Creating your own entertainment while watching a football match is a major part of the experience. Unfortunately, Howard Pattison finds he is increasingly unable to do so
It’s probably asking too much, but if Exeter City were to achieve promotion this season, I should like them to do so without scoring another goal in the process. At least then I wouldn’t have to be subjected to the sound of Freddie Mercury shrieking Don’t Stop Me Now, which he is apt to do whenever the ball hits the net. However, it seems unlikely that a series of goalless draws will be sufficient to secure a place in the play-offs. And it is even less probable that they would be successful in these without scoring at least a single goal. (I’ve yet to discover if the controller of the PA system will insist on playing Queen records during a penalty shootout.)
I imagine that when Freddie urges me not to stop him now because he’s having such a good time, what he’s actually doing is reminding me that I’m the one who’s really enjoying myself. Just in case I’d forgotten. Which I probably had. What Freddie doesn’t understand is that I don’t mind having a mediocre time or even a downright lousy one now and again. This is the risk you take when you enter through the turnstiles and we’ve all watched enough football to know that having a good whinge about the game is part of the culture. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t rather rhapsodise about the skill and endeavour of a thrilling contest, but I would also rather not be told how I should be feeling. I can make that decision for myself.
It’s all part of the modern insistence that football is such a polished, desirable product that there is no reason why anyone should look askance at the purchase they’ve made. I understand why this might be so in the stratosphere of the Premiership: the brand has been successful since the 1990s and there’s no reason to change the packaging now – especially not when there’s a global audience. Whether you like it or not, the sound of the late James Brown telling you how good you feel is part of the Premiership experience. Never mind that hardly anyone can win the wretched competition. It’s the money that talks and the image that sells.
Yet it’s hard to conclude that the same experience will work everywhere else. The football match is a different thing in the lower leagues: it has more tradition; it often involves standing up for long periods and not minding some pretty basic facilities; and there is the simple pleasure of a local community gathering and talking to each other. The atmosphere conjured by a few people who have chosen to be present – while knowing that there are much better things they could be doing – seems superior to the one created by so many more people who have turned up because at last it’s their turn. Atmosphere isn’t always measured by volume.
Is there really any need to embellish this? No amount of loud music, fireworks and performing dogs is going to convince the spectators of a Conference basement clash that they’re watching the Champions League. And I don’t suppose they were in two minds about going until the prospect of a half-time penalty contest between local radio presenters swung it for them. These things don’t convince as marketing devices, so do they perhaps betray a lack of faith in the product? Or is it now assumed that all the peripherals are part of the deal?
There aren’t many other events that feel such a need to sell themselves so relentlessly while they’re actually taking place. I don’t go to the theatre and feel short-changed if there isn’t a display of martial arts during the interval. No one complains about the lack of a warm-up act when they go to the cinema. Last year there was an exhibition of Da Vinci sketches that seemed to work quite well without a musical accompaniment.
Maybe it’s just a sport thing. There’s a theatrical element to boxing of course, and Twenty20 cricket would probably make more sense if it were compèred by Stuart Hall. But even if football is not alone in this, it certainly leads the way in its conviction that the level of entertainment is not exclusively determined by the sport itself. If this is still a quaint idea over here, US businessmen have believed it for years and you can bet they aren’t buying into their new clubs on the understanding that they’ll go back to three o’clock kick-offs, minimal television coverage, less advertising, cheap programmes and the announcement of the half-time scores through obscure alpha-numeric code on a pitchside hoarding.
If football is being reinvented for a new age, there are some who might do well to remember that the age is one where disillusioned fans are establishing new clubs and communities for themselves. There lies the real invention. Football endures not through innovation, but through the sense of belonging it engenders. And there are lots of songs you can sing about that.
From WSC 244 June 2007. What was happening this month