This blog doesn’t really have a point. It’s more of a lament than an argument; more reflection than proposal, and it’s not even particularly original. In fact, in a self-consciously artsy kind of way (and to try and disguise the fact that I don’t really have a point), I want to start by telling a bit of a story about an experience which I had last weekend.
At the moment, I live in Sweden, and it turns out that the Swedes have a game which is only played in frozen northern wastelands (although apparently not in Sunderland). It is called bandy and the best description that I can think of is that it’s as if football and ice hockey had a lovechild. The game is played on an ice rink which is about the size of a football pitch, is ninety minutes long (divided into two halves), but each team of eleven players skate and have sticks which they use to hit a small orange ball. (Yes, the ball is actually orange, not pink or mango!) If you want to see the game itself, there are plenty of clips on YouTube, but this one even has English commentary.
And, last Friday, I went to watch bandy live for the first time.
At this time of year, the Swedish bandy league has its playoffs, and the team who play in a stadium about a fifteen minute walk from my apartment (Hammarby IF is their name) have qualified for them. The quarter final is a best-of-five tie, and Hammarby won the first game 4-2 at home, and the second 5-3 away. Friday night was the third game in the series, and this was the game I went to. In the end, Hammarby won 6-2 and advanced to the semi-final.
But I don’t really want to talk about the game itself, as fun as it was to watch. I want to talk about the atmosphere in the ground. I would estimate that there were between one and two thousand people there. The stadium looked like a Conference football ground, with covered terracing down both sides of the pitch, a raised marquee at one end which seemed to contain the hospitality, and a lonely scoreboard at the other end. A small group of twenty or thirty away fans were bellowing noise and waving flags at one end of the terrace although there seemed to be no barrier separating them from the home supporters. Before kick-off there was a low hubbub of noise as people met their friends and talked to each other. It struck me that there was nowhere obvious to buy alcohol, but a number of people seemed to have brought their own as they were carrying plastic bags with cans of beer in them.
Just before the game started, the Hammarby players skated round a couple of laps of the rink applauding the fans. Then, as soon as the referee blew his whistle, the home supporters on the side opposite from where I was sprang into life. Someone had a drum, and a few hundred of them starting singing as if their lives depended on it. Even the stewards in front of that section were singing and clapping, watching the game rather than the fans. It was the away team who scored first, after about fifteen minutes. As soon as the goal went in, the home supporter on the far side got louder, and those on the side of the ground where I was started singing as well. There was no moaning, no slagging of the Hammarby defense. Just support for the team. Hammarby instantly changed gear, and went on to win the game very comfortably.
Neither set of supporters stopped singing for the entire game. My Swedish isn’t great so I couldn’t work out what the songs were, but several were easy enough to join in. With a few minutes to go until the final whistle, all the fans were still in the ground. There was no fire drill, no desire to beat the rush, no concern for getting out of the car park first. When the game was finished, all the players (including the substitutes) came onto the ice and gathered in front of the loudest section of supporters. One of the players signaled for them to be quiet, which they complied with immediately. Then, the team started singing one of the songs that supporters had sung through the game and the crowd instantly joined in with them. After a couple of times through, the team skated across to our side of the ground and did the same thing. They then did a couple of laps clapping the fans again, one or two of them picking out friends or family in the crowd with a wave or point of their stick.
Leaving the ground, I found myself comparing the experience to watching Chelsea. Now, I’m a new fan and, living abroad, it’s rare that I get to go to games. So I’m obviously not the best person to comment on the atmosphere at Premiership stadiums. But I think it’s fair to say that it’s a good bit more commercialised and impersonal than it was at Hammarby IF.
But wouldn’t it be nice if watching football in England was a bit more like watching bandy in Sweden?
Perhaps it was, back in the day. I don’t know – I wasn’t there.
And what of the future? With the new Sky deal, and Wayne Rooney’s reported £300,000 per week contract, Chelsea signing commercial partnerships all over the world and endorsing a “global energy partner” I think it’s fair to say that football is becoming less and less a game for everyday people. And personally, I don’t think that’s a good thing.
I don’t blame Rooney for signing his new contract: Wouldn’t we all like that kind of money if we were offered it? But I think that football administrators should start to look at the implications of some of their decisions.
Because at the end of the day, whether it’s paid directly to Manchester United at the Old Trafford turnstiles, or indirectly through buying a subscription to Sky Sports, it is the fans who stump up for Rooney’s wages. If you’re single and have a decent paying job, then perhaps it’s reasonable to drop £50 a week (or more) on a ticket. But if you’re from a more working class background, or if you want to take your partner or kids with you, then watching football gets expensive very fast.
Of course, the FA might say that this doesn’t matter because as long as someone is buying the tickets or paying Rupert Murdoch for the privilege of watching games on TV then the clubs can keep making enough money to survive. But I think a really crucial point that often gets overlooked is how many kids there are at games, and that is directly impacted by the high prices. Firstly, I reckon the England team in 15-20 years will be better if young kids get the chance to watch high quality football in the flesh. Those kids will grow up to be tomorrow’s players and surely they will be better if they’ve watched the greats at a young age. But those kids will also be the next generation of fans. Much is made of the aging crowds at the football (and Chelsea is as bad for this as anyone). What happens to the Premiership when the average fan is collecting a pension? The atmosphere at the game will be less like a library and more of a retirement home! Nobody wants that.
Like I said at the very start, I don’t have answers for the problems I’m highlighting here. I’m just a bit sad that football isn’t more down-to-earth, and I really hope that the FA and the clubs try to do something about it before it becomes too late.