Growing up in the 1980s with a father too mean to pay for a seat my formative rugby memories are all set on the terrace. Though, as I grow older I am taken by the idea that Dad was keener on the banter we encountered there than he let on.
Whether my first game at the old National Stadium for Cardiff vs New Zealand, the various Barbarian games on hot, carefree Easter Saturdays or the European game vs Bath in 1996, the terrace is the place where I learnt about the game and crucially learnt the behaviour required when following our sport. The terrace is where I learnt how to interact with opposition supporters, how positive this was in the match day experience – even meeting those supporters from Newport was never as bad as made out during the car journey into town. This is not to denigrate those who sit to watch, far from it, I neither imply that their knowledge or appreciation is less but as with most things in life our view of the same event is shaped by the position we find ourselves when it occurs. This is just my experience.
There is something tribal, a certain kind of wonderful about standing on a terrace, before the necessary smoking ban, I recall cigar smoke wafting across the air, even now this evokes the senses. It was just as important as the first view of the pitch, the brilliant white markings on the carpet of greeny brown in the days before the 3G heaven that is today’s Arms Park. As a young impressionable supporter, this would be counted amongst other things that made it match day, notably the pre-game pie from the market and someone nearby loudly moaning that Holmesy wasn’t himself or that Ringo wasn’t as good as he thought he was – of course both conveniently forgotten when they produced moments of sublime skill and/or aggression to swing the game in our favour. It is funny how we never lost .... even when they scored more than us!
I love the constant shuffle of nervous feet, the straining of the neck as the players rush (or trundle) by and especially the vain attempts to get the touch judge to tell the referee that ‘they’ are clearly offside ‘every bloody time’. As I got older Dad was replaced next to me by friends and on occasion newly found partners - ‘I bought my love a terrace ticket’ should be a song. It became the place to start Saturday. The well developed routine of lunch reading the sports pages from the Western Mail, a few pints in the club, onto the terrace for some live sport and a bout of banter with opposition supporters and in all honesty looking back at those endless days of possibility it has to be asked what could be better? It is not too controversial to say the answer isn’t games at 8pm on a Friday or 4pm on a Sunday afternoon. It isn’t diminishing to note that away supporters are now as much a rarity as a contentious free Irish refereeing performance. This is, though, to conflate separate issues so I will return to the terrace
There is something enduring about the quick ‘sorry mate’ as you stand on someone’s toes or shouts of ‘coming through’ as someone tries to get back to his group of friends carrying several pints or a snack, it is equally hard not to be impressed with this chaps wealth given the costs of such a purchase. There is something calming about finding your spot on the terrace and returning game after game, likewise there is something interesting in sometimes moving far away from the spot so as to give a different perspective. There is something wholly inspiring about being next to three people starting to sing and the ripple effect as others take up the tune or chant. Shamelessly riding the Euro2016 bandwagon, I am already thinking if someone will try and start an Icelandic clap – and whether the those on the south or north will be the ones to instigate it. It is impossible to avoid the pang of melancholy as you look up at the seated masses and realise that they will never lose their place should they require a comfort break or another tea or coffee (!) but even for that mini victory I still wouldn’t change places.
I am back to watching games with Dad and now have my own children to introduce the delights of the terrace. Friends who have children are met and traditions are being formed, ludicrously expensive hot dogs consumed, rugby lessons being learnt and all from the vibrant, moving, loud, boisterous, at times wholly inappropriate language infused terrace. I will never forget my son's smile when he heard a voice mutter "Dunno why he is playing, he couldn't run a bath" For an 8 year old that was belly laugh funny, for me that was his first step on his rugby journey!
Whatever happens in the redevelopment of the Arms Park, the terrace must have a place. It is where some of us learnt to love the game and its traditions. Given the challenges of recent seasons, existing in the post Leckwith landscape, watching the team building from grass height, this commitment to the cause, our cause, must be worth something?