Published on November 17th, 2014 | by Daniel Cheeseman2
“Has Football Changed For The Better?” | Ian Cheeseman
My first memories of football go back to the Bell, Lee and Summerbee era at Manchester City. Perhaps I was a glory hunter, because they were successful at that time, the late 1960s, though in truth those were more innocent times, no saturation TV coverage, so I wasn’t always aware of whether they won or lost.
I particularly related to Colin Bell. I was shy, and I got the impression that my hero simply loved to play football, but not necessarily the limelight. I later had my instincts confirmed when I wrote his autobiography “Reluctant Hero”
I remember meeting Colin in a charity cricket match at Prestwich Heys, shaking like a leaf as he signed my programme, and I was pretty nervous too 😉
I don’t know how much football cost in those early days, my first season tickets were bought by my Dad, and you couldn’t buy a replica shirt, they simply didn’t exist. I loved football, and City in particular, because some of my friends did too. It was a great feeling to share a passion. When I “played out”, me and my mates pretended to be our heroes.
Not everyone was into footy when I was a youngster, hooliganism meant that (what felt like the majority) weren’t interested in the game I loved. Although I was obsessed with “my” team, I loved the sport that much that I travelled all over the North West, and later the country, to watch neutral games and visit new stadiums. It felt relatively cheap to get into a game, to buy a pie and a programme, and it was fun, friendly and I never came away feeling disappointed, even if my team lost.
As time went along, prices went up, Luton introduced an away fan ban, and things slowly started to change. When replica shirts were introduced, there was outrage from some fans that these replicas kept changing. Clubs vowed to make each shirt valid for two seasons. Then a third kit was introduced and now we’re in an era where there are three new shirts (priced at least £50) each season, with the third kits only being played in four or five times.
The Hillsborough disaster prompted a move to all seater stadiums, but increased TV coverage and revenue promised cheaper tickets, because clubs wouldn’t be as reliant on gate money.
In City’s case, non profit making schemes, largely run by volunteers, like the Junior Blues, thrived. Parents would take their youngsters to Sunday morning fun and games, where the players would let their hair down, sign autographs and enjoy themselves, with no corporate motive or payoff.
The old football specials (trains that carried fans to away games) became too complicated to organise and too expensive, mainly due to the break up of British Rail. I’d been a travel steward, another way of saving money. The trains offered a means of travel to away games that wasn’t driven by profit and was affordable.
Football continued to grow and I was lucky enough to get into the media, and escape the associated rising costs of the game, but I could see things were changing.
I saw the changes in the media too. When I was first asked to interview managers and players I could just turn up at the training ground and ask politely, and usually get to chat to who I wanted. Year by year, as press officers became the norm, clubs started to control (limit) access and grow suspicious of the media. Players started to understand their value and were no longer prepared to make public appearances without payment or sponsorship.
Clubs started to prioritise these “player opportunities” where they could produce the maximum profit/exposure to the brand, quite often to the growing overseas markets, more modest functions like the Junior Blues, attendance at Supporters Club functions, fell away.
Fans became customers, ticket prices rose dramatically and yet understanding of the difficulties “ordinary people” had to pay for them, to travel to games, to get autographs from their heroes etc was in decline.
In the case of Manchester City, because all the other stuff I’ve written about is not just a City thing, but an English football disease, they’ve become a footballing super power, exciting stuff for those who have seen them in the lower divisions, and actually making those triumphs all the more enjoyable, because of those previous lows.
The aim of all the top clubs, thanks to the millions put into the game by rich owners, corporate sponsors, TV etc is to grow bigger and bigger. The aim now is to win every match, every competition. Those customers who pay a substantial amount of money for every part of their “experience” demand entertainment and success, a growing percentage are no longer satisfied with just being part of the ups and downs of being a fan, and feel entitled to demand the very best, after all they’ve paid for that.
Even lower down the football food chain, things have gone up in price, but fans can relate to players who’re on more realistic salaries, still mix with supporters, and more often were born and/or live near the clubs they play for.
I still love the game, marvel at the skills and determination of footballers, and I still have a passion for the game I love and the local team I’ve supported since I was a boy, but I sometimes wonder if the game is losing sight of what it is/was, has it still got a soul? Did it ever have a soul? Or am I just kidding myself and looking back at the past through rose-tinted spectacles?
Blue Tuesday this week (18th November at 6pm on BBC Radio Manchester 95.1FM) is asking for your thoughts on “fan experience” and how it’s changed either for the better, the worse, or maybe it’s not changed at all?
Join us – I’d love to hear your thoughts too!