How We Can Change Football. Can We Change Football?

You spend half a season moaning about the state of football and then when you actually sit down to try and think of how we, as supporters, can change it, you find yourself staring into space for the best part of a week. It’s easy to complain, far harder to find solutions and I can certainly testify to that.

Some of football’s ills have always been with us as I pointed out earlier this season. Some are very modern woes. What I’ve tried to do is come up with a few suggestions on how we can improve things. They’re not particularly original but if you repeat something enough times, maybe someone will eventually hear you.

You might be of the disposition that there’s nothing wrong with football. That’s fine. You don’t have to read on and you are free to dismiss this all as nonsense. I, however, do think there’s something wrong. I don’t pretend that I have all the answers. In many cases I’m as guilty as anybody else for accepting the status quo. But here’s the thing. You don’t have to accept it. Not always. So here goes… how we can all change football. In six steps. Small ones but it’s a start.

Protest & Boycott 

In 2012 the German Football League in collaboration with the country’s top two divisions put together a set of proposals that were designed to create what was deemed a “Safe Stadium” experience for supporters. To foster such an atmosphere, it was, amongst many other initiatives, thought acceptable to facilitate a complete ban on flares and to reduce the ticket allocation for away support. More ominously, the authorities wanted camps set up outside stadiums that would perform total strip searches on fans whilst also introducing more pronounced video monitoring.

Sensing an attack on fan culture specifically and civil liberties in general, supporters across Germany came together and fell silent for twelve minutes and twelve seconds (the date the security paper was to be debated) in an attempt to evoke the non-atmosphere that would be spawned if these proposals were ratified. After three weeks of unified protest, supporters were invited to discuss the matter further with the football league.

The above demonstrates that if tribalism and rivalry is set aside for a moment, we as fans can affect how our game is governed. What if we went a step further and three weekends in a season were designated as ‘No Show’ fixtures in the Premier League and Championship? Imagine the fumbling amongst broadcasters as every thud of the ball on a head and every swear word coming out of a footballer’s mouth echoed across empty stadia. If the packaging of football relies upon gurning fans in silly hats or the face paint on crying boys being smudged after his team are relegated, then the montage men will at least have their work cut out.

Such a protest wouldn’t perhaps hurt clubs financially but it would burst a bubble of self-absorption that pervades throughout the game.

People will naturally dismiss this idea. The argument would suggest that not everybody would necessarily want to give up their seats for which they’ve paid a lot of money, for the sake of making a statement. That may be true and while I understand this mentality in many respects, perhaps it could be executed as an act of solidarity against the rampant commercialisation that dogs the game. I’m not asking you to stay away indefinitely.

It’s not about whether you support Liverpool or Leicester City or Walsall or Arsenal. These issues affect us all and the sooner we start organising and collaborating, the better.

Ticket Prices

By the time my children are old enough to watch football with me, I’ll only be able to afford to take them once a season. When competing alongside other leisure pursuits, how will I then be able to forge within them a sense of identity as well as a feeling that the game is something that passes from one generation to the next?

In 1981, a season ticket at White Hart Lane cost £62. If ticket prices fell in line with the rate of inflation, season tickets to watch Spurs stagger and splutter towards sixth place this season should have cost £207.63.

Such figures show that the current state of things is simply unacceptable. As watching live football becomes a pastime for only those who can afford it, the very fabric of how the game sustains itself is in danger of eroding. In 2011, The Guardian’s David Conn reported that the average age of a season ticket holder that year was forty-one. Compare that to the average age of a member of a German Supporters’ club in 2011 being twenty.

It would therefore stand to reason that if the current trend continues, clubs are going to face a problem within the next twenty years as they will not have fostered the bonds that keep people going back to football. What’s being created is a lost generation of football fans and this is precisely a symptom of football’s avarice.

There are of course concessions for specific age groups. My worry is specifically for young adults or anybody on the financial margins although Albion Rovers in Scotland have pioneered a ‘pay what you can afford’ season ticket initiative that has received a positive response and an upward trend in sales. Perhaps such systems are worth looking at if the game wishes to sustain itself in the long term.

There is currently no limitation on what clubs can charge their fans and while I concede that many will happily pay such exorbitant prices, others are simply being priced out. Some might say, tough. To which I’d counter with the question, is that the kind of society we want to live in? One that only services the needs of those who can afford it? It’s morally wrong and to change it, we need to lobby those who can influence such change. Make politicians earn their money. Put pressure on the clubs. Force them to cap or drop prices. By law.

Community

If football clubs want to see themselves as businesses rather than tools for social cohesion, then fine. With that though comes a measure of corporate social responsibility. Clubs therefore must take into account their roles within the communities in which they reside. According to the summary report of Supporters Direct’s The Social And Community Value Of Football published in 2010, this goes back to a club’s “origins as one the principal agents through which collective and social identities were created”. Football clubs are important and can be a force for good in the right hands.

