Helping our football neighbours

THIS SEASON (which apparently is a unique one according to the media), I have decided to lend my support to clubs that need a helping hand. It is very clear that the pandemic, like all crises, has hit the poorest in society and football is no exception. Although all clubs have had to bite the bullet in some way, those at the bottom end of the food chain have been hit the worst. Therefore, they need more support than the elite clubs who will always survive and even prosper.

While some big clubs, like Barcelona, have got themselves into dangerous waters, it is hard to sympathise given the amount of money the big clubs pay to their players. Wage bills have, for some years, spiralled out of control, but the clubs perpetuate the problem. Similarly, transfer fees have become ridiculous, yet very few small clubs seem to get a decent slice of the pie. Many transfers are simply being conducted among the top clubs, making agents every wealthy.

Money should be no problem for the behemoths of the game, yet the selfish pursuit of more cash continues, with grand schemes like the European Super League, the somewhat dubious growth of crypto currency and dangerous link-ups with very questionable owners. Football creates it own controversies and its own drama – just look at the financial chaos that exists in the Championship as an example, with wages rocketing beyond income.

Away from this, there are hundreds, indeed thousands, of clubs around Europe that are a million kilometres away from this self-serving model. As a Chelsea fan for more than 50 years, I have moved beyond the stage in life where their results make or break my day or weekend. Chelsea of today are not the club I adopted at the age of eight years old. I am not prepared to pay exploitive prices for tickets at any ground, although like many, I have been forced out of regular Premier action by lack of availability. I refuse to feed the beast and would encourage fans to show their contempt for pricing in the most effective way – by not buying them. Of course, this won’t happen, because fans are frightened of losing their place in the queue. Clubs with waiting lists have no motivation to lower prices, but the fans line-up to shovel more money into the well.

If we all love football, then we should care passionately for the state of health of the so-called eco-system. By neglecting the system, we actually push the big clubs further towards that super league and also damage the structure of the game. There’s few things in sport that are sadder than a closed or derelict football ground.

Part of football’s charm is its aspirational aspect, the possibility of something unexpected happening, be it promotion, relegation, cup shocks or romantic player development stories. The latter is moving into the hands of major clubs, who sweep-up every available young talent and by doing so, deprive smaller clubs from unearthing their own jewel. And then, the young players are rejected and they end up playing in the Isthmian or Southern leagues.

Given there are more fans of big clubs than available tickets, is it not a good idea for those fans who have little chance of gaining a place among the 40,000 at Stamford Bridge or 60,000 at the Emirates to adopt their local football institution as a second eleven? I’m not talking about special “non-league days” or “pay what you want” occasions, but on a regular basis? This not only allows the “fan” to watch live action instead of being glued to TV or social media, but it also pumps more money into the lower leagues of the EFL or non-league.

This is partly why I have decided that in 2022-23, I will be attending League One and League Two as well as women’s football and my local non-league club. I have been something of a portfolio fan for about 10 years, watching the game abroad on a regular basis and also visiting grounds up and down the country (85 of the 92). I won’t pretend this has its downside as I have certainly lost any remaining element of myopic partisanship, but at 63 years of age, I can live with that. But I do feel that it is very beneficial to connect with the very essence of the historic roots of British football. I would add that my next book will be all about the towns and cities in which the game is played across the United Kingdom!

So 2022-23 is a unique season for me and I am actually looking forward to smaller crowds, less hype and some honest endeavour. I would also like to think that crowd behaviour can take a leaf out of the women’s game. I was at Wembley for the final and I have never witnessed a near-90,000 crowd behave with such dignity or respect. It can be done!

This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine.

Mistakes not permitted – modern life influences football’s intolerance

GRAEME Souness wasn’t being deliberately dismissive of women’s football, he’s never been a man to shy away from a tough challenge and he’s forthright, opinionated and knows the game inside out. His comment at the Chelsea versus Tottenham game was careless, no doubt about it, but it was blown up out of all proportion like so many comments and attitudes that get pulled apart on social media. Most abuse was, typically, made behind the shroud of anonymity, but as soon as Souness talked of “man’s game” it was only a matter of seconds before the first reaction. He made a mistake, for sure.

Meanwhile, after that same game, Chelsea fans (of which I am one) were getting ready to demand referee Anthony Taylor never officiates another fixture involving their team. True, there were some suspect decisions, but these things level out over a season, don’t they? A petition was created and thousands signed it. Taylor was as popular as a mass murderer among Chelsea’s frustrated followers.

And then we have Martin Tyler, a veteran commentator, who inadvertently linked Hillsborough with the problem of hooliganism in talking about the changes in the game. This was a very unfortunate remark to make even though we all knew what Tyler was trying to say. Liverpool fans were outraged and insisted Tyler should never be allowed anywhere near Anfield. Tyler apologised for his mistake and was going to meet with Liverpool to explain himself. Still the abuse continued.

In each case, errors were made just as mistakes are made on the pitch and in every walk of life.  Football’s audience is unforgiving to the point where nobody seems to get a second chance, apart from the local hero who commits an offence on the pitch. Quite often the fans’ favourite is a clenched-fist, sweat-soaked battler who might well be a persistent offender and a controversial character, but he’s pardoned because “he’s one of our own”.

Today, you are not allowed to slip up, even if you apologise profusely. Some fans still jeer an opponent who once upset the opposition years earlier. They don’t forget. It’s not just football, it’s also in the workplace and in societies – some years ago, I witnessed a top finance professional who had screwed-up a trade get sacked on the spot in front of a dozen people. He was then escorted off the premises with a black bin liner. I’d like to think that doesn’t happen anymore.

But do we tarnish the perpetrators for ever and a day? For example, criminals pay the penalty for their actions by going to prison, but do they get the chance to rebuild? The reaction to any halfway house or rehabilitation centre being placed in the heart of the community is generally negative and comes with opposition from the neighbourhood. Little wonder that we seem unable to forgive mistakes, be it a comment, an action, a misjudgement or an act of self-preservation. We are quick to judge people, but most of us do actually live in glass houses.

People are passionate about football and frankly, they place too much importance on a single incident rather than look at a broader picture. Chelsea against Spurs was a cracking game with plenty of controversy, yet the worst thing that happened was the childish behaviour of two grown caught up in the heat of the moment. Martin Tyler and Graeme Souness have given so much to the game of football over the years, they really deserve the benefit of the doubt. Both should be more careful, but apologies and explanations should be accepted rather than continued drama, accusations and foul-mouthed abuse.