Howard Hockin: Why have so many football fans fallen out of love with the modern game?

Do you remember your first football game? Was it like mine?

The thrill of the floodlights looming over rows of terraced houses (it was of course a night game). The smell of Bovril and burgers and pies. The excited chatter. The clip clop of the police horses, the shrill of the fanzine sellers.

Game number 9 in your season ticket book.


Through the rickety turnstile and into another world. The buzz, the claustrophobia, anticipation hanging in the air. And then up the steps and there it was, the lush green pitch lit up like a beacon, and the sweeping terraces. What a sight. I imagine I was crowd-surfed down the stand so that I was afforded a better view. The terrace was full, and it swayed as one. The songs were funny, risqué, always loud, the football electric as City tore the visitors to shreds. I was in love.

OK, maybe not. My memory of such things is appalling, but I imagine my first game was during the day. I accidentally stood in some horse shit outside the ground. Paid on the gate, or at least my dad did. Place was half empty, you could smell the piss from the outside toilets. City were crap, as was my meat pie, City probably lost to Coventry, the ball deflecting in off Andy May’s arse. City were on their way down, and David Pleat would later hurtle across the Maine Road pitch as if evading the police, throwing himself into the loving embrace of a certain Brian Horton. A more immediate concern was the fighting outside immediately after the game, and the relief to get back to our car which, unlike the previous game, still had all its windows intact. £1 well spent.

Why this fictional rant, you may ask? Well it’s do with modern football, and nostalgia. To do with the sanitised version of football we now observe, and why so many fans are falling out of love with the game. It’s to do with the Taylor Report, Premier League football and football saturation, and how the game is losing a generation.

It seems there’s a dichotomy at City that’s been there for a good few years now. As the club regularly fields the best set of players it may have ever had, fans drift away from the game they once loved, the feeling persisting that things ain’t what they were, and that the modern game leaves them feeling colder than a Boundary Park terrace in mid-February. It’s hard to explain why so many fed Findus crispy pancakes for 30 years turn their nose up at a constant supply of steak dinners, but the disillusion is real and wide scale. But I’ll try.

From the barely-disguised sarcasm earlier, you have probably figured out that I don’t totally get on board the nostalgia trip that says football used to be so much better than it is now. Football in the ’80s was grim, played in front of record low crowds, besieged by tragedy and under the gaze of a Prime Minister that regarded the fans as scum. Racism was rife, though women weren’t, which may explain why a small few hate what football’s become, football an escape from the drudgery of domestic life!

But the game had its charms that made most of us fall in love with going to a football match. Football hooliganism is of course a terrible thing, but going to a match felt like a real experience in those days. It was dangerous, it was electric, it was (sometimes) fun. It was affordable too, and you could stand, and not in a set place either. As a teenager it was an adventure, and it was something to do with your mates, a rites of passage in those mid-teen years without parental guidance, something I think that has faded in recent times. It was never nice to run through Stanley Park as golf balls whistled past your head, but your heart pumped faster than listening to Bournemouth fans sing “where were you when you were shit” or reading YNFA on Facebook mock empty seats or City’s 8 year history, a world away from a sad Everton fan in his box room making memes for hits.

In the old days if you attended a game, every match seemed to matter, because before Sky and streaming and vines and social media, it was pretty much the only way to get your football fix, apart from the odd televised match, and the “wireless”, newspapers and the Football Pink. Not forgetting of course premium rate phone lines to discover if we had signed Neil McNab.

After the Hillsborough tragedy, it was (correctly) deemed essential that the game needed reforming. The resulting Taylor Report called for all-seater stadiums in the top division, though Taylor wrongly thought that prices would stay competitive. They didn’t, and the fuse was lit, destroying the support of some of its long-standing fans. Ticket prices have rocketed far beyond the rate of inflation since the report was released, and when Rupert Murdoch gambled his satellite company on English football, the glitz and glamour of the Premier League sowed the seeds further. The big clubs by now realised the potential to earn money, a European Super League was threatened, the cash-rich Champions League the trade-off from UEFA, and money truly ruled the roost long before Sheikh Mansour turned up at St James’ Park looking for an English football club to invest in.

Rising ticket prices have excluded a generation of fans and gentrified the match day “experience”, strangling the atmosphere as a result. It never fails to annoy when corporate areas are still deserted as a 2nd half begins, because most of that section of the crowd are still in the glitzy bar enjoying the bespoke hospitality.

