When Chelsea visited St Mary’s in the 3rd round of the FA Cup this season, there was general Mafeking among the happy awaydayers. Flares were lit. A thunderflash was ignited, at which two of my friends cheerfully admitted that they nearly shat themselves with fright. But the Southampton fans didn’t enjoy it. Oh no. In fact, a number of them took to Twitter to express their umbrage. Amongst those hugging their outrage there were allegations of Chelsea fans being “scum” and “worse than Manchester United”. When Hampshire Police announced via Twitter that a Chelsea fan had been arrested, one particular Grundyite proclaimed their satisfaction, and boasted that they would be able to tell their son what happened to wicked people who behaved like that at the football.
After last week’s Manchester Utd -v- Liverpool game, a caller to BBC Five Live’s 606 programme said that his five year old son had been so scared of the Manchester United fans lighting a flare that he didn’t ever want to go to another football match. This was his son’s first match.
Today’s game is full of outrage. Full of outrage if fans try and create an atmosphere. Outrage if they don’t (as in the alleged “toxic” atmosphere at Stamford Bridge). Outrage by over the hill columnists at fans, at players. Players outraged if they aren’t earning what they think they’re worth. Agents outraged because their clients aren’t getting what they think they’re worth. Amateur coaches with UEFA qualifications ringing up phone-ins and arguing with ex-players (again 606) over professional fouls.
Nicholas Coleridge’s recent novel, The Adventuress, a modern re-telling of Trollope’s classic novel Vanity Fair, charts the social climb of a young woman, Cath Fox. Cath’s first husband is a footballer who she marries with all the trappings of a magazine deal. Sadly for Mr Coleridge, he sets this in the late 1980s, at a time when footballers were only on a slightly higher social footing than dustmen. But it’s quite a good cultural reference. Over the last twenty years, the football fanbase has become increasingly gentrified. It has become “socially acceptable” to be a football fan. This is in large part due to the post-Sky deal money which has flowed into the game, making players rich beyond the dreams of avarice, and giving them a status little short of film stars. Their every move, their weddings, their wives, their families, their homes and their holidays, are closely scrutinised. None more so than the archetypal golden boy, David Beckham, whose greatest career move was arguably to marry a Spice Girl, and turn himself into a brand. Not for nothing can the generation of football supporters who have come to the game over the past 20 years be dubbed “Generation Becks”.
Rather as for Philip Larkin
‘Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.’
for a lot of football fans, football began in 1992, when the Premier League was launched, and Sky took over football without the authorities putting up anything other than a token fight. But it’s possible to look a little further back to when the game we love started slipping away from us. It could be argued that it really happened on the day of the Hillsborough disaster, 15th April 1989. The resultant Taylor Report led to the introduction of all-seater stadia, which unequivocally changed the nature of football grounds. Where it had once been possible to turn up on the day, buy a ticket for the terraces and stand with your mates, you now had to buy a ticket in advance. Whilst sections of some stadiums retained an ‘atmosphere’, usually behind either goal, the more expensive seats along the touchline have become the preserve of the corporate, the tourist and the sedate. When the Euro96 tournament was marked by a total absence of hooliganism, George Best sagely observed it was because the hooligans had been priced out. Top price tickets for the tournament weighed in at a princely £55, a never-before sum seen in the English game. Little did anyone guess that less than 20 years later, it would be less than the cost for an average ticket for certain grounds in the Premier League. Now, it’s not just the hooligans being priced out. It’s the young and the working class – previously the core support for top flight football in England.
And you’d think that all that money that Sky keep throwing at the Premier League would be helping to keep prices at a reasonable level, but it doesn’t. Malcolm Clarke of the Football Supporters Federation argues that the forthcoming TV deal could enable clubs to cut ticket prices to £30 per match and still maintain their current level of income. It is of course worth remembering that Sky have profited unimaginably from holding the majority of rights to televised football. It is their cornerstone. Take the football away, and the business would collapse. And the responsibility for the unreal bubble that football at the highest level has become rests mainly with one man. Or so he claims. Step forward former Tottenham chairman Alan Sugar. In his book “What You See Is What You Get”, he reveals the depths to which he was prepared to stoop to smash what he saw as a cosy cartel benefiting from the previous television deals:-
“A small nucleus of clubs comprising Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool seemed to attract most of the television coverage. They were closely involved with ITV and wanted to keep the next round of negotiations with them.
Rick Parry, the Premier League’s chief executive, quite rightly insisted that a proper tender process should be followed. This was no longer going to be a closed shop or a foregone conclusion.
I turned up at the Royal Lancaster Hotel. As we entered the room, Trevor East, an ITV executive, was handing out pieces of paper to the chairmen. This was a last-minute dirty trick.
