More crowd tension for non-league football?

MOST non-league clubs are quite friendly places, very few have fans that carry an air of menace with them. At many stadiums, the atmosphere is sleepy, welcoming and sedate. That’s not to say some clubs could do with a more youthful demographic to liven up the place, but nobody wants supporters who fancy a punch-up.

Alcohol has a lot to do with it – it always has – but there’s also an element of beligerance about some fans not normally associated with the non-league game.

Banbury United was always a decent ground to visit, a peculiar stadium close to the railway station in a prime spot. Little wonder that property developers have always liked the look of it. Banbury were never particularly well supported, 10 years ago they averaged less then 300 people for their home games. But something has changed in their little corner of Oxon. Not only have they run away with the Southern League Central Premier, they have also attracted more fans. With more people comes the potential of more troublesome individuals being among the crowd. At some Banbury games this season, there have been some problems, including an artificial pitch being damaged by a flare.

When Banbury arrived in Hitchin for their game on April 16, there was a police van parked outside Top Field, an image more in keeping with the miners’ strike in the 1980s. There was also a plethora of high-vis clad stewards, more than usual at Hitchin games. Interestingly, while the Banbury numbers were modest, they made plenty of noise, the script not always in keeping with the sort of family environment Hitchin have been encouraging.

Just after half-time, the peace was broken, but it was not entirely the fault of Banbury’s travelling support. Indeed, there were about a dozen Luton Town fans at Top Field who decided they wanted to antagonise the Banbury crew. There was some ritualistic throwing of beer, lots of pointing, aggressive posturing and a few blows were exchanged. The high-vis team swung into action and police arrived on time to disperse the problem, ejecting the Luton fans from the ground. Hitchin’s chairman and his matchday staff did well to quell the problem.

Non-league needs more fans, but the question is, where will they come from? The game at this level needs younger customers, but clubs may have to get used to more energy, aggression and the occasional fracas.

One of the comments I have often heard from young people is that non-league football is passionless, lacks a certain atmosphere and is a game for older people who don’t want to go to Arsenal, Chelsea or Spurs. To a certain degree this is true, because it is the crowd that makes the stadium experience at a higher level. The noise, emotion and passion is fuelled by the people watching the game. A stadium doesn’t have an atmosphere with no people, no matter how people try and romanticise the vision of floodlights towering over empty stands. Therefore, more people means a more intoxicating atmosphere. For all the discomfort created by those Banbury fans, a big percentage of the near-600 crowd at Top Field were watching the situation as if it was something of a spectacle. It’s rather like the Atlético Madrid-Manchester City game, everyone was complaining about the antics of the home team, but they could not help but rubber-neck the action.

I am not advocating Football Factory-type scenes in the Southern League, but it could certainly do with a little more passion, singing and influence from the terraces at the majority of grounds. What it doesn’t need is needless scrapping and foul-mouthed day trippers who are not really non-league fans. There’s a big seam of disenfranchised football fans out there, non-league has to make sure it draws the right type of follower, but it also ensure it encourages rather than deters. It’s a bit of a challenge.

Freedom football: The fan experience may have changed

WHEN you work it out, the last season of normal football was 2018-19 and by the time everything starts again, it will be three years since that last pre-Covid campaign got underway. So that’s the final weeks of 2019-20 and the whole of 2020-21. What will it feel like when we finally return to the stadiums, how will we react to being in big crowds and overcrowded public transport systems? 

The UK government may have announced “Freedom Day” on July 19, but it will surely take time to have universal adoption. The government is not making it simple for people, almost passing on total responsibility, while the PM and his Chancellor strangely went into isolation. The body language of these characters doesn’t fill you with confidence, but then that’s the game they’ve been playing all along, for every step forward, there’s two or three days of bad news to tip the scales in the opposite direction.

The inconsistency is incredible. Nobody wants the Tokyo Olympics to take place, yet Euro 2020 was played in stadiums with crowds, culminating in the Wembley debacle. You cannot go on a train without a mask, yet nightclubs made a point of counting down to midnight on July 18 and then filled-up with revellers. 

The spectator experience has undoubtedly been disrupted by the pandemic, to such an extent that the atrocious behaviour seen at Wembley may also have been attributable to pent-up frustration and an absence of good manners. Have we actually become unused to being in crowds, of attending events where people gather – do we actually know how to behave properly?

