Football fans count cost of rising prices

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A friend had a ritual. His special penny was in his pocket, the tennis ball he carried the day his team had beaten Scunthorpe United 8-1 was secreted somewhere about his person. In this way Manchester City were lucky charmed through the Sixties.

Colin Bell, winning the championship and the European Cup- Winners' Cup were the result of the fortuitous chance that had brought these totems into his possession. He believed it even if the rest of us thought he was barmy and even now he puts the subsequent years of misery down to an arrogance that the good times needed no safety nets to last for ever. The penny was spent and so were City.

He does not go to Maine Road these days, with two boys eating and breathing to be Georgi Kinkladze he would feel guilty going alone. And the cost for three is prohibitive. As he put it recently the charms that people attach faith to these days are probably good-luck Gucci shoes or Armani suits. The poor may be always with us but very few make it to football matches.

You had only to watch Leeds United's FA Cup quarter-final against Liverpool on television to realise that. A desperately turgid match was played out before banks of empty seats because people either could not or would not fork out a minimum of pounds 19 for a seat. At a time when Coca-Cola Cup final tickets were being bought even a glamorous and potentially exciting tie was too much.

Twenty-five years ago Elland Road would have been a raucous, seething mass of humanity. We must count our blessings that hooliganism has all but disappeared from our grounds but one of the prices is high prices.

Television cash has transformed football in this country. Money is pouring into the national game and players who were already earning money beyond the dreams of the people who supported them for the terraces have now reached a level where they earn the envy of millionaires.

Wages of pounds 20,000 a week are not common but they do exist which means the Jurgens and Faustinos of this world are earning as much in a year as middle-class people get in their life. That is if the latter survive redundancy and illness. Football, we are repeatedly told, is a short, chance-ridden career but these days so is banking and nursing. Journalism, too, come to think of it.

Yet while footballers' wages and transfer fees have long since passed into the realms of the obscene the supporter has been left behind to pick up a sizeable chunk of the bill. True he gets better players to watch these days - Kinkladze, they say, is the best thing at Maine Road since Bell - and a piece of plastic to sit on, but the entrance fee has shot up to help lag already mink-lined pockets.

A Premier League survey discovered recently that the average fan spends pounds 60 per week watching football. That includes his fees for satellite TV and club merchandise but, even so, it is a measure of the cost of travelling to and watching football. A family of four can easily pelt through pounds 100 in an afternoon without painting the town pale pink never mind red.

The effect has been that a different type of person goes to watch football. Old Trafford used to be a cockpit of one-eyed red fanaticism, now you get barely a peep out of 40,000 crowds unless Manchester United go behind. To an extent that Alex Ferguson, the manager, has had to appeal to supporters for more encouragement, something Sir Matt Busby would have been astonished to have to do.

Yet the figures say more and more people are coming to football. For the 10th year in succession crowds are on the up (at Gillingham by a staggering 120 per cent) and if Euro 96 is a success there is every reason to believe the trend will continue. Sky, too, would not be pumping in millions if the product was being shunned on the screens.

So why the caution? Why worry if football is in such vigorous health? Nagging away is the fear that the national game may be losing its roots. It is trendy to support a team these days - even Manchester's Hacienda Club is to get a football theme this week - but if the fad passes to another sport the whole edifice could come tumbling down.

High-priced seats could not be filled by the masses who supported clubs in the past and games will be played out before half-empty stadiums largely for the benefit of television. Look at many of the tennis tournaments shown on the box and you will get the idea of competition in a vacuum.

Already youngsters from even reasonably well-off families have virtually no chance of watching the Uniteds of Newcastle and Manchester except via the screen and are drifting off into other pursuits. If that is to other, less fashionable, teams all well and good but other attractions have a pull too. Will they be ready to come back to support once their bank balances allow them?

Like my friend, for example. He watches a sport with his family but it is ice hockey that he goes to and not football because the prices are lower and the facilities better. Some 15,000 regularly watch Manchester Storm take to the ice and his sons have heroes in helmets now as well as with muddy boots.

For them the Theatre of Dreams could soon not be Maine Road or Old Trafford but the Nynex Arena. And for football, for all its glamour and burgeoning figures, that would be a nightmare.