I, of course, wanted BSkyB to succeed, so I went to the public phone cubicles opposite the meeting room and called their chief executive Sam Chisholm, telling him ITV were trying to pull a fast one.
Little did I know this call would go down in the annals of football history as “the phone call that irrevocably altered the history of sport and media in Britain”.
Sam told me ITV had somehow found out the details of BSkyB’s bid and wanted to top it. I told Sam: “There’s only one way to clinch the deal – you’ll have to blow them out of the water! Make your final bid £60m per season and blow them out of the water.”
When the deal came up I declared a conflict of interests and that Tottenham should abstain but most of the clubs objected and despite objections from Arsenal and Manchester United the meeting agreed that Tottenham should indeed be allowed to vote.
I was disappointed by all the sniping going on when discussing whether Spurs should be allowed to vote or not and I could see agendas forming. The big clubs were trying to bully the rest and it seemed clear that they wanted to line their own pockets by favouring ITV.
After a couple of hours’ discussion, the motion was put to the room as to whether we should accept BSkyB’s or ITV’s offer. BSkyB got the deal. Ironically, they won it by one vote – clearly Spurs being allowed to vote was important. The ITV people were furious.”
Yeah. Thanks for that, Sir Alan. You must sleep easy at night, safe in the knowledge that you saved football for the people and stopped those nasty little oiks at ITV from running their cartel of free-to-air football (although as anyone who has tried to watch Chelsea’s Champions League games in the pre-digital era will attest, he may very well have a point about the cosy relationship that certain clubs had, and still have, with ITV). However, according to Martin Samuel’s piece on Financial Fair Play this week, a handful of big clubs, arguably those who have suffered most from the trickle of oligarchs and sheiks into football, are planning to turn the clock back. Their problem is of course that they are not ‘have nots’ in the footballing sense, but the ‘have not enoughs’. Arsenal chose to chase the corporate pound and the likes of Roger the Nouveau football fan from The Fast Show. Liverpool chased the Yankee Dollar and nearly put themselves out of business. Manchester United are handicapped by owners who invest in various sporting franchises with the aim of making as much money for themselves as possible. Tottenham are like an incompetent trapeze artist, invariably just missing the swing as it nears them. Never quite successful enough. Can’t hold on to their star players. Inevitably a stepping stone on the route somewhere else. And of course the biggest handicap of all. Being located in Tottenham.
And then there are the problems on our own doorstep. Whilst prices at Chelsea did stabilise shortly after Roman Abramovich took over, the average season ticket price is still around the £900 mark. Many of our fans, particularly those who work in comparatively lowly-paid jobs, are heading towards their own Tipping Point. It looks as if the club’s ideal supporter is either a UK based fan a long way out of town, who travels to see the team a couple of times per season, or from overseas. The club loves a fan who will stay in the hotels, eat in the restaurants, drink in the bars, buy a programme, and,of course spend hundreds of pound per visit in the Megastore. Almost certainly someone who has only taken an interest in football in the last twenty years since it became “fashionable”.
On the other hand a home and away, European away season ticket holder, who never buys programmes, who doesn’t eat or drink in the ground, but gets behind the team vocally at every game is treated like a pariah by the press if they have the effrontery to voice their opinion that they don’t like the manager very much. And our support is splitting. One Chelsea fan on Twitter has today flounced off announcing that they don’t want anything to do with Chelsea fans on social media because their view doesn’t accord with those of some of our most vocal and passionate fans. Their view does, however, appear to coincide suspiciously with the club’s wish for supporters to sit there like good little boys and girls, no matter what action the hierarchy takes.
So there we have it. Generation Becks versus Generation X. Those who were fans when you took your life into your hands every time you walked into a football ground, and those who appreciate the creature comforts of the post-Taylor Report all seater stadia. Those who want to go to a game and create an atmosphere, and those who are content to sit there and be entertained. Those who like a beer, preferably in a real glass, versus those who love a latte. But although Generation Becks seem to have the upper hand just now, there are small signs that a revolution may be taking place. Fans, not just at Chelsea, but across the country, are becoming more politicised and aware of the work that groups like The Football Supporters Federation and Supporters Direct are doing, and it’s hoped that next month’s launch of the Chelsea Supporters Trust, which is backed by Supporters Direct, Europe’s leading organisation within sport and community engagement, will bring real benefit to our fans in terms of engagement with the club.
In the next couple of weeks, we’ll be looking ahead to the CPO AGM at the end of the month, and asking if the Chelsea faithful’s love affair with Roman Abramovich is coming to an end. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter @BlueBaby67.