I remember the first football match I attended – a game at St James Park in Newcastle on a sunny Saturday. I watched Newcastle reserves draw from behind the goal in a near empty stadium and didn’t last the whole 90 minutes. Football was life and death to me then.
My knowledge of football was, in the main, built from conversations in the playground, with friends, swapping football cards and Shoot!. I loved playing the game. Every lunchtime and break would involve kick-and-run Shrovetide proportioned matches up and down a concrete yard. The goals were usually jumpers at one end and possibly a panel of a classroom wall at the other. The ball was only seldom an actual football. Tennis balls were common, beachballs, flat “caseys” and even empty tin cans. My point is not to illustrate the recession in the North but the passion for the game that existed…everybody played….every day…every opportunity. This had nothing to do with PE, local sports teams or inspiration from the professionals. It was just what schoolboys did.
The professional game was distant. My knowledge of my local team Middlesbrough’s performance was mainly led by discussions with my classmates about the odd game they were taken to. My recollection was that almost all these discussions were about hooliganism and racism rather than the footballing qualities of an inside right. The other big team was Leeds United. Probably half the school followed Leeds – at their most successful then during the Revie era – but sufficiently far away that no-one had ever seen them play live.
And me? I followed Arsenal. I did so through my best friend liking Alan Ball. In those days he was still living the life of a World Cup winner. My friend liked him because he was a hard-working terrier of a player. When I latched on to him he had just been bought by Arsenal from Everton for a record fee of £220,000. I used to read his double page column in Shoot and felt like I knew the man. His father was a football manager who used to give him training drills to repeat incessantly. I remember reading about him trying to chip a ball onto a chair and heading a ball against a break wall until his forehead bled. I didn’t follow him to Southampton – I just stuck with Arsenal…as they went through some miserable times in the First Division. I didn’t even have the joy of their Double season to start me off. My first televised game saw Alan Clarke score the FA Cup winning goal for Leeds against my Arsenal team in the 1972 cup final. Looking back now I realise that the commercialism was already there – aside from his record transfer and his Shoot column he also had his signature white boots.
In my teenage years my football passion was still fairly remote. I actually went to see Middlesbrough at Ayresome Park quite regularly, regardless of who they were playing. I saw Arsenal only on TV or when they came to visit Middlesbrough. My point is that the game of football was ingrained in every/most schoolboy(s) without any of the razzmatazz. It was hugely flawed through hooliganism and the standard of football was average – lots of long ball stuff on terrible pitches.
I went to see Middlesbrough play Ipswich in the season where things started to change. In came a couple of Dutch players (Thyssen and Muhren) and they shone above the other players on the pitch. Other landmarks were the Three Degrees at West Brom which expunged the oddity of Clyde Best as the only black player we could name. Slowly every team seemed to buy a foreign players. We had never heard of the Dutch players before they arrived – coverage of European leagues was irrelevant. Slowly but surely the Scots and Irish players were replaced by superstars from further afield. Even Middlesbrough had an Australian and a Serbian. I remember watching Craig Johnston in the warmups doing the flick up off his heels over his head – the first time I ever saw it done.
I freely admit I stood by and enjoyed over the next few years the impact of the commercialisation of the game. I saw the names arrive on the back of the shirts, the increase in the number of new strips, foreign managers, the rise of agents, the celebrity players who weren’t superstars on the pitch, Sky TV, shirt sponsorship and stadium naming. I had a Sky TV package in the early days and I’ve watched my team play from a corporate box.
The game has become almost like pro wrestling where the objective is entertainment and money rather than sport. I am pleased that I have never been an addict: a season ticket holder carrying on a family tradition because it would have been much harder to break. I now have an objective view – it no longer hurts when my team loses.
As an outsider it is so obvious that sacking Arsene Wenger and spending more money on players would achieve nothing because other clubs have more money to spend in the football Arms Race. I genuinely believe that although he has been a party to the internationalisation of the game my manager has the right view of the game and its future. Arsenal and all the other top teams are businesses not football teams and it is astonishing that the “fans” don’t realise it. In the corporate football world its only a matter of time before the true market forces hit – takeovers, mergers, administration even for the largest businesses, globalisation and cost-cutting for survival. Team UK can’t compete on price with China for manufacturing, with Poland for coal mining or, apparently, with Brazil for chicken production. In the same way Arsenal can’t compete with Manchester City or Manchester United. Until we pay more attention to the ethics or the long term future we may as well knuckle down to playing the game at our level. You wouldn’t protest outside Marks and Spencers demanding better trousers on the rails: you would vote with your feet and go somewhere else if you didn’t like the product. But Marks and Spencers is an interesting analogy – it is a brand that is part of our national psyche. There’s a feeling that when M&S do well we are all doing well – we want it to succeed.
And there’s the rub. Being a football fan feels like being a lifelong shareholder but you are just a customer. And these days, the customer isn’t always right.