What killed English football culture?
English football culture used to be the envy of the world. Sadly, the most important part of that sentence is ‘used to be’.
These days, the atmosphere in the average English stadium is vastly surpassed by Germany, Sweden, Holland, Poland and many others across Europe. Even nations who haven’t traditionally cared about football such as Australia and America have been developing an interesting and exciting football scene. While the majority of teams in these nations have yet to capture the imagination of the public, the fans of Western Sydney Wanderers, Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers have certainly caught my eye.
It would have been almost unthinkable in the glory days of English football that you could have a better time at a game anywhere else in the world, never mind countries where rugby league, baseball or the American version of football are the most popular sports. So, how exactly did we allow our stadiums to become full of tourists, iPads and half and half scarves? Instead of a single factor, I believe the following ten factors are responsible for the rapid (but not irrevocable) decline of watching football in England:
End of the terraces
After the tragic death of 96 Liverpool fans at Hillsborough, English football was bound to change. It had to. At the time, the blame for this terrible disaster was put on the shoulders of the supporters themselves. Indeed, to this day, some ignorant people still believe that the fans themselves are responsible for what happened, rather than the real reasons of police incompetence, a stadium which was unfit for purpose and a lack of interest from the authorities in the safety of football fans.
A change had to come to protect supporters in England from something like this ever happening again, but the complete demolition of the terraces was not the answer. How many people died on the terraces in Germany last season? Zero. How about in any of the last 20 seasons? Same answer.
The introduction of safe standing would have allowed football clubs to keep prices low for at least one section of the stadium, ensuring that those who wanted to stand were catered for just as well as those who wanted to entertain corporate guests. By taking them away completely, a generation were priced out of the game. The result? Soulless, silent stadiums and kids in Premier League cities who will never know anything other than watching their team on television.
Thatcher hated football fans almost as much as she hated miners, milk and poor people. In addition to her government helping to cover up the real truth about Hillsborough, she was determined to kill the game for good.
She may have said that the target was football hooligans, but the fact is that in her eyes, to be a football supporter was to be a football hooligan. The Football Spectators Act of 1989 was set to make it compulsory for supporters to own a membership card to purchase tickets for away matches, complete with details such as their home address, passport number and more. While this plan eventually failed, the Act established many more laws which helped to repress football fans for many years, including airport style body searches, refusing fans entry for being drunk and much more. If she had had her way, it wouldn’t be English football culture which died, but football itself.
On the face of it, Euro ’96 was no different to any other tournament. England performed well enough to ensure that the country (and especially the tabloid newspapers) were whipped into a frenzy of excitement about lifting the trophy, before going out on penalties, finding a scapegoat and hating him forever.
However, the tournament had a lasting impact on football which went beyond ensuring that Gareth Southgate couldn’t go out in public for a couple of months. It made football ‘cool’ again. In the mind of the public, the game had been associated with drunken thugs rampaging across Europe throwing plastic chairs at French policemen, and wanted nothing to do with it.
This all changed with Euro 96, and suddenly it was cool to like football again. This attracted a new style of fan to the game, not to mention a wave of corporate interest. Taking a client to a game became an ideal way to secure a new contract or ensure a higher spend, with all parties involved more interested in discussing spreadsheets and accounts than actually following the action on the field.
With a new breed of supporters eager to get their hands on tickets, it made it easier for clubs to raise their prices without serious process. After all, for every lifelong working class supporter they drove away, there would be ten more people willing to take their place.
There is enough wrong with Sky Sports that I could have listed them for all ten reasons, but perhaps the worst is their control of kick off times. How do you expect supporters to be at their best when they have been dragged out of bed at 3am on a Sunday morning for a lunchtime kick off in Newcastle?
A couple of years ago, before Vincent Tan came along, I attended every single Cardiff away game in a season, getting up at some extremely silly times to go and watch numerous defeats in former mining villages. The worst journey of the lot was also the closest, with Sky Sports deciding that 11:15am was a good time for the South Wales derby. Police restrictions meant that the coaches ended up setting off while it was still dark outside. Both sides still manage to inform each other that they were scum who enjoyed intimacy with their sisters and running away from fights, but it was nowhere near as intense as it could have been had the game been played at a reasonable hour. Something like 3pm on a Saturday, perhaps?
Just this week, the hideous creation that is ‘Monday Night Football’ ensured that Sunderland fans would have to take two days off work if they wanted to attend their crucial fixture at Tottenham. 300 of them did so and made a great amount of noise, but imagine how much better it would have been had they been able to bring an extra couple of thousand?
I understand that the contract held by Sky Sports means that kick off times are going to change, but I believe rules should be in place to limit how early games can be, and how far fans will be forced to travel for a midweek game.
Theme park stadiums
Thankfully, a number of English clubs have so far resisted the temptation to build a new stadium in a retail park several miles away from the city centre, but it is certainly a growing trend. Instead of fans being able to stagger out of a local pub half an hour before kick off and head for the turnstiles with drunken enthusiasm ensuring they genuinely believe that their slightly overweight striker on loan from Scunthorpe is better than Pele, they are forced to hang around Greggs, McDonalds and ASDA and so on for hours on end. Alternatively, they could enter the stadium early and ‘enjoy’ a pint of Carling in a plastic cup for four quid.
Just as the game is increasingly being taken away from those under the age of thirty, it is also being taken away from the community. When you cater for tourists rather than local supporters, is it any wonder the ground is silent apart from the noise of a thousand pictures being taken for Facebook?
