On Changing Football Fandom
Every time I hear the phrase ‘The Premier League era’, I see in my mind’s eye my fellow blogger Lanterne Rouge wince. As he never fails to point out, English football did not start in 1992.
He is, of course, entirely correct; the majority of this country’s greatest successes, both at club and particularly at international level came well before the start of the Premier League. Nevertheless, in many ways football – and more particularly the nature of football supporting – appears, at least from my standpoint, to have changed more in the last twenty years than it did in the one hundred or so that came before. I freely admit to being too young to remember the ‘golden age’ of football supporting of cheap entry, terracing at every ground, and drinking with the players in the bar afterwards. Yet I wonder sometimes whether it ever existed, so alien it is compared to the sanitized world of out-of-town, all-seater stadia, club mascots and Manish on the TV.
Many of the various concerning ways that football is changing in terms of how the game is administered in our country have been covered exhaustively elsewhere; so instead of writing on finance, EPPP or the fit and proper person test, I’m going to focus in this piece more generally on the changes that have occurred in the way that we support our teams. Afterwards, I’ll try to draw some conclusions as to whether the lot of a fan of a Football League club has improved or deteriorated in the past twenty years or so.
I say ‘or so’, because it is difficult to exactly place a date on when the changes started occurring. During the late 80s and early 90s, a number of deeply significant events occurred that have impacted greatly on the environment in which football resides today. Starting in 1988, when Scunthorpe became the first team for a generation to move into a new, purpose built stadium, through the tragic events at Hillsborough in April 1989 and the repercussions in terms of the requirement for all-seater stadia; the top flight’s breakaway in 1992 in order to keep all the revenue for themselves; the new league’s partnership with Sky and their influence; and, finally, the impact of Euro ’96 in giving football a new image and making it much more ‘family friendly’ than it was previously.
‘The Premier League era’ is a simple term to use because it provides us with a reference point from which to anchor ourselves and is an easy event to delineate as a game changer, just as ‘postwar’ is in the context of British political history. What we are really talking about, though, when we refer to the changes that have taken place in ‘the Premier League era’ is football’s transformation in the late 80s and early 90s; we are as much watching a post-Hillsborough game as a post-breakaway one, after all.
Lord Justice Taylor’s report following the Hillsborough disaster recommended a price of £11 for top-flight games. This is perhaps equivalent to around £17-18 today, with inflation taken into account. Most Football League clubs charge comfortably more than £20 for a full-price ticket today, with Premier League prices coming in at over £30 in most instances. Clubs at all levels can point to the improved facilities on offer: all-seater stadia, decent toilets and superior catering facilities. Nevertheless, there has been a huge price increase in real terms at Football League level over the past twenty years and, combined with a similar real-terms rise in the cost of rail travel, supporters are increasingly having to pick and choose which games they attend.
Moreover, the concept of the ‘casual’ football fan, who would go and see whichever local team was at home that week has also largely died out; football supporting is now a substantial financial commitment and supporters are having to think carefully about which games they attend – attending game is now for many a choice, based on a number of factors, rather than a relatively inexpensive social habit.
Football on Television
Supporters’ habits have also been changed by the plethora of football that is now on TV. The ban on UK televised games taking place at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon has arguably limited the effect this has had on attendances at Football League games, but the recent European ruling that allows pubs to choose which broadcaster they use from any country in Europe could change this in the future.
The extra publicity and revenue that Football League clubs have earned through the same TV rights has been welcomed, but the huge sums of money earned by the Premier League clubs compared to their Football League counterparts have caused many to chase the dream and end up in financial ruin. Indeed, the number of clubs who have entered administration since 1989 now numbers almost one half of the 72. The collapse of ITV Digital in 2002 should act as a warning against over reliance on TV capital but this is one that many clubs sadly seem to have failed to heed.
The skewing of TV money towards the Premier League has meant that it is increasingly difficult for small clubs to rise up the leagues without the help of a sugar daddy. Whilst the overall quality has increased – more Football League players are currently Internationals than ever before, for instance, and pitches have certainly improved over the last 20 years – the gap between the Premier and Football Leagues has widened. The days of a club such as Nottingham Forest, Derby or Ipswich gaining promotion and then doing well in the top flight for a sustained period of time seems to be over – with a few debt-ridden exceptions. Instead, smaller promoted clubs seem to do well for a spell and then sink, often returning to the 72 in a poorer financial state than which they went up – Charlton, Bradford and Hull a few recent examples.
Whilst the best-supported teams have always traditionally risen to the top over time, the chances of a small club growing organically in a purposeful way now appear smaller than ever; there seems to exist a glass ceiling in the lower half of the Championship for even the most successful smaller sides – Scunthorpe and Colchester two such examples, and it is disheartening to think that he gap has now become so great that top-flight status will not be possible without a huge financial risk. The rebranding of the second tier as The Championship in 2004 and the skewing of TV money and prize money in their direction – the winners of League 2 now earn just £15,000 in price money, for instance – means that a ‘two-tier’ Football League has begun to evolve. Whereas the top flight was previously the goal, now The Championship is arguably the grail.
