I WAS sitting high in the north side of Stamford Bridge when a bald, burly and Stone Islanded middle-aged man came bursting his way through row 24. He sat two seats away from me and said, “’aint seen you here before. Are you new?”, I smiled and responded, “about 45 years new.”
It was true, I looked out of place – firstly, I had not been in his part of the stand before and secondly, my recent patronage of Chelsea Football Club had been spasmodic. I was, therefore, relatively new to matey. Fortunately, he found it amusing, but when Tommy Baldwin was paraded around the ground and I enthusiastically applauded one of the heroes of my youth, my credibility was intact. I had to spend the entire 90 minutes in my new pal’s company, after all.
During the course of the game, in fact any at Chelsea that I have been to in recent years, you are interrupted by overseas visitors seeking the correct seat. At the same time, they are perpetually taking photos on their mobile phones – selfies, videos and action shots from afar. They are invariably late for kick-off and will leave just before half-time, return just after the interval and then depart early. In total 75 minutes action?
At any major London ground, these scenes are replicated, or at least I have seen likewise at Arsenal and Tottenham. I gather it is happening at West Ham these days, much to the frustration of long-standing Hammers’ fans who don’t like what’s going on at their club.
Longevity in any profession is no longer considered to be an asset. Indeed, if you working in the corporate world, people who have put in a 25-year shift (or longer) are viewed quite negatively. Loyalty is a thing of the past, the habit of the unmarketable or the unambitious. Football fans wear their supporting CV like a badge of honour – “I’ve been coming down here 40 years” – and they somehow consider it gives them the right to certain privileges that are not available to others. Criticising the club or team is not allowed, because the veteran knows best. Actually, you can also be absolutely misguided for those 40 years.
In non-league football it is no different. I have stood on a terrace at a game and been asked to move because “old John and his mates always stand there”. This is odd given most non-league grounds are probably filled to 5% capacity and there’s plenty of room.
At some venues, new arrivals are not always welcomed as much as they should be. For some clubs, the long-time fan considers the stadium to be his or her territory and that newbies are merely “Johnny-come-latelies” that have to earn the right to opinion and preference. This is a self-defeating attitude should “United” want to grow and attract more supporters – surely the aim of every football club – then it has to welcome all.
I’ve read lots of comments about West Ham’s current situation and how the people who used to stand all through the game are resenting the new-found Hammers’ support in that they are being very vocal in their protests about the standers. Let’s be honest, the whole all-seater thing is a nonsense. I have been behind the goal at Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and West Ham in recent years and paid £35 upwards to reluctantly stand for 90 minutes (yes, even in the luxuriously-padded Emirates seats).
Clubs don’t do enough to ensure their supporters honour the “no-standing” rule. Why not start installing standing areas for those fans who do not want to sit?
Until that happens, the old guard are just going to have to face facts. West Ham, for example, are gaining 20,000 more supporters than they have been used to. It is obvious that a lot of these are people who are unfamiliar with the protocol that existed at Upton Park and still exists at Tottenham. West Ham are playing in front of the biggest crowds they’ve ever had – it is a new audience, presumably one that Ms Brady and co. want to cultivate to make West Ham a more gentrified club, with a younger crowd that is more affluent and more middle class than the Hammers’ traditional clientele. The London Stadium is now in gobbing distance of the City of London, which is probably a consideration.
Critics of the club suggest that West Ham have sacrificed heritage to appeal to a new demographic, a problem that might not have a quick solution. Upton Park was never a gentle place to visit, but it worked because of an accepted “order”. The old sterotypical ‘ammers fan blended in nicely, the problem is that in a new “facility” like the Olympic, sorry London Stadium, these characters really look uncomfortable. The images at some of the games do not look pretty, but West Ham surely have to shoulder some of the blame.
It is not just at Premier League level that ground issues shape sentiment. At non-league level, ground relocation can be very emotive and can deter some supporters from maintaining their relationship with the club. Too often, pragmatism is something that just doesn’t exist in football, but facing facts that a new ground equals progress eventually comes through, particularly if infrastructure links are better than the previous offering. There are always casualties on the way, but by carefully managing relocation, finding a workable solution that accommodates past and present, should not be beyond most clubs. The most important thing to remember, however painful that might be for the older folk, is that new supporters represent the future of the club, not a bygone era, and as we find, new developments, new inventions and…new football grounds have their eye on the years to come, not in those that are already torn from the calendar of life.