Fifteen years or so ago – right around the time that my first book Fever Pitch was published – the atmosphere in our football stadia began to change. Hooliganism, at least inside the grounds, began to disappear, and, regrettably, the noise levels began to drop. This was an inevitable consequence of a number of things: the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster, which put an end to the vast, intimidating terraces where the most vocal supporters gathered, the drastic increases in season-ticket prices that forced out younger fans, and so on. Because of the coincidence in timing, Fever Pitch itself used to cop some of the blame: according to some of the less rigorous thinkers on the sports pages, the publication and success of the book prompted a lot of middle-class sissies (because who else would read books, apart from middle-class sissies?) to push out the proper fans and take the game over. I used to fret about this – had my book really played a part in wrecking football? But it seemed to me, even at my most paranoid, that in the end Rupert Murdoch’s money and an agonising disaster had had more to do with the change than I could claim credit for.
At Thursday’s Arsenal AGM, Arsene Wenger seemed to complain about the lack of support at home games (although he was talking, specifically, about the dismal atmosphere – which matched the dismal performance – during the first half of the most recent match), and, after all these years, Fever Pitch got blamed all over again. John Cross in the Daily Mirror thinks that the Emirates “has become a place for too many corporates and the Nick Hornby brigade of ‘new trendy fans’ with the older, more vociferous ones being in the minority.” Fever Pitch was published in 1992, and the bulk of its sales took place between 1993 and 1995, when the paperback was published. I don’t believe that these “new trendy fans” really exist, or at least, not in the way Mr Cross seems to think. (The corporates, of course, clearly do – there are all sorts of boxes and Club Level tiers full of them.) But even if they did, how long do they have to attend games for before they’re no longer new and trendy? Because they must have been watching Arsenal for a minimum of ten years now. Reading sentences like that is like listening to mistrustful, small-minded villagers who won’t talk to “newcomers” because they only moved in twenty or thirty years ago.
I am fifty-one, and I’ve been going to Arsenal for forty years; the average age of a Premiership spectator is, according to a survey a year or so back, forty-three. If football is to survive, then that probably needs to come down a decade or two, which means welcoming newcomers, rather than pouring scorn on them for not having been before. In most areas of life, converts are welcomed; that’s how sport and the arts stay alive. Not football, though. “Where were you when we were shit?” is the chant of the sneery tabloid sports journalist, and it looks as though it will stay that way forever.