The Changing Face of English Football

As those of you with a Sky Sports subscription will be aware (or anyone who has watched a game down the pub recently for that matter), this season marks the 20th anniversary of Premiership football on Sky and 20 years of the Premiership full stop. Now seems as good a time as any to take a look back at how things have changed over those 20 years, for better or worse.

The biggest impact has to be the impression Sky themselves have made. No longer is the armchair fan limited to a single game a week as they were in the final years of the Football League’s hegemony; instead the average fan can remain committed to their armchair for a good proportion of the weekend, soaking up the finest that English football has to offer. Enforced shopping trips with the Mrs. aside, that is. Of course, in addition to the Premiership, there are a plethora of other offerings on the table over the average weekend, varying from the Championship to Spanish to Blue Square Premier football – if you know where to find it. Some may argue that we are now over-saturated with football; for me, it’s just great to have the option to dip in as and when.

The biggest argument against this TV inspired change is the loss of what was once a sacrosanct time on the weekly calendar: 3 o’clock on a Saturday. For fans of some teams, the bigger clubs especially, it can be weeks on end between a traditional Saturday afternoon kick off and the next. The full ins and outs are perhaps an argument for another time, but I I don’t think it’s been overwhelmingly detrimental to the game’s lifeblood, the fans. Those separated from their clubs by geography or perhaps a financial barrier can be more connected to their clubs than ever before. The neutral has also been benefited by the ability to soak up game after game, which would be much more of a challenge if all games kicked off simultaneously. At least, I find it a challenge to be in two or more places at once, notwithstanding the fact that my terrible memory makes me promise to do just that with annoying regularity. Though rarely with football matches, it must be said.

Tied into the increased influence of television on the English game is influx of foreign players. The money pumped into the game through television rights contracts, both home and abroad has allowed the Premiership to attract some of the world’s best players. With this has come an overall increased technical level of the game in this country as a whole, as well as bringing the associated and hugely predictable cries of “they’re ruining the game for our lads” and things of that ilk. The increase in foreign talent on these shores, coinciding with an improvement in most top level playing surfaces has, many would argue, improved the quality of football on offer to the viewing public. For instance, the last 20 years have seen the rise of Arsenal’s brand of passing football, which, arguments about their current form aside, I doubt would have been possible with the quality of English players and pitches 20 years ago. Sure, the increase in foreign players on our shores has reduced opportunities for some of our younger players leaving some calling for limits on foreign player numbers (something which has mostly disappeared and then reared its head again in the past 20 years), but these foreign players must leave gaps in European & world football elsewhere. Football, like much else (and fittingly so I would suggest), is about the survival of the fittest and I, for one, would prefer to see English players adapt, improve and look for new opportunities in order to carve out their careers, rather than being given a relatively easy ride by some arbitrary limit on foreigners.

The past 20 years have also seen a significant change in the match day experience. Terraces are now a thing of the past, with most stadiums also doing away with the view-obstructing concrete posts that permeated most clubs’ grounds during the bulk of the 20th century. With this mostly positive investment in infrastructure has come price rises to go with it, not only in ticket prices but in the cost of refreshment. This all adds up to a more expensive match day experience and together with the earlier point regarding the increased influence of television, has led to many more fans taking to the sofa or the pub, to soak up their weekly football fix. These things add up to what on the one hand is a more consumer friendly experience but which also negatively affects the atmosphere at a lot of grounds, especially amongst home fans. I, for one, would be interested to see figures charting the increase in the number of times the chant “shall we sing a song for you?” is heard from away fans these days.

So that concludes a rather brief look at how the face of English football has changed over the last 20 years, and then only really at the top level. I’ll be exploring some of these ideas in more detail over the coming weeks as we continue look at how the Premier League has changed the footballing landscape over its maiden 20 years.

Fanfare of the Modern Fan

Towards the end of last season, Football Focus were interviewing two old boys of the game (Jimmy Anderson (not the cricketer) and one other I can’t remember), and as the interview came to a close, the interviewer (I forget who – there seems to be a theme emerging here) asked the two old boys whether they would trade in their glory days of the past for the wages of today (I may be twisting it slightly but stick with me here). To my surprise, they said, resoundingly, “yes”. This was a shock. Primarily because I had come to assume the old cliché about everything being “better in the old days” was what everyone believed. I think the interviewer was also a little taken aback.

Of course, the focus was on wages, where few would opt for the relative poverty of old compared to the Scrooge McDuck piles of money of the modern professional but this got me thinking, what else have we to be thankful for in the modern game? What can we look at in today’s football world and say “it has never been better than this”…

  1. Stadiums – No longer does the average joe have to paddle through streams of frothy piss whilst cheering on his heroes from the stands. The relative comfort of today’s stadiums may not be everyone’s cup of tea but I’ll have a nice big potful, thanks. They also mostly have roofs. Except if you’re an away fan at Bristol Rovers soon to be demolished Memorial Stadium, of course. And finally, you can even see the pitch at most modern stadiums. No longer do you have to leave at half time to go eat a Big Mac, missing Dwight Yorke scoring a penalty in the process, because you’re only 7 and you can’t see past the big fat guy in front.

  1. Media Coverage – Back in the day, before the advent of the internet, when people used to wear braces and work down mines, the summer used to be the reserve of cricket and its fans. No longer! Now we can get 24 hr updates on the latest clogger our teams are going to sign, you can get a 1000 word essay on the meaning of Joey Barton’s latest tweet or you can read a few hundred words about what some guy you don’t know thinks about modern football. It may not sound like much but when you’re addicted, you’re addicted. Now, if we can just get James Richardson to host all football shows on TV, then we’ll be sorted.

  1. Pitches/Quality of Football – Leaving aside any argument about the technical quality of most of the teams in England, the improvements in pitches have unquestionably improved the quality of football on show. Modern inventions like the lawnmower, garden fork and sunlight, mean groundsmen all over the world no longer have to stand knee deep in muddy pitches nurturing a single blade of grass to life with a rusty spoon and a handful of magic beans. And I for one am glad.

  1. Live Matches – The final nail in my ‘real football fan’ coffin. I like watching football from the comfort of my own settee (or your settee, or anyone’s really). I admit it. It’s not that I don’t like going to stadiums (see no.1), it’s just that the TV experience provides so much more value for money and there’s always some football on somewhere (even if it is a U16’s game from Peru). Not to mention being able to drink a beer whilst sitting on your own sofa. Unless, of course, you spill it and make a mess, and therefore get sent to bed without dinner.

There are of course many other things I could point to, the loss of stigma of being a ‘football fan’ for instance, but I think that list will do for a start. Feel free to add to the list below or, perhaps more realistically, let me know why I am talking utter gonads. Ta.