This article first appeared in The Football Pink Issue 2

STUART HOWARD-COFIELD tries to reconcile what he sees as the loss of soul and authenticity from football clubs whose focus shifts evermore to the commercialisation of the game, with the increasing demand for a ‘product’ that becomes increasingly popular despite this attitude.

What is it that makes us feel at home as a football fan? We are drawn to a particular club and call one stadium our home, but as football clubs become global brands, are we becoming less the faithful congregation and more just customers?

Can we find sanctuary elsewhere?

I recently had my attention drawn to a book written by a Benedictine monk, Abbot Christopher Jamison, called Finding Sanctuary. The book followed a television series where people withdrew from the modern world for a short time to live with monks, who would help them to de-stress, to shed their consumer lifestyle and to find their own sanctuary.

Not much to do with football, then—but I couldn’t help drawing a couple of parallels.

Sanctuary is defined as “refuge or safety from pursuit, persecution or other danger” or a “holy place; a temple.”

For football fans, the stadium is the traditional place of worship. Today, it might be more apt to say that the stadium is the spiritual home of a football club though, as the place of worship could now just as easily be at the ground, or on the television or the internet.

Once you are a fan, you are part of the team and there is a sense of belonging that shouldn’t be difficult to maintain. You have found your sanctuary, haven’t you?

There are instances that challenge this.

My own connection with Manchester United has been greatly challenged over the last eight years. Geography, family ties and Bryan Robson meant that I was destined to be a red. Eventually a proud season ticket holder, I reluctantly relinquished my grip on the “golden ticket” in protest at the questionable takeover of the club by the Glazer family.

I became a founder member of FC United of Manchester and it was seven years before I attended a match at Old Trafford again. When I did return to Old Trafford (my son had been invited to a match as a birthday treat and I wanted to attend his first match), I couldn’t help but feel somewhat uncomfortable amongst the iPad wielding, megastore bag-carrying hordes that had replaced the likes of me.

I attended an event held in Leeds last year by The Blizzard magazine. A Leeds United supporter complained that he was becoming disillusioned by the fellow fans around him. A series of homophobic comments and distasteful chants had left him questioning whether he wanted to be a part of that same crowd. He didn’t agree with the sentiments and he was unwilling to join in with the mob, therefore he felt uncomfortable and isolated in a place where he ought to have felt as one with those around him.

Just two small examples, but issues that are important enough to us as football supporters—or as decent human beings, particularly in the Leeds example—to make us reconsider how we go about our footballing life.

In his book, Abbot Jamison discusses the rampant consumerist society that we live in. His theory is that we are all too busy trying and that we won’t allow ourselves to tune out and find our own sanctuary. We are filling our lives by trying to keep up with our consumerist desires.

Manchester United were the club that once scored a famous PR own goal, calling supporters “customers” in a letter to them. We don’t like to view ourselves that way and think that a different set of rules apply to us.

We do not feel that we can “abandon” our clubs and somehow, supporters have been both willing and able to continue to spend to follow their side, despite constant price rises.

Shopping around is not an option when the unwritten rules of football supporting state that booing your own team is bad, you support through thick and thin and that you cannot change your team; to name but a few.

Of course, such behaviour is irrational and it leaves us open to being exploited by clubs.

In the 1980s, football and society were entirely different animals. Football hooliganism was rife, making many stadia no-go areas for families. Television had one live match a week, if we were lucky, and only one game would feature on Match of the Day.

Society as a whole faced many difficulties. The incumbent Conservative government set about destroying or at least restricting the power of the trade unions and the many professional bodies that were dictating the pace of life. Competition would ensure that market forces would now do that, as national institutions such as water, gas and electricity boards were sold off to private companies.

“Let the customer decide” became the slogan for a consumerist society, suggesting that the power was in the customer’s hands. The modern marketplace adapted and now we are offered the choice of purchasing from an ever-growing range of always-improving products with minimal shelf-lives, be it through fashion or technological advances. Whenever you like, you can purchase the latest version of anything. Tomorrow, there will be another latest version.

In theory,” Abbot Jamison wrote, “the consumer can say, “I’ve had enough,” and stop consuming, but the market works very hard to make sure the consumer never says that.

As football stadia improved throughout the 1990s, so did football media. Sky TV may have its critics now, but there is no doubt that they took a product that was being covered in a tired, predictable manner and turned it on its head. The change that occurred to the coverage was to precipitate much larger changes to the whole sport.

Football became rich. It had weeded out a large element of the bad that was associated with it and everyone wanted a part of it. Not least the supporters. Wall-to-wall TV coverage has only served to create an even bigger desire and caused the very biggest clubs to extend their reach much further than the confines of their own locality, country and continent.

