In pursuit of proper ultras

Zurich Photo: GOTP

VISIT any continental European club and you’ll find evidence of the valuable contribution fans make to the football experience. Invariably, the highlight of a trip abroad is the sight of a well-choreographed crowd – lots of smoke, banners and the inevitable man with a loud-hailer at the front urging the masses on.

For a while now, it has become clear that English crowds are somewhat muted compared to their foreign counterparts. In the past, the audience at the average top flight game was quite passionate, but unfortunately, this intensity was often accompanied by bad behaviour, or at least antics that required a heavy police presence. As the 1970s unfolded, and crowds became more unruly, 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. In 1974-75, crowds dipped to 27,000 and thus started a steady decline that bottomed-out in 1984 with sub-19,000 gates.

The game was effectively dying but started to revive after 1990 when England enjoyed a successful World Cup in Italy. Then Paul “Gazza” Gascoigne 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.

But these crowds are very different to the ones that donned flat caps, rattles and a tepid cup of Bovril. 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 continues 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. At the same time, the demographics have changed. 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. 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 some, it makes for a relatively 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, were 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. 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?

In order to do this, you need young supporters and reasonable ticket prices. Middle-aged men and women are not going to jump around 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 and you might just see the sort of backdrop you find in the Bundesliga. 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…


This article appeared in the last edition of Football Weekends, reproduced with permission

One thought on “In pursuit of proper ultras

  1. I think it is important that we English become more proactive in trying to build the flatter atmosphere currently seen at many grounds, but a simple copy of the Ultra model would go against the traditional English fan culture that sees more emphasis on humour and spontaneity in its chants (a capo telling fans how to behave would kill this). English fan groups should take influence from fan groups elsewhere to improve atmospheres without selling out completely and ignoring their own traditions.

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