The sound of the crowd

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.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA

 

This article first appeared in the excellent Football Weekends magazine, reproduced with permission.

 

FA Cup: Homage to the spot

Manager Burke and Bull – before the action

AS EVER, a built-up game failed to deliver, but both Hitchin Town and Leatherhead left the field knowing they are still in the FA Cup and the prospect of a plum tie in round one was still possible.

If Hitchin do end their 23-year wait for first round action, they may thank the heavens for the invention of the penalty spot. This blob of whitewash – or whatever alchemy they use these days to treat and adorn pitches – has been responsible for prolonging the club’s interest in the FA Cup this season.

“It’s ironic that we’re having our best run for years with what is probably our worst or rather least effective team for a few seasons,” said one long-standing supporter. “I guess that’s what FA Cup runs are all about, the unexpected. You never know when they might happen.”

Certainly, nobody would have imagined a FA Cup run with a few minutes remaining of the Canaries’ first qualifying round tie with Godmanchester, when they came back to win 3-1 after being a goal down with five minutes to go. There have been parallels with the club’s 1994-95 run when the lights almost went out a few times – at that time, they were also struggling in the league.

So, that penalty spot. In the second qualifying round, Hitchin had to negotiate a shoot-out to get past Didcot Town and then against Hastings, a penalty clinched victory. This time, Mark Burke’s team was rescued by another spot-kick from, to quote his school employer, “Mr Bickerstaff”. Somebody up there really likes the Canaries this season.

It was carnival day at Top Field. With only a French market in town to distract the punters, they queued down Fishponds Road, armed with home made tin foil FA Cups and freshly purchased static-producing scarves. There were many who had not trodden this path before, the sound of unfamiliar enthusiasm (Hitchin crowds are notoriously sedentary), amplified screams for an opposition red card and chants of “yellows…yellows…”, could be heard from people who had found Top Field for [probably] the first time. “Where will they be when we’re at home on a drizzly Wednesday night in the league cup?,” grinned a regular. Never mind, this is how crowds get from 400 to 1200 – a football match of some substance attracting those that wouldn’t give the club a second glance.

Old war horses also galloped into the ground. There was Andy “I’m a lucky man” Melvin, manager of the team when Hitchin famously disposed of Hereford United and Bristol Rovers, along with his number two from that period, Robin Wainwright, who still looks like a throwback to West Coast rock from the 1970s. FA Cup games are a mix of nostalgia and expectation, as well as a treasurer’s delight, thanks to the financial rewards now involved.

Dowie’s long march

Leatherhead came mob-handed and provided much of the soundtrack. “Blimey, they’ve got high security here,” commented one visitor from Fetcham. “Are they expecting trouble?.” There was also a representation from Japan, two young lads from Tokyo’s Shinagawa and Shibuya eager to film Leatherhead’s Bobby Cullen, who, despite the Anglo-Saxon name, is a Japanese under-20 cap in his veteran years. Sadly, they were not allowed to film him in action. Their cameras remained inactive – well, there there was a hi-vis menace around!

As for the first half, it was a shade disappointing, with Hitchin resorting to Reepian football and Leatherhead adopting a more surface-based style. “This has got 0-0 written all over it,” said a Hitchin fan after the first 20 minutes of, to quote Sly Stone*, “checking each other out”. But then, a careless high challenge by Jay Dowie resulted in a red card for the Hitchin midfielder.

Leatherhead, buoyed by this incident, started to get on top in the latter stages of the half and Hitchin’s goalkeeper, Michael Johnson pulled off some superb saves, notably from former Canaries’ youth player Shaun Okojie.

The visitors should, arguably, have been deprived of their one-man advantage just before the interval when Okojie appeared to elbow Alex Anderson. He was shown a yellow card, despite the home crowd baying for blood.

Leatherhead went in front in the 52nd minute, a corner headed against a post and Travis Gregson following-up to score. It didn’t look good for Hitchin. “That’s it, then,” was one comment from the stand. “It was nice while it lasted.”

But Hitchin are nothing if not determined, a quality that has been a characteristic of the team under Mark Burke since 2013. Just six minutes after falling behind, Jack Green was felled in the area by Thomas Cooney and Bickerstaff netted from the penalty spot. There was a case for Cooney to be dismissed, but the referee brandished the yellow when a red would have been more appropriate.

Leatherhead had one goal-bound headed cleared off the line and Bickerstaff’s long leg hooked over the crossbar from just inside the penalty area late on, but the real hero was Johnson, who saved from Gregory and Elliot Benyon with time running out. Without him, Hitchin would have been anticipating a league game with St. Ives Town on November 10 rather than hoping for a never-to-be forgotten fixture with someone like Sunderland. The dream lives on, if only for a couple of days.

Hitchin will surely be relieved to have come through this home tie, for their record at Top Field in recent years is not good, especially in replays. The road to Wembley has invariably come to a halt at the old ground, sometimes surprisingly, and although a significant challenge is still to be overcome, they may just fancy their chances more away from home.

Meanwhile, the crowd of 1,200 filed out of Top Field. Leatherhead’s fans were still making a noise. “We should have won it,” moaned a green-shirted Tanner.  A few feet away, a Hitchin fan was mumbling: “We could have won that…but there’s still everything to play for. When is the coach going to Leatherhead?”.

Note: * Sly and the Family Stone, Family affair