As football has become more globalised while traditional support has moved to the suburbs as in the case of Tottenham Hotspur, the make-up of an average matchday crowd differs greatly from those who live in the locality from day-to-day.

I’ve witnessed this disparity first-hand on recent visits to White Hart Lane. My club resides in one of London’s poorest boroughs. It is comprised of a massively diverse ethnic mix. I do not however, see such a representation of the community within the stadium. I do see a vast majority of black people serving at the fast-food stands within the stadium’s bowels and I would presume that these are all local individuals. They are serving a majority of white people.

This is not though, an issue of race. It comes down to economics that consequently goes back to ticket prices. Are those working the tills more or less likely to enjoy football than the people they are serving? By essentially pricing out the people who live near the stadium (whatever the colour of their skin), clubs are essentially dislocating themselves from both their community and their identity. Should tickets therefore be made available to local schools, youth clubs, etc and thus bring in new supporters or as the clubs would have them, customers?

Chairmen and boards do not prioritise these factors. They are in the business of making money and therefore the only solution is for supporters to look at how they can take over their clubs. I’m not talking about forming a new club, I’m talking about an already existing club run entirely by and for its members. Pie in the sky? Why? What better way is there for everybody involved with the club, both local and from farther afield, to feel that they are actually contributing.

But we don’t own our clubs, they belong to others, right? No they don’t. Levy, Abramovich, the Glazers, whoever, they’re merely passing through. Who remains? We do, so why don’t we just cut out the middlemen? One member, one vote. It can be done.

At the very least, supporters should all have representation at board level. Once again, we have to look to Germany where supporters at clubs such as Schalke and Hamburg have a clear say on how their club is governed. This really doesn’t have to be a German phenomenon.

Television

Speaking to a few of the locals since being in Greece, I was saddened to find out that most of the imminent World Cup will not be broadcast on state television. It’s an unthinkable concept in England where the BBC and ITV have the rights for the foreseeable future but by the same token, we’ve been held to ransom for years.

If football likes to present itself as the nation’s sport, then it therefore follows that it should be available to all. It’s not just a problem unique to the Premier League. It seems that if we want to watch League football, we simply have to pay up and shut up. Or do we?

You don’t have to spend your money at Murdoch’s and BT’s stalls. There are other ways. Go to the pub. Contribute to one subscription amongst a group of friends. Listen to the radio. You might even explore other, legally muddy options.

If enough people cancelled their subscriptions, the ‘product’ would become less valued as a commodity and thus bring the prices down and make the rights affordable to terrestrial channels.

I’m not doubting the fact that Sky have contributed in a massive way to how football is analysed and presented but monthly subscriptions, though maybe not as much as season tickets, are still a luxury not everyone in cash-strapped times can afford. Terrestrial channels should at the very least broadcast a proportion of games for all to see. However, that’s something for higher authorities to look into and where possible intervene. All we can do is switch off. Click. After all, when is enough money enough for these people?

Lower League Football

Adam Michie supports Spurs. Always has. Nevertheless, he’d felt an increasing sense of alienation and disillusionment with football at White Hart Lane so he swapped Spurs’ 2010/11 season in the Champions League for one at Leyton Orient. He hasn’t looked back since and he documented this symbolic juxtaposition in his excellent book Orientation.

It might seem like anathema to even entertain such notions of apparent disloyalty but this is not a case of stopping supporting the team you do (if they so happen to be in the Premier League). It’s more a case of going to watch affordable football whilst trying to re-connect with that sense of camaraderie that is virtually non-existent at the big clubs these days.

Lower league clubs are finding themselves increasingly under threat. The financial burdens of operating in the shadow of the all-pervasive Premier League are having an effect. Whereas once, richer clubs would routinely purchase players cultivated by those in the lower leagues, it is more often the case these days that they will look abroad. Moreover, with television putting more and more emphasis on all things Premier League, it is harder for clubs to develop support when having to compete with the likes of Manchester City or Chelsea.

Not my problem, the Premier League fan says. Well, it might not be for now. Remember though, that it was not so long ago that the two clubs mentioned above were perennially yo-yoing up and down the divisions.

With the FA adding more pressure on lower league clubs with its League 3 horror, would it be such a bad thing to go down and support a team outside the Premier League circus every now and then? You might even end up eating a good old-fashioned meat pie instead of some of the nouveau rubbish they serve up at the bigger clubs. Bovril, anyone?