The race to the top needs constant refuelling and the static finances brought in from those that bought match tickets and didn’t spend anything else would never be enough. The net has been cast much wider.

And so, just as the rail companies now call their passengers “customers,” so too are football fans treated as such.

I read recently (in the Telegraph online) about a sad state of affairs in Paris. Changing tastes are having an effect on that bastion of “frenchness,” the baguette.

Bakers and bread experts are apparently in a flap as there is a growing fondness for an undercooked baguette; a baguette with a soggy, doughy middle. It is reported in the article that from a sample of 230 shops across Paris, an estimated four-fifths of them under-baked their bread, reflecting this changing taste for a softer bread.

One baker, Dominique Anract, lamented that 90 per cent of his customers chose the palest sticks in the basket; the ones that he would leave in the oven much longer, to give a tougher, more rustic and traditional texture. “But that’s not my call, it’s the customer’s.”

Daily sales of baguettes are actually on the slide. Rising costs and changing diets will play some part in that, but of those sold, the number being under-baked rises. If that is what the paying customers demand…

For many of us, football is our daily bread. Scoop out the innards of the modern game, though, and you are left with something slightly undercooked and resembling play-doh. There is so much different from the traditional, rustic football of our youth and I don’t think it is just nostalgia. And yet we still can’t get enough of it.

Even with the existence of movements like “Against Modern Football,” who fight against the waves to save the game that they love, the majority of customers are happy. Many know no different. We therefore have the football that the majority want.

If there wasn’t massive demand for more televised games, then we wouldn’t have lunchtime and tea-time kick-offs on Saturdays.

“If you don’t like it, go and watch Chelsea.” Sir Alex Ferguson to Manchester United fans who complained about the takeover of the club by Malcolm Glazer in 2005.

Like the consumerist cycle alluded to earlier, each season of football is locked in to renewing itself and selling its product to the highest bidder each time. Seemingly immune to the austere times that we are living in at the moment, one real problem is that the game at large appears to have little empathy towards those who can no longer afford to attend matches.

Manchester City fans protested last season about the cost of an away trip to Arsenal.  At £62, they were quite entitled to complain. However, it will always be difficult to measure exactly the unhappiness of supporters who still paid the RRP and filled the away end in any event.

“62 quid, and we’re still here,” was the chant that day. To my mind that is vocalising the fact that the tickets were too expensive, but suggesting that they would still continue to buy anyway. If tickets are still being sold, then the manufacturers of the “product” must still be doing something right.

In recognition of the important role that away fans play in creating a vibrant atmosphere at matches and perhaps witnessing supporters finally starting to say “enough is enough,” there has been some movement on the issue of away ticket prices by the Premier League clubs this season.  Away travel has been subsidised by some clubs or ticket prices have been discounted—in some cases, like Manchester City again – it has been reported that the players themselves have contributed.

The baker has changed his recipe to suit those who are prepared to pay.

If my local baker was under-cooking the bread, I would either complain or take my custom elsewhere so, surely, if you have still decided to shell out and you have spent £50 on a match ticket to witness your side not putting in the required amount of effort, then why not have a good old boo?  How else will they feel your ire? That takes us back to the football fan’s commandments.

The commandments can change, too.

It used to be the case that you were looked down on for not attending matches. There are now so many alternatives to going to the match that match-going football fans are in the minority and armchair supporters rule. As the mega-clubs move more towards being global brands than football teams, a match-day trip to Old Trafford, the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu or the San Siro is now almost like attending a film premiere and is no longer a necessary rite of passage.

Match-day ticket sales are a drop in the ocean, such are the revenue streams found elsewhere. TV and the internet are where the real money can be made (although an interesting ongoing war is continually being fought against unofficial streaming sites), such is the clamour to watch live games.

You can call yourself a Real Madrid supporter from the comfort of your home in Rochdale.

Recently I have had cause to attend matches at Old Trafford as a writer. Even with the heart-strings being pulled once back inside the ground, after much soul-searching I have found my personal sanctuary now lies with FC United of Manchester.

The supporter-owned and community focussed ethos of FCUM just seem to sit right with me and are the type of things that I want to see from a football club.Therefore, I have broken a commandment as well.

I still consider myself a Manchester United fan—I have just withdrawn my custom. Forgive me, I am a “two-team” fan.

Building work is about to start on FC United’s new stadium in the North Manchester suburb of Moston—not far from Manchester United’s spiritual home in Newton Heath. Once finally situated there, a couple of thousand people also hope to have finally found their sanctuary. Not as supporters, or customers; but as co-owners.

STUART HOWARD-COFIELD – @grumpyoldfan99

YOU CAN READ STUART’S BLOG HERE http://grumpyoldfan.net

 

 

 

 

 

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