Just nine per cent of Premier League spectators are aged 24 or under. Sean Barnes asks whether the death of the football-going tradition among young people will mean a struggle to fill grounds in future

When football was invented by Rupert Murdoch in 1992, I was only five years old. Fast forward 15 years through the boom of English football – which we all know too well – and the story of my puberty – which, fortunately, no one knows at all – and here we are, footballers on seven-figure wages and English chairmen the exception to the rule of the modernised Premier League. Other well documented pitfalls include the increasing gap between club and supporter, the sanitisation of the match-day atmosphere and the decline of the ­working‑class fan. One problem that doesn’t get much attention, however, is my problem, and the problems of people like me. My generation may well be the last to appreciate fully the ups and downs of supporting a football club. The game needs to face up to its problem with the lack of English youth. And by that I don’t mean footballers, I mean fans.

A survey carried out by the Premier League last season revealed that the average age of a fan at a top-flight match is 43. And that’s the average. And that’s old. Where are the sticker-collecting, magazine-buying youngsters who crave the world their heroes inhabit? They’re probably at home, idolising Richard Keys and Andy Gray, or worse, Jamie Redknapp. Where are the alcohol-fuelled, rowdy ­adolescents? They’re ­probably in pubs, also watching the games on television.

It takes a huge chunk of disposable income to follow a football club and prices are way beyond the reach of the younger “pocket money fan”; even way beyond the “first-home buyer fan”, whose salary is mainly absorbed by the great financial sponge that is the housing market, with little left over. In the short term, atmospheres become less vibrant, with older fans – even if they still sing all game – generally more sceptical and pessimistic; stadiums largely void of the naive enthusiasm of youth. Youngsters local to smaller clubs develop little or no bonds with their hometown team and instead begin a phase of idolising Gerrards, Lampards or Ronaldos, skipping a vital stage of the footballing rites of passage and becoming fickle and apathetic.

In the long term, there is a much harder problem to solve than that of the working-class fan who can no longer afford it – their solution is simple: lower prices and they will return. Kids who have no discernible bond to the match-day experience by a certain age will not feel the need to come back even if prices eventually tumble, and that’s where the real problem lies.

The same survey revealed that fewer than one in ten of those attending matches were under the age of 24. This should surely send out warning signs to those whose job it is to set ticket prices for Premier League matches, yet only a few clubs such as Fulham seem to have taken real steps to address this, in their case by offering tickets priced £5 to see Middlesbrough and Bolton for under-16s and advertising the offer on local radio. Other clubs offer similar deals but quite sporadically and, for as long as most concessions tickets sit on or around the £16 mark, with students or young adults needing to find £30 to attend just one league match, that staggering figure of nine per cent will find it hard to rise any higher. The older members of the ­missing youth are resentful for being priced out of what they know they have a right to, and the younger ones know little of what it is to be an active supporter of a club that has a history beyond the Premier League, histories that were the foundation of football’s popularity and mass appeal.

When writing a special commemorative feature on Middlesbrough’s previous ground for the local fanzine, I attempted to highlight this problem. “For those of you old enough to have memories of games at Ayresome Park,” I said, “be thankful you ever had them. To those of you young enough to have never known Ayresome Park, be thankful you never went there, it was a shithole.” Young fans now have no “glory days” to look back upon, no hazy memories of simpler times and the underlying passion this brings with it, the memories that make modern notions of football bearable for the older fan. They grow up either unable to afford a ticket or reliant on their embittered father to fork out yet another sizeable chunk of his salary to take them along.

All the time, what makes football football is gradually being eroded deep within them, as the game continues to whore itself out to business and celebrity, carelessly underestimating the importance of the younger fan who will soon become its main target audience. A generation ignored becomes a generation lost. Football is not just losing fans; it’s losing its future.

From WSC 248 October 2007


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