"THIS COULD BE A VERY LONG NINE MONTHS..."
The Premier League has now come of age. Over eighteen seasons, England’s top flight has transformed into one of the world’s leading leagues. It is beamed across the globe and has a television audience of over half a billion people in over 200 countries. The action is fast-paced, goals are spectacular and plentiful, and with Sky Sports providing the coverage, every conceivable angle is covered.
As football fans we live in a golden age. We are treated to 24-hour football news, bringing us up-to-the-minute stories from inside every club. There is televised football on offer almost every day of the week. As the Premier League has grown, the exposure and hyperbole that accompanies it has grown too. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m guilty of buying into it all. I’ve been known to sit for hours, days even, as Sky Sports News looped over and over, waiting to hear even the faintest whisper of news about who Spurs might sign. I have watched the goals on Match of the Day then watched them again on Goals on Sunday. If I missed anything, I would find all the footage I need, usually with Arabic or Chinese commentary, on the internet.
That is unless Spurs lost, of course. If that happened, I would shut the football world out. It would cease to exist until the following Saturday when the chance to rectify a week’s worth of humiliation would come swiftly to my aid. I would be unbearable to be around for days after a defeat. Where women can cite their monthly cycle as a reason for mood swings and irrational behaviour, my irritable and volatile temper could be blamed on a weekly cycle of hope, annoyance and despair. The worst part of it was its utter unpredictability because Spurs were utterly unpredictable. In the time that I have supported them, they have generally been very average. But ‘average’ hides the highs and lows – a Spurs supporter is exposed to moments of pure magic and inexorable joy suddenly followed by cataclysmic disaster, misery and dejection.
As a grown man I should keep a lid on my emotions, especially in the trivial world of football. However, I am not entirely at fault. There are some mitigating circumstances. Football matches are now given a life-or-death billing and the Darwinian significance of every game is contagious. In the current economic climate, it is very much a matter of survival. The amount of money at stake in football gives losing an almost terminal prognosis. This situation has resulted in the game’s ‘have-nots’ performing a balancing act between their need for survival and their desire to succeed, leaving the ‘haves’ in a luxurious position of dominance.
It is the result of the omnipresent nature of the Premier League. Behind the façade of glitz and glamour is a sport that seems to have lost its way. It’s easy for outsiders to say it’s just a game, but when you invest financially, spiritually and emotionally in the fortunes of a football club, what is at stake becomes very real. Just ask the supporters at Portsmouth, Crystal Palace, Southend United or any number of other clubs that have been, or still are, a stroke of a pen away from oblivion. Football is not as fun as it used to be.
It got serious a while ago when Roman Abramovich upped the stakes at Chelsea. Now more clubs are controlled by super-rich businessmen. Manchester City’s new oil-rich owners have allowed the club to pay £200,000 per week to a player deemed to be expendable by Spanish giants Barcelona. It is lunacy. The financial gulf between the fan in the stands and the millionaire on the pitch is vast. In fairness, players have short careers and are vulnerable to injuries that could snatch their livelihoods away from them at any time. A player has fifteen years to earn as much money as he can, but this money-driven mentality seems to eclipse the other reasons to play professional football. As players move from club to club seeking ever-higher wages, the connection between fans and the players they support is marginalised. It’s hard to care about a guy who could well be trying to score against you in a few months time. The days of drinking with the players in the bar after the game have long since departed, and the celebrity lifestyle, fast cars and beautiful women detract from what it is that players are supposed to be doing: playing for their club and in turn playing for the fans. They kiss the badge and run to the crowd every time they score, but these partisan displays are all part of the show.
How important are you to your club? The chances are that the answer is ‘not very’ if your club resides in the Premier League for any significant length of time. Premier League clubs, whether they intend to or not, take full advantage of their fans’ devotion. In the world of big business, no other companies can boast the brand loyalty that a football club possesses. This is why clubs can get away with ticket price hikes year after year and why they release three marginally-different redesigned shirts every season. The serfs in the stands are mere turnstile statistics. Premier League crowds have topped 200 million people since its inaugural year, during which time the average ticket price has risen from around £11.50 to £44. We no longer get treated like fans but like ordinary punters, a bum on a seat. We buy the shirts, the scarves, the mugs, the celebratory DVDs; all because we want to feel a part of our club, like we are making a difference, but our relevance is only reflected in the balance sheets and not the trophy cabinet.
