Why we all should treasure football’s urban roots

FOOTBALL is a sport that flourished during the industrial revolution, especially the professional game, so naturally, stadiums sprung up in red-bricked back streets, on the fringes of mill towns and close to mines, factories and railways. The vision of the working class community trudging to the game, flat caps screwed onto heads, turned-up collar and woollen scarf protecting the supporters from the elements, is one that has been romantically preserved by fans of a certain age.

Inner city football grounds, along with the mill chimney, are representative of a bygone age, but that doesn’t stop us from going misty-eyed when we see huge skeletal floodlight pylons or grandstands that back onto streets where urchins may have played football in the days when you could safely do so.

Green and pleasant scenery is all very well and, naturally, appreciated by those in need of fresh air and relaxation. Like it or not, the future has to be greener, more oxygen-filled and respectful of nature. However, a football ground with a bucolic backdrop just doesn’t have the same appeal of a stadium nestling among rooftops, industrial skylines, a shipyard or a cityscape.

For those of us who have studied the roots and purpose of the game, such a background is a reminder of what football was once all about, the game of the masses, the pastime of the working man. When football declined in the late 1970s and through to the start of the Premier League, this heritage was something of a hindrance – the country was changing, dramatically, but football still clung onto its terraces, its feral environment characterised by the bear pit and a beer-soaked narrative.

With the emergence of new grounds, the demographics of the football crowd has definitely changed. These are invariably gleaming structures that attempt to marry a club’s history with modern, multi-purpose intentions and they are often located on out-of-town centre retail parks or kept clear of the nation’s other pastime, shopping. Very few clubs or grounds have an atmosphere to rival the old, metropolitan football crowd.

That’s why we like stadiums that appear to be immersed in the local landscape, be it in the north of England or European cities. When was the last time you sat in a stand and waved to people on a bus or tram passing the ground with a match in progress? It was a while ago, but I was once reporting on a game at Welling and the ball went out of the ground and struck the top deck of a red bus. And in Prague, I have seen a clearance bounce down a tramline as it flew out of a stadium!

As much as I feel football needed new stadiums, and there are some excellent structures around, more comfortable and safer than anything built in the past, when the hordes were ushered in like commuters on a Tokyo train, the antiseptic nature of many grounds has diluted the fan contribution to the football experience. Whatever happened to the raucous atmosphere, did it evaporate with the eradication of the terraces, the gentrification of the game? Probably.

It’s unlikely to ever return, even with the inevitable introduction of safe-standing in the future. Why? Because the new generation of fan is very unlike the old football audience. Their lives are different, their values are skewed in a new, technology-enhanced direction. While some will eulogise about a wooden, crumbling non-league ground, others will list the number one priority at a stadium as a strong WIFI. That’s when they’ve stopped taking “selfies” or filming the game on their mobile phones. I’m a cynic about the motives behind this obsession, whether it is about football or the need to let people see they’ve having a great time, but the future of the game belongs to them.

There will never be another scene from a L.S. Lowry painting depicting the long march to the stadium, with the glow of the crowd and its hum drawing people like bees to honey. This tableaux has been consigned to history, along with the wooden rattle, the half-time manual scoreboard, the boys entrance and even the old-style floodlights. Instant Capuccinos and Lattes are replacing Bovril and the “classified” has been replaced by apps that update you with the scoreline! But it sells – crowds are at their highest level since the post-war boom.

For me, and I am sure for a lot of readers, there’s nothing that feeds expectation than arriving in a town or city and catching a glimpse of a floodlight pylon as you make your way to the ground. Make the most of it, though, for property development and urban reclassification will soon drive most of these grounds out of the centre. But before they do, somebody has to preserve an old-time arena to remind us of the social significance of Edwardian football architecture, perhaps as a museum piece. Football stadiums are every bit as important as other places of entertainment like theatres, old cinemas and music halls.

This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine.

Reproduced with permission.


Photo: PA

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