Football is a simple game. That’s what everyone says.
I’m not so certain.
For a start, I don’t think it’s a game played by professional footballers anymore. At least not in the traditional sense.
Seeing a footballer out of his natural habitat used to be, not that long ago either, a little strange; an almost surreal experience.
I remember walking down Hunstanton High Street one Saturday morning and having the shock of my life when one of my teachers walked out of Woolworths.
He’d been shopping. A fairly straightforward act. Normal is what normal does in fact. Yet it was a sight that my brain, barely into its teens, simply couldn’t compute.
Surely he lived in the school? He was there when I arrived in the morning and there when I left in the afternoon. Therefore he lived in the school; he ate, slept and did whatever else you needed to do at the school. And never ever left its stark steel and glass confines.
In pretty much the same way that footballers could only ever be seen on a football pitch.
For all I knew, Graham Paddon, my childhood hero, was only ever a footballer. He wore the yellow and green kit all the time and, whenever he was not needed, he simply hid away somewhere at Carrow Road, waiting to play his next game. He and the other ten players.
Except Trevor Hockey. He lived in some sort of subterranean basement.
The shock was no less earth shattering when I went to my first ever Norwich game, arriving at the back of the River End in plenty of time before kick off to get, as my mate had insisted, a few autographs as the players arrived for the game.
And there he was. Keith Bertschin. Driving a car and wearing normal clothes. Walking, talking, smiling and everything. And he had a jacket on.
In a jacket. Not a Norwich shirt. A jacket. And jeans.
I was so taken aback that when Mick McGuire arrived in his battered old Ford Granada and walked towards us carrying his boots in what suspiciously looked like a Wavy Line carrier bag, I had to have a sit down.
These people, these gods. Yet they weren’t. They were normal people. Mick McGuire’s car looked more knackered than my dad’s for goodness sake.
It was all quite a revelation. A Damascus moment.
Teachers and footballers. Both important and influential figures in the life of a young boy. Until, at least, girls come along. Not that I ever knew what to do with them.
The point is that you are so used to seeing and relating to your role models and heroes in the environment that you are most used to seeing them in, it comes as something of a shock to see them out of it. And not acting, well, heroically.
I was just about to take my ‘O’ Level mocks when Dad’s mum died. It was my first funeral. And I wasn’t so much upset about Nan dying as I was at seeing my father cry before the funeral.
That really shook me up.
Times change and our perception of people does with it. I guess it’s all about the suspension of innocence. I was naive as they come as a teenager.
I now look back at the game I once loved unconditionally and see, much to my regret, the last vestiges of its innocence being washed away, bit by bit.
What was I? What were we back then in our formative footballing years – the seventies and eighties?
We were fans of course.
Football fans. We went to the game, we paid to get in at the turnstile, we watched the game, we cheered lots, we went home. Usually via the chippie on Kerrison Road.
Football fans. Bursting with all the youthful exuberance of those parka-clad Hereford fans who invaded the Edgar Street pitch after Ronnie Radford had scored for them against Newcastle.
A scene John Motson, commentating on his first ever Match of the Day game, found totally and utterly delightful.
That footballing innocence has gone now.
Pitch invasions these days are, more often than not, instigated and precipitated by violence and provocation. No-one found the actions of the Hibernian fans who invaded the pitch at Hampden Park during last season’s Scottish FA Cup Final “delightful”. Yes, the Hibs fans were joyful at their win. But they were more content in goading their opposite numbers with it.
There was no innocence on show there. No exuberance. Just a deep down, seething hatred of anything that wasn’t their own.
Football fans have changed. People don’t support the game or their clubs in the way they used to. The methodology has all changed. Is it for the better? You tell me.
Let’s take what increasingly seems to be the ‘new normal’ with regard to football clubs attitude towards their audience. IE. The ‘fans’ of old. You and me. Those of us who, like me, couldn’t wait to tell anyone and everyone that Keith Bertschin wore ordinary clothes some of the time, not just a yellow shirt with a smart green trim.
In many ways of course, clubs used to take that innocence that many of us shared for granted. Collective attitudes were that as long as the masses got to see their heroes every fortnight or so nothing else mattered.
As a result of that, many football grounds were unfit for purpose. Terraces fell into disrepair, parts of some stadiums were closed and on-site facilities, if they weren’t flooded or closed for repairs that would never happen, were at best prehistoric.
Had such a lack of due care and attention been paid to other places that attracted large gatherings of people on a regular basis, they would long ago have been closed or even condemned.
