David Conn: Football fading to grey as prawn sandwiches replace peanuts prices

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The Independent Football

If you are planning on brightening up a grey January Saturday with a visit to a Premier League match today, have an extra careful look round when you get to the stadium. Many of you will take your seats next to the friends, family, regulars you have sat, or previously stood next to, for years, perhaps decades. Like many fans, and even the football authorities and clubs themselves, you may however not have noticed one startlingly obvious feature about them: fans are getting older.

If you are planning on brightening up a grey January Saturday with a visit to a Premier League match today, have an extra careful look round when you get to the stadium. Many of you will take your seats next to the friends, family, regulars you have sat, or previously stood next to, for years, perhaps decades. Like many fans, and even the football authorities and clubs themselves, you may however not have noticed one startlingly obvious feature about them: fans are getting older.

Ever since Roy Keane's famous grumble that the taming of Old Trafford was due to too many people having "the prawn sandwich", rather than traditional, in-your-blood, terrace-bred passion, the feeling has grown that soaring ticket price increases, of around 900 per cent since 1990, have led to a new, wealthy audience for the people's game - no more working-class theatre, but middle-class showbiz.

That is undoubtedly true to some extent; many poorer fans who supported loyally in the 1970s and 1980s have been priced out of the game's modern renaissance, while the Premier League's survey of supporters for last season - compiled from 48,000 questionnaires completed by supporters at the Premiership's 20 clubs - showed an increasing proportion of middle and upper-middle class fans. Around 40 per cent of supporters nationally earned more than £30,000 a year, while at Fulham, Tottenham and Chelsea, the average fan's income was £40,000 a year.

This does not, however, necessarily mean that former working-class fans have been replaced by high earners; they could be wealthier simply because they are older - the survey's most striking finding has been largely overlooked: supporters are ageing.

Nearly half of all fans were aged between 25 and 44, with the most solid bulk, 30 per cent, between 35 and 44. These people were born between 1960 and 1969, and so grew up supporting in the 1970s and 1980s when, for all the game's problems with hooliganism and crumbling grounds, thousands queued on the day to watch their clubs and, even for the biggest matches in the late 1980s, paid peanuts, as little as £2 or £3. A further 24 per cent last season were 45-54, born in the Fifties. The average age for a Premiership football supporter overall was 42.

In a strikingly low figure, just eight per cent of supporters were found to be 16 to 24. This was traditionally a crucial, formative age for football fandom, when people started going regularly without the protective arm of parents. All clubs now have concessions for children under 16, many quite generous - Blackburn charge just £5 for some matches, Norwich as little as £7 - and a third of clubs offer student discounts for 16- to 19-year-olds. Mostly, though, over-16s pay full price, which, from an eyewatering high of £68 at Arsenal, down to around £25 for most clubs' lowest price (see table), means that many late teenagers or fans in their early twenties are priced out.

It is difficult to compare these modern figures with hard statistics from previous eras; in those more rudimentary times, the Football League did not trouble to gather information, as fans paid on the gate and streamed in. Largely, we are left to rely on pictures of matches in the 1970s and 1980s which show standing areas full of teenagers, and memories - our own; I am 40 next month, and I went regularly throughout my teenage years as, it seemed, did everybody else my age.

The Sir Norman Chester Centre at Leicester University did carry out surveys for particular clubs in the 1980s, which supports the observation that there has been a dramatic decline in teenagers going to top-flight matches. At Coventry, then in the old First Division, in 1983, 22 per cent of fans were under 20. At Aston Villa as late as 1992, surveys showed the figure was 25 per cent, and at Arsenal 17 per cent.

The Premier League began its surveys of all clubs only in 1993-94, and, on a small sample of 10,651, that original one suggests the fan base has dramatically aged even over the decade since; there were then 15 per cent aged 16-20, and 28 per cent 21-30.

John Williams, the head of the centre, now Leicester University's Centre for the Sociology of Sport, carried out that survey. He is 50, a Liverpool fan, and he told me there is no doubt that fans are getting older: "I watch the reruns of classic 1970s matches, and wonder at the numbers of young people in the grounds compared to today.

"The Kop was by no means full of teenagers, but in the middle, where all the singing was, were all young people. Many of the regulars now are actually the same people, but 20 and 30 years older. There are many positive changes; let's remember how bad it could get in the 1980s. There are more women at matches [15 per cent last year], and more supporters from ethnic minorities, if not very many [just 3 per cent]. But you just do not see teenagers in anything like the numbers you used to."

Steve Powell, an Arsenal supporter and development officer for the Football Supporters' Federation, is 48. He has been going to Highbury since he was 11, and now pays over £1,700 for his season ticket in the East Stand. He believes the price of tickets is storing up a major problem for the game: "When Arsenal won the Double in 1971, I went to every home game with all my mates, and the North Bank was full of kids. Now, the ground is full, but most people are older; around me they're in their 40s and 50s.

"The clubs, not just Arsenal, are making as much money as possible from the older generation, whose loyalty was forged in cheaper times, but they're pricing out the next generation. That's bad for the clubs, but it's also bad for the kids themselves, because they're being excluded from watching football, which has given us a lifetime of pleasure and involvement."

The Premier League does not seem to recognise this even as a phenomenon, far less a problem. It points to full grounds - despite recent reports of a significant fall in attendances this season. The Premiership calculates that its grounds are 93.3 per cent full, compared to 94.7 per cent last season - a drop, certainly, but not quite the stuff of bursting bubbles.

A Premiership spokesman suggested there might be many teenagers in grounds, but we do not notice because crowds are bigger generally. The most common reason cited by people for not going to matches is not price, he said, but that they believe tickets are not available. He pointed to the student concessions, and the seven per cent of seats still vacant, and said: "It is difficult to conclude that young people are being priced out. You do still see them at games."

On the Premier League's own figures, however, not that many, and getting fewer. Have a look today. Once you notice, it is hard to stop: you are likely to see children, and some over-16s, with their mums and dads, but it is rare to spot a group of teenagers, going to the game together, as we could and did in the bad old days. Fans are not all balding thirtysomethings and upwards, but the vast majority seem to be.

Perhaps this has not generally been noticed because we, with much the same interests we had as teenagers, form the generation which does not want to grow up like our parents did, and we still support our clubs in the same old way, if with a bit less energy. In fact, it is hard for many of us really to accept we are no longer 19. So maybe, when you get to the ground today, the truth is to be found not around you but in the mirror. This might not be the cheeriest thought for a long drizzly January, but face it: we're all getting older.

davidconn@independent.co.uk

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