Consumerism

Every time you pull on your club’s replica shirt, you are essentially becoming a breathing advertising hoarding for the sporting manufacturers and whichever company is sponsoring your club this season. You can probably roll off the roster of Champions League sponsors with relative ease. You may have even on occasion been distracted by the revolving ads on the electronic hoardings that act as a metaphorical barrier between supporter and player.

Clubs like to adopt the language of the boardroom and continually refer to us as customers. Clubs are no longer institutions. They are projects. They are increasingly trying to manage how we respond and when we should respond as supporters. This can be seen in its most banal incarnation through the enforced jollity of music being played over the tannoy when a goal is scored, thus drowning out the natural outburst of celebration that is released from a crowd. However, as Spurs supporters have found out all too well this season, we’re being managed in what we should be singing as well.

A lot has been made of the positive aspects of introducing seats into stadiums upon the recommendations of the Taylor report in the wake of the Hillsborough tragedy. However, it has been proven that it was not terracing that tragically brought an end to those Liverpool supporters’ lives. It was mismanagement by the police authorities. Bearing that in mind, The Football Supporters’ Federation has been campaigning for the re-introduction of safe standing areas within grounds as a way of allowing supporters a greater choice in how they choose to watch football. This can only be a good thing. How many times have you been told to sit down by overzealous stewards or felt cramped with your knees up to your chin on those horrible plastic seats as clubs seek to maximise space? Wouldn’t it be nice to be given options?

You don’t have to sit there and take it though. And the best way to do it is through humour and wit. Isn’t it great when commentators squirm as they snootily ignore some crass chant sung by the crowd? Do you remember that Spanish fan who flipped the bird at the camera in the wake of his country’s defeat against Switzerland in 2010? Human beings should not and cannot be corralled. Why not even contravene your club’s copyright identity by re-creating your club’s crest and pinning it onto your shirt? Better still, make your own. If ‘owners’ can re-name a club or change a kit colour, why can’t you?

 Keep Smiling

Despite everything, the bottom line is that we love the game. If we didn’t care, we wouldn’t complain and we wouldn’t be spending all this time mulling it over.

In a world that is forever trying to divert our attentions onto the next thing, football provides us with a rare moment of concentrated togetherness. So what kind of experience do we want?

Football is often compared to the theatre but do we want to be sat in front of a stage as in the traditional theatre and have it all wash over us as we sit passively and clap politely at all the right moments? Or do we want a game that challenges our thoughts, stirs our emotions and makes us all talk to each other? You know, communicating.

How often do you chat to the person sitting next to you at a football match? If you don’t (I’ll hold my hands up to that), why not do it next time?

I think that’s essentially what I’ve been driving at all along. Football is about friendship and having the sense that you are part of something bigger than you but simultaneously knowing that it’s also a very personal pursuit. Everything you could possibly experience from life lies within it, however tragic, however silly, however glorious. And that’s why, in the end, however much the bastards grind us down, to steal a few words from Steven Gerrard, we go again.

We can make a difference.

Further reading: We Are Football Supporters 

Follow Dispatches on Twitter: @Sofalife

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11 Responses to How We Can Change Football. Can We Change Football?

  1. Winston May 19, 2014 at 12:53 pm #

    Great to read your ideas on levelling the playing field. Your ‘go to the pub to not give money to Sky’ concept was actually one of Murdoch’s original desired outcomes of investing in football, in collusion with alcohol manufacturers and the breweries. The outcome was adults separated from children watching the game, as children were largely excluded from the pub environment. So, traditional parent(s)/child(ren) combo watching the game on BBC1 stopped when parent(s) went to the pub. When son or daughter complained enough and Sky eventually reduced subscription rates, parent(s) succumbed and brought football back in to the home. Sport and alcohol advertising is another matter as is the amount pubs have to pay to televise the football! Sky gets its money, whichever way you split the bill. Curious to know what you or your readers think of the supporters organisations’ club buyouts idea, replacing fat cats with true fan power. Are you for us by us?

    • Greg May 19, 2014 at 7:03 pm #

      I see your point about pubs but what I was driving at with that particular example was that you as an individual needn’t have to fork out so that Sky gets its payday. However, my mind goes back to that scene in ‘Looking For Eric’ where those who can’t or won’t go to Old Trafford congregate in the pub to watch United play. You sense there’s more camaraderie amongst those guys then there is in the actual stadium. In an ideal world, matches would be on terrestrial tv and that’s what we as fans should be working towards.

      As for fans’ buyouts – I think you can probably surmise that I’m all for it!

  2. Drwinston001 May 20, 2014 at 8:26 am #

    Having done my own little (and pointless) bit by cancelling my membership for the upcoming season having become disillusioned with not only my club but the sport in general I enjoyed reading this and would love to see fans come together as one, make a stand and make a difference.

