FOOTBALL, as Jimmy Greaves said on more than one occasion, is a funny old game.
It still is. But now it’s not just the game that is ‘funny’ – it’s the ever increasing circus that continually performs around it, even when no actual football is being played.
Once upon a time, being a football supporter was easy. You paid at the turnstile, watched the match and then headed for the pub or returned home.
You’d talk through the game with friends and family, watch Match of the Day and that was that. On Sunday and Monday newspaper reports would sate the appetite for further analysis and discussion and by Monday night it was pretty much all over until the next game.
The game then was affordable, enjoyable and, perhaps crucially, not over analysed. It felt like an escape – it was fun. That’s not to say there was any less passion for it. Fans were still 100 per cent engrossed in their club and the sport. Crowds were noisy, arguably more so than now.
Football was taken just as seriously, but time and effort was channelled much differently. Attending top-level games didn’t require the sacrifices, financially and time-wise, that it does today. For most it was case of turn up, pay and watch – no membership schemes, booking fees, telephone queuing systems or registering online.
Without the internet, rolling sports news and the proliferation of televised games, football felt special and was treated as such. Conversations centred around the players and the game itself, not finance, not owners, not regulation and not an ever-changing football ‘issue’.
Now, the world that revolves around football seems to have lost sight of what is important.
No longer is the focus solely on players and managers. Now there is constant moralising and courting of controversy. Conflict is sought and stirred with loaded questioning and agenda-ridden reporting. Dumbed-down doses of tribal bait are constantly laid, even by the mainstream media these days. Even the BBC Sport website was recently tweeting to ask ‘What is the biggest club in England?’
Message-boards, blogs, websites, Twitter and Facebook buzz non-stop with everything ranging from sensible discussion and tactical analysis to bile, bigotry and hatred.
Separating the wheat from the chaff can often be an arduous and soul-sapping task, one that adds to the cumulative effect of modern-football fatigue. A world where any sensible discussion about the game is constantly drowned out by the current five minutes of shame is a world that quickly becomes intensely frustrating.
Take some of the real issues among match-going football supporters, like ticket pricing. Whatever agendas exist, this is a topic that should be top of them. Yet, too often, it’s a mere whisper as all around shout about that week’s manufactured outrage.
The gradual pricing out of a generation of fans from top-level football has eaten away at the game year on year since the Premier League was formed in 1992. The BBC’s Price of Football survey puts it to the forefront of the news agenda once a year, while The Guardian’s David Conn has also penned a series of excellent articles on the subject.
Those sources aside it’s barely registered in the grand scheme of things; the discussion has been from far from sustained. Mass media analysis of the great ticket rip off has very much been the exception rather than the rule with the Premier League’s PR arm trotting out facts and figures about how full grounds are in an effort to dampen any interest in the topic.
That of course spectacularly misses the point. Bums on seats doesn’t equate to quality of supporter. And when clubs are so keen to sell the atmosphere at games, it is deeply flawed logic that dictates a pricing policy which is increasingly meaning the very people who create that atmosphere – the loyal, long term, passionate supporters – are walking away from the game they love because they can no longer afford it.
But there is growing evidence that football supporters can influence the agenda. The start of 2013 has brought with it some strong suggestions that the tipping point has arrived when it comes to paying extortionate prices to watch the game.
The news that Manchester City sent back almost a third of their ticket allocation at Arsenal after fans baulked at the £62 price tag for their match at The Emirates made national news.
It was quickly followed by news that Liverpool and Manchester United supporters – two of the biggest and most organised fanbases in the country due to ownership issues past and present – would put rivalries aside to work with the Football Supporters’ Federation and Supporters Direct to campaign for a maximum away ticket price in the Premier League of £20-25.
Already huge disparities exist, not just between grounds but based on who the away team is. Liverpool fans, for example, also faced a £62 bill for an away end ticket for The Emirates as, like City, it was deemed to be a ‘Category A’ game.
Conversely, Stoke City fans will pay £32.50 for an away end Premier League ticket at The Emirates as it deemed to be a ‘Category B’ game.
