A Tranmere Rovers fan, a Crystal Palace fan, a Manchester City fan and an Arsenal fan are on a train to Eastleigh; this isn’t the introduction to a new modern variation of the old jokes based on national stereotype, but a travelling party to a match in the fifth tier of the English football pyramid. Fear not if this high-profile fixture somehow escaped your football-following radar, you were far from alone! I won’t even pretend to try and analyse why three, seemingly right-minded, football fans who had a whole selection of intriguing FA Cup and Football League fixtures as an alternative; would, without hesitation, agree to accompany their Tranmere Rovers diehard of a mate to the leafy Hampshire countryside for a match that essentially only offered another obstacle in Rovers’ quest to return to the promised land of the Football League. Having made and thoroughly enjoyed the same trip back in April last year (https://football-nerd.org/2016/04/26/all-the-way-to-eastleigh/); I could try and kid myself that it was the unique experience of that day combined with some kind of tenuous loyalty to a team that I used to watch fairly regularly in my school days; but in reality it was probably more simple than that and was purely because the opportunity was there.
Prevalent amongst our almost exclusively football-related discussions en route was the way that the ever-increasing cost of watching top flight football, as clubs continue to try to squeeze every possible pound they can out of what they now see as their ‘customer base’, is undeniably changing dramatically the relationship between fans and club. No longer is it a bond based on blind loyalty and enjoyment of a tribal belonging; instead it is increasingly becoming one of the expectation you have as a paying ‘customer’ rather than a supporter. The frustration expressed by Arsenal supporters at having to ‘settle’ for Champions League qualification on an annual basis, the perceived disappointment that Pep Guardiola’s Man City haven’t cruised to the title this season sweeping all before them and West Ham fans somehow feeling ‘let down’ by not having a world class side to grace their new publicly funded state-of-the-art stadium; being just three recent examples of the sense of entitlement of the modern football fan.
As we exited our train and headed towards the Cricketers Arms, for what is still possibly the most surreal setting for a pre-match pint that I have ever experienced, and then undertook the walk towards the small but well-appointed ground; the feeling amongst supporters of both teams was noticeably different than in the build-up to a Premier League match, there were no tourist fans (although one could potentially question the sanity of a tourist fan picking this fixture as part of some kind of football bucket list!); everyone seemed to be there simply because it is what they as football fans do.
Recent seasons have been far from kind to Tranmere, a team that 25 years ago was pushing for promotion to the Premier League, while for the hosts Eastleigh, reaching this level in 2014 is the pinnacle of the club’s history; yet the crowd of 2,475 must have been there for more than just the unseasonably sunny weather. This in its very essence highlights the nature of what, for want of a better phrase, could be described as being a real football fan, or indeed a football obsessive; it isn’t so much the result or perceived entertainment that is the critical motivational factor, but the simple act of being there because that is what we do.
In their excellent book ‘Soccernomics: Why Spain, Germany and Brazil Win, and why the USA, Japan, Australia – and Even Iraq – are Destined to Become the Kings of the World’s Most Popular Sport’, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski suggest that there are essentially two types of football fan: the ‘Hornby-esque fan’ (based on Nick Hornby’s seminal description of football obsession ‘Fever Pitch’), who will describe their support and relationship with their club, and presumably the game in general, using terms such as ‘chained’, ‘hooked’, or compare it to romantic love (‘fell for’); at the other end of the spectrum are the ‘sod-that-for-a-lark floating punter’ (read customer), who treat their attendance, or more realistically home-viewing of a match, as they would a restaurant or a trip to the theatre, an experience to be enjoyed. There was little question that despite admission prices being the same as the price of a burger meal deal in Club Level at the Emirates, we and the vast majority of the rest of the crowd at the Silverlake Stadium would fall naturally into the Hornby camp of football fandom.
That is not to say that the day itself wasn’t extremely enjoyable, quite the opposite, the chance to stand on a proper terrace, with traditional but decent enough refreshment options and football of a less rudimentary quality than you would expect; all made for an excellent day out for any football aficionado and a refreshing alternative to the overly-commercialised Premier League. As we headed home we reflected on our hope that next season Rovers will have regained their place in the Football League, but if for whatever reason they miss out for another season, another trip to Eastleigh would be far from a hardship.