IF THE Coronavirus has taught us one thing it is that football’s atmosphere comes from the fans in attendance, not from the thud-thud-thud of players kicking a leather ball. Moreover, a stadium does not create the vibe, it is the people that occupy it. The game feeds off of human emotions and the supporters’ mood comes from the action on the field. There is a reciprocal arrangement between the two key elements of the football experience.
A couple of miles from my home, I have two football grounds within easy reach. Non-league, admittedly, but one ground is ancient, crumbling and fairly uncomfortable in terms of facilities. But non-league fans love it for its quaintness and evocative nature. In the other direction, there is a small, modern ground that is fit-for-purpose, practical and maintenance friendly. The two clubs – team A and B, have very different audiences, the old-school ground (A) has around 350 regulars, the new build (B) less than 150. “There’s no atmosphere,” say the fans of team A about team B’s stadium. The compact ground doesn’t have atmosphere because it has no crowd, but team A’s home is equally soulless when there’s only 100 people watching the game.
Likewise, when people talk about the atmosphere of Wembley (old or new) and how great it is for non-league teams to play there, they were forgetting that a FA Vase final with six thousand people in the vast stadium created no atmosphere whatsoever. Hence, the FA and Wembley have, in recent years, introduced “Non-League Day” which is not only great value but also a fine day out. There’s a bit of a buzz about the place, certainly, when four clubs and their fans converge on the national stadium.
As a teenager, I regularly visited my local club, West Ham United even though I was a Chelsea fan. Why? Because the atmosphere at the Boleyn Ground helped create an entertaining spectacle. West Ham were not successful by any means (apart from the 1975 FA Cup and 1976 Cup-Winners’ Cup finals), but you were more or less guaranteed a stimulating afternoon. In 1977, when West Ham narrowly avoided relegation, the final game against Manchester United, a 4-2 win, was attributable to the encouragement and passion of the crowd as much as the team. Similarly, Highbury and White Hart Lane were also lively places with crowd personalities of their own. Although a Stamford Bridge regular for years, I never felt Chelsea had the same sort of ambience.
Football behind closed doors will soon be forgotten, no matter how good the technique. That’s because football’s folklore is not created by TV, it is the product of “Chinese whispers” (no pun intended) and tap-room discussions. In other words, how fans react to a goal is what gives it currency and shelf-life in the memory.
Go back to Roman times and the gladiators. Was this not the forerunner to spectator sport such as football? The reaction of the crowd decided if a bold fighter lived or died. If Russell Crowe and his assorted battlers were fighting the Roman Empire in an empty arena, would it have made a Hollywood spectacle (!)?
Football without fans is nothing, say the opponents of the modern industry, and the screening of matches in deserted stadiums has proved it. Even though they are playing their normal game, they have the air of training routines and there’s no chemistry. It is a sanitised product for a sanitised age, and I would add, a short-term necessity that has to be tolerated.
The fans undoubtedly influence a game – how often have you heard about how Anfield and Old Trafford would yield a penalty for the home side because of the baying fanatics in the Kop and Stretford End? Actually, this theory is nonsense, I checked Liverpool’s penalty rate in 1976-77 (one of their best campaigns) and it was 13 penalties, 12 scored. I then compared it to a couple of other teams and the records were almost identical. Football folklore! It is no coincidence, however, that the Bundesliga games have had fewer fouls and far less added time – there’s no “playing to the crowd”.
Invariably, our own experiences of new grounds, a trip abroad or visits to our regular haunts are shaped by the noise of the crowd. This may explain why attendance figures have always been published, going right back to the Victorian age. Crowds add substance to an event, they create relevance and that’s why when anyone questions the value of the great game, just point to the local football club – “where else do so many people congregate in one place in our town?”. Many would argue that a crowd can make footballers play better. It’s not always the case, but this is fundamentally why attendances are so integral to the fabric of the game.
This article first appeared in the excellent Football Weekends magazine, reproduced with permission.