Man City play much better football at the Etihad than they ever did at Maine Road and it’s certainly more comfortable, but ask their supporters which ground they enjoyed going to more and I bet I can guess the answer. The same goes for the new stadiums at Leicester City, Derby County, Hull City, Reading and many more. For the best example of all, just look at what moving to this kind of stadium did to Coventry City. After leaving their beloved home, they rattled around an almost empty Ricoh Arena for several years, before ending up playing in Northampton.
The Old Trafford refund
In August of 2011, Manchester United demolished Arsenal 8 – 2 at Old Trafford in one of the most embarrassing moments in the history of the club. Despite the fact they were well beaten, some pride was restored by the travelling fans. While some of them departed early, many more stayed and continued to loudly support their team until the final whistle.
In the days following the game, it was announced that the away fans who attended the match would be offered a refund. I was unable to find statistics on how many of the supporters chose to accept the offer, but I feel this was an incredibly significant moment in the history of English football culture, changing many supporters into customers.
By offering a refund for poor performance, it turns attending a football match into something similar to shopping at Tesco or going for a meal at a restaurant. Rather than getting behind their team and trying to inspire them to victory, they’ll sit back and wait to be entertained. I have noticed through my travels around Europe that when a side in Germany, Serbia or Holland goes behind, most of the time they will just sing even louder, as if they were responsible for conceding the goal because they weren’t putting enough effort into supporting their team.
Of course, this transformation in to customers was happening long before Arsenal made this offer, but it certainly helped to accelerate it. My question to those who believe it is acceptable to ask for a refund after a bad performance is, how would you react if the players walked over to the away end and asked for another £40 each every time they won?
Worryingly, Norwich City supporters also received a refund recently after a dismal defeat to Swansea. If this continues, you can guarantee that in the near future, a football club will attempt to charge their supporters extra every time they score a goal or win a game.
The fact that this vile abomination of a franchise continues to exist is a major blow to the soul of English football. The day they finally go bust, I will fly to the UK to organise coaches to Milton Keynes from Wimbledon to dance on their ugly concrete grave.
Please note – If you are a MK Dons fans and this offends you, good.
I understand the need for banning orders in football. If you decide that it would be a good idea to throw a flare into the Family Stand or charge across the pitch to try to punch Frank Lampard in the face, you deserve everything you get when the law comes calling. However, the issue arises when supporters are being prevented from watching their beloved teams for increasingly minor issues. This season alone, banning orders have been issued to Season Ticket holders at both Sunderland and Everton for standing up during a game. Even more ridiculously, the Sunderland fan in question had been standing up to celebrate a goal his team had just scored.
Now, Sunderland have scored so few goals this season that fans should be allowed to celebrate them by riding a unicorn round the pitch naked while setting fire to an effigy of Alan Shearer, never mind simply standing up and jumping about a bit. Banning orders have also been given for the ‘offences’ of swearing, shouting and singing songs which are deemed to be offensive by the police. Not racist, homophobic or anything deserving along those lines which deserves punishment, but merely offensive. It begs the question, where does it end? Should supporters be banned for singing they support “by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen” because it is offensive to the memory of 1970’s Brazil?
Something has to be done to make the offences which can result in a football banning order more reasonable. Have a wee against a wall in a city centre on a Saturday night? All fine. Do it outside a football stadium because 30,000 other people are waiting to use the toilets? That’s a three year ban sonny. It’s no wonder that many football fans sit down and stay silent, it’s the only way to get the police and stewards to leave you alone.
The modern football fan is undeniably greedy. If the reanimated corpse of Adolf Hitler turned up at a Championship side and offered to invest 30 million quid, you can be sure that fans would be wearing replica moustaches to the next home game and singing adoring songs in praise of their ‘saviour’.
Greed is the reason Cardiff City play in red, and the reason Hull City so nearly became known as Hull Tigers. It could also be partially blamed for the demise of Leeds United and Portsmouth. The money being spent by Peter Ridsdale and the dozens of owners of Portsmouth was clearly ridiculous, but very few people objected until it was too late and things had already begun to come crashing down.
The hype created by Sky Sports about the Premier League being the best in the world has brainwashed millions of people into believing that watching their team play in any other league is simply unbearable. For every Sheikh Mansour there are ten Vincent Tan’s, but this doesn’t stop people from demanding they become the plaything of a billionaire. Change the name, colour, identity of the club? Fine, as long as you can make sure we can play Man City, Chelsea and Liverpool every season.
How many times have you heard “It’s all you’ve known” or “There’s nothing you can do to change it” when speaking out against a certain aspect of football in the modern era? I’d wager quite a few, and it’s certainly a phrase which pops up in my Twitter interactions at least once a week. Normally from somebody with a username like @TopLAD95 or @BantzLegend2K14.
Instead of protesting as others around Europe have done when their football culture is threatened, we stood back and, for the most part, did nothing. In Sweden, arch rivals AIK and Djurgården agreed to say silent for the opening stages of a match between the two sides, showing the authorities what football would be like without supporters. The 12:12 campaign in Germany last season did the same, where the fans of every single club in the league pyramid stayed silent for the first 12 minutes and 12 seconds of the game in protest at proposed legislation designed to place more restrictions on football fans. The silence was observed perfectly, before the stadium descended into chaos for the rest of the game. The DFL got the message, and the changes were dropped. Nobody is suggesting you have to give up your season ticket or throw a flare at Rupert Murdoch to protest, as long as you do something.
The fact is that if nobody had ever campaigned for change and a better way of doing things we’d all still be living in caves and choosing a partner by dragging them home by their hair. This still happens on a Saturday night in Newport, but most of the world has moved on. Being against modern football does not mean that you are desperate for a return of the days of football hooliganism and the chance to lay waste to a different town centre every fortnight. Germany and many other countries have shown how it is possible for football to be safe and enjoyable at the same time.
The reason English football culture died? We let it.