Fans for the memory in TV game show

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The Independent Online
Your average football fan in these swiftly changing times seems a homespun sort and appears not to have changed very much since his dad's or even his grandad's day. Despite being far more fashionable now, with politicians vying to rub shoulders with it, celebrities and sundry lovelies seeping into the best seats and literary figures finding it a profitable base for their eloquence, our national game still has its roots in old soil.

A Premier League survey of supporters has identified the average fan as being white, aged between 30 and 40, married, fully employed, born within 20 miles of the team he supports, who saw his club's first game aged 10 or under with a parent and did not attend university or polytechnic. He sounds pretty ordinary; more George Formby than Nick Hornby.

How long he can retain his pole position of importance to the game is another matter. He is being challenged in his typicality by a steady increase in the number of women attracted to matches and by the more affluent and sophisticated young professionals likely to appeal to football's burgeoning marketing forces. But the average fan's place at the centre of consideration will be influenced most by the impact of Pay TV which, despite the denials of those concerned, is nearer than we once thought.

That same revolution will affect our relationships with all televised sport. The conflict in English rugby union, for instance, is based largely on the premise that international matches will remain the major source of the game's financial life-blood. The Heineken European Cup has rocked that notion. When it returns next season to well-whetted appetites and backed by comprehensive television coverage, club rugby will be elevated to heights that not even the most fervent advocates of professionalism could have foreseen.

Rugby league, after some months of discomfort in the back seat, announced a very dramatic development last week. To a fanfare muted by our pre-occupation with the European football, they unveiled a tournament to be held next summer between British and Australian clubs that will give us six weeks of games like Brisbane v Wigan and St Helens v Penrith both here and Down Under before the final stages in September and October.

No doubt, it will have worried league supporters that their players who have infiltrated union have proved so popular, but it will work in reverse. When they return to their league clubs, they will take back a great deal of interest in their future activities, particularly playing against Australian clubs on a regular basis.

A new, overlapping diet of top-class club rugby is going to create fresh and lucrative television fare. Football has no comparable need to increase the desire to watch club matches. There was a time in all three codes when club games were the bread and butter and internationals the occasional jam. That order is in the process of revaluation.

In the meantime, the Premiership is a thriving example of what clubs can achieve and has every reason to be satisfied with its progress. Armies of surveyors and researchers have been trampling all over football recently in order to establish the state of our game - not so much the state of its quality in comparison with the domestic offerings available in other countries but the state of its relationship to the home market.

With one or two reservations about the rising costs of admission, the results have revealed a fairly content bunch of customers. The survey of Premiership supporters was undertaken by the Norman Chester Centre for Football Research and confirmed the deep devotion many fans have for their clubs. The transition to all-seater stadiums has caused one or two problems. Some spectators still insist on standing and others swear just as frequently sitting down as they did standing up. Separate accommodation has been suggested for them; F Block perhaps.

I would have been interested in the response to one question that wasn't asked - which team are you more anxious to see winning, your club or your country? Neither was that one put in the other big survey which was conducted for the football magazine FourFourTwo and directed mainly at players and managers. Norway's coach, Egil Olsen, who said last week that he thought the Premiership was the most over-rated league in the world, would not have been surprised that 100 per cent of Premiership managers thought it was the best.

However, two-thirds of them believe that English club players work and train less hard than their contintental counterparts. That much was evident at Old Trafford on Wednesday and I wonder in whose hands the remedy lies? Strangely, there was not a stampede of opinion that a European League would be a good thing. The depth of football's domestic strength makes outside competition less necessary than it is for the rugby codes but it would seem a desirable development for many reasons and, undoubtedly, will come soon.

More varied fixtures and a greater access to the pick of them is going to change fundamentally our watching habits. Our average fan of the moment will carry on as he and his forebears have done for a century. But he won't stay average. Soon, the proud holder of that title will be sitting in his armchair paying to watch whichever game takes his fancy.

Friend and colleague Clem Thomas was reporting rugby for us right up until his untimely death in September and a Thanksgiving service for his life and work will be held at St Bride's Church, Fleet Street, on Monday, 2 December, at 12 noon. One of his last acts was to finalise the proofs of a book that celebrates a history he helped to create.

Clem was a member of the British Lions who toured South Africa in 1955 and twice captained the team. Despite an emergency appendicitis operation he refused to be repatriated and rejoined the squad in time to play in the final two Tests and square the series. Now in the bookshops, the History Of The British Lions (Mainstream Publishing, pounds 15.99) is a definitive account of all the Lions tours since 1888 and is laced with anecdotes, both heroic and humorous.

My favourite concerns an incident on the 1974 Lions tour of South Africa when a collapsed scrum left the England lock Chris Ralston screaming with a twisted leg. When his team-mate Ken Kennedy, who is a doctor, straightened out the knee Ralston yelled: "The pain is excruciating." Welsh hooker Bobby Windsor reassured his worried colleagues: "He can't be too bad if he can think of a word like that."

Despite being much scorned for my oft-repeated forecasts that one day a woman will win The Open and that women will play for England at football and rugby in the distant future, I am not afraid to welcome the admission of girls through the gates of boxing with the prediction that a far-off dawn will see a female heavyweight champion of the world.

Furthermore, I foresee that this healthy interest in the more combatative sports discussed in the page opposite will help relationships between the sexes to turn full cycle to those happy days when a gentleman would rush to open the door for a lady. If he doesn't, he might get a bloody good hiding.

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