Let’s not pretend life before covid was perfect in any way, but games at big stadiums were generally well policed, stewarded and administered. Britain made enormous progress in crowd control in the late 1990s and into the 2000s, and trouble was at a relatively low level. This environment dovetailed with the gentrification of the game, which certainly took a step backwards at Wembley in July 2021. It would be a shame if all the good work of the past is undone by a deterioration of standards and self control.

In decades gone by, whenever there was an outbreak of football hooliganism, there was often an overreaction, largely prompted by strong-arm shows of strength or a lack of undercover intelligence. This has changed significantly and the police, among others, have far greater ability to know exactly what is going on. At Wembley, the trouble should have been foreseen – you only had to look on the internet to see how a tinder box situation was evolving in London on the day of the Euro final.

It is possible that when the Premier League returns in August, there may be a display of strength by the authorities and local administration to restrict the possibility of a repeat performance at Wembley. Never mind “absolute”, they were disgusting and shameful scenes. It will be a pity if Wembley 2021 signals the start of a change in the dynamic between fans and the game, but there is certainly a possibility of the tension level being raised at top level football as the fans drift back.

If you look at the various elements of a matchday, there is no doubt some things will need to be adjusted. Pubs in the vicinity of football grounds will surely have to control their flow of customers and limit their capacities. Public transport will also have to be better managed – the experience of leaving a major stadium in London, for example, will need to be staggered and slowed-up. This will mean dispersal of a large crowd will take longer, which will give more time for problems to emerge. The herding of fans into small and inadequate rail stations, particularly in London, will also have to be factored in.

Football grounds are more comfortable than they were in the past, but there will be some discomfort about being in a 25,000 crowd, even though the chances of covid infection are lowered by being in the open air. But people may not be quite so enthused by displaying bonhomie, grabbing each other or jumping on the next man’s back. Some of the animal spirits of the football ground will have to be tempered. In a poll conducted by Game of the People, 45% of respondees said they were only happy to return in stadiums with restricted capacities.

And if testing and providing evidence of vaccination becomes part of the matchday, football may find itself a more inconvenient form of entertainment where fans have to arrive far earlier than they have traditionally set-out for the match. At any football game, from the Premier to non-league, a huge percentage of the crowd arrives in the 15 minutes before kick-off.

Aside from the logistics of attending a match, which should not be underestimated, the interaction between the game and spectators will have changed in the 16month period since the UK’s first lockdown took place. There’s been no shortage of TV football in that period, indeed it has seemed, at times, as though every day was a football day, but the diet has arguably moved to a different level. The game was already becoming consumable via very different means and lockdown football has really fed this trend. How much of an issue this is for football has yet to be determined, but Real Madrid’s controversial president, Florentino Pérez, suggested that young people are struggling to commit to watching a 90-minute game. If there is an attention span problem, the lockdown may not have helped.

The lockdown certainly compromised football club revenue streams, only marginally in 2019-20 but very significantly in 2020-21. As well as lower broadcasting income, matchdays were also impacted and some clubs will have big holes in their accounts for 2020-21 and more losses are sure to be generated. How will clubs fill that gap? It is not out of the question that they will try to extract more from their home games. This is unlikely to be well received – the Game of the People poll revealed that 85% of fans may not be prepared to accept a hike in admission prices.

The matchday mood may also be different since we last gathered in the stands and on terraces across the nation. Although the recent “Black Lives Matter” stance by players has been labelled non-political by some, there can be little doubt that it is a social and political message. There is a growing presence of politics in the game, whether we like it or not. Generally, these are left-wing orientated, but they reflect a shift in supporter sentiment and activity. Our poll also showed that around half of participants expect a rise in politics within the football environment. Some spectators will not appreciate this trend, particularly those unsympathetic or less passionate about the causes being promoted. But it should be remembered that demonstrations or allegiances do not belong to one avenue of politics – and clubs themselves are unlikely to reveal any political affiliations.

Over the past 18 months, Britain has changed and when you consider the seismic shift in 2016 when the nation opted to leave the European Union, football is only part of the story. However, the racism shown to England players and some fans and the assaults on Italian fans (which have been somewhat overlooked by some sections of the media) reveal an ugly, snarling side to the country. It was a throwback to the days when football thugs did their best to spoil every Saturday of the football season. We will wait to see if there is a hangover when the 2021-22 season begins in August. We must all hope it isn’t the start of a more sinister era for the game in Britain.