As much as I love my club, I can’t truly say I am connected to it as supporters were 25 or 30 years ago. I’ve never sat in the same seat twice at White Hart Lane. I was on the season ticket waiting list for years and paid my annual dues as a club member, but what I got in return dwindled while the price crept up. You can’t see a game at White Hart Lane now for less than £30, and while that is excusable on the odd occasion, it is impossible to sustain. Even if I had a season ticket, I would be surrounded by strangers. For me, an experience like that would be as empty as watching a match alone in a busy pub. Football is a social event and should be shared with friends and family. My friends are a collection of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and West Ham fans. Those that say they support Spurs do so only in a vaguely interested manner and would have no real desire to accompany me week-in week-out to see them, especially when it costs around £800 a year to do so.
To say I’m disillusioned with my football club would be wrong. I love Spurs, but the reality is that they are part of a bigger problem endemic in top-flight English football. The romance has gone and has been replaced by season after season of predictable outcomes. Sky dress up every game as match of the season, and for a whole week players are trotted out to tell their fans how much they are up for it and how much the game means to them. We get served up Grand Slam Sundays, Survival Saturdays and derbies galore. Inevitably, they rarely live up to the hype. Formations have become more conservative. Lone strikers are now commonplace and defences are screened by two combative midfielders. It’s all too clinical, and with what’s at stake now, it’s entirely understandable.
The only variable that exists in football these days is the size of a club’s bank balance. Success begets success, failure is becoming irreversible, and there appears to be no end to this cycle. The best players flock to the richest clubs because they can afford the highest salaries. This isn’t wrong as such, it is basic economics after all, but it does maintain a status quo that has caused the game to stagnate. A player as gifted as Matt Le Tissier, for example, would not stay at a club like Southampton for his whole career in this day and age. Players with his ability previously allowed smaller clubs to compete on a more level playing field. Now any teenage talent is spotted and snapped up by bigger clubs further up the financial food chain, often before they have made their full debut.
In the twenty years since I saw that first game at Upton Park, only fourteen teams have lifted a major piece of domestic silverware. That is sixty trophies – twenty First Division or Premier League titles, twenty FA Cups and twenty League Cups – claimed by less than 15% of the teams in English professional football. In the twenty years that preceded my introduction to football, 23 teams or 25% of football league clubs were successful in those same three prizes. The decades immediately after the war give a similar 25% outcome (and this despite the League Cup only coming into existence in 1961). The chance of glory is the life blood of all football fans. When that chance becomes as slim as it has done for most clubs, and players start to care more about who pays them rather than who plays them, fan interest will fade. I’m not saying the be-all and end-all of football supporting is counting the silverware your club accumulates, but there needs to be a thin seam of hope. Something to dream about.
There has to be an alternative to the corporate cash cow of the Premier League, some way of uniting friends every other week to follow a common cause. A place where every pound spent on pies, pints and programmes is appreciated and doesn’t go to waste. Where the men out on the park don’t earn more than their egos can take, and where the supporters can literally reach out and touch their heroes.
In February 2010, I was accompanied by my girlfriend, Stacey, and ten friends to watch Leyton Orient take on the fallen giants of Leeds United. It was a birthday outing, and like I usually did before most birthdays, I’d scanned the fixture lists across London and Essex for a suitable game to attend. The Orient-Leeds fixture jumped out at me. Leeds were one of the casualties of the Premier League. Having splashed big money to live the dream during the nineties, even reaching the Champions League semi-final in 2001, they overspent and the house of cards tumbled down. Now they were pushing for automatic promotion from League One and were likely to bring a strong team from Yorkshire. Despite the cold weather and poor quality of football that ensued because of boggy conditions, everyone had a great day – helped by the surprise result, a 1-1 draw in which Leeds only scraped an equaliser in injury time. It led to a chorus of ‘we should do this more often’ and as we headed towards the shelter and warmth of a pub off Bishopsgate, a giddy sense of excitement grew in me as a plan formed in my mind.
The vague idea had been floating round my head for a while. I pitched it over a couple of beers to general approval and the nodding of heads. Then it snowballed and gathered all sorts of additions and glorious twists until everyone in the vicinity, including people I’d just met, became advocates to the plan. Inevitably, those that voiced their immediate interest sobered up and slowly but surely stepped away from it, clinging to whatever excuse suited them: time, money, other commitments.
