This is a great reality check to all of us.
I truly enjoyed reading this article the other day. Though focusing on the EPL and its top team, yet its content can be directly related to other big leagues and fans and where the game is heading such our own Serie A & La Liga. Enjoy…
Football fans are idiots
Football is pricier, more uncompetitive and less atmospheric than ever. So why do supporters still lap it up, asks a bemused Sean Ingle
Thursday August 18, 2005
"He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don't let that fool you. He really is an idiot" - Groucho Marx.
Football fans are idiots. Or, to rephrase that sentence using less incendiary language: when it comes to football, intelligent people act stupid. And yes, that probably includes you.
After all, you remain hooked on a sport that has, over the past decade, become as competitive as a F1 warm-up lap - while at the same time taking ever-larger chunks out of your salary. Smart people would stand up to such exploitation. Football fans prefer to revel in their "hardcore" commitment.
Even if a match is shunted to some unholy hour to accommodate Sky, you think nothing of travelling hundreds of miles to sit in a stadium with all the atmosphere of a wake, to show loyalty to your club. The same club that's always thinking of ingenious new ways to bleed you dry.
When it comes to football, your rationality goes awol. You worship players who are at best indifferent to you, and at worst despise you. If a referee makes a dubious decision against your team, he's a wanker or a cheat. And if a journalist writes something you disagree with, he carries a vendetta.
Your idiocy doesn't end there. For you take more interest in pre-season friendlies - games which are, without exception, about as meaningful as Gazza's comedy breasts - than the growing inequality between football's haves and have-nots and what to do about it.
In short, you're an idiot.
Here's what will happen in the Premiership this season: Chelsea, or Arsenal or Manchester United, will win the title. Liverpool will come fourth. One of the 10 or 11 teams who graze in mid-table will surprise us, but the rest won't. And at least one newly-promoted side will go straight back down. Surprised? Appalled? Or just thinking: 'Yeah, and?'
If it's the latter, you perhaps reckon football has always been this predictable ("Didn't Liverpool win everything in the 80s?"), but the facts don't back that up.
Everyone remembers that Manchester United pick-pocketed the first Premiership title in 1992-93 - what seems amazing now is that Aston Villa finished second, Norwich third, Blackburn fourth and QPR fifth. And that's not a skewed example - between 1985-95, 13 different clubs finished in the top three, exactly the same number as in the previous decade (and the decade before that).
In the last 10 years, that figure was just six [Man Utd, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Newcastle and Leeds]. And with Champions League money and Roman Abramovich's hard-earned roubles swishing around, the gap between the rich and the rest is widening by the season. It used to be that if you lost less than seven games you'd win the league - but since Boxing Day 2002, when Manchester United lost to Middlesbrough, the eventual Premiership winners have lost just one league game between them (Chelsea's 1-0 defeat at Manchester City) in 95 matches.
But here's the rub: despite being as predictable as a Jo Brand fat-gag, the Premiership is as popular as ever. Why? No really, why?
Another season, another price rise...
Oil prices and company directors' pay-rises apart, few things in life are consistently more inflation-busting than season ticket price-hikes. But each May, most fans' response is thuddingly predictable: a moan, a brief moment of contemplation, and then a question - do you take Visa or MasterCard?
Arsenal might just be able to justify charging £1,825, the most expensive season ticket in the Premiership, by citing market forces - but how can Millwall get away with asking £29 to watch their match with Sheffield Wednesday? Or Bristol Rovers with demanding £415 for a League Two season ticket? Because you let them.
As Stefan Szmanski and Tim Kuypers show in Winners & Losers, The Business Strategy of Football, demand for football in the UK - like cigarettes and booze - is price inelastic. That is, when prices go up, demand dips only slightly. Cue smiles in boardrooms across the land.
They wouldn't stand for it on the continent. A cheap ticket for Borussia Dortmund costs under £10, Roma just £15, and a Real Madrid season ticket is a bargain £200. Fans stand up for themselves more in mainland Europe; in England they just roll over.
Oh what an atmosphere
So what do you get for your over-priced match ticket? Football that's sharper and sexier than a decade ago? Yes, if you support the big four. But elsewhere the standard has dipped, simply because of the top clubs' spending power. Ten years ago, for instance, Manchester City would have built their team around Shaun-Wright Phillips. Now he's merely a Chelsea reserve.
The atmosphere's become rubbish too. Go to a match 15 or more years ago, and by 2.30pm the terraces would reverberate with a Spector-esque wall of sound. Even if the game was dire, the chants and terrace witticisms would turn it into a spectacle of sorts - albeit one where hooliganism was rife.
These days at home matches, what usually happens? You get to the ground at 2.50pm, just in time to hear a local radio DJ induce a faux-atmosphere by shouting: "Are you ready? I said: Are you ready? Let's make some noise!" Like sheep, the crowd responds, sings one song, and then settles back into silence.
The truth is, you probably only leave your seat only when a goal is scored, five minutes before half-time (to go to the toilet and scoff down a congealed pie in four bites or less) and, 10 minutes before the end "to beat the traffic". And you pay £20, £30 or £40 for this? Every other week?
