Article Place & Self

Can we have our ball back please?

Modern football might be a glitzy international product awash with money, but supporters are having to fight to have their voice heard like never before.

The second chapter of Lord Justice Taylor’s final report into the Hillsborough Stadium disaster, published in January 1990, is entitled ‘A better future for football’. In it, Lord Taylor speaks of the need for “more welcoming attitudes” and, crucially, “more consultation with the supporters”.

The decade which preceded the publication of Lord Taylor’s report was arguably the darkest in the sport’s history. As well as tragic events at Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough which saw some 191 supporters killed, crowds were regularly treated as animals, literally caged in to stop them invading the pitch or their rivals’ area. For some, such as then-Chelsea owner Ken Bates, the caging of supporters was not (degrading) enough; he therefore campaigned in 1985 to install an electric fence at Stamford Bridge in order to deter troublemakers. This proved unsuccessful, but the very fact that it seemed vaguely possible is horrifying. Margaret Thatcher’s government – which seemed to view all of football’s troubles as being self-contained rather than a reflection of a society (or lack thereof) they were creating – were intent on forcing supporters to carry ID cards. The idea was only dropped following events at Hillsborough.

Few can argue, therefore, that football did not need to change. Supporters should not die going to watch their club, nor should they be treated as inhuman in decrepit old stadiums no longer fit for purpose, by police that had often pre-judged them as guilty before an offence had been committed.

The most important result of the Taylor Report was that all-seater stadiums became compulsory in the English top flight for the start of the 1994-95 season.

These have often been blamed for a perceived lack of atmosphere in the modern game compared to the densely packed (and far cheaper) terraces which pre-dated them. But another event in 1990 arguably set in motion an even more seismic change to the way in which the game is consumed. A clandestine meeting took place between the ‘Big 5’ clubs – Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur – to discuss a potential for a breakaway league. These clubs had long resented the fact that television money had been distributed evenly between all 92 clubs across English football’s four leagues ever since the BBC first screened Match of the Day in 1964.

The big clubs inevitably got their way. Sky paid £305m for the rights to show the new FA Carling Premiership for 5 years from September 1992, and the 22 clubs that formed it did not have to share a penny with the other 70 clubs.

Fast forward 23 years. The grounds are undoubtedly safer, and crowd trouble is much rarer, yet the disconnect between club and supporter has never felt greater. Players earn eye-watering sums, yet few look like they are actually enjoy it. And what covers the ridiculous transfer fees and wages? Well, by rights it should be Sky, who have just (along with BT Sport) paid a scarcely believable £5.136 billion to show just 3 seasons of live Premier League football from 2016-17. The sport is swimming in money. Yet in 2012-13, Premier League clubs made a collective loss of some £291 million. Since 1992 nearly half of all clubs in the Football and Premier League have experienced a formal insolvency procedure.

Between 1989 and 2013 ticket prices rose by a staggering 716%. With the national average wage rising by just 186% in the same period it is easy to see why so many supporters believe that they are being priced out of attending matches.

Earlier this year, the (in)famous Manchester United fanzine Red Issue announced that it was ceasing publication after 295 editions. In typically forthright manner, the supporters behind Red Issue pulled no punches when asked why they were stopping:

“The game we’ve been clinging onto is gone. Football now is happy-clappy families, half-and-half scarves, tourists and selfie sticks; there’s no point trying to fight that.”

Red Issue is not the only fanzine to have had enough. After nearly 16 years of publication, Dave Usher will be ending The Liverpool Way with its 100th issue, due to coincide with the end of the current season. Whereas Red Issue maintains that its sales remained strong, Usher is clear that falling sales figures have played a major part in his decision.

“[T]he bottom line is that if I was selling as many as I used to then I wouldn’t be shutting it down”, Usher says, as he confirms that recent issues have sold just a third of the copies of the fanzine’s early years. Perhaps more surprisingly, he also explains that he was selling double the volume just three years ago.

Sales aside, Usher shares Red Issue’s contempt for the modern game in general, and for his own club in particular.

“They don’t care [about the supporters]. They obviously pretend they do, but actions speak louder than words and Liverpool are like every big club. They’re pricing out the kind of fans who have always created the famous Anfield atmosphere. Many of those fans are in the pubs and living rooms now, as it’s simply become too expensive.”

It is clear that football supporters’ feelings of resentment towards a common enemy - those running football, from the television companies to the clubs themselves - transcends even the fiercest of local rivalries. The longest running Liverpool fanzine, Red All Over The Land, issued a statement in response to the Red Issue news, praising the United publication for standing “against the tidal wave of modernism in football”.

