Sam Wallace: Top-flight clubs enjoy a golden age as fans can't kick the habit
Friday 25 January 2008
We are told that this is the golden age for English football. An era which fans of the future will look back upon with a misty-eyed nostalgia. They will remember with fondness those innocent days when players earned a mere £90,000 a week and only one house in every street had high-definition television. Blimey, they'll be saying in 2107, back in 2007 they even played all the Premier League games in England.
The Independent's revelation that aggregate stadium attendances this season are on course to be higher than any one season since 1951 is all the evidence the powers at the Premier League need to say the game is in rude health. Try to imagine the leisure options for a Saturday afternoon in 1951. They probably boiled down to something like this: a) go to a football match or b) smoke a pipe. Or c) smoke a pipe at a football match. Which, curiously, will now get you ejected from a stadium.
So it is extraordinary to think that the interest in football back in 1951 – a time when not even the Prime Minister Clement Atlee had the convenience of goal alerts texted to his mobile phone – were just as big as they are now. It is also reassuring to know that modern football captures the imagination of people today in the same way it did those 1950s crowds. But these figures can also invite a worrying complacency for Premier League clubs considering exporting fixtures to places like America or Dubai.
The success, the clubs would say, is down to the brilliant football on offer and their own innovative ticketing policies. A completely unscientific poll carried out of a few Premier League clubs yesterday revealed the following examples of cheap ticket prices. Newcastle United are offering a £25 half-season ticket to primary school-age children. Blackburn Rovers are letting under 15s in for £7. That is £2 less than it will cost your average Blackburn schoolkid to watch the dubiously titled "World Superstars of American wrestling" at the town's King George's Hall.
Arsenal claim to have an extraordinary 180,000 members. Remarkably the club also say that they have a waiting list for season tickets of more than 40,000. If you apply now, by the time you actually get to see a game at the Emirates, Theo Walcott will be 41-years-old and on TalkSport complaining that modern day players have it easy.
If football is booming, therefore, why is it that so many supporters you encounter are so unhappy at their lot? There has never been a greater division between some fans and the people who run their clubs: from the Love United, Hate Glazer brigade at Manchester United to the fans on the Kop at Anfield calling for Liverpool's co-owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks to resign. It is a wonder that some of them turn up at all.
To listen to the chants and read the banners at English football matches you might believe that the fans in this country are among the most intensely politicised and disputatious of any in the world. Certainly militant fans' groups are remorseless when it comes to scrutinising club's financial accounts and potential takeovers and they continually attack the rampant commercialisation of the Premier League. And yet, despite all the fury, the supporters just keep on coming every week – to the likes of Pride Park as well as Old Trafford.
While pressure on clubs and the people who run them is to be welcomed – within reason – it is evident from watching English football that those who call for revolution are in the minority. On the whole, the majority of fans who watch games are apolitical. They come out of habit and because they enjoy it and because the modern day leisure options on a Saturday afternoon are hardly much better than 57 years ago. Ninety minutes watching Cristiano Ronaldo or 90 minutes traipsing around Ikea?
It is not some modern-day marketing genius that keeps the fans coming, in fact the principles of football's boom are pretty simple. Basically they involve safe, clean stadiums, decent football and prices just about within the grasp of ordinary people. You did not have to be a business guru to see that the fetid state of football in the 1980s was unsustainable, or that a buoyant economy would allow people to pay higher prices for tickets.
But before the Premier League suits spark up the cigars they should be warned that this bubble can burst. Fans did not come back to football grounds in the 1990s on the off-chance that they could be on Sky Sports or because they wanted to help Sir Dave Richards, the Premier League chairman, get his knighthood. If fixtures are moved abroad, if the England team is allowed to rot and if people like Richards try to take away the power of the Football Association then the wheels really could come off.
Numbers game: Who's on the up (and who isn't) this season
Figures show current average attendance for each club and percentage difference on same period last season
Aston Villa 39,901/Up 12%
Manchester City 42,209/Up 9%
Blackburn Rovers 23,172/Up 8%
Fulham 22,952/Up 7%
Wigan Athletic 18,515/Up 3%
Newcastle Utd 50,985/Up 2%
Tottenham 35,878/Up 1%
Portsmouth 19,894/Up 1%
Man Utd 75,612/Same (virtually full)
Arsenal 60,053/Same (virtually full)
Chelsea 41,660/Same (99% capacity)
West Ham Utd 34,582/Same (97%)
Liverpool 43,554/Same (96%)
Everton 37,063/Same (91.7%)
Reading 23,465/Down 2%
Middlesbrough 27,023/Down 4%
Bolton Wanderers 20,062/Down 13%
Sunderland 42,695/Up 51%
Derby County 32,136/Up 35%
Birmingham City 26,153/Up 25%
* Three promoted clubs listed at bottom of table as promotion naturally brings bigger crowds
**Same = plus or minus 1%
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
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