism, education and clear communication should be the goal in improving the tone at matches.
For one, the AFL wants to reduce the incidence of umpire abuse it could stop the ceaseless rule changes and differing week-to-week interpretations that have led in no small part to the frustration and anger over umpiring.
Improving the standard, setting clearer guidelines for umpires and communicating with the fans would be a better place to start in protecting officials than an out-of-the-blue crackdown on the word ‘maggot’ or ‘flog’.
In recent seasons there’s also been punch-ons inside the grounds and high-profile attacks, nearby with king-hits and kickings. These things have always happened as passions flare, but in a violence obsessed social media age more of us can witness the brutality and the mindlessness.
In the era of reserved seats it’s also actually harder to move if you’re stuck next to an abusive moron. In the past, inviting security to intervene has not always got a result and sometimes merely escalated the conflict after the muscle has moved on.
McLachlan’ wish for the crowd to self-regulate ignores these realities – and one suspects he knows it.
The AFL has sold passion as a brand, marketed it to a generation and driven the moderates home to the comfort of their TVs.
An engaged crowd is a good crowd, but if you strip out the wit, the good humour and the perspective and are left with only diehard zealots you’re asking for trouble.
“Sit down everyone, it’s only a game”
In Fever Pitch, a seminal work on the inner-mind of a grown man probably too old to be so obsessed about soccer, Nick Hornby wrote about football hooligans and how the English game would never be free of them.
“The problem here is that unless a team is playing well, winning things, filling their stadia, clubs simply cannot afford to alienate the very people they are supposed to be purging,” Hornby wrote.
And doesn’t the AFL know it.