Many football supporters have simply had enough of being treated with contempt by those in the upper echelons of the game. Online forums enable supporters to pool and communicate ideas quickly and efficiently, and this has led to several highly successful campaigns in recent years. Liverpool supporters campaigned vociferously and effectively against reviled former owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett., while Cardiff City fans recently celebrated a victory in their protracted battle with the club’s owner Vincent Tan to see the club’s home strip revert to its traditional blue colour (Tan changed it to red in 2012, purportedly in order to increase the club’s international appeal).

In addition, supporters are beginning to band together regardless of allegiance in order to make their voices heard. The Football Supporters’ Federation (FSF) has over 500,000 members across England and Wales and, following a highly visible campaign to prevent the Premier League’s idea for a 39th league game, to be played abroad, the organisation launched ’Twenty’s Plenty for Away Tickets’ in January 2013, which is seeking to persuade football clubs to agree to a cap on away match tickets of £20.

The FSF is not fighting the battle alone. Stand is a cross-club fanzine which launched in 2012, and which publishes articles which are frequently critical of the state of the modern game.

Bill Biss, Stand’s current editor and a contributor from the beginning, explains that the response to the fanzine was instantaneous:

“[T]hey printed 1000 copies that sold out and then printed 1000 more that did the same. That initial wave was kind of a release for everyone – we packed in all the moans that are common amongst those who fall under the ‘AMF’ [Against Modern Football] bracket and found an audience out there who’d had enough of the ever-increasing ticket prices, the policing and stewarding of games, the billionaire owners ruining our football clubs and all the rest of it.“

Broadcasters and those that run the sport often refer to the Premier League as a product. English football is sold around the world largely off the back of the passion of both players and supporters alike. If stadiums begin to have noticeable numbers of empty seats, the product loses much of its sheen, and it becomes more difficult to sell. Several recent articles have alluded to numbers of away supporters beginning to dwindle, and Biss feels that non-attendance is a powerful weapon that some supporters are beginning to use:

“I believe that fans are mobilising, they are withholding that investment in their clubs – emotionally and financially.”

Biss supports the enforcement of some level of supporter-ownership similar to the 50+1 rule operated in Germany’s Bundesliga, which would “automatically give more say to supporters who would of course, improve the way in which their fellow fans are treated on match day and elsewhere – the ticket office, the club shop and all the rest”. Biss also backs the introduction of safe-standing areas into grounds, though given the emotiveness of this issue he does not advocate this being compulsory. As well as improving the atmosphere inside the ground, Biss states that this is a “a proven method of reducing ticket prices and increasing revenue for clubs”.

Keeping attendances high feels like something of a house of cards. On one hand, it makes financial sense for clubs to see a revolving door of different supporters each week, who are more likely to arrive early at the ground and buy overpriced lager (and not complain about the fact they are not allowed to drink it within sight of the pitch) and official merchandise. Yet at the same time, the game relies on those that attend every week to create the atmosphere the English game is famed for.

For now, the clubs are mostly succeeding. For every supporter that walks away, there are significantly more that are unable to break the emotional bond they feel with their club, no matter how poorly they are treated. Dave Usher speaks of how “refreshing” the likes of FC United and AFC Liverpool are, but is unsure whether he could ever follow another team:

“If Liverpool hit hard times and ended up playing in the Conference, I’d still watch because they’re my team. I’ve watched them since I was a kid, maybe if I’d also watched the likes of Marine or someone it would be easier to walk away from LFC, but they’re all I know really.”

Although the loyalty of existing fans can still largely be relied upon (though Usher admits he can see a time where his hand might be forced by the sheer expense of attending), an issue which those that run the game will not be able to ignore forever is how to attract the next generation of supporters.

In David Conn’s The Beautiful Game, an excellent 2005 investigation into the state of modern football, Conn speaks at length about the ageing fanbases at football clubs, stating that by 2003 a mere 7% of season tickets were aged 16-24. Conn argues that this is down to a combination of ticket cost plus the fact that teenagers have significantly more ways in which to spend their leisure time than previous generations. If those that run the game do not act fast – either by finding ways to reduce prices, engaging with increasingly marginalised and disillusioned supporters or by enacting measures to improve the entire matchday experience, the next generation of season ticket holders simply won’t exist, and no amount of satellite television razzmatazz will be able to mask it.

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