Standing up for football's bygone world before the Rupert Murdoch billions

COMMENT: Only two countries - Brazil and China - make watching football more prohibitive

Click to follow
The Independent Online

You will have to go to Germany to find a  shop stocking the new book which paints a picture of English football, now lost. It is The Homes of Football – British Football Culture in the 1990s by the documentary photographer Stuart Roy Clarke: his journey around a domestic game on the cusp of a modernisation which, after the horrors of Hillsborough, supporters were right to feel could only serve them well.

Clarke captures the warts and all of a football experience that we are glad to say is behind us. A Brighton supporter being led away up towards the wrecked fencing of a dilapidated terrace in 1991 after the play-off against Millwall descended into violence, mud-pie pitches and the beginnings of a tree growing up through the seating at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground.

God knows those days were not all roses and honey. A few days spent at the Hillsborough inquests in Warrington last week was a reminder of that: a journey back into the world of terrace cages, police officers’ radios that didn’t work, impractical turnstiles and unspeakable horror.

But above all the book is a reminder of the accessible, affordable place that the sport here used to be, before the unanticipated billions that Rupert Murdoch paid for broadcasting rights bestowed unbelievable material riches on what, to the outside world, is now the “EPL”. Football with the English taken out.

Clarke’s image of supporters at Roker Park in 1996, entitled “Looking Up” struck me most. Not only on artistic merit – the colours and stripes of their kits reflecting the vernacular architecture – but because of the people who occupy the frame. Brothers, sisters, cousins, schoolfriends, a father, you imagine; all entranced and frozen in time by we know not what. They are an anachronism now because they couldn’t afford 12 tickets to be side by side even if they could find them.

There is an irony and a significance about the fact that a German publisher – Spielmacher  – commissioned this edition (the text is in German, with English translation tucked away at the back. The price is €39.80, or £32). Germany seems to have a fascination with 1990s English football just before the big money, the modernity and the million-pound-a-month salaries came in. The German football culture magazine 11 Freunde is devoting a Christmas issue to “the crisis of English fan culture” now. Clarke sees a danger of England “having its own culture sold back to it”.

Maybe there’s a schadenfreude for Germans viewing the soul which Clarke captured: Liverpool fans tucked into a crow’s nest vantage point before the 4-0 victory over Manchester United in 1990; beaming Chelsea fans waiting to be let out of Highbury’s Clock End after a 1-0 win over Arsenal in 1990; a sea of faces on The Dell’s steep Milton Road Stand upper terrace in 1992. German football always wanted that Englishness, and it has appropriated it.

The reason why the world Clarke pictured vanished was crystallised yesterday in the final part of what seemed to me be the most important football story of last week: the Daily Mail’s three-part statistical study of 34 football leagues the world over.

First came results on player wages. The Mail’s Nick Harris showed that the average Premier League player earns £2.3m a year each on average, or £43,717 a week – almost 60 per cent more in 2014 than their closest earnings rivals in Germany’s Bundesliga, where £1.46m a year is the average.

Then came the part which is relevant to fans: statistical evidence that not only are Premier League tickets the most expensive in the world in absolute terms – £28.80 on average for a “cheap” adult seat – but that they take up a larger chunk of the average fan’s wages than virtually any league on  the planet.

Using International Monetary Fund data to weigh salary against ticket price, the study showed that a supporter in England could buy just 14.3 tickets with an entire week’s pay (£411). Only two countries in the world make watching football more prohibitive – Brazil and China – and that is because the supporters are paid Third World wages. In Brazil the average seat costs £12.73, or 14.2 tickets for a week’s pay; in China the income is £140 and the average seat £10.

The Football Supporters’ Federation’s fight for decent ticket pricing is one of those stories that ducks in and out of national focus amid the sound and the fury of the Premier League circus, which will roll into life again at the back end of this week. But here, in a nutshell, is why that fight is more significant than any – £1bn in TV money and the Premier League’s ticket prices are effectively the most prohibitive in the world.

The sport funnels such a vast proportion of the cash straight to players and their agents that one senior executive just nodded ruefully a few weeks back when it was put to him privately that Sky and BT Sport might as well just cut out the middle men – the clubs – and pay the players directly.

The Premier League would say that it’s all worth it for “the most competitive league in the world” but the Harris study actually calls that into question, too. Its analysis of competitive balance – the number of teams in each league that have actually won it – found that the past decade has seen the Premier League become more exclusive than ever, with only three different winners and a mere five different teams featuring anywhere in the top three at the end of the season. That’s a mere 25 per cent of the Premier League featuring anywhere in the top three – the lowest proportion in any league in the whole of world football.

 “You’ve got the money, we’ve got the soul,” the respected German writer Raphael Honigstein wrote, in a memorable response to the Mail’s work yesterday, though his compatriot Ronald Reng’s commentary to Clarke’s book suggests it is more complex than that. Reng observes that German fans on a pilgrimage to Anfield or Old Trafford will often depart disappointed by a relative lack of passion now.

“While fans in Germany just reel off their atmospheric singalongs, completely regardless of the action on the pitch, the English first and foremost are interested in the game itself,” he writes. “The silence is often devout, because the spectators really are watching a skilful feint or a risky, but successful, crossfield pass.”

There would be no “fan crisis” if brothers, sisters, cousins, schoolfriends, fathers could only afford to get into games and discover, once again, how it feels to be spellbound by football.

Comments