What’s happened to the game I fell in love with, kicking that rag ball around the streets and dreaming of scoring a goal in front of my adoring fans? Yes, being young you have innocent dreams but those dreams came about by pretending to be my hero on a muddy field and not in the safe, warm environment of a bedroom laden with a HD telly and a game console. Times change, I understand that.
It’s a game that’s been taken over by corporate greed and players forever lining their own pockets, whilst the ordinary fan (the working man) is continually priced out of going watching his hero’s, losing a philosophy that has been passed down from generation to generation, from ‘Father to Son’. The local tribal support has been largely driven from our game. The notion of loyalty is no longer in the players vocabulary.
From Father to Son
I remember the first time I went watching my beloved team on New Year’s Day in 1977 with my father. The ground was like a cathedral to me, with a congregation of worshippers gathering every other Saturday as one, to cheer their team on to glory. The terraces were packed and dirty but everyone looked after each other. I’d only seen live football once a season, with the only game being shown live was the grand occasion of the FA Cup Final, usually on a barmy May afternoon.
Compare this to the saturation coverage of football on television these days with hundreds of games on live and people who have never been to a live game are suddenly experts on the beautiful game. We now have a generation of fans who have never smelt the freshly cut grass at their favourite ground, never had that pleasure of the boiling onions drifting around your nostrils. For me it was the start of a love affair that like any marriage would have its highs and lows.
In those pre-Internet, pre-Sky days, you didn’t know the board of directors (the owners), it didn’t matter who was running the club if the team were giving their all out on the pitch. You knew one or two refs and those you knew were usually the bad ones. It was a working mans game, a place for a release from the hard-working life they endured, if they were lucky to have a job even in those difficult economic days. Now you can name virtually every owner, usually millionaires who have either bought a club as a play thing or to build up and sell at a profit.
I’m a Celebrity
These days even the refs are semi-celebratory figures on wages far outstripping the average fans wage. They retire and then appear on radio talk shows or as a third commentator on the television sharing their so-called wisdom with the watching masses, appearing to talk above us rather than with us.
As we moved out of the post Heysel days, a need for cash to keep up with our European rivals started to change the atmosphere around the match going experience. It didn’t happen overnight but has been a slow evolution over a number of years. We should have seen it coming the day they opened that well known fast food restaurants at various grounds around the country, with numerous other ‘business opportunities’ that followed.
Even today, Premier League teams have business partners in the car industry, fast food, clothing, toiletries, tractors, to name but a few. It’s probably a necessity to keep up with the financial clout of their rivals but it’s embarrassing and cringe worthy when you see your hard-centre half promoting men’s cream on primetime TV or your goalkeeper a shampoo product. My Grandad will be turning in his grave.
The Sky television revolution and cheaper travel totally changed the match going experience. It brought football into the house of most people, whereas previously it had been a lifestyle for those who had chosen it many years before and had passed it down from generation to generation as previously touched upon.
Families not previously interested in football started showing an interest, with the match going experience no longer just with the working-class man and his bunch of like minded mates. The women no longer waited at home, hoping their men would return happy, they joined in as well. The foreigners and newcomers brought a new, disappointing era of iPads and huge cameras to the match. Football became safe and the excitement of the game we loved was lost forever. It became much too nice, like a visit to the theatre.
The cheaper travel brought many out-of-town (and out-of-country) people to the grounds, especially at the top, with popular teams such as Liverpool and Manchester United. This in short, with the ticket pricing spiralling forever upwards, pushed the young, local support further away and that final ‘Father to Son’ leap in generation will be forever gone. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against people travelling from further afield to watch their heroes but there needs to be a balance.
