Last of the line

Harry Pearson realises that football has changed so quickly that he has become old before his time

“You don’t get the build-up of atmosphere that you used to,” I said to a journalist from the Daily Mail one Saturday afternoon at the Riverside Stadium last sea­son. We looked around the ground. It was ten minutes to three, another capacity crowd, yet, aside from the strip occupied by the away fans, 90 per cent of the red seats remained empty. “The fact that everybody’s buying their tickets in advance has something to do with it,” the Mail man said. “People know they’ll get in so they only turn up 15 minutes before kick off.”

I told him a Newcastle fan had recently remarked to me that we would be the last generation of fans who would remember what it was like to queue up at the turnstiles and pay cash. He nodded. “For a big game you had to start early,” he said. “You might be standing on the terraces an hour before kick-off, the space filling up around you.”

“And once you were in,” I added, “there was nothing else to do except stand and make a noise. People got impatient for kick-off. You could feel the agitation mounting, especially when the play­ers had gone in after the kickabout.” We stood for a moment in silence, looking at the open spaces, the people who would fill them down below us in the concourse eating, drinking, betting, chatting, listening to the incisive opinions of Rodney Marsh on Sky, then the man from the Mail be­gan to laugh.

“Listen to us,” he said, “we sound like a right pair of old fogies.” True enough, I suppose. Football, like pop music, has a nasty habit of suddenly and unexpectedly turning us into our parents. One min-ute you’re young and vibrant, the next you’re sat in a corner drinking milk stout, muttering “David Beck­ham? Ray Wilkins, now he could play a bit” and won­dering why they don’t write songs like Orgasm Addict any more. No matter how hard you try, it’s a trap which is hard to avoid. Cunning nature has concealed it too cleverly. You pick your way cautiously along studying the ground for signs of a covered pit and the next thing you know a net has dropped over your head.

A month or so ago someone played the Power Game theme to me on CD. This was the music Middlesbrough used to run out to. It was quite a shock to hear it. Not least because it turned out to be the kind of brassy, funky Hawaii 5-0 sort of a thing that seemed far too exotic to announce the arrival of Arthur Hors­field. I realised that, despite the fact that I had been present at the playing of this tune hundreds of times, I had only ever heard the first few bars of it, the rest had been drowned out by the noise of the crowd.

I mentioned this to the person who’d played it to me.

“What kind of crowd would it take to drown the sound of a modern stadium PA?” he said.

“I’m no expert, but my guess would be 250,000 and all with the lung capacity of Luc­iano Pavarotti. Last season I was at the Stad­ium of Light and that Republica song they play was so loud I practically had to cover my ears.”

“Maybe you should just have turned your hearing aid down,” he said.

What else should I expect? After all, there are university lecturers who are too young to remember the 1978 World Cup. It’s not that I sound like an old fogey, I am one.

However, I think in this case there might just be a bit more to it than can be put down simply to the toll the ageing process takes on our objectivity. (Let’s face it, I would, wouldn’t I?) For just as the arrival of Elvis Presley and the abolition of National Service opened up what had previously been a hairline fissure between parents and children into a gaping generation gap, so dramatic changes in football in the Nineties have cre­ated a group of fans grown old before their time.

For over a century the experience of going to football – turnstiles, terraces, rudimentary toilet facilities – altered hardly at all. My grandfather’s first visit to Ayresome Park in 1912 was little different from my own 55 years later. Only the names of the players, the entry fee and the percentage of the crowd wearing flat caps had changed.

This is no longer true. Every once in a while, in a misguided attempt to put something back into the community, I go and talk to teenagers in the local comprehensive school. For them, things I wrote eight years ago require detailed historical explanation. Fif­teen-year-old fans of Premiership clubs cannot re­member standing or barely-functioning PA systems, or the days when live football on TV was an exciting novelty. The idea that there might have been a time when animal mascots did not cavort on the touchline to the sounds of Chumbawumba is as hard for them to imagine as the Blitz is for me. Nor do most of them attend games with any regularity. (Admittedly the town I now live in is so solidly bourgeois the local adult education night classes includes one entitled “Buying and owning a second home in France”, but even so).

The cost and scarcity of tickets to places like St James’ Park means that for many young fans going to matches takes on the kind novelty value that once sur­rounded a trip to the circus, a pantomime or Bonfire Night. The expectation this brings puts far greater pressure on football to deliver easily recognisable thrills than has ever before been the case.

Last weekend I was talking to a rugby union fan. Like me he was in his late thirties. “The commercialisation of the game has changed it,” he said. “With TV and more paying spectators the emphasis is on entertainment. There’s no doubt rugby’s better to watch nowadays, but the funny thing is I sometimes find myself pining for a grim attritional forward battle that’s settled by a penalty. The sort of thing only a sup­porter with a really genuine understanding of the game would appreciate, you know?”

I didn’t actually, but I suspect one day I might.

From WSC 150 August 1999. What was happening this month