Normally I try and take everything that self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ José Mourinho says with a large dollop of salt, mindful of the fact that every single soundbite has been calmly and carefully crafted with a specific purpose and intention. However this weekend the Machiavellian manager’s utterings about the Old Trafford crowd and the lack of atmosphere at the ground had me, to my utter astonishment, agreeing with him.
After a fairly routine win over Huddersfield last Saturday, Mourinho castigated the Old Trafford atmosphere, saying: ‘in here, the atmosphere is a bit quiet and there is not very (much enthusiasm).’ While I can’t comment on that particular instance, the lack of atmosphere at football matches these days is something that is more and more noticeable.
The globalisation of the sport, driven by incessant financial greed, means that the game is no longer a national let alone local concern. The really big clubs at the top of the Premier League, the two Spanish giants and others such as PSG, Bayern Munich and Juventus etc. draw their fanbase from all corners of the globe. The proliferation of pre and post season tours and the ever increasing importance of digital media and marketing in the modern game is testimony to clubs endeavouring to cash in on the engagement of the millions spread across the planet whose relationship with the club is founded on TV and the Internet rather than any affinity in the sense that we have always understood it.
This changing relationship between club and fan brings with it a new dynamic and attitude, one that aging football traditionalists like myself, feel increasingly uncomfortable with. Unsure whether the commitment that we have always felt to our club still exists for the new generation of fan?
When I fell in love with football it was in large part the result of a feeling of belonging brought about by the matchday experience and the physical attendance at games. However, the global popularity of the sport, combined with the quite frankly ridiculous cost associated with watching it, means that those of us who want to watch our team in the flesh week in and week out are in a dwindling minority, replaced by tourists and those who view a match as a day out, an experience to be enjoyed in the same way as other leisure pursuits, such as going to the theatre or eating in a highly regarded restaurant.
This new type of matchgoer, as well as the ever-increasing ticket prices, creates a sense of entitlement in terms of a very real expectation of entertainment and even of performance and result. In days gone by, you went to watch your team because that’s what you did, because you hoped they won and because you wanted to play your part by cheering them on. It was the results that mattered not whether the performance had met your expectations; anyone who, like me, watched Arsenal in the latter days of George Graham’s reign can attest to that!
Increasingly the tribalism that characterised football, that made it our cherished escape from the real world, is being diluted, the supporters of old being replaced by customers. Those attending the game are now simply the live studio audience to add to the experience for those watching at home on the various media platforms. As long as the money keeps rolling in the clubs themselves will be happy, content that the revenue generated from the screening of the game far exceeds that taken at the gate from those who turn up at the ground.
The Taylor Report after the tragedy of Hillsborough brought the long-overdue and much-needed modernisation of the grounds in which football is played in this country and while it is absolutely inarguable that these changes weren’t absolutely necessary, the removal of the terraces inevitably meant that a large part of the old atmosphere has been lost forever.
The result of all of this is that the experience of going to a football match in the modern era is, at least at the rarefied very top level, an experience that is far removed from that which those of us of a certain vintage remember. Whether you think that this is for the better or for the worse may well depend on your age and football-watching background. For me it provokes an all too hard to shake off nostalgia for the way things used to be.