John Perlman got a glimpse into the future when he went to see the Highbury screening of Arsenal's match at Newcastle – and it left him worried
Idiot. Cheat. Bastard. We are screaming at referee Graham Barber, who has just sent Tony Adams off. And all because he just happened to be in the neighbourhood when Alan Shearer decided to launch himself on another dive towards the penalty area. We have quite a bit to say to Shearer too.
There are a few thousand of us yelling, and as the Arsenal defence tries to reorganize itself, it does seem as if all this throat-rasping spittle-spraying rage might make us feel a bit better. Until I realise that it is actually rather ridiculous.
At most matches there is very little chance of the referee hearing a single word you shriek, but at this particular match, there is no chance of him hearing us at all – the referee, the game, Adams and Shearer are all hundreds of miles away in Newcastle. Seated in the North Bank at Highbury, we are venting our spleen at a giant black TV screen, which has been set up on the edge of the penalty area below. Most people are wearing their usual matchday hats, shirts and scarves. There are bursts of singing when Arsenal do something good. And when the monitor shows Kevin Keegan leaping to his feet, at least half of the people in the stand scream “Sit down wanker”. He can’t hear us either. This really is ridiculous. But it’s also incredibly entertaining.
Dixon scores first for Arsenal and Shearer equalizes. When Adams is sent off, we must settle for the grittier pleasures of watching a point saved against the odds. But when Merson scores a second just after half-time something more glorious beckons.
One thing this particular TV broadcast doesn’t have is a running clock on the screen, and the commentator’s voice is virtually inaudible. So there’s some confusion as to how long Arsenal have to survive in circumstances that are growing increasingly desperate. We curse Newcastle loudly, viciously and often, but our real fury is for the referee who won’t blow his whistle. And then he does, and after we finish shaking hands and clapping backs with the complete strangers around us, I suddenly realize that it’s all just been a movie.
Well, a documentary really, but somewhat unreal nonetheless. Whereas the setting had seemed so odd at first – all these empty stands around us, this enormous black box squatting there on the pitch – what seemed odder still was just how transporting the game had been. Would we have felt that way if we’d all sat there watching a goalless draw, or Newcastle at a cruise winning by two. Probably not, but by the end of this little epic, it hadn’t felt like watching TV at all.
There were a few little reminders that this wasn’t 3-D. The picture wasn’t that great for a start – one bloke near me, who arrived after the teamsheets were put on the screen, kept saying “go on Dennis” whenever Hartson got the ball. Bergkamp wasn’t even playing but on a fuzzy screen they did look a bit alike and for some reason the white lines on the pitch kept vibrating.
But as we all tramped off, there was this scaled-down version of the post-match buzz you get on normal match-days. I couldn’t help thinking that most of us would tell whoever could be forced into listening that we had actually been to a football match. We certainly wouldn’t say we had watched it on TV and not just because it had cost £10 to get in.
In the not too distant future of pay-per view television Tottenham fans, for instance, will be asked to cough up a similar amount it they fancied watching their team play Newcastle. (Mind you, Arsenal fans would also pay £10 to ensure that Tottenham fans watch their team play Newcastle.)
In the days of rampant hooliganism there was some pessimistic talk that one day matches might have to be played behind closed doors while opposing fans gathered separately in safe, easy-to-police places to watch the game on giant screens.
Security and safety are not the driving forces that they were, but with money an even more effective engine this Orwellian vision may yet become reality. There are still really just two ways to watch football – you go to the game live, or you watch the match if it’s on TV. If you do the latter down at the pub it’s something more of a shared experience, but it’s still TV. Watching the Newcastle game at Highbury fell somewhere in between. The image had all the limitations of a TV view. There was no sense of players moving off the ball, for instance, and no way of knowing if an opposing player just out of the picture would suddenly pounce – which made backpasses to John Lukic even more nerve-wracking.
But it still had some of the atmosphere of a matchday. There was the company of strangers, the cold wind whipping up your collar, the queue of fans outside the souvenir shop, the cold burgers at halftime. That made it enjoyable, of course, but there was also something slightly creepy about it too. Seat allocations to away fans seem to get smaller every year. Newcastle allocated Arsenal just 1,776 seats in a ground that holds nearly 37,000. Some clubs would rather not have any visiting fans in their ground at all. Was this just a little taste of the future? After all, nearly 5,000 people paid a tenner to watch the beam-back from St James’ Park; a thousand more turned up to watch the game from Old Trafford two weeks earlier.
As it is, football tickets – certainly in the Premiership – are unaffordable for many people who used to watch every game they could. Who knows what it will be like in 10 years time? Suites and suits and seats for people able to afford ever-soaring ticket prices, big screens for the rest, the package jazzed up with an ersatz match atmosphere to make it more appealing? Lots more money for everyone – but not too much more of mine. I enjoyed the game alright, but not so much that I’d settle for a season of it. After all even if the referee probably never will get to hear what you think of him, it’s nice to know that you’re at least in with a shout.
From WSC 120 February 1997. What was happening this month