Continuing our anniversary series we look back at how the spectator experience has changed in the last 25 years. David Wangerin was fascinated with English football in the 1980s as everything was so different to his native US. Times have changed
I was unlucky, I suppose, that both of the first two English football matches I ever saw ended without a goal. But what I remember most about my first trip to Villa Park, on the first Saturday of February, 1984, wasn’t the score, the weather, or even the opposition: it was all the empty seats.
Aston Villa and Luton Town, two teams in the upper half of the top division, could attract only 18,656 to a 48,000-capacity ground – and from my seat in the Witton Lane Stand the number looked even smaller. Chants and songs from the terraces were rare and fleeting; fans groaned more than they cheered. This was not how I’d expected it to be. Nor was it for my companion, whose introduction to the game had come with Villa in the Third Division, when they were pulling in 45,000 for Chesterfield and 48,000 for Bournemouth. When she turned to me and said it just wasn’t the same any more, she didn’t need to explain.
Could there have been a worse time to have been introduced to English football than 1984? Rothman’s Football Yearbook for that season details a litany of shady deals, hooliganism and broken clubs. Its editorial even excuses fans “for thinking the professional game in this country had decided to devote itself to an all out kamikaze course of self destruction”.
Yet there was at least one impressionable young American who had developed a fatal fascination with the game, and not even the wretched turns it kept taking could mute its appeal. Watching on public television and listening on shortwave radio, I had come to regard English football as the purest of sports. It was devoid of almost everything that got in the way of American equivalents: TV time-outs, endless substitutions and overwrought fanfare. Everything from the pitch markings to the playing strips seemed austere and the most devoted fans weren’t even given a place to sit down. Most ascetically of all, the match could end without a score – two perfectly round zeroes – and nobody would complain.
In the late 1970s, before the start of one of the Super Bowls, they drove a posh car into the stadium so that a famous ex-player could present a special coin, on a special cushion, for the referee to toss. It was around then I realised that however much I liked American sports they had lost too much of their perspective. English football had not yet succumbed to what it still referred to as “American-style razzmatazz”: rock anthems, shouty stadium announcers, balloons and confetti.
That first season, I went to 17 Football League matches. Only once do I recall any sort of exotic pre-match entertainment. And when the young ladies of the Grace King drill team of New Orleans warmed up Highbury’s early arrivals only to be met with chants of “Get ’em off, get ’em off, get ’em off” from the North Bank, I began to understand why.
English football was dark and drizzly, decrepit and dangerous. Sometimes I feared for my safety. But I refused to pronounce myself anything other than a devoted fan. Maybe this was because I was in love as much with its foreignness, the novelty, as with the action on the pitch. In time, I came to suspect that fans turned up more out of habit or allegiance than a desire to be entertained, the sporting equivalent of impoverished Communist-bloc citizens queuing up for bread. Moments of pleasure and celebration were to be savoured; there was a possibility they might not come at all.
You went to the football not because it represented a glittering spectacle of entertainment, or even value for money, but because you liked football. And I was delighted to be able to queue up for my loaf, evidently favouring earnest tedium to anything that moved with the times.
More than this – and though I didn’t realise it then – football didn’t really work as a vicarious experience, it needed for you to be there. You were unlikely to see the goals on television, let alone any highlights. Newspapers had yet to saturate their pages with facts and data, the internet was still a sheet of ice. Yes, at Loftus Road I had to sit sideways to fit my legs in behind the seat in front of me and at Port Vale I peed into an open-air trough. But that didn’t seem to matter, not to someone more accustomed to watching sport from a sofa. Even now, going to the football makes the blood flow in a way that switching on the football never can.
But we all switch on the football now, even those who have season-tickets. Regardless of the team you support, each week the BBC shows you the goals they scored. You meet your mates at the pub for the big Man Utd game, watch el clásico live with a beer in your hand. Liverpool fans have been taunted not with chants of “Europa League”, but of “Thursday night, Channel 5”. With all the televisual attention the game now receives, it has become possible to be a well-informed fan without ever setting foot in a ground. In that sense, English football has become little different from big-time American sport.
But there is another parallel, one I find more depressing because it seems far less British than the urge to watch telly. Just before Villa’s match with Banik Ostrava in 1991 – English football’s return to Europe after the Heysel ban had been lifted – a vaguely hysterical man with a microphone paraded in front of the Holte End, imploring us to “make a lot of noise for the Villa”, to greet the country’s return to the international stage by showing hard-faced eastern Europeans a thing or two about boisterous home support. He bellowed and cajoled, desperate for everyone to cheer at his command.
Never before had I seen anything like this at an English match – and little did I know that it represented the thin end of a wedge. Within a few years the goalscorer was not Dwight Yorke, but Dwight Yorke with nine exclamation marks, and the self-generated roar of anticipation at two minutes to three gave way to the tedium of We Will Rock You. It also became difficult to focus on the pitch with a giant video screen and people carrying mounds of food to their seats. The Match was giving way to the Matchday Experience. Instead of fans, we had become customers.
Gone too was the spontaneity of attendance, of not deciding until Saturday lunchtime whether you were going to the football. For one thing, television might have shifted it to Sunday or Monday, for another, there might be restrictions on matchday ticket purchases. And, of course, your wallet might not stand it. My first ticket at Villa Park cost £4.50, around £11.25 today. How much action would that buy me this season?
The word “purist” seems to take on a pejorative term when applied to the game today, thrown at those of us disconcerted by players numbered up to 59 and animated advertising hoardings, who think there should still be a First Division and who can’t fathom slow-motion repeats of scoring celebrations. At the same time, English football has become far more skilful, more entertaining, more watchable than I’ve ever known. The Premier League may or may not be the best in the world, but surely most of Villa’s European Cup-winning side of 1982 would struggle for a place in the current team, even if it’s at the wrong end of the table. And yet, in spite of the game’s manifest appeal, the steak is not enough any more, we must be deafened by the sizzle.
England no longer sneers at “American-style razzmatazz”, not when it gawks at WWE wrestling and whoops along to The X-Factor. It did not grow up in Wisconsin, watching 60 minutes of gridiron morph into a four-hour procession of television advertisements, it was happily mired in earnest tedium. The problem may be mine, as either a middle-aged fossil or a jaded foreigner. But if the day is still approaching when people decide to go to the football only if there is someone to tell them when to cheer and more than just the match to look at, I do hope it comes after I’m dead.
From WSC 292 June 2011