I can remember the time when attending a football match involved being treated like cattle, finding yourself locked in a pen, being in danger of violence from other fans and suffering the worst imaginable facilities at the grounds. The whole day seemed like a feat of endurance in which you were constantly dodging the bullets of attacks by rival fans, ill-treatment by the police and food poisoning from the catering. Then another much worse issue reared its ugly head when 96 Liverpool fans were killed at Hillsborough in 1989.
The Hillsborough disaster saw the start of the many changes which transformed the experience of attending a football match forever. The incident served to highlight the appalling conditions fans were forced to endure, the unsafe nature of the stadia and the unacceptable attitudes of the police. The subsequent Taylor Enquiry and report led to stadia becoming all seated with the redevelopments of the grounds to accommodate this also seeing an improvement in other facilities. It was at this point that the seminal moment arrived in the shape of Sky Television. Up until this point football on television had been confined to highlights of two or three matches each week with live coverage available only for cup finals. Football was decidedly the world of the hardened fan and received little exposure in the media. All that changed with the arrival of Sky who broadcast live matches and carried highlights of every top flight game. New money poured into football and new, better stadia were built. Football was receiving a great deal more exposure and the new fans who may have shunned the old grounds and overall experience were enjoying the sport in the new more benign surroundings. All seated stadia were comfortable and were easier to police especially with new surveillance technology and so the violence associated with the game began to subside.
Prior to 1989 attending football was such a harsh experience and the sport so poorly publicised that one particular section of society were distinctly absent from the games – women. The absence of women did not help the generally hostile atmosphere and the facilities provided for them were disgraceful. I know this because I was one of the few who did attend matches. New money, new stadia, new attitudes made football a friendlier place and now women became attracted to the sport in large numbers increasing revenue for the game even further. The situation snowballed with football being transformed into a glittering and often luxurious affair with live matches on our screens seemingly every day.
You would think that all of this would be cause for celebration but for many who remember the old days it really isn’t. Obviously comfortable and safe stadia are very welcome and increased television coverage a distinct bonus but the evolution of football has brought with it other changes which I believe are ruining the game. Firstly there is the issue of who is actually attending the matches. Sadly many fans have simply been priced out of the market and large portions of the grounds are given over to corporate boxes. These factors, combined with the absence of standing areas, have killed the atmosphere at many matches. The riches in the game have also made the big clubs stronger and the minnows weaker, leading to the same small group of clubs dominating affairs every season. The game is simply too predictable now. Sure there are always shock results but we all know who is going to win out in the end. I miss the days when you genuinely did not know who would win the league and who their chief rivals would be. Now everything is about premiership survival to save the finances. I also miss the days when players were loyal to their clubs rather than their wallets.
The other changes which are destroying the game are the new competition structures. The European and UEFA Cups were thrilling knockout competitions which rose to a crescendo as they progressed. The Champions League and Europa Cup are turgid affairs with far too many games which only become interesting in the latter stages and, like the Premier League, generally produce predictable winners. What chance is there these days of Red Star Belgrade winning the Champions League or Notting Forest getting promoted to the Premier League and winning it at the first attempt? The answer is none but both these events did happen in the past. Sport lacks much of its thrill when the outcome is predictable.
Football has certainly cleaned up its act and the fans who attend matches can do so in safety and without the threat of violence. They have a fighting chance of finding edible food and clean toilets and may even be treated with respect by the police. Sadly, though, many genuine fans can no longer afford to buy a ticket and are forced to watch the matches on the very television service which is largely responsible for their exclusion. Today’s fans are more likely to be sporting a sharp suit and Hugo Boss Watch than jeans and a Timex and the experience of attending a match is all the poorer for it.
- License: Creative Commons image source
- Premier League Logo: Wikipedia
Sally Stacey is a frequent blogger and lifelong Liverpool fan. She has concerns about the merits of the modern game. What do you think?