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Jan 8, 2008

The sanitisation of football

Sir Alex Ferguson's attack on the 'funeral' that is the atmosphere at the 'Theatre of Dreams' last week was not the first time someone from within Manchester United has criticised their fans. Roy Keane was an expert at it.

The United boss was bemoaning the fact that the supporters were not able to whip themselves into a frenzy for a turgid New Year's Day affair with many purely content to let their hangover seep away. But football's own hangover is starting to set in.

With its crisp image of shiny new stadia, superstar international players and wall-to-wall television coverage, the modern game is barely recognisable from that of 20 years ago.

The game needed to be dragged out of the dark ages kicking and screaming. That it took the Hillsborough disaster to force clubs to spend money on their grounds is a sad fact of history, with the Taylor Report making recommendations regarding the provision of safety.

Of course, the advent of the Premier League and the megabucks brought in through television deals helped to speed up the process. And the game's new image, with the muddy memories of hooliganism a thing of the past, enabled a new breed of savvy football administrators to turn from the bread and butter of everyday fans to the corporate sector.

Other sports had been dining out on this golden goose for some time but football's ugly image had made it difficult for any club to chase the dollar.

Few of football's 'new fans' will be able to comprehend standing on crumbling terraces with barely an inch of room to move, shifting with the sway of the crowd involuntarily. There's no doubt that such conditions were an accident waiting to happen in many respects but what do we have now? A sanitised game where people are only too happy to pay their money for a good, comfortable seat and a nice view. Is that really what the game is about?

With terraces long gone, passion seems to be following suit.

Sir Alex's problem, just as it is for most of us, is that he remembers what it used to be like. Of course, the fervent supporters who live and die by their team remain. But now, rather than meeting up at the same old crush barrier behind the goal, these fans have their own seat to find and meet up under the stand at half-time. The natural swell of vocal support has disappeared.

Do people really care anymore? Are they just happy to watch their team play? At some grounds today, for large portions of matches, it's like watching the game on television. You could hear a pin drop.

People find it all too easy to lay the blame at the door of the corporate supporter, claiming they have taken the seats away from the real fans. There's very little truth in this as many clubs created new areas for their fat cat friends.

It's the game's 'new fans' which are the real problem. These are the supporters which have come into the game - both in this country and from overseas - due to the flashy image the Premier League has portrayed. As gates at many clubs are falling it's the old timers who are deserting their teams, disillusioned with the 'product' in 2008, while the Premier League generation still show up for their 90 minutes of 'entertainment'. But these fans have not created the atmosphere at games - they were simply filling the seats of increased capacity.

Football is not the working class game it was 20 years ago and England itself is very different. There's no longer the same tribal aspect of following a team. The days of solidarity, strike action and the almost universal hatred of the Thatcher regime, which itself preyed on supporters, are forgotten. People seem to care about very little these days, so why should football be any different?

The average age of a supporter in a ground in England is now 43 while only nine percent of fans are under 24. Clearly that is not sustainable in the long term.

The 'rich are getting richer' aspect of the English game is also turning people away. But the 'big four' continue to sell out week-in, week-in and it's the other clubs which are experiencing lower gates.

Granted, it costs more than ever to watch a football match, but at the same time people are paid more than ever before. Manchester United fans' complaints about prices mean very little as they are one of the cheaper clubs in the division, yet they have never finished outside the top three.

Aston Villa this season have moved away supporters from behind the goal - meaning the team will always be attacking its own fans. They are heralding it as a big success to improving the atmosphere.

The only way to give the game back to the fans - and there's no doubt many feel disenfranchised - is to bring back the terraces. That's not a call to rip up all the improvements football grounds have seen - but terracing will encouraging the atmosphere back.

Many Manchester United fans hit back at Sir Alex, claiming they fear being ejected from Old Trafford if they stand to sing and chant. The problem with that is you cannot get excited when you're sat down. It's only natural to be on your feet when you're getting behind your team. Fans need taking out of the comfort zone to rediscover why they love the game.

The Bundesliga still has terracing areas for fans - the German FA insists ten percent of capacity must be reserved for standing - and enjoys the largest average attendance figures in Europe. The bigger clubs have removable seating so it can be fixed into place for European games.

The Football Supporters' Federation and Stand Up Sit Down have been campaigning for a return to terraces for some time - and it may be the only way for football to rediscover itself. Whether they can persuade the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Football Licensing Authority to ditch the rule which forces all clubs in the top two divisions to be all-seater grounds is a different matter.

  • Any thoughts? Then you can e-mail Dale Johnson.