As staggering as it is, this breaks no rules. The only rule clubs in the top flight must comply with is that away fans are charged the same as home fans.
Protesting against what is essentially a tax on the travelling fans of so-called bigger clubs is nothing new. In 2007 a group of Manchester United fans organised a boycott of food, drink and programmes when visiting Craven Cottage. There United supporters were charged £45 for their match with Fulham in the same season that Manchester City fans had paid £25.
Football Supporters Federation chairman Malcolm Clarke has estimated that the new Premier League TV deal – worth upwards of £4billion – means that top flight clubs could cut ALL tickets by £32 and suffer no loss in income due to the increase in the share of the TV pot.
He said: “There are many ways of measuring what is the best league. But if you look at the Bundesliga, where fans can attend matches for 15 Euros, stand up, have a pint if they wish, and even get a ticket for the metrolink, it seems the Premier League is short changing its own supporters.
“This business of categorising matches is blatantly unfair. Just because Manchester City have a lot of money doesn’t mean their supporters have, and the same is true of the other teams who get charged the highest prices every time they play.
“And if they are starting to say enough is enough, and that in turn affects the atmosphere within the stadiums, will it retain its worldwide popularity? I am not so sure it will.
“This is a real test for the Premier League. They seem to think football is immune from the economic situation elsewhere. But it isn’t. And how it responds – especially next year – will shape the game for years to come.”
As refreshing as this chink in the armour of the capitalist machine was, what was also telling – and depressing – was how the message was again blurred by the football circus.
So Arsene Wenger, reportedly the fourth highest paid manager in the world on £7.5m a year, had this to say as the debate on ticket prices raged: “They [the fans] have a choice.
“They can choose to go to Manchester United. They can choose to go to Manchester City. They can choose to go to Barcelona. You can choose to go to the theatre or not. Of course it’s fair.”
That a millionaire Premier League manager is out of touch with supporters is perhaps no surprise. More worrying were the comments made to the media by Paul Matz, of the Arsenal Independent Supporters’ Association.
He said: “It’s not the first time that City have not sold their full allocation, and previously City were not a category A club, so ticket prices were only half the cost.
“City have got where they are by importing a sugar daddy, rather than through their own efforts, mirroring what happened at Chelsea a few years ago, so it’s bound to take a while before the level of their fan base catches up.”
Yes, damn those City fans and their incomes that don’t match the bank balance of one of the richest men in the world… It shouldn’t need spelling out – it’s the clubs that are rich, not the fans.
Sadly, Paul Matz wasn’t alone in allowing club loyalty to cloud what is an issue for ALL football fans.
Yet the deep irony is that if fans like him could take the blinkers off, tear down the club-coloured walls and work together for the common good, something could be achieved.
Nobody – not the clubs, not the TV companies, not anyone else connected with selling the ‘product’ of football in England – wants empty seats or campaigning supporters distracting from the action on the pitch.
But the appetite for protest, for boycotts, or even sensible discussion among fans is tempered by tribalism and one-upmanship.
In Germany, the same situation united fans. They protested together. Here? Here, we actually have fans that defend the ever-increasing prices; that defend the gentrification of the game and that deliver such gems as “You can’t afford it? Tough.”
So finally the media are listening. Finally the clubs are worried. And what do fans do? Wrap themselves up in tit-for-tat nonsense that benefits nobody.
It really is a funny old game.
Man City charged Liverpool £51 and £53 for the recent game at the Etihad. whilst, charging their home fans about half this amount (on average). why was this no picked up by the campaign?
The news that watching your team “on telly” has the big boys running scared, but sadly in the wrong direction. The likes of Sunderland are quoted as having a much reduced gate is blamed on this, rather than focussing over-pricing not just for travelling fans but for everyone.
I had to give up my season ticket this year because of finances, but I can still get to a game because, tickets are more and more available for the public. Something that was unheard of a couple of years ago.
Okay, some games are sell out, but what does one do? Go down the pub watch it there for a quarter of the cost. Atmosphere? A few more pints please….
