FOOTBALL, as a business, grew out of the industrial revolution in Britain and certain parts of Europe. Hence, the early winners in the game were mostly from industrial cities and Europe’s infant conurbations. In England, the early growth was in the north and the midlands, two areas that really fuelled the development of the nation’s commercial prowess. As industrial Britain declined in the 70s and 80s, so too did football – in many ways, the smoking chimneys, mining communities and shipyards and their employees were intrinsically linked to football in so far that the game provided recreation and distraction for the working class.
This dynamic really set the pattern for how people saw the game, as the property of the masses, for the next 100-plus years. Football might be a business, but the people that attached themselves to clubs saw the experience as a right of passage, as important as going to church, connections to the community and family. The fans expected the clubs, their owners and officials and their players (employees) to have the same level of blind devotion, rarely seeing footballers as working men who were merely earning a living. Fans would complain that players were “only interested in the money”, but that’s exactly what they were in the game for, it was their livelihood, after all.
The vision of football as vocation, of fierce loyalty and the possession of the working man has long persisted, many years after its true relevance faded. The inter-war years and the immediate post-WW2 period set the template for how fans saw their relationship with the game, rather like the Victorian/Edwardian style became many people’s idea of the perfect home.
In the eyes of football itself, the industry changed on April 15, 1989 with Hillsborough. The terraces were no longer considered to be the way to pack people into a stadium and the tragedy was the catalyst to reinvent English football, which was dying a slow death in the 1980s.
If you recall the 1970s without rose-tinted glasses, you will be aware that Britain was relatively backward compared to its European neighbours. Many things changed under the Thatcher government, some good and many bad, but in truth, this period ushered in a different kind of society, one which encapsulated the mantra, “survival of the fittest”. Football was not liked by the Conservative administration of the time, but hooliganism and a series of sad and catastrophic events – Bradford 1985, Brussels 1985 and Hillsborough 1989 – demonstrated that English football could not continue in the same way.
Britain was becoming more cosmopolitan in the 1980s and eyes were being opened. Food, clothing, technology, music, entertainment and social attitudes were changing. From football’s perspective, supporters were finding a voice as the concept of the “fanzine”, borrowed from the punk music scene of the mid-to-late 1970s to a certain degree, started to challenge the status quo. The fans had a lot to be unhappy about, though. Facilities at most clubs were appalling, ticket prices were rising, the authorities’ attitude towards football fans was abysmal. Clubs were very indifferent about the relationship between themselves and their customers.
The new, growing corner of football support was not necessarily from the games heartlands. Then forerunners of football hipsters were really the folk that bought When Saturday Comesand other handmade publications. The opening of a sports bookshop in London, called Sportspages, by John Gaustad, a Kiwi , provided the forum for fanzines and the growing field of football literature. People were becoming more broadly interested in the game. Channel 4, in the early 90s, provided another avenue with the launch of Football Italia. This was as much to do with Paul Gascoigne’s move to Lazio as the chance to see James Richardson slurping frothy coffee and fingering a croissant while reading the pink football paper so beloved by Italians. England looked to Italy as the perfect football environment, with big crowds, big money, multi-national teams of stars and lots of smoke and noise.
Eventually, the message was received and football in England reinvented itself with the creation of the Premier League, prompted and teased by the offer of broadcasting money, which created the environment we know today.
Naturally, this new model has evolved, with clubs getting richer and becoming corporations that generate huge sums of money, certainly in relation to past income streams. The plea to make football better run has, to some extent, been answered, more so at the top of the pyramid, but not necessarily lower down, where wages exceed revenues and even as low as non-league, clubs live way beyond their means.
Such is the nature of the clubs that are driving (and demanding) change and the constant shifting of terms and conditions, with more than a hint of entitlement, they can no longer see themselves as vocational in any sense of the word. The Premier League, for example, has become such an all-consuming beast that it has taken on a new identity and attracting spectators is no longer a problem. The old wisecrack that somebody rings a club and enquires about kick-off time, to be greeted with the response, “what time can you get here?”, is an outdated view of the game that was dying in the 1980s. Today, kick-off times are as much the decision of TV broadcasters as they are football clubs or governing bodies. They are certainly not in the gift of the fans, who complain incessantly about the switching of dates and the absence of “Saturday at 3pm”.
Football’s old clientbase, which has now reached maturity at one end and retirement at the other, largely welcomes the chance to sit on a padded seat rather than move with the sway of the terraces that once existed. The terraces dwellers of the 1980s were, effectively, the last occupants of the crumbling concrete steps that characterised football stadiums for decades.
