The Generation Game

One of the biggest changes in football over the past 20 years, since the post-Italia 90 “gentrification” of the working man’s ballet, is how young fans become involved. Time was you were either taken by a (usually male) parent to watch the team they supported, or selected your team, gathered your like-minded mates together or set off on your own for the turnstiles, where you could pay on the day.

In his excellent article for The Guardian at the start of last season, David Conn wrote “For all the game’s problems in the 1980s, watching football was a rite of passage in which children, mostly boys, graduated from being taken to matches, to watching as young men, with very few excluded because it cost too much.”

With the transition of grounds in the top two divisions to all-seater stadia, getting a start in football has become harder. If by birth or by choice you’ve ended up supporting a successful side, getting your first taste of action now requires almost military planning. It’s not enough to want to go and watch a match. To get a ticket at Chelsea in the second decade of the 21st century, you will almost certainly need to be a member. So that’s 15 quid before you’ve even got as far as buying a ticket.

Of course, if Chels are playing the likes of Wigan or West Brom, you should be able to get a ticket reasonably easily. But want to see us play Manchester United or Arsenal? You’re going to need to get some loyalty points. This isn’t a bad thing per se, because the whole point of the loyalty scheme is supposed to be to reward fans who attend less attractive  matches and not just the marquee games. It’s also worth remembering how few areas concessions are available in. If you’re under 16 and want to visit the Bridge for a league game, you’re going to end up in either the Family Centre or East Upper, although tickets are available in all areas of the ground for domestic cup competitions and group games for the Champions League.

In other words, going to the match with a group of mates of your own age, a rite of passage for those born in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, is a thing of the past.

And another part of the demographic issue is not just age, but class. In 2008 the average age of a Premier League season-ticket holder was 44, and another survey undertaken around then showed that only around 9% could be classified as working class. Just how much the face of football in England had changed was evident in March this year when Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the pitch with heart failure during Bolton’s 6th round FA Cup game at Tottenham.

Dr Andrew Deaner, a distinguished cardiologist sitting in the stands, immediately realised the severity of Muamaba’s condition and persuaded stewards to let him on to the pitch. His actions undoubtedly saved the Bolton player’s life. Twenty five years ago, would someone like that have been at a football match, even at a London club?

By 2011, according to the Premier League’s research, the average age of an adult supporter had dropped slightly to 41 – the core whose loyalty was nurtured when attending games was affordable to almost all – with only 13% of season-ticket holders under 16. Sadly, if you are a young person and support a “big” Premier League club, the reality is that you are more likely to watch them on TV than in the flesh. Arguably, young people should by right be supporting their local team (I’m not necessarily talking about youngsters in the South East here, but those further afield), but the ever-decreasing circle perpetuated by the television companies is that they want to show the biggest games involving the most successful clubs.

Youngsters are more likely to see the likes of the London and Manchester giants, and, seeing on the field success, albeit long distances away, as a result, are less likely to support their local team. In a keynote speech given at the Supporters’ Weekend last month, the respected journalist Gabriele Marcotti argued that young people could and should be encouraged to support their local teams through more local television coverage, with matches shown live and local community events staged to coincide with these. Unfortunately it’s difficult to envisage television companies supporting this laudable idea.

Even those younger supporters who are lucky enough to get tickets often feel disenfranchised. As recently as  today on Twitter, a noted contributor and seasoned European traveller, @CFCCallum, wrote “People coating younger CFC do my swede in, if it weren’t for younger fans our away support would be 95% flasks and packed lunches nowadays”. I think one of the problems that our younger fanbase is unlucky enough to have to confront is that if you’ve supported Chelsea since, say, 1997, you’ve enjoyed an unparalleled era of success.

You’ve never seen us relegated. You’ve seen us win League Cups, FA Cups, Premier Leagues and now, of course, watched us crowned Champions of Europe. So when things have occasionally gone wrong (Carlo’s “Bad Moment”, most of AVB’s reign) it must be galling to be chided by the oldies, to whom failure means relegation, being a selling club and almost losing our ground, and for whom success up to 97’s FA Cup triumph constituted winning the Full Members Cup. Twice.

Therefore, a schism is developing between an older, larger, fanbase who lived through the bad times, and a younger, smaller fanbase who feel their support is not appreciated by the older generation. So, how to engage? One further sad fact is that a lot of the local pubs and bars where generations of Chelsea fans have gathered, and got to know each other, are either defunct, or unwelcoming. Happily the CIU in Britannia Road re-opened at the start of last season and provides an opportunity to drink in a traditional fans’ club, but other venues such as Morrisons, The Wheatsheaf and The Malt House have bitten the dust. The Kona Kai Cocktail Bar makes it clear that traditional fans (i.e. those who like a pint and a song) are not welcome. Come for a highly expensive bottled beer and a meal, though, and they’re happy to take your money.

Given the number of supporters groups attached to Chelsea FC, surely there must be a way of getting supporters of all generations to mix better. This is an idea that I’d love to see the Chelsea Supporters Group, and Chelsea Supporters Group, together with the proposed Supporters Trust, embrace. There may even be an opportunity for the embattled Chelsea Pitch Owners to offer supporters a chance to mingle socially if the mooted fund-raising social events go ahead.

On Twitter, the hashtag #Chelseafamily is frequently used. And at the end of the day, our supporters are a family. We may not always agree with each other, but deep down we love each other dearly.

If you’d like to read David Conn’s Guardian article addressing ticket prices and other issues, you can find it here

In the run-up to the new season, we’ll be looking at what it means to be a Chelsea fan, especially for those living abroad, those travelling long distances and those simply priced out of watching their favourite team. Meanwhile you can follow me on Twitter @BlueBaby67.

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