FOOTBALL is supposedly the game of the people, but very often critics of the modern game claim the sport is no longer in the possession of ordinary folk. Nostalgia invariably gets in the way of rational thinking: the image we have of “the people” is of flat caps, rattles, terraces, chimneys in the background and cups of Bovril. This is very much a cliché, the Lowryesque depiction of the masses marching to the ground as an escape from humdrum lives. No matter how technical the game becomes, or how gentrified our stadiums are, in the back of our minds is the image of working men and women embracing football as their weekly entertainment – cheap, uncomplicated and very accessible.
The fact is, football as we knew it died in the 1980s. The rise of the Premier League and the aspirations of the lower divisions have created a different product that not only survived the horrors of that period, but thrived through its partnership with broadcasting a billionaire owners. Crowds have never been bigger, season ticket waiting lists can run to two or three years and the fans cannot get enough of merchandise.
People complain about ticket prices, and rightly so, but that clearly doesn’t stop them from attending matches. Some may consider they have been marginalised – low income families, the elderly, the unemployed, but generally, even the most financially challenged spend a significant sum on ensuring they get to see their favourites.
The football demographic has changed substantially from its industrial era heyday. This is a positive for back in the 1970s and 1980s, you rarely saw people of colour or women at most games. Moreover, the game is consumed in a variety of ways and fans’ interaction with their clubs doesn’t mean attending games in person.
Anyone claiming “real football fans” are found in the lower leagues and non-league is a little misty-eyed. There is an element of inverted snobbery about such comments, for regardless of the shortcomings of big-time corporate football (and there are many), the game at the highest level is still the biggest attraction. Non-League fans are every bit as passionate as supporters of Premier clubs, but there are many, many more of them at the peak of the pyramid.
On an average weekend, around one million people in England and Wales watch football. Of these, around 800,000 attend Premier and EFL games (87%), of which more than half are present at Premier League fixtures. Even on a weekend when Manchester United are away, over 400,000 can go through the turnstiles at Premier games.
Non-League, from step 1 to step 5 accounts for about 120,000 people or 13%. On the weekend we chose to look at attendances, we also included the FA Vase.
Visit clubs from the elite band and the fans are very different from the average gathering in the 1990s. For a start, many are obsessive about their technology, even recording bits of action with their tiny cameras on the latest iPhone. If you take a camera into a stadium, you would quickly get asked to stop taking photos, yet an entire ground can be equipped to shoot photos, video and other aspects of social media.
The crowd is still working class or its modern equivalent, if such a thing truly exists, but essentially, they are fairly representative of modern society, which is far removed from the hunched figures heading for Burnden Park, Turf Moor or Deepdale. But if fans are being exiled because of cost it doesn’t really show. In 2021-22, the stadium utilisation rate in the Premier League was 97%, while the Championship’s was 68%. These figures are healthy as evidenced by the average gates of 39,600 and 16,790 respectively. But what about League One and Two? While the Premier has seen attendances grow by 83% since 1992-92, League Two has enjoyed 44%. If anything, the desire for elite football has grown greater than the rest of English football. What is also fairly clear is that the first step of non-league football has grown in popularity, mostly because of the possibility of promotion to the EFL as well as the number of clubs that have some sort of deep-seated EFL heritage.
The fact that football’s popularity shows little sign of declining means it is most definitely still the game of the people. But the “people” now come in all shapes and sizes, all socio-economic groups and all genders and groups. It is no longer a game for one element of society – such as the 1970s when the vast majority of the crowd was white males or the 1930s JB Priestley interpretation as depicted in his famous travelogue, English Journey. So it is all the more strange that those that complain about the “theft” of the game from the mythical “people” have undoubtedly supported the process. Put simply, the people have changed at football grounds because society is different.