It’s a balancing act English football have got wrong at the moment in my opinion. Yes, we need an environment of total safety and never to repeat tragedies like Hillsborough or the Bradford fire disaster but we also need ‘that edge’, that something, which is difficult to describe. It needs to hurt people a bit more and we need to hate losing, like the working men gathered in the smoky post-match pub, dreading going back into work on the Monday morning in the years past. They were never worried about how hot the pies were or if someone stood up in their way or what time the plane home is but just worried about the thing that matters most, the result, the tribal win, the need to defend their territory.
Times gone by
Anyone who lived through the 1970’s and 1980’s in England would speak of football violence at the match virtually every week both home and abroad. It was almost expected but further frowned upon by the establishment. Visitors such as West Ham, Manchester United, Leeds United, Liverpool, etc. would always bring a good ‘crew’, with fighting almost guaranteed at most grounds. This became the English Disease and drove crowds down.
On one hand, it could be argued that this tribal following was the heart of football with the atmosphere red hot on most weekends. On the other hand, people could argue it was the bad old days. Whatever is said, the games always had an edge, the away days would always be an interesting day out to say the least. I remember going to so called little Leicester City at their old Filbert Street ground in 1986. Fighting everywhere outside the ground before and after the game, and a mass of coins flying between the home end and the packed away end. Compare this to the safe environment and ‘nice’ atmosphere at Leicester today.
Customers come first
Another big problem in England is that the match going fan in England has now become just a customer. The mainly foreign owners have business models that encourage ‘first timers’ to come to the match. Why? Simply because they are more likely to spend money whilst there. I was recently at my teams ground picking up some tickets when I briefly wandered into the club shop for the first time in years. At the tills were a Chinese couple buying what seemed like half the shop. The cash till kept ringing until the final value came to £275.00. I asked the young girl behind the counter was this usual, with which she replied ‘yes and more’. This is the ideal client, that perfect business model match that lines the expensive suits pockets.
Whilst I’m talking about merchandise, what on earth is the ‘half and half’ scarf all about. It’s the one thing at the top of a long list that I detest. Why would anyone want a scarf with their rivals’ name and maybe badge on a scarf hanging round their neck? I presume it’s an English thing. I can’t imagine ‘half and half’ scarves in Belgrade or Rome or anywhere else that great rivalries exist but I might be wrong.
While I’m at it and in full flow, if your over 16, please don’t wear a replica shirt complete with name and number. To be honest, you just look daft. Just my opinion of course and it might be the rant of a middle-aged man but it’s just how I feel. To add insult to injury, don not attempt to carry off your own name or nickname on the back, that’s even worse.
Priced out the ground
Ticket pricing is now also spiralling out of control at the top level. It basically all boils down to greed amongst the players, owners and managers alike, with the need to have the latest sports car or a mansion in a footballer belt area. The huge increase in television income should have guaranteed ticket prices come down. The clubs make nicely worded ticket announcements about pricing being frozen or extra tickets given away but this is just the tip of the iceberg and a nice bit of marketing spin.
I’m not saying all clubs are the same. Some clubs put on free travel to selected away games or subsidised tickets but it’s really not enough when you see in the press that a one season wonder (player) has just signed a new contract that what he earns in a week it would take the average fan at least four years to earn. The maths just doesn’t add up. It’s driving a bigger gap between the supporter and the out of touch players.
Supporters have had enough, they are starting to fight back before it is too late and a generation of supporters is lost forever. Around the grounds various clubs have set up ‘singing sections’ to varying degrees of success and supporter’s groups have been vocal about ticket prices. England has never been a place of pyro when compared to the continent and whilst I’d love that side of things to come in a bit more (safety aspects put to one side), it’s never going to happen with laws, regulations, searches and police sniffer dogs.
Will the owners and the hierarchy at the FA listen and act on these protests only time will tell. However, the cash cow cannot continue forever and the pricing elasticity that these owners operate with, will snap one day. That day maybe will be when the supporters actually reclaim the game they love. The supporters are the only common part of the club that will stay forever. Owners, players, managers, even grounds, all change, the hard-core support will always remain. They are born with the team they support and that passion is passed down from Father to Son.