Do you enjoy football? Is the passion still there? Is it not what it used to be?
Well, it’s possible to love AND hate modern football, because you’ve probably always loved and hated football, you just didn’t always give it much thought. Football has never been perfect, your club has never been perfect, the players have never performed perfectly, the sport has never been run perfectly, and things have never gone exactly how you had hoped. But we still love it all the same, right?
Nostalgia’s a wonderful thing, though it ain’t what it was. The Parkside, floodlights at night games, the terraces of Moss Side, chips in a cone, a pound to mind your car, mister. The Kippax, outside toilets, mis-shaped stands, Helen’s bell, Gene Kelly, white dog poo, jumpers for goalposts. Back alleys, season ticket books, restricted views, relegation, promotion, relegation, relegation, promotion, promotion. Back in the big time. Trevor Morley’s moustache. Tight shorts. Inflatable bananas and hooliganism, ID cards, crumbling grounds and tragedy.
I’d happily argue football was certainly no better an experience in the old days. In fact, we’re spoilt rotten nowadays, and that seems to be what actually annoys some. A game for the working classes is fading away. But football was a right mess in the 80s. Half-empty and crumbling stadia, hooliganism, tragedy, and as much poor football as ever. Away games were fraught with danger, but if you were young that was part of the thrill. Or even if you were older, perhaps. Then football became sanitised and we gained a lot and lost a little too. Many teams moved to shiny new stadia after Hillsborough, because it was a better alternative than re-designing existing grounds and ripping up terraces, and things were never the same.
And with all this came the problem of ticket prices. Many of the old faithful have fallen by the wayside as prices increased steadily over the past decade and more. Inflation for Premier League football tickets since its inception hovers around the 1000% mark. Lord Justice Taylor really thought his report would lead to an era of cheap seats – he couldn’t have been more wrong. With the Premier League, money became king and clubs ripped off fans for every penny they could. City’s owners have helped out more than many in certain areas, but prices are still generally far too high, across the board, and across all leagues.
Taylor famously wrote in his report: “Clubs may well wish to charge somewhat more for seats than for standing but it should be possible to plan a price structure which suits the cheapest seats to the pockets of those presently paying to stand.” Supporter groups saw immediately that all-seater stadia would not be used to benefit fans, and so it proved. In 1989-90, the cheapest season ticket at Anfield was just £60 and £96 at Manchester United. And as corporate seats start creeping further outwards around grounds, the “common man” is slowly squeezed out.
For many, modern football means a lack of atmosphere at grounds. It is a problem, but let’s not pretend that every match was a bubbling cauldron of passion twenty years ago. There were games played in near-silence then as they are now.
However, I truly believe that the accessibility of football has reduced the atmosphere in football grounds. Not only do you not have to go to the ground to see your team anymore, but there is so much football available, everywhere, at all time of the day, all week, there is so much to read about, so much social media discourse, that the match is less of an event now. In the old days, there was just the match, the Football Pink and the odd article in the Evening News. You could take a day off work and scroll through Ceefax or re-mortgage your house and phone Clubcall, but the week revolved around matches.
And with football seen more as entertainment, we are obliged to spectate sat down. No alcohol at your seats please. No sharp-ended items either, or bags, or cameras, or anything that could disrupt the Premier League’s product. Live football would become 50% more enjoyable overnight if a section of the crowd were allowed to stand, and if the away support, crucial to a match atmosphere, were not treated as the poor relations.
There’s probably a scientific study somewhere that shows people sing more when stood up, but either way, it does make a difference for me. The thing with terraces too is that with no allotted space, you had to get in early to get your spot, and that built an atmosphere more than in the modern stadia where many of us go to our seats at kick off (or later). Nowadays, many can’t even be bothered watching the whole match anyway. Beat the queues to the bar, beat the traffic too – time has never been more precious.
And dare I even suggest that life was harder for more “in the old days” and football was a release? I certainly would suggest the result didn’t quite mean as much to the average fan as it does now – I doubt there were fans apoplectic with rage after a home draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers or at the lazy ambling style of Paddy Fagan. Nor Woolwich Arsenal fans hijacking polls on their players or pushing their chest forward whilst talking about net spend. Once the internet gave us all a voice, many of us gradually became a lot angrier.