The loyalty card
Some fans will accept all the above, but defend themselves with the greatest idiocy of all. The loyalty argument. Simply put, you love your club, and believe that - on some level - there's a bond between you, the players and your team. You'd follow them everywhere, perhaps even fight for them. Sadly, it's not reciprocated.
"While the pros are polite to supporters, they think them fools," wrote Rick Gekoski in his excellent book on Coventry's 1997-98 season, A Fan Behind The Scenes In The Premiership. "I was reminded of a conversation I'd had with John Salako. 'Fans,' he said, 'most of them are sad. They think the game is more important than it is, it says something about the miserable kind of lives they must lead. They get things out of proportion.'
"Another player, who did not wish to be named, said: 'Fans? Come on. Players hate fans.'"
I know one agent who tells his players, who mostly play in the lower leagues, to kiss the badge when they first score for their new club. "Most fans buy it every single time," he chuckles. And that's not all you buy. There's the season ticket, the third alternative away strip, the premium rate text service to keep you abreast of your reserve striker's groin injury, etc and so on. When are you going to realise that when your favourite club isn't counting your cash, it's laughing at you?
Absence of reason and imagination
Football, as 'creative' advertising types never tire of telling us, is like a religion. They mean it in a positive sense - ignoring the fact that religion is antithetical to reason and rationality.
Examples abound. Whenever a star player leaves for a big club and more money, fans swarm onto Sky Sports News or the local radio, each spitting "betrayal" with Paisleyesque venom. The fact that they'd switch employers for a 200% pay rise without a millisecond's thought seems lost on them.
Meanwhile journalists who dare criticise a winning team - as acquaintances of mine did by suggesting Greece's Euro 2004 win was bad for football and that Liverpool were dull to watch in the Champions League last season - receive a steady thud-thud of abusive emails and are accused on message boards of having a 'vendetta' or a 'hidden agenda'. The truth is usually more prosaic: the hack's verdict is just one opinion in a game awash with them. Nothing more.
Sadly, intelligent, measured comment from fans - always a sickly child - is now on its deathbed. It says it all when Radio Five Live's 606, once the crème de la crème of football talk shows, is now a starchy mix of the vain, inane and the ignorant. And what DJ Spoony, the show's regular host, knows about football could be written on the label of a 12-inch vinyl.
A few good men (and women)
That's not to say intelligent, hard-working and crusading football fans don't exist. Just look at Lincoln, where supporters were involved in part of a community buy-out in 2001 - attendances are up and so are profits. Ditto trust-owned Chesterfield, which has gone from £2m in debt to break even, with the highest gates in 24 seasons. And then there's Luton, who having escaped the clutches of John Gurney largely due to fans' pressure and a skilful media campaign, now stand atop the Championship.
The trouble is, there are just seven clubs in the country owned by supporters' trusts - while only 23 trusts have elected directors on the board. Mutual trusts need to become the norm, not the exception, and that needs fans to get stuck in.
Another problem is that supporters remain stunningly insular. When it's your club being dragged over the coals, you fight tooth and nail. When it's the club up the road, you merely shrug your shoulders. Most fans were rightly appalled by how the FA allowed Wimbledon move to Milton Keynes - but how many protested?
What is to be done?
Football, for all its faults, is still the best sport in the world. But it has become an increasingly ugly mix of Thatcherite greed and Gradgrindian inequality. It needs to be taken down a peg - and supporters are the best ones to do it.
So, here's a plan of sorts. Start by refusing to become a slave to football's pointless merry-go-round every summer. Take the transfer gossip pages with a pinch of salt (trust me, most of it really is made up) and certainly don't bother frittering your money on pointless pre-season friendlies or the Intertoto Cup (you never know, Uefa might eventually get the message).
Instead, get out more. Enjoy the sporting summer: Wimbledon, the Open, the flat season, rugby league, cricket, whatever - all sports where Corinthian values haven't yet been splayed by a pernicious win-at-all-costs mentality. If you took less interest in football, the media might too. And with any luck, football's imperialism - an imperialism which dictates that gossip about a rich player going from one rich club to another is the most important story in the sporting world - might start to crumble.
Become smarter and less compliant. If Birmingham are charging £45 for an away ticket (as they did to Manchester United fans last season) just say no. If you think a Sky Sports subscription is too expensive, watch the games in the pub. If you're sick of the Premiership, try watching your local club again. If you believe fans should be allowed to stand again, join http://www.safestanding.com/safe/index.php or organise a national standing day - let's see the stewards try to stop thousands of you.
More importantly still, widen your focus to beyond your club. It's not good for English football that we now have a three-teams-can-win-it Premiership. Or that TV money is more unequally distributed than ever. Or - as Lord Burns recently pointed out - that the Premiership clubs have undue influence with the Football Association. So get involved.
In short, it's not necessarily a given that football will become more soulless and uncompetitive with every passing year. But the game needs your help. After all, no one ever changed the world by sitting on their capacious backside, eating a pork pie and shouting beetroot-face abuse at Wayne Rooney, did they?
Sean Ingle is the sports editor of Guardian Unlimited.