My point is slightly off topic for a sec but bear with me and it will come round.
Since the start of this season, I have just not bothered watching much football, either on TV or live except for Liverpool. I just can’t seem to stomach watching Swansea v Sunderland. In it’s place I have been watching so much NFL that it’s unreal and to be honest I have loved every minute of it no matter what teams are playing. There’s obviously a lot of factors in that, mainly that I have no allegiance to a specific team based on being in the UK.
However, once I’d been watching NFL here they have something called “the redzone”, this zooms around the all stadiums showing all the highlights almost live as they happen, uninterrupted by adverts, a bit like Soccer Saturday except you get to actually see what they are talking about.
This is where my relevant point comes round, could a package like this be implemented to the Premier League, based on say a £40 subscription for a year, you can watch this red-zone, or maybe take it further and say for £150 a year you can watch all your teams home games. However, if clubs want to sell access to watch their games on TV, then, for arguments sake let’s say 50%, has to be used to subsidise the ticket sales for the ground.
This was a discussion i had with my mates on twitter, so I cant take credit for the idea and for certain, its not without it’s draw backs, but its win-win-win situation, for clubs, supporters and fans.
This is what happens in America and I’m sure will happen over here in time, I watch a lot of baseball and you can subscribe to MLB.com to watch every game live online for about $150 (thats every game of every team, and they have 162 game seasons!).
I think in America the games are blacked out if you live in the state that the games are going on (ie, if you are in New York you won’t be able to see the Yankees live online – this is to encourage locals to go to the games). The teams also pretty much all have their own TV network YES is the Yankees one, where locals can subscribe to watch all the games The value of the YES network is reportedly worth upwards of $3bn at the moment.
All this makes it much easier to understand why there are so many American owners in the Premier League, I imagine this is how the rights are going to be sold eventually although it will not be until the end of the current SKY deal at the earliest. If not, SKY are just going to have to keep ponying up more and more money to stop the clubs breaking away and selling their own rights individually.
None of this of course has anything to do with ticket pricing other than to say that with more and more technology available, the clubs are going to have to be careful how much they’re charging. Everyone can watch every game live at home now on dodgy internet feeds so clubs are treading a very fine line if they continue to overcharge.
Lost a bit of respect for Wenger after reading that quote. He’s sounds awfully short-sighted from way up there in his ivory tower. If I was that Arsenal fan I’d be questioning why there’s constantly a “will he or won’t he go?” furore over all of their best players when the prices are what they are and they play Champions League footy every year, not taking sly digs just because City offered to pay Clichy more money or whatever.
I wouldn’t praise the Bundesliga too much Gareth (although with Guardiola’s Munich vs Klopp’s Dortmund as of next season at relatively fan-friendly prices, who can blame you?) Martin Samuel might have to write another article along the lines of “but German hooliganism!” as if that in any way justifies teens and twenty-somethings being priced out of following their team in this country.
And speaking of the funny old game, did anyone else see a Hodgson side play 4-3-3 and not treat the ball like a hot potato last night? Was I dreaming?
You seem to be under the illusion that in this country football is a sport! It ceased being that in 1992 when it became a business and the issue over tickets is all about supply and demand, more fans home, away and neutral want to see MANU or LFC so every club including those 2 classes games involving those as category A because they can and will sell more tickets, it’s simple business economics, it’s not fair on your everyday fan, but since when did the clubs care about those rather than money??
As for the Wenger quote, he isn’t out of touch at all, in fact I’d say he’s very much in touch, for example I would love a brand new Bentley, I can’t afford it so I can’t have one but my neighbour can afford it and does have one – this is just life, and football tickets fall in to the same category, if you can afford it you can have one if you can’t then tough luck, get a better job, save your money etc etc. why are those football fans who can’t afford a ticket expecting to be a protected species? No one cares except the ones who can’t afford a ticket and see it as an injustice – THAT’S JUST LIFE, it’s business and like it or not its been getting progressively worse for fans since 1992 when the ££££££££ train arrived