Now I don’t mind Guardiola, Klopp et al trying to gee up the crowd, asking for more support, but they haven’t been sat where we have for the past 30 years, they don’t understand, they can’t understand how we got to this point. How could they?

City’s owners too must wonder how apathy can be so rife when they have delivered so much. Understandable, but live our lives and they’d know. Not sure chippy teas and pale ales are their thing though, to be honest.

Fans are customers, the league is a brand. The Deloitte rich list is almost the alternative league table, and commercial sponsors are sucked in from around the world. Official Peruvian tyre sponsors, Eurasia rice providers, club-crested scooters in Singapore. Glass tunnels, corporate areas creeping round grounds, traditional fans kicked out of their seats, rising prices, don’t stand up or you’ll get thrown out, get to the ground seven hours before kick-off, follow the rules, sell your ticket via our agreed partner, behave. Crap tannoy, expensive food, players don’t care, no youth players, all about money. Heineken are proud sponsors of the Champions League, but no drinking in the ground now! And never drink in your seat, or within view of it, you cannot be trusted.

All excuses for falling out of love with the game. But not the crux, I’d argue. Pick any specific moment in time in the history of football and you could list 100 things that were wrong with the game. You might not have realised it at the time, but still.

There’s always been pros and cons to the game, it has never been perfect, run just how we want it to be, but we have always loved it. In the “old days” we knew no better, now we do, now we know how the rest of the world operates.

We’re so well-informed. We know when other teams freeze ticket prices and we don’t. About Bundesliga football, where every games cost two euros, and you get free transport, a half-time massage and a slap-up meal at Mrs Miggins’ Pie Shop. We know about Champions League riches, every single thing our owners do, and what they used to do.

The owners’ profile may have changed too but little else. It’s a fallacy that in the old days owners cared about me. Peter Swales was a true City fan, for all his faults, but he didn’t care about me. Francis Lee didn’t care about me – he didn’t even want to be in charge. Thaksin Shinawatra provided a free curry in Albert Square, for which I am eternally grateful, but he didn’t care about me, avoiding the law his primary concern. And throughout the history of English football, there will be good and bad owners, and right now owners leeching funds out of the club they run.

So for me it must be something else that makes people drift away.

Maybe people have always drifted away. Maybe I live in an echo chamber, and am simply expressing the views of those I surround myself with, those that started following football at about the same time.

People don’t stay young forever, they gain a family, commitments, jobs, they travel, they have other things that require their time. Football just isn’t the priority anymore, especially when they can still see the game on the TV, or via more nefarious means. Where’s the incentive to go if you can see the game without moving? The modern game, especially the Premier League ™ has been globalised and whored itself to every corner of the earth, been marketed until there’s no marketing left to do, and is at least partially arranged for a TV audience, not a match-going one. Cup competitions too.

FA Cup rounds spread over four days, the final kicking off in the late afternoon, a draw during the sodding One Show, other crazy kick off times, Super Sundays, Friday games, morning games! London games that finish 20 minutes before the last train back up north. No one at the FA gives a fuck, after all.

It pains me to say it, but there’s simply too much football to watch in the world – its lost its sparkle. Saturation coverage has dulled the excitement for a big match, even if the hype has increased. After a million steaks, you crave for just one Findus crispy pancake.

And with money comes pressure, and the overriding desire to win. Money declares that finishing in the Top 4 is somehow a necessity for further success. And the cheating. God, the cheating.

Anything to gain an advantage over the opposition. Players rolling around on the ground when an opposition player’s thumb brushes their shoulder. Diving. Faking injuries. Waving imaginary cards. Such a turn-off.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want Graeme Souness leg-breakers, violence, decrepit grounds, swathes of empty seats, uncovered stands, boggy pitches, tragedies and European bans. It was all crap. Now we just have a different type of crap.

I still love it though, always will. It matters to me as much as ever, it’s just others disagree.

It’s hard to nail down why different people have lost their love for the beautiful game, as the reasons will vary from person to person. But in my opinion, the main reason is thus: other commitments partnered with increasing costs and a dislike of the sanitised, “customer-focused” match day experience have meant a stay-at-home attitude when football is readily available in our living rooms. It wasn’t really better in the old days, but as we age it’s natural to pine for what went before, and to long for when everything seemed more “real”. What we have right now is here to stay, so for those feeling cold, put on a thick jumper and try and enjoy the ride.

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