After our European season came to a close, it looked as if our upcoming schedule was going to be fairly light. However, with less than one week’s notice, our postponed Premier League fixture at Man City was rescheduled for this day next week. The confirmation came last night, around 10.30pm, and it’s a shabby way to treat match-going fans.
They have to organise travel at the last minute, therefore it’s more expensive, and people also have lives and work and those ‘trifling’ things to consider. Even the 3-4 week schedule when TV games are organised is short enough notice: 7 days means plenty won’t be able to go. That’s bad. Arsenal, in fairness, are providing subsidised coach travel – with return tickets costing £15, so there’s some assistance there, but in general it’s yet more confirmation that the people who attend games are an afterthought these days.
The flip-side of the argument is that the ‘worldwide’ audience is far bigger. Far more people will watch on TV, and pay subscriptions to watch the world famous Premier League, so a bit of inconvenience to a few thousand travelling Arsenal fans is collateral damage that they can live with. And I’m sure they can, I doubt it even keep the powers-that-be awake for a second. It should though.
I don’t want to bore anyone with cliches but part of what makes the TV entertainment so attractive is the fact the stadiums are full with fans of both teams. Remove them from the equation and you have a product that is massively diminished. Think about those recent European nights at the Emirates in the last few years. We’ve had some good results and seen some good performances in the Europa League group stages, but a 30,000 attendance in a 60,000 stadium takes something away from the experience. It’s why all of us should care how decisions affect the supporters who go to games, even if those might make things better for us.
It’s not for me to say one fan is better or more special than the other. This isn’t about levels of support or how much of a Gooner you might be. You can be from N5 or from Nigeria and feel as passionately about the club as each other. Yet the fans who go to games are too often treated like second class citizens for the benefit of the TV audience, ignoring the fact that without them the armchair experience would be different, it would be worse.
It’s evident with VAR which, to be fair, has taken some steps to communicate what’s happening inside the grounds now. But imagine they launched a thing which would leave the people who have paid for tickets absolutely clueless as to what’s going on while those of us at home are right up to speed in terms of what’s happening. In as much as anyone has a clue as to what the hell VAR is up to most of the time. It demonstrated how little they considered the match-going fans, and illustrated that their plans for the game and its so-called improvement were dictated first and foremost by what’s best for broadcasters.
Does VAR add anything at all to the match-going experience? I don’t think so. It definitely adds drama and talking points and video clips for social media and outrage and countless other things which benefit the media, which is why I no longer buy into any of the explanations about how VAR is about fairness or justice or getting more decisions right. It’s not. It’s the surprise box in a game show in which you could win a million pounds or lose all your prize money at the drop of a hat. It’s a tool for entertainment, not sport, and it comes at the expense of the people inside stadiums.
I say all this, by the way, as someone who only attends a few games every season. For the most part I’m a television viewer like the majority of you reading this, but the stranglehold rights holders have over the game threatens so much of what makes it great. It’s why I feel a bit dismayed when a group like the AST publicly oppose ‘initiatives’ like a European Super League and get push-back from fans. Remember, the people who want that to happen don’t want it because they want to make football better, to create something for the good of the game or the supporters, they want it to make money for themselves. Your money, my money, anyone’s money. End of story.
Cliche time: Football without fans is nothing. What resonates more – the roar of a passionate crowd, or someone shouting ‘man on’ as it echoes through an empty stadium because nobody’s there? That’s the thing though, they know fans are a captive audience. No matter what you do, no matter how many you drive to a breaking point where they say ‘That’s it’, there’s always someone to take their place. There will be the next generation for whom this kind of treatment becomes normal, and less of an issue.
I dunno. Maybe it’s too cynical an outlook. Maybe I need to just accept that this is the way things are from now, and there’s nothing we can do about it. We have helped create the beast with our desire to see our teams, now all we can do is feed the beast. There’s no killing it, we just have to live with it. And a few thousand fans who have to buy expensive train tickets and suffer inconvenience in their lives are just side-effects few of us have to contend with so that makes it all right.
As an aside, I drove home from 5-a-side last Friday night listening to Norwich v Leicester on BBC 5 live. I guess this is a generational thing, because there’ll be some people reading this who will never have experienced it, but is there a more evocative way to experience a football match from distance than on medium-wave radio, with the sound drifting in and out? I don’t know which BBC transmitter I was picking up, whether it was North Wales or Northern Ireland, but those radio waves bouncing off the clouds, the volume and clarity ebbing and flowing along with the noise of the crowd in the stadium and the commentary … I love it.
I recall in 1980 sitting listening to the Cup Winners Cup Final the same way. Having lost the FA Cup final a few days earlier to second division West Ham (up yours Trevor Brooking!), we lost on penalties to Valencia. Liam Brady missed. I was heartbroken. I was 9. And it remains a memory as indelible in my Arsenal supporting experience as any other, as any game I’ve ever been at, any HD broadcast on Sky or whatever.
Like I said, not one that will resonate with everyone, but those of you who know will know.
I’ll leave you with yesterday’s Arsecast Extra, chatting about the Portsmouth game, impressive young players, there’s some Gazidis hashtag fun and loads more. All the links you need to listen/subscribe are below – thanks as ever for tuning in (sadly it’s not on medium-wave though).