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A never-ending conveyor belt?

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Matthew Bazell is author of Theatre of Silence: The Lost Soul of Football, Arsenal fan and an ex-England regular. Will the seemingly never-ending conveyor belt of fans that the FA and big clubs rely on last forever? Matthew has his doubts…

Wembley was less than half full for the Norway friendly and it’s been predictably been blamed on the poor performance at the World Cup and general lack of world class players. And yes, whilst low expectations for the team will be a big factor for a low attendance, what’s being ignored are the other reasons that have seen the once never ending conveyor belt of fans turn bare.

In recent years, thousands of former diehard supporters (this writer included) stopped going to games, due in part to high ticket pricing, lack of atmosphere and lack of belonging. I used support England home and away, but have been absent for many years and an average England team is not the reason I’m not there anymore.

Firstly, attending football today is overpriced, and secondly – where’s the fun anymore in being a football supporter, or should I say spectator – when the culture has reduced us to passive consumers? All-seater stadiums, heavy handed stewarding and over commercialisation have created an environment that does not breed any commitment to staying on the conveyor belt.

The first and last time I attended an England game at the new Wembley was a qualifier against Israel in 2007. It was a very underwhelming experience where fans just sat down and expected to be entertained. By then, football had changed to point where I had stopped going regularly. England v Israel in 2007 was so different to the last England home game I had attended to that point – against Turkey at Sunderland’s stadium of Light in 2003.

The noise, energy, passion was stunning in hindsight, but at the time nothing out of the ordinary. We expected crowds to be raw, we expected the goal celebrations in the stands to be manic and, yes, we also had a half decent team that we felt may have had a chance.

The highlight footage from England v Turkey in 2003 is easily found on Youtube. I recommend watching it – and for you to examine the difference in energy and noise compared to what you get today. Don’t judge it against a friendly game like Norway, because the importance of the game was not comparable; England v Turkey was near to a winner takes all match.

Compare the England v Turkey match in 2003, to last year, when England beat Poland 2-0 to qualify for World Cup 2014. Even for a crucial match, the crowd had become static and relatively quiet and also buggered off five minutes before the final whistle despite a positive result! Watching from the TV, I could hear more noise from the 10,000 Poles than the 80,000 England fans.

Tickets were as ‘low’ as £20 for England v Norway, but does that reduced price represent value? It’s still the price of three trips to the cinema – or the purchase of hours of music. Like most football matches, England v Norway was not even worth £20.

In any case, the lost fans are so disenfranchised, that a one-off price reduction alone won’t get us back because we don’t belong in the new environment of sitting down and hoping to be entertained. Football without fans is nothing, that’s true. However, I would take that premise one step further and say that football without raw energy in the crowd is nothing – no matter how good the game is.

The conveyor belt of fans for the big Premier League teams is far more substantial because of the tourist market. As an Arsenal fan, I know more people who’ve stopped going than who those who still attend games. As we dropped off the conveyor belt, we looked round and saw a seemingly never ending stream of tourists and Johnny-Come-Latelies.

Perhaps, one day, the never ending line of fans will run out for them like it seemingly has done for England?

The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed are those of the author and they don’t necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn’t be attributed to the FSF.

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