The influx of money to the professional game has also had an impact on the relationship players have with supporters. Whilst players used to earn salaries akin a working man, this is no longer the case with wages of £1,000+ a week now commonplace for established professionals even in League 2. This, combined with the professional image that footballers are now supposed to exude, means that the lifestyles of footballers are today very different from those of the majority of supporters – more lavish but also more remote. The world of a footballer today seems cut-off from ordinary society; they are institutionalized in academies from a young age, and throughout their career their earnings often mean they cannot identify with the lifestyle and values of supporters.
Policing and Hooliganism
Football may have become a higher-priced, business orientated and, some may say, a more sanitized game, but it has also become a safer one for supporters. Whilst all-seater stadia have their drawbacks – pricing, the impact on the atmosphere and the ability to escape that loud, fidgety bloke besides you being three – they also have their advantages. It is now much easier to identify and deal with violence and offensive chanting than it was previously. Police are better trained and the technology on offer to help identify individuals is also much further developed.
Moreover whilst there are still some isolated incidents – Millwall Vs West Ham last season, for instance – the running terrace battles of yore have thankfully receded into distant memory and hooliganism inside stadia has largely been eliminated. Part of this is due to the change in profile of football fans in the past 20 years – all-seater stadia, Sky and Euro ’96 have made football more family friendly and the rise in ticket pricing has increased the proportion of middle-class match-going fans compared to previous times – but part of it is due to a more effective approach by the authorities, with Football Banning Orders working effectively to stop repeat offenders from going to games.
Whilst the pricing of policing for football clubs has become an issue – several clubs, from Wigan to Stockport, have expressed concern at how expensive policing has become and have questioned their ability to meet the costs – the marked decrease in football hooliganism in the past twenty years is a hugely positive development and allows fans to concentrate on the football, without fear that their afternoon might be interrupted by someone looking for a fight.
Supporters’ Trusts and Fan Activism
Technological advances have not only benefited policing at matches; they have also helped encourage the politicisation of supporters. The arrival of the internet as a mass medium has allowed supporters to come together as never before to discuss ideas, share opinions, fundraise and, in a few cases, take action to help their club when the owners fail.
Every team in the Football League now has at least one popular internet message board and this has helped unify fan efforts in a way not seen before. In recent years, blogs such as this one have become more popular, and have to some extent replaced fanzines as the home of informed supporter opinion. Fans have also started to play a greater role in the running of clubs, too. Since the formation of the first Supporters’ Trust as part of the Sixfields stadium deal at Northampton in 1992, those supporters interested in the governance and off-field health of their clubs have come together under the guidance of the government-backed Supporters Direct scheme to provide much-needed oversight on the running of their clubs, as well as valuable skills.
Some Trusts have taken ownership of their clubs, on a partial or total level. This has had mixed success – partial ownership has worked at Swansea and full ownership at Exeter, but ownership ultimately failed at Stockport, and the Trusts at Chesterfield and Notts County eventually decided the burden was too great to bear and sold their share to private investors. The, at best, mixed results for supporter ownership thus far are possibly due to the state that clubs are usually in when they first become supporter owned, and also possibly because supporters’ groups tend to lack the significant sums required to sustain a professional football club, almost all of whom are loss-making, since turning a profit whilst remaining competitive on the field has proved to be somewhat of an elusive equation.
Supporter-owned clubs York and Lincoln, who now find themselves outside the League due in part to the efforts of their fan owners to keep them financially viable, illustrate this quandary. Whilst supporter involvement in football clubs from an oversight and a relationship with the community point of view is undoubtedly a good thing, the failure of most supporter ownership experiments thus far suggests that, whilst the benefactor model of days gone by was imperfect, the supporter ownership model for now at least remains deeply flawed, too.
Today: a better place?
Football today is undoubtedly different, then, to how it was twenty years or so ago and the experience of a football fan has changed as well. Games are more expensive to attend; fans form their opinions as much from what they see on TV and read on the internet to what they see at games and match going is an altogether more sedate experience than in times past, due to all-seater stadia and the clampdown on hooliganism.
Moreover, the increase in television revenue and the knock-on effect on wages and transfer fees has significantly increased the gap between rich and poor and has unequivocally changed the relationship between players and fans. Finally, the age of the internet and the foundation up of Supporters’ Direct has given fans a greater say and a stronger, more unified voice at their clubs than in previous generations.
On the whole, how positive are these developments and is the experience of a football fan better or worse than in times past? It is difficult to say; some have been good – the decline of hooliganism and the advent of Supporters’ Trusts, for instance – whilst others have been less welcome – rising ticket prices and the widening gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, being two examples.
TV has proved to be a double-edged sword – clubs welcome the extra revenue and the heightened profile that football now enjoys, but it has also helped increase the gap between rich and poor, encouraged clubs to act irresponsibly and has also made it possible to watch football without going to games. As an Stockport County exile, I welcome the increased access TV and the internet offer yet, as someone who enjoys going to games and believes that terraces, in particular, is where the real soul of football supporting exists, I feel the advances that have taken place have come at a heavy cost.
Football was, in James Walvin’s words, traditionally ‘the people’s game’, and the rising ticket prices and reduced emphasis on attending matches has meant that some of this has become lost. For all the ways that the experience of being a football fan has improved since Hillsborough, it is this erosion of what I consider to be the essence of our game that makes me sad and dampens, to an extent, my enjoyment of our sport.