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Alcohol: should we kick it out?

Does football culture have a drink problem? And, if it does, can or should we, as Reading fans, do anything about it?

Jamie McDonald

Let’s imagine a scenario.

It’s a big away game in, say, London. For more far-flung locations, you may be more likely to take an (alcohol-free) STAR coach, but in this case many are on the train. The carriage is crammed full of other Reading fans. Most people have a can of lager or cider in their hand. If I am on the trip, this in all likelihood will include me. Drink after drink gets consumed in quick succession. We all pile off, head to the stadium, and buy more alcohol. At half time, hundreds of fans will stream into the tiny concourses to get more drink, in crappy plastic pint glasses, and quickly down them before heading back out. After the game, especially if it was a Reading victory, groups of fans will head to the pub for a post-match tipple.

Sound familiar? Most likely, the majority of you will recognise that scene. Heavy drinking at football games is common – especially when away. A big part of a game day for many fans, though certainly not for all, is the pub-game-pub progression. As a result, I think it is fair to say there is a ‘drinking culture’ among large sections of seasoned soccer fans. Just have a scan of HobNob, in the section where the members plan away games, to see what I mean.

This can lead to some fairly brilliant days out. Great fun can definitely be had! However, recently I’ve been having second thoughts about this tendency for inebriation. Are there consequences? Is this a healthy culture for fans to perpetuate?

After all, the negative health effects alcohol has on your body are well known. Also, the drug can be highly addictive, and alcoholism is a grim reality for many. As a result, it is arguable that its consumption should not be encouraged so much in supporting culture. Moreover, the sport itself is based, to a large degree, on a healthy lifestyle. You have to be exceedingly fit to play the game professionally. Therefore, it’s a conflicting message we provide kids when we bring them to a game: watch a group of athletic individuals compete, and then see a load of adults stand around with a pie in one hand and a beer in the other. We haven’t even touched on the problem that alcohol, put simply, makes people do stupid stuff. Football fans may not be demonised so much in the media if we placed less emphasis on alcohol as a part of the supporter experience.

If we accept that the prominence of alcohol in supporting culture is problematic, this poses a difficult question. Should we do something to counteract alcohol’s pervasive influence?

Not necessarily. This argument clashes headlong with a couple of crucial points. Firstly, free choice is an idea many cherish.  For most people, if adults want to consume alcohol, they should by and large be allowed to do so. This includes football fans. For this reason, I find the complete banning of alcohol in stadiums in Scotland troublesome. Secondly, the scenario I outlined above is an extreme example. Most Reading fans will turn up at the Madejski Stadium, maybe have one pint before the game and one at half time. This is just about within the RDA, and hardly constitutes ridiculous excess. A large amount won’t drink at all. Nevertheless, I have been on, and taken part in, some pretty boozy game days. I’m sure some of you have as well. It would be naive to ignore the existence of those occasions completely.

Is this a problem? Can we do anything about this? Should we do anything about this?  I tend to think that drinking in football falls short of being a major issue, and it’s not advisable to take concrete action. Having a few beers on game day is one of life’s pleasures, after all. Also, I don’t believe the culture is endemic to the extent that fans are excessively pressured into drinking heavily. I certainly don’t want to ban alcohol at games, or introduce breathalyser tests outside the Mad Stad, or any comparable measure. However, alcohol does have many negative effects. Therefore, sometimes I do wonder whether it would be good for the game, and its culture, if we somehow minimised the role alcohol has to play in what is perceived to be a ‘good’ Saturday afternoon. Are there any people there any out there who believe this? What, if anything, would you do? Your thoughts are very much welcome...