Now you’ve got us all discussing financial results, injury records, team spends, we’ve got the sodding banter brigade, Lad Bible, YNFA, Paddy Power twitter accounts, we’ve got the seat counters, we’ve got the history boys, we’ve got the Robbie Savages and we’ve got the bloody Michael Owens. We know how much ground every player covers, we know their pass completion rates, and we know about every other part of the game, should we wish to. We’ve got ex-referees as celebrities and in commentary roles, we’ve got analysis until our brains bleed, and somewhere in the middle of all that, we’ve got some football matches too after which we slow incidents down to a tenth of their speed and view them from 15 different angles to ascertain how much “contact” there was. I tell you what, I’ve seen them given, and if he’s felt contact, he’s got a right to go down Trevor.
And there’s the little things. You can’t turn up at the gate and pay, you can’t make an impulse decision to go to a football match. You have to jump through hoops and pay money just for the opportunity of attending.
But anyway, age catches up with us all. Personally, the fact is that I’m middle aged and don’t act like I used to, have other priorities and football isn’t the same as it was even though it is just as important, albeit in a different way. I wish it wasn’t sometimes, but it is. David Silva’s indifferent form can really put a downer on my week.
At City, when loyalty could be purchased via Platinum schemes, then the goalposts moved. Elsewhere, when Sky and other broadcasters considered it acceptable to move games at short notice and make fans travel 300 miles on a Monday evening, they shifted further. When we’re playing a 39th game in Dubai, we may as well knock them down altogether.
So are we disconnected from our sporting heroes now? Is this game no longer “ours”?
Are the players and fans disconnected? Well it would be nice if the players acknowledged the eight fans left in the stadium at the end of a game for their staggering dedication to the cause. But seriously, they should. Jurgen Klopp was mocked for leading the players hand in hand to acknowledge the fans recently after a home draw. As usual many fans completely missed the point, as it was not a celebration but an acknowledgement. Holding hands probably isn’t necessary, we’re British, but the acknowledgement is – and players shouldn’t have to be prompted. It doesn’t change my life or view of things, it’s not a deal-breaker, but it does matter, it does mean something.
However, let’s not pretend that there used to be some magical connection between players and fans, players that would get the bus to the ground and have a pint of mild in the social club afterwards. I’ve never had a proper connection with players, they’ve always been a distant entity, who exist in a different world to me. I want them to play well, I expect little more. Those I’ve met seem nice enough, and that’s good enough for me. Others get a bigger club connection no doubt, it changes from club to club, and in the lower leagues, but at the top table there always been a divide between players and fans, at least in my lifetime if not before. Now you have to buy something to meet a player.
What about between club and fans? Well that’s not the case with City, and anyone who suggests that it is worse than it used to be has a very selective memory. The club has never had more discourse with fans even though the Points of Blue liaison has gone, and there was even a fans forum just last week. I’m not sure who went or how you get an invite, but there was one. There was no discourse with Peter Swales or Franny Lee, we had no say, unless we protested outside the ground and waved a few placards and the like. The club was often run shambolically and without any thought to the fans. We had scapegoats in those days, and more of them. More managers too. The club do listen to fans nowadays, though we still wait for real ale at the bar, but revenue is king and it rather gets in the way sometimes.
But there’s no answer to what’s wrong, if anything, really. For those City fans that do feel disconnected from the modern game, there are differing reasons. Ticket prices. A perception of not mattering to the club. Atmosphere. Tourists. Players that don’t care. Modern football. Sky. The entrance music. The time it takes to get a pint. Bespoke pies. City Square. Too many club emails. The half-time entertainment. The tannoy. Wilfried Bony. Pellegrini’s substitutions. The lack of youth players in the 1st team. Corporate seats. Moving seats. Rubbish seats. No Garry Cook. Invisible owners. Loyalty points. Kick off times. UEFA. FIFA. Platini. Financial Fair Play. Smoking restrictions. The weather.
If it’s atmosphere, you could always do something about it. Stay to the end, make some noise, and support the team. You may get more back. If you are silent at matches, you’re part of the problem. I know I am. The club aren’t responsible for you cheering on the team, the people in the ground are. It’s up to you or else have a man with a loudhailer at the front geeing us all up with renditions of the invisible man.
Football has changed, and it will continue to do so. It may not be to our liking all the time, but it’s still football, and it still has the power to provide me with thrills, spills and move my beating heart like little else. It shapes my mood, it makes me swear, abuse, cheer, gasp, laugh, argue, scream and sing.
Same as it ever was.
Howard’s new book, written with the wonderful Simon Curtis, is available in paperback and Kindle format on Amazon now.
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