What English football needs…the Ultra

THERE were some encouraging signs on the first day of the new season, with Brighton and Newcastle United fans providing a noisy backdrop to their first games in the Premier League after winning promotion. Could this be the start of something interesting?

For a while now, it has become clear that English crowds are somewhat muted compared to their foreign counterparts. In the long and distant past, the audience at the average top flight game was quite passionate, but unfortunately, this intensity was often accompanied with bad behaviour, or at least antics that required a heavy police presence. As the 1970s unfolded, and crowds became more unruly, notably with gangs of hooligans roaming around Britain supporting their teams away from home, attendances fell dramatically.

Crowds had already slumped from their post-war boom highs when England kicked-off the 1966 World Cup. This triumph gave the game a boost and by 1968, the first division average had climbed to 33,000 from 27,000 in 1965-66. Then came the early-to-mid 1970s period which was characterised by inflation, high unemployment, the energy crisis, industrial action and the ongoing problems in Northern Ireland. With the three-day week and a deep recession in Britain, football suffered as much as any industry. In 1974-75, the average first division crowd had dipped to 27,000 again and thus started a steady decline that bottomed-out in 1984 when average crowds fell below 19,000.

The 1980s saw English football stare into the abyss, with fans portrayed as a form of underclass that was locked into sty-like stadiums, served poor quality food, herded like cattle behind barbed wire and treated with disdain by the authorities. The Bradford fire of 1985 highlighted the dire need for better spectator accommodation and just weeks later, the Heysel Stadium disaster brought hooliganism to the front pages once more, prompting “told you so” revelations from journalists and TV commentators. These two events were the first defining moments in the gentrification of the English game.

If Britain’s Labour party revelled in the fact that England won the World Cup when Harold Wilson was in power, the Conservative Party, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher may just claim that the roots of the modern game and experience owes something to the actions of the government in the mid-to-late 1980s. Let’s be clear, the Tories had no love of football, indeed politicans like Thatcher and her unpopular and misinformed sports minister, Colin Moynihan, couldn’t wait to shackle the English game.

In 1989, Hillsborough was the final straw and gave the government all the ammunition it needed to crack down on its problem child. By this time, English football had really been dragged through the mud by the antics of its clubs and supporters of the national team in major competitions such as the World Cup and European Championship. The five-year ban on English clubs in Europe, in the aftermath of Heysel, added more fuel to the argument that something had to be done. The game was effectively dying but started to revive after 1990 when England enjoyed a successful World Cup in Italy.

This World Cup may have been low on genuine quality, but it created English football’s first stars of the mass media age – people like Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne and Gary Lineker. “Gazza” went off to Italy and suddenly, British TV audiences were being shown Italian football on Channel 4. Italy was seen as the benchmark and was much envied by British football administrators for its passion, huge crowds and all-star teams drawn from all over the world. In 1992, the Premier League was formed, which meant very little at the time, but this was the catalyst for the birth of the all-consuming beast that is the EPL. While Italy, due to economics, scandal and violence, lost its position at the table, the Premier became the model for conspicuous consumerism, inflated investment and big crowds. You have to go back as far as the early-1950s for the last time top division crowds hit 36,000.

Average attendances since 1970

  1970 1980 1990 2000 2017
Premier League 32,070 26,327 20,757 30,757 35,809
Bundesliga 20,698 24,294 21,243 31,182 41,516
Serie A 30,134 30,983 27,133 29,908 22,047
Ligue 1 7,636 10,625 11,798 22,314 20,963

But these crowds are very different to the ones that donned flat caps, rattles and a tepid cup of Bovril. The “working man” is a different animal to the downtrodden mill or factory worker of the 1950s. The working class, in post-war society, became aspirational home-owners – encouraged by Thatcher and her acolytes as much as anyone else. The old football audience had dwindled between the late 1960s and mid-1980s and should the trajectory have continued, it would have disappeared altogether. The creation of the Premier, a heavily marketed league, rescued English football, but at the same time, evolved into a consumer product that continued to get more and more expensive. By definition this accelerated the gentrification of the game with middle class professionals wielding season tickets like a status symbol. New stadiums have sprung up all over the country, nine of the current Premier have had new grounds in the last 20 years and in total, over a third of the 92 have been relocated since 1989. Most of these offer a far better standard of accommodation than their predecessors, but they have to be paid for. Hence, ticket prices climbed to an unacceptable level, and have become out-of-reach for many younger supporters. Many Premier crowds have an ageing population in the stands, which does not bode well for the future of the sport in England.

It is not just a lack of younger people, but also the type of person that is now attending games. In London it is arguably more crystallised than elsewhere, but there are many “tourists” at stadiums like Chelsea and Arsenal. It’s an event to be at a game, one that marks you as being fairly affluent and trendy, and willing to take “selfie” photos and continually photograph events with a mobile telephone. Home crowds are frequently quieter than a small group of visitors from abroad. With the exception of a few clubs, the concept of the contemporary “ultra” seems to be lost on English football.

While this is undoubtedly welcomed by the authorities, it makes for a somewhat flat atmosphere at many games. In almost any major city in Europe, the local club(s) will always have a group of [young] fans that provide the soundtrack at the game, for 90 minutes. Sooner or later, attempts will surely be made to replicate this type of support in Britain on a broader scale.

Ultras, historically, is a word that was perceived as trouble, but now in most cases, it means the noisy segment of the crowd that chants sings and really adds to the occasion. They are almost always orchestrated by a front-man with a loud-hailer and is accepted as the ringleader of the fanbase. At some clubs, the leader announces the teams, getting the fans whipped-up into a passionate state as each player’s name is read out. Clubs that allow this clearly understand the relationship between the fans and the players and how a noisy backing can create the “12th man” effect. Can you imagine this taking place across English football?

But in order to do this, you need young supporters and reasonable ticket prices. Middle-aged men and women are not going to jump around for 90 minutes in support of their team, not without dislocating a shoulder or hip!

It’s quite simple, is it not? Make football more affordable and the young – the patrons not just of today, but of tomorrow – will be engaged. The 30 and 40 somethings may have the cash to afford the ludicrous pricing policies that exist, but they will not provide the mood that is so essential to the game of football. Not for 90 minutes, anyway.

In the 25 years of the Premier, a safer, slicker, overpriced, ostentatious football league has been created. A league that is the resting home for players seeking a big pay day. But it could have a shade more foresight – after all, in 1985, when Serie A attendances peaked at 39,000 did Italian officials ever think that they would drop as low as 22,000?