ACROSS social media, people yearn for a return to a time they can more easily understand when it comes to football. A year ago, Emirates Stadium regulars wanted “our Arsenal back” and this season, Chelsea and Manchester United supporters are playing a similar tune. A certain age group longs for a return to “the good old days”, but sometimes, it is a misguided belief that the era of crumbling terraces, poor sanitation, gastro terrorism and spectator discomfort was better than the current experience.
There’s no that the average football stadium lacks many of the “animal spirits” of old, the intense feral landscape where Doctor Marten’s boots were part of a uniform rather than the footwear of the creative industries. Going to a game in the mid-to-late 1970s and early 1980s was an endurance test for young fans running the gauntlet of public transport to and from a match and then anticipating the prospect of 90 minutes of to-ing and fro-ing on terraces with little in the way of protection from the elements. Today, stadiums are more comfortable, cleaner, relatively trouble free – and comparable to mini theme parks. It’s football, but not as we knew it.
Football has undergone a form of Disneyfication, but the antiseptic modern product has proved to be very successful, with crowds at an all-time high in some countries. This appeals to young, metrosexual audiences who have discovered football in recent years and made it a respectable form of entertainment that corporates have also latched onto, but it is a million miles away from the cloth-cap game that older generations were first attracted to.
70s football: A fan in the toilets at Chelsea’s Shed End, standing at a urinal, Westlers’ burger in mouth and beer lent on the top of the urinal (Stamford Bridge, 1975)
On Facebook sites, on twitter and other forms of media, people bemoan the fact the game they grew up with has become commoditised, carefully packaged and destroyed by money and broadcasting. The old skool fan recalls players from the past (everyone has become a legend, which is strange given there were many very poor players as well as genuinely outstanding individuals), the spartan football experience and, for those that sailed close to the wind, the punch-ups, crowd surges and bawdy songs. “The good old days” encapsulated.
Time plays tricks with our memories. We remember the pop songs of our teenage years, because we were not distracted by work, money, sex, mortgages and careers. The minutae of our childhood years becomes so much more recallable because our obsessions, indulgences and hang-ups dominated our lives. Hence, that number one record by Slade or Alice Cooper from our school days stays with us forever. Football falls into the same category – disposable distractions that refuse to go away.
It’s also a lot to do with the fact that, at the age of 14, we can idolise Georgie Best, Charlie George, Kevin Keegan or Colin Bell and get away with it. When the players are in their mid-20s and you’re 10 years’ younger, you have heroes. By the time you’re in your 30s and the players are younger than you, it is hard – and indeed a little embarrassing, to call someone your role model. Indeed, hero worship generally goes upwards, not down. So, when you get to 60, and the players are young enough to be your children – or even grandchildren – you have a problem.
Time is also deceptive in making you believe that the past was better than the present. In the case of the football journey, it is difficult to be sure of that. Today’s admission prices are, in relative terms, way in excess of the 1970s and 1980s, but in terms of comfort and quality, the current environment is more acceptable – especially if you’re 30-40 years older than your fan heyday.
What nostalgists are really aching for is not a time when 6,000 attended games in a huge stadium to watch a declining club with troublesome fans, they are really getting misty-eyed for their youth, for the time when they could tolerate poor conditions and the cutting edge of terrace tension in that period. Looking back at the teams, the players and the idea of the grand day out watching your club, running from opposition fans and singing your heart out in support of your team, is really a case of returning to your carefree youth. While the memories of that time of your life remain fresh, you have a reminder that your hips, knees, necks and backs were once as supple as India rubber, rather than the calcified, seized-up joints they have become.
This all forms the basis for the “better in my day” philosophy that we all come to adopt at some stage of middle age. We all become our grandparents in the long run, no matter how “modern” we think we are. It’s a safety valve, to a certain degree, the collective ageing process that provides some assurance that we, as a generation, saw the best of something and that the next crop of football fans, with their “football industry”, will forever be disadvantaged. Until we succumb to genuine old age, we will all have those treasured throughts. What was it the theme tune to Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads said?: “The only thing to look forward to is the past”.