It was hardly a groundbreaking idea. It was neither difficult, daring nor out of the ordinary: buying a season ticket at Leyton Orient Football Club. I had been to watch Orient a handful of times over the years. I used to head up from Essex with a mate of mine when I was about sixteen. We would play a few frames of snooker at Leyton Billiard Hall, try and get served in a local pub and then wander over to the ground for the game. I’d seen a League Cup tie against Newcastle United and play-off matches in the old Second Division against Hull City. The atmosphere was always lively and passionate but never hostile. The ground is old-fashioned, tucked away behind rows of terraced houses just off the main high street. I could imagine the local residents stepping out from their front doors on match days, draped in scarves and rosettes, walking straight across the road and through the turnstiles. This was a club at the heart of a community and with plenty of heritage and history behind it despite a lack of tangible success. I had an affection for the club and continued to pay the occasional visit to watch the O’s for a football fix every other season or so. They became a second team of sorts and I would keep an eye out for their scores as Saturday’s results rolled in.
A season ticket at Orient ticked all my boxes. As a resident of Spitalfields in east London, the short trip down the Central Line made the journey time to and from games a cinch. My day job sat conveniently on the Central Line too, at Chancery Lane, should I need to nip to Brisbane Road for a midweek evening game after work.
It was bound to be affordable and better value for money than a Premier League club. Over the last decade, season ticket and matchday prices at Premier League grounds have been the subject of much debate. The average season ticket price for the capital’s elite clubs was upwards of £600. At £300 for 23 home matches, Orient presented itself as a very reasonable alternative.
The standard of football was going to be pretty decent. While League One football may not be as aesthetically appealing as top-flight football, there is at least a relatively level playing field, making each season an unpredictable one. The casualties of Premier League survival battles, relegation-induced player exoduses and a failure to adapt quickly to change has created a graveyard of well-known clubs in the lower reaches of the Football League: Leeds United (who did win promotion despite their draw at Orient), Manchester City, Nottingham Forest and Charlton Athletic have all spent recent seasons scrapping away in the third tier of English football.
Most importantly, for the first time in my life I would be able to regularly watch the sport I love with a group of friends. We would enjoy pre-match beers, half-time pies and the post-match dash to the local to celebrate or commiserate the afternoon’s result. The majority of the games would be played at the traditional kick-off time of 3 o’clock on Saturday afternoon. Like so many of the customs in the English game, Premier League television coverage has ripped up the rule book on kick-off times. Games switch and change to suit the programming schedules. 3 o’clock on Saturday afternoon would now be sacrosanct to us. Our lives would be planned around it, our weekdays would be nothing more than a climactic build-up to the main event on a Saturday afternoon.
Out of the group of twelve who attended the Leeds game that wintery afternoon in February, four of us made the pledge. It was an opportunity for us all. Jamie, who had always enjoyed football but never had a team to call his own, was an entirely blank canvas. He was completely open to the club, like a man on a first date with the potential girl of his dreams. Murph and Chas, two lifelong Arsenal fans, were in the same situation as me. They too suffered from the enormity of the prices at their club. Now they had a chance to watch regular football with mates without club allegiances getting in the way.
Chas, who invariably makes a drama out of most ordinary things, took a little convincing, but the cheques were on their way to Brisbane Road during the closing games of the 2009-10 season. Chelsea clinched a league and cup double, taking the title by one point from Manchester United and beating a long-since relegated Portsmouth in the FA Cup final. More importantly, my beloved Tottenham Hotspur finished fourth, meaning that not only had they broken up Sky TV’s gratingly monikered ‘Big Four’ of United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, they had also booked their place in Europe’s foremost club competition for the first time since the 1960s. Perhaps I was leaving the Premier League just as it was turning a corner and the predictable run of results was coming to an end?
‘This had better be bloody worth it,’ I said to Murph one afternoon by email. ‘First time in twenty years of supporting Spurs that they do well and I commit to League One football.’
‘Of course it will,’ he replied a few minutes later. ‘Anyway, too late now, I’ve sent the applications off.’
The next nine months of our lives were set. 23 games lay ahead, maybe more if Orient did well in a cup run – although after a season in which Orient had just escaped relegation by the skin of their teeth and got knocked out of the FA Cup in the first round, we knew bright moments such as cup runs were few and far between in Leyton. As a Spurs fan, I was used to the genuine hope of silverware and expected a top-half finish as a bare minimum. I would have to get used to reduced expectations, where relegation was a very real prospect, silverware was what you ate your dinner with and general club survival is far from guaranteed.
It cost me £300 to experience this way of life. It was a situation many at Brisbane Road were born and raised with, but one in which Murph, Chas, Jamie and I were entering of our own volition. I was sacrificing the potential opportunity to see AC Milan, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, giants of the European game, to watch AFC Bournemouth, Walsall and MK Dons. Would it be worth it? I had no idea. This could be a very long nine months.