But then the sort of people who went to the theatre on a regular basis, a tiny proportion of those who attended football matches, were treated differently. Their custom was appreciated and valued – but then it had to be. If they didn’t provide both entertainment and facilities of the very highest standards, their patrons would not bother going. They were discerning.
Football fans, it appeared, were not quite as fussy. And we weren’t. I’d stop and watch any game being played, anywhere and at any time.
The negligence eventually caught up with footballs suits. Hillsborough, Valley Parade, Heysel.
But there had been warnings before then. In 1971, 66 Rangers fans died at Ibrox Park as they attempted to leave en-masse after going a goal down to Celtic in the final moments of the game. A late equaliser saw many of them attempt to return to the stand with the resultant crush ending in tragedy.
In summing up what had happened, Scotland’s Sheriff James Smith issued a statement putting the blame for what had happened squarely on the shoulders of the people who ran Rangers FC.
“So far as the evidence is concerned, the (Rangers) Board never so much as considered that it ought to apply its mind to the question of safety on that particular stairway…and would appear – I put it no higher – to have proceeded on the view that if the problem was ignored long enough it would eventually go away…indeed it goes further than this because certain of their actions can only be interpreted as a deliberate and apparently successful attempt to deceive others that they were doing something, when in fact they were doing nothing.
Damning to say the least. But then why should the Rangers’ board have cared a jot about the welfare of their supporters? They turned up, week in, week out, in their masses. So what if the terraces and stairways were potentially lethal. They didn’t have to stand on them.
It was a slaughter of the innocents.
We were fortunate at Carrow Road. Yes, the ground and its immediate surroundings were less than salubrious. The Barclay was accessed via a steep stairway up and over a grassy bank. Once you were in your place and, providing you weren’t hit by one of the flying coins that would periodically zip their way through the crowd, your place for the ensuing ninety minutes was relatively safe.
You only had to hope that you didn’t need to visit the loos that were at that part of the ground at the time. Some who couldn’t be bothered would stay put and make use of a rolled up programme instead.
It was cramped, filthy and uncomfortable. But people rarely complained.
We just wanted to see the football.
In light of the aforementioned tragedies that started to become a feature at football matches both in this country and the continent, things had to change. Some club owners would, no doubt, have begrudged spending money on bringing their stadia up to scratch. But it had to happen.
And we were touched by ‘new football’ ourselves when the findings of the Taylor Report meant that, for safety reasons, the old Barclay had to be pretty much razed to the ground and replaced whilst, some years later, the local authorised refused to issue a safety certificate to the old South stand. It either had to be replaced or left empty for home games. The consequences of that, of course, were, and are, the stand that is there to this day.
Football was being gentrified. It had to catch up and it was. Yet, with this and the millions of pounds that were being invested in the game by Sky, the industries attitude to the paying spectator began to change.
Nicer grounds and higher prices meant a different type of spectator was attending the football. They’d been attracted by the whole package and the squeaky clean image that Sky was giving the game. Blue skies, happy smiling faces, immaculate grounds and accessibility for all. This promotional feature from Sky summed it all up perfectly.
Football was now entertainment and was being packaged as such. Its innocence had been lost forever.
As a result, football matches are no longer watched by fans. They are attended by customers. We are all customers now. And customers don’t just come to see the football. Indeed, judging by the massed ranks of empty seats at either side of half time at the FA Cup Final then, for some, the football is just part of the day’s entertainment – peripheral even.
Fans become customers who become consumers. Consumers who, amongst other things, need ready access to such services as bespoke luxury travel management, flexographic printing and converting, afternoon tea at a luxury hotel and the possibilities that one of the region’s most prestigious fee paying schools might have to offer their children.
Plus a new Fiat with a starting price of just £19,545.
All advertisements placed in the Canaries’ programme for the game against Burton Albion.
Now compare that to a selection of some of the advertisers in the club’s programme for the home game against Manchester United on March 17 th 1976. The selection of products and services on offer that day were of a rather more prosaic nature – Eastern Counties Buses for example. Pontins. The Post House restaurant (“chicken and chips in a basket”) on Ipswich Road. Plus an ad from the Norwich Building Society advocating a basic ‘moneybuilder’ account.
Football fans and football fans needs. But customers today. Consumers with deep pockets who expect a lot more for their money.
That old innocence and sense of wonder that used to surround the game and the people who played it has long gone. And yes, football clubs are beginning to learn to love and appreciate us.
But is it for the right reason? And are you a customer?
Or a fan?