As I approach my fortieth year following the Canaries the length and breadth of England (with a never to be forgotten venture into Wales for a Play-Off Final) I’ve often asked myself what it actually means to ‘support’ Norwich.
Back in the mid-1970s to me ‘support’ meant a quick cycle into Beccles followed by a coach ride to Norwich, in order to arrive a good hour before kick-off and to find a suitable vantage point on the Barclay terrace.
Those of a certain age may recall that back then the facilities at most football grounds were somewhat antiquated. The public address systems were of limited volume and the idea of the pre-match music play-list being offered as entertainment was still a few years away.
None of this mattered to fans though because as the ground started to fill the and the atmosphere stared to build, supporters of both teams would start and repeat – often in response to each other – renditions of their current in-vogue terrace chants.
There were occasions when the atmosphere would be electric before a ball had even been kicked, especially on those then sacred derby days – Boxing Day and Easter Saturday often being truly unique.
It was an era when football truly belonged to the fans.
However, before I get accused of being too gooey-eyed toward football from the 1980s and 90s, let’s not also forget that football was in a bad place at the time. Attendances were on the wane, hooliganism commonplace and football grounds were stuck in a time warp, often with completely inadequate facilities.
Of course, all this changed forever on a fateful day in April 1989, the truth relating to which is now only being properly discovered.
Change was then forced on football by Government, with legislation introduced that required top-flight teams to have all-seater grounds.
And on top of this, the top tier of English football then voted to do its own thing, with the formation of what is now the Premier League.
The age of arriving five minutes before kick-off was now with us, enabling fans to take their pre-allocated seats.
Health and Safety, previously a low priority for many football clubs, was rightly to the fore, and with it came new public address systems that, in some instances, seemed capable of splitting your ear drums – often when you’re least expecting it!
Football changed its image, largely for the better but, in some instances, for the worse. Whether we liked it or not, football suddenly became sanitised. Pre-match entertainment consisted of pre-determined musical play lists. Any chances of a pre-match sing-song between rival fans were often literally drowned out by the public address system.
Add in the factors of restricted ground capacities, plus a new-found popularity for football – probably assisted by the arrival of Sky – and suddenly the age of rising casual ticket and season tickets prices was upon us.
As a consequence, the profile of the ‘typical’ game attending fan changed and with it, dare I say, the nature of the very game itself.
Football clubs suddenly became the new play thing for overseas owners (thankfully not at Norwich) and the game became focused on the commercial ‘revenue streams’ – although not losses – needed to support these new found multi-millionaire players.
The game has literally, in many instances, gone out of the reach of many of its historic supporting base. The latest Sky domestic TV deal, which will see an eye-watering £5 billion bonus pot come the way of Premier League clubs from the season after next, seems to have done nothing so far to make the game more affordable to fans.
However, football, like most things in life, is cyclical. The game simply cannot continue on its current path. It needs to re-engage with fans, otherwise the endless rises in both season and casual ticket prices and will be self-defeating.
Thankfully there is growing of resistance to the current situation. The Football Supporters Foundation is just one example, with its current “Twenty is plenty” campaign, aimed at reducing the price of away tickets for visiting fans.
Our own club has received widespread recognition for its free pricing policy in relation to development squad games.
However, fan engagement needs to go beyond just pricing. It should cover the whole match day experience and be about all aspects of supporting the team.
The Barclay End Projekt is making stringent efforts to open the debate in relation to such issues as safe standing, ticket pricing, songs and goal music. Their aim is simple: for like-minded fans to attend games, congregate together and to create an atmosphere that is supportive to the team.
And, whilst individuals may not agree with everything that stand for (excuse the pun) it should never be forgotten that the game has always been about inclusivity. Such groups should actively be encouraged and engaged with by the clubs.
Whether that happens remains to be seen and it’s my personal view that it may take Government intervention again in order for football to get its house in order, both in relation ticket pricing and safe standing. However, it would be wrong to assume that the current status quo will be maintained forever, because, as the old saying goes, “football without fans is nothing.”
The beautiful game simply does not have consumers, it has fans. Football – ignore that at your peril.