Even the people behind the creation of the Premier may admit to being a little surprised at the success of the league, not just in its cash generation ability but in the way the global appeal and exportability has grown. Sceptics may say that English football has grown away from its roots and no longer cares for the fans and has sacrificed intimacy in order to make more money. The question is, did clubs ever really have a close relationship with the fans? If you compare, for example, the 1970s with today, there’s no question that clubs have more connectivity with their supporters than they did 40-50 years ago. Supporters Clubs did exist, but generally they were run independently from the parent club. Today, clubs are harnessing social media, the internet, matchday entertainment systems and traditional media like programmes to communicate with their fans. In 1971, the only form of communication was the matchday programme and what filtered into the media. It is incorrect to accuse football clubs of lacking communication or a willingness to engage with their audiences, but only logical that they need/want to maximise their income streams in order to function as an international business. Very few clubs back in the 1970s understood the need to see their fans as customers who had a choice, although some, like Coventry City in the Jimmy Hill era made efforts to make the matchday experience more than just “squeezing them in for 90 minutes”.
Yet while people complain – it’s human nature – the new age of English football appears to have created the most successful period in the game’s public appeal since the post-WW2 boom years and the second wave that followed England’s 1966 World Cup win. Crowds in the Premier, the second best in the world after the Bundesliga, amount to something like 96% of stadium utilisation – it would be difficult to get more people into grounds unless a programme of expansion was undertaken.
With 38,000 at Premier games, the idea that people have not responded to the rebirth of the English domestic game is pure folly. Clubs like Arsenal and Chelsea, to name just two, have waiting lists for season tickets, indeed the idea of fans paying to get on a list has become an opportunistic trend in recent years. There’s also a strong view that tickets are too expensive, which is undoubtedly true, but then why don’t fans vote with their feet and boycott clubs with high prices? Fans also point to the over-merchandising of clubs, of constantly changing kits that are aimed at exploiting fans’ wallets, but still they buy them. Football is a discretionary expenditure and the market is booming, so where is the motivation for clubs to change their behaviour while their clients are still perpetuating wealth creation?
What football in England has done is create a new clientbase, one that has bought into the idea of the Premier League as a series of “must see” events, one that demands people “stand-up if you hate Tottenham” and if you do not you are disloyal and not part of the gang. The football event also provides a platform for virtue signalling, with causes being attached to matchday such as “Help for Heroes” (there’s something of a military obsession in English football today) and a minute’s silence for every tragic incident imaginable. Football grounds have also started to reflect the global nature of the clubs with a fair percentage of tourists soaking up the licensed goods and photographing every aspect of the day. It is a very different crowd that will continue to grow as the old audience starts to drift away.
At the same time, the call for authenticity and the return of terracing is largely being driven now by supporters who cannot possibly remember the heyday of the terraces. Whether it is a terrace that resembles the German adaptable “safe standing” or the old sea of humanity rushing forward as the ball is played into the penalty area, there is no doubt that the eradication of the terraces was necessary in England, even though it has compromised the atmosphere at English games. One senses that the time when new-style standing comes to England is not too far away. Economic viability will be part of the dialogue, but top level English football is awash with cash, all of it does not need to flow into the pockets of players.
There can be no denying that at the top end, the English game (indeed, the European game) is financially healthy, certainly compared to the past. The industry’s income is rising exponentially and there’s no shortage of willing buyers. Naturally, the game has its detractors and one would be naïve to think that all is well in the world, but basic facts demonstrate that people have embraced the concept of elitist football. The crowds are higher, the media exposure incessant, corporate backing appears to be thriving and everyone wants to be connected with the game, from film stars to politicians. Not everyone is happy, but nostalgists don’t really have a place here – in life, innovation, consumables, new products and ideas are really developed and unleashed for future consumption. If the younger clientele is happy, then the appetite to change will diminish and those holding the reins will drive on.
If there is an ongoing worry, it is concerning bubbles, and we’re not talking about West Ham United’s theme tune. Football in its current trajectory may overheat and find the rug pulled from underneath its multi-coloured boots. European football – and in particular Spain – survived the global economic crisis despite near-meltdown conditions. Indeed, Spain enjoyed its golden period while its youth queued at the labour exchange. With so many foreign owners, English fans cannot dismiss an economic downturn in China or the US as irrelevant, so it is no longer what happens at home that determines the health of a club or league. As for owners pulling out their money, the big clubs such as Chelsea, Manchester City and United are now prize assets, so if a rich oilman from the Urals has had enough, there will be a long line of takers for his club. That’s the world of football today, a new and undoubtedly imperfect industrial age, and like it or not, we have already embraced it with gusto. It’s time to accept that it is here to stay.