    One of your points really hit home, the talking to strangers part, enjoying the game together. I love cricket but I’m in the minority and most of the time I attend Somerset and England games on my own. I’m not a fan of doing that at the football but at cricket it’s entirely different. Only on Sunday I spent the afternoon chatting to 2 gentlemen whom I’d never met before (and they’d never met either) about the virtues of the current Somerset side. As the game ended we said our goodbyes and I’ll probably never see them again but they made the day more enjoyable. I’ve never been to a game of cricket where that hasn’t happened, whether it’s a county game, an international game or even a game on foreign soil. I enjoy cricket because I believe it’s what going to the football used to be. It’s purer, it’s cleaner, I feel like I’m wanted and my attendance is important. As pink floyd would say, I’m not just another brick in the wall.

    • Greg May 22, 2014 at 5:35 pm #

      From what I remember about being a member at White Hart Lane, the only real advantages you got were priority tickets (once season ticket holders had bagged the majority) and a discount in the club shop. Oh, and a generic card from Junior Spurs when it was your birthday.

      The term ‘member’ is a bit of a misnomer because I don’t think you ever feel that you are actually part of something and yet again, you are viewed as a consumer rather than a member.

      I’m saddened that you felt you had to cancel your membership but understand completely why you would. That’s the worst part of it: the alienation of fans who have followed their clubs for the majority of their lives. Maybe it’s time I gave cricket a go too.

  3. Annabelle May 20, 2014 at 4:33 pm #

    And interestingly enough football was born because of cricket. Maybe we should take our approach in our support back to the beginning.

  4. Steve H May 20, 2014 at 9:24 pm #

    The truest thing you’ve said is it’s far harder to find solutions! Collective protesting would be the most effective way of applying pressure, but in order for that to happen you need all fans (or at least a very large number of fans) to all feel the same way. Football is still popular enough at the top for the big clubs, Sky and the Premier League to do what it likes. If one fan walks away disillusioned then there will be someone there to replace them. Far too many people still believe all the ‘best league in the world’ stuff and while the business and management of the game have dramatically changed over the years, the actual game itself (kicking a lump of leather into a net) has barely changed at all – and that is why it’s still so successful. How many other pastimes are enjoyed equally by five and 95-year-olds?

    For those of us to whom football is a drug (and there are many many addicts) the cost of Sky and tickets for matches etc will not cure us of our habit. We may wish we’d never started, but something will keep happening to bring us back. The men at the top know all this, and they know that anyone who is driven away for good will be replaced by many more eager to try it out.

    It’s interesting what you say about community. I’ve noticed that at White Heart Lane too. But I think this may be more of a London problem than a football problem. When I lived in Reading the club was always doing things with local schools and charities. The club used to give local children tickets for £1, and pretty much everyone who went to the games was from that area. I imagine this still to be the case in other provincial areas where the football club is still an important hub in the local community. London’s population is far more transitional – the people who live there come and go – and it’s not hugely surprising that the locals are different from the people who go to the matches. This is also the case, of course, because the bigger clubs are supported from across the country (and indeed the world). Those who go to the games have a variety of reasons for supporting their team and it’s not always that they grew up in the area.

    Anyway I can’t disagree about the comments here about cricket. It’s always a pleasant atmosphere and I too have always talked to the person next to me at matches (actually I have at the football too). However you do tend to be at the cricket for 6 hours (rather than 90 minutes) and the amount of booze poured down my throat at the cricket certainly makes me more inclined towards conversation with strangers!

    • Greg May 22, 2014 at 5:39 pm #

      That’s the thing though, isn’t it Steve? If you’re addicted and you know it’s causing you harm, acknowledge it, etc, then you take steps to get yourself well again.

      You’re right when you say the game is essentially the same and that’s why it’s worth fighting for but it really is in need of some kind of intervention before its culture is lost for good.

  5. Simon Curtis May 22, 2014 at 11:15 am #

    Great read. Enjoyed it a lot. Two major problems: i) with so much money splashing about, how do you get people to behave responsibly? (answer, I believe, is it’s near-on impossible) and ii) with so much emotional history between you and your club, how do you just walk away and refuse to be a part of what has been a supporting pillar throughout your life? (answer, I believe, is that is also near-on impossible). As long as the powers that be know these two things (and they do, despite knowing little else), we’re buggered.

    • Greg May 22, 2014 at 5:44 pm #

      You’re absolutely right, Simon. People will continue to keep the cash registers pinging because they have those emotional attachments. However, it’s those same people who’ll complain about ticket prices, players’ wages, new kits and everything else over and over in the pub, via social media or in their tacit agreement with yet another angry columnist. Can we truly affect change? Probably not. I think that ship’s sailed but it’s worth a shot isn’t it? Maybe.

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