Do clubs even need spectators now? Coronavirus and the death of football as we know it

‘The Football Factory’ author John King bemoans the loss of the terrace long-term loyalists. Call it regeneration, call it gentrification – behind the nice words and beaming smiles, the end result is the same

John King
Monday 16 November 2020 12:13
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<p>At first, the media made much of how the crowds were missed, but that seems to have faded</p>

At first, the media made much of how the crowds were missed, but that seems to have faded

It is sometime in the future and the biggest football clubs in London have merged to create London United. The story is the same in Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. Wasteful rivalries have been overcome, replaced by a more lucrative unity. The Premier League has morphed into a Europe-wide super league and London are due to play Madrid City.

Matches may take place in empty stadiums, but the digital experience is a huge improvement on the old, highly dangerous way of consuming the product. A range of atmospheres is included in every TV package, while a little extra buys the full immersive option. The London-Madrid clash is already a bestseller. Football has never felt more alive.

When the Premier League started back in 1992, the supporters of the day knew it was going to cost them, and not just financially. Rupert Murdoch flashed his cash, the big clubs sold live TV rights to subscription channel BSkyB, and the foundations of New Football were established. Year Zero was created, the history of the last century shunted into the shadows. Not long after, a wave of media professionals spotted a nice earner, their disdain for the people’s game and the country’s biggest newspaper mogul forgotten, as they began telling anyone who would listen how much they had suffered for their favourite club.

New Football was always going to mean New Fans. The business vision of freshly built stadiums lined with private boxes, hospitality suites and megastores selling mountains of merchandise needed another sort of customer. A more upmarket clientele. The current lot were rough and ready and never going to spend heavily, but those driving these changes still needed the traditional supporters in the short term, and so were keen to justify their actions. They were doing this for the fans. All-seater stadiums were essential and any price rises would be minimal. They only wanted to help. The clubs would look after us.

The supporters loved these terraces. They were cheap and cheerful and we could stand with our friends. It was easy to create an atmosphere and, despite the propaganda, CCTV had already banished trouble from inside the grounds. Even so, the great ends were demolished, admission prices soared and long-term loyalists were driven out – the young, the elderly, families, the hard-up – their places taken by New Fans, tourists, sightseers, corporates.

Many genuine supporters kept going of course, but today they are charged small fortunes for tickets, with match days and times set to suit the television audience, constant rescheduling adding to their problems. They are bombarded with orders, told what they can and can’t sing, the words they are allowed to use, when to stand and sit, and increasingly what they should think. Call it regeneration, call it gentrification – behind the nice words and beaming smiles, the end result is always the same.

It can’t be denied that the money, which has flooded into the English game, has brought benefits. It has attracted some of the best players in the world, and they perform on pristine pitches, while huge improvements have been made behind the scenes. The Premier League is a dynamic, exciting competition, even if only a tiny number of clubs stand a realistic chance of winning it. The stadiums have also been greatly improved.

All this is true, but something much deeper has been lost. The Premier League is like a mini-version of the European Union, and the commercialisation isn’t confined to England. It is part of the wider globalisation process. The European Cup – once a knock-out competition for genuine champions – has been turned into a hybrid league and cup tournament designed to increase revenues, a halfway step to a European league. That is the long-term mission. The dream.

Today, as the country struggles to get through a pandemic, and millions worry about their health and their jobs, and with spectators banned from attending matches, TV finds itself with an even tighter – albeit accidental – monopoly of who can and can’t see a live game. Silly money is being asked to watch a one-off match, the Premier League looks to increase its power, small clubs in the divisions abandoned in 1992 go out of business.

At first, the media made much of how the crowds were missed, but that seems to have faded, and do the clubs even need spectators now, seeing as so much money is coming in from other sources? Maybe these people are worth more watching from home, and it doesn’t matter where in the world someone is if they can tap in their PIN, so perhaps the pandemic is speeding up the digitisation process.

This could be a small part of the New Normal – the masses with little choice but to sit in front of their screens as their recorded voices are fed back to them, the stands turned into advertising hoardings, VAR acting as a robot referee, bland pedalled as the new exciting, London and Madrid preparing to kick off.

John King’s novella ‘The Beasts Of Brussels’ is part of three-novella collection The Seal Club, which includes stories by Alan Warner and Irvine Welsh (London Books, £9.99)

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