The Football experience: People may have changed, but it is still their game

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.

Bold and bullish, Russia prepares to open the gates

THE FIRST step for many countries was to set a date for the return of their domestic league, albeit behind closed doors. Cardboard cut-out fans, piped atmosphere, video camera images of fans and TV cameras. Russia, among others, is taking it a stage further by allowing a limited number of fans in their stadiums.

The Russian Premier League will allow 10% of ground capacity once they resume on June 20. It sounds like a sensible way to test the water, for example, Zenit St. Petersburg’s ground holds more than 67,000 so their permitted total will 6,780 which allows scope for quite extravagant social distancing.

Is Russia really ready for this move, which will set a precedent for other activities? Football can act as a morale booster – as Russian Deputy Prime Minister said, they are aiming to bring back “the special emotional component of football”. Initially, games were going to be played behind closed doors.

Football has often provided a distraction for the masses when the economy has stumbled, which is a fairly regular state of affairs in the modern history of Russia – the last crisis was in 2014-17.  Market watchers were expecting a recession in 2020 in Russia before the coronavirus locked down the world, but the World Bank is now predicting a 6% fall in GDP, which seems quite conservative given the circumstances. Oil prices have fallen by a third in 2020 and the Russian economy was heavily aligned to it – the ruble has been stabilised and the government has tried to make the country’s finances less reliant on oil.

However, the Russian Central Bank’s Alexander Morozov has forecast Russia’s slump will not be v-shaped and will take time to turn around. Indeed, Sberbank’s Oleg Zamulin expects a long and tedious recovery that may run into years. And as for victims of the coronavirus, Russia’s cases are currently numbering over half a million with a mortality rate of 1.3%. Sceptics have suggested Russia’s figures are not to be trusted, but that same criticism could be aimed at almost any country.

The suspension of Russian football came at a time when crowds were at their best levels for some years, up 3.4% to an average of 17,294. Russian Premier clubs are said to be losing a combined total of one billion rubles a week (£ 11.5 million – for example, Spartak Moscow are losing 125 million rubles (£ 1.4 million) every seven days and hence, their squad has taken a 40% pay cut. The Russian Football Union has asked UEFA to extend the summer transfer window by four weeks to make life a little easier in the coming months.

Meanwhile, the Russian Premier League is set to vote on a proposal to expand the league from 16 to 18 clubs. Not everyone is enthused about the prospect, notably Lokomotiv Moscow’s chairman, who believes the increased division may put pressure on resources and eventually fall victim to Russia’s harsh climate. He asked: “Do we have 18 financially stable clubs and the pitches that won’t cause players to tear their ligaments?”.

According to Deloitte’s review of football finance, Russia is the sixth wealthiest football league. The average total revenues per club in the Russian top flight is € 752 million, of which 76% is derived from commercial activity. Russia doesn’t have the same type of broadcasting deal as some major European countries and consequently,  only 17% of income comes from media. Russia not only trails the “big five” leagues, but also has a smaller TV deal than Turkey, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland and Portugal. The wage-to-income ratio in the Russian Premier League is an unhealthy 70%.

There’s a dark cloud on the horizon for Russian football following the doping scandals around athletics and the Olympics. Apparently, there is evidence of football doping and FIFA are expecting to receive some evidence that will probably further damage Russian sport’s reputation.

Vladimir Putin, who has only just been seen in public for the first time in months, has said that experts have told him the peak has passed. A convenient time to ease restrictions, it would seem, as Russia is hosting a parade on June 24 to mark Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany in 1945.

If the limited crowd involvement works, it could trigger off similar moves in other countries. If it fails, it will send the football world back two steps. Nobody really knows if the timing is right, but at some point, we are going to have to go back in the water. Good luck Russia.


Photo: PA