'Real football fans have been let down over the years – whatever happened to serving committed supporters?'

Lindsay Ash

By Lindsay Ash

IT was almost a tried-and-trusted rule: never discuss religion or politics if you want a peaceful life…

These days you could most certainly add football to that list. In days gone by that would have been limited to the particular team you supported and those you didn’t. However, now we have: VAR, the Video Assistant Referee; how the fans are treated; cost of shirts; and whether it’s disgusting that Arsenal failed to meet the £10m-a-month wage demand for FC Valetta’s goal-scoring phenomenon.

The game has changed, but then it always has – sometimes for the better, sometimes not. The fans have never been top of the list of priorities of those who run the game.

Football as we know it today started as a game in public schools, where its rules were codified; hence the early winners of the FA Cup included Old Etonians, Old Carthusians and Oxford University. The players back then were amateurs. As the game became more professional it grew in popularity and divisions such as the Southern League and the Football League were formed. In order to pay the players, funds had to be raised by club owners – and charging spectators an entry fee was the obvious way to do it.

As the grounds grew so did the facilities, with terraces, stands and turnstiles being added. The crowds largely comprised working-class men and the stadiums reflected that, with very little in the way of any frills. The clubs were generally owned by local businessmen.

The game’s golden years probably came after the Second World War, with people seeking entertainment following the gloom of rationing and austerity. They found it in football. In those days you didn’t have a ticket to the game, you merely turned up and paid at the gate; this resulted in massive crowds due to the ground literally being packed to the rafters until the gates were closed. Public safety came second to the owners making money, especially as there was a maximum wage cap for players, so the owners were the main beneficiaries.

Sadly, though, this resulted in several tragedies, most notably at Burnden Park Bolton in 1946, where 33 people died.

The players in those times were still very much mirrored by the man on the terraces: largely working class who still lived lives akin to the fans, albeit slightly more glamorous.

Stanley Mathews used to tell of players walking home from the game and stopping to get fish and chips for dinner and chatting to fans while waiting for their orders. Ever so slightly different from Posh and Becks…

The game continued to evolve through the 60s, 70s and 80s, although with TV becoming more prevalent, and other forms of entertainment becoming more popular, football struggled somewhat to attract the crowds it once had.

With the abolition of the maximum wage, players became wealthier and owners didn’t make as much as they had from the fans. The fans, though, went through a period where they became almost as important as the game itself, where a whole sub-plot played out off the pitch but within stadiums and “football hooliganism” arrived with all its trappings: large police presences, pitch invasions and city centres taken over by marauding fans. This, of course, resulted in a decline in attendances, as families started to stay away and a rise in costs, with the police and crowd-segregation plans having to be paid for by the clubs. The game was declining and our clubs had been banned from Europe.

What reversed this trend? It was a series of different events. The tragedies at Bradford and Hillsborough forced the authorities to provide better, safer stadiums, Sky rebranded the game using coverage featuring shots of granddads and children waving scarves in the crowd and smiling, erasing any footage of crowd trouble. Then, 1996 and the European Football Championship attracted a new middle-class face-painted audience that had money.

The clubs suddenly realised there was a very lucrative market out there, so into the new stands and stadiums went club megastores and corporate hospitality – football had become sexy. It was very big business and the clubs knew it and began to wring the fans for every penny; the difference of course being the “new” fans had money and, in the case of the corporates, in the words of Harry Enfield: “Loadsamoney.”

As you can see, none of the above was done “for the fans”. Football has done very little “for the fans”. It’s been done “for the money”.

What we have today of course is a new type of fan and a conflict of interest. The new fan does not go to games; he is an armchair fan, or, more accurately, a bar room fan; he is also no longer likely to be from Salford supporting Man United or even London supporting Man United for that matter, but may be from Thailand, Australia, Kuala Lumpur… There are now global fans. What these fans do, though, is buy merchandise from the club shop by the bucket-load and allow TV companies to sell advertising for millions to the likes of Coca Cola.

So, when you hear the press or the bloke in the pub moaning “what about the fans” when a team has a ridiculous midday kick-off time, or a 5pm start, the fans are being considered – but not the ones attending the matches but those who are paying the bills for Sky to fund the game.

The only real losers are what I would call the “real” fans who travel in large numbers up and down the country with kick-off times and even actual dates changed with very little notice. The sad thing is that these are often people who can least afford the loss of revenue from wasted fares etc, while corporate clients are often there for the “jolly”, with little interest in the game. This is ably demonstrated at Wembley, with empty seats in the VIP areas after half-time or, nearer to home, the number of corporate guests at St Peter for the rugby who would be hard pushed to tell you the difference between a scrum and a line-out. But it’s great income.

So there you have it: fans are used increasingly as a revenue supply, bizarrely more so than those who don’t even attend matches.

In concluding, it’s worth remembering the words of the late, great Scottish footballer and manager Jock Stein: “Football without fans is nothing.”

  • Lindsay Ash was Deputy for St Clement between 2018 and 2022, serving as Assistant Treasury and Home Affairs Minister under Chief Minister John Le Fondré. He worked in the City of London for 15 years as a futures broker before moving to Jersey and working in the Island’s finance industry from 2000. Feedback welcome on Twitter @Getonthelash2

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