Six hundred and eighteen steps. From Stratfords on Gorgie Road to turnstile 38 of Tynecastle Park’s Main Stand. Those 618 steps, only interrupted after 94 for a quick detour into Ladbrokes, provoke one of the best feelings. That feeling of going to the football. That feeling.
Depending on the game, the occasion, the location, the opponents, that feeling may start the night before or days previously. Maybe not until the morning of the game, in the car, on the bus, on the train. In the pub. On hearing the first song, derogatory or not. Or the walk to the ground.
Go back to your childhood and that feeling is in all its glory. The noise, the smells, the colours. The stadium appears as big as Mexico’s Azteca and there is a vibrancy which you have never experienced before. The football, the result is almost secondary to the day.
That feeling; there is an increasing sense of it dissipating. I hope I am wrong but it seems that the bounce in fans’ step towards the ground has been replaced by an indifferent meander. The same apathetic stroll while carrying out the household chores or picking up the shopping. The pre and post-match walks to and from the ground should be contrasting. The energetic bounce replaced 90 minutes later with the disconsolate trudge. My fear is that the former is becoming to resemble the latter.
Fans want success and entertainment. Big deal. It’s what fans have always wanted. But there has been a gradual shift in mentality. Now it is not so much that they want it but they demand it. They expect it. They feel entitled to it. It provokes gnashing of the teeth, sweeping mood swings, fickleness, paranoia, rage, disgust. Fans are irascible. You only have to take a glimpse at the replies to football players and journalists on Twitter, comment sections of newspaper websites, be unfortunate enough to tune in to Arsenal Fan TV or fortunate enough to venture into the away end when St Mirren visit Dumbarton. Social media has helped facilitate the heightening of emotions. Faux-outrage has been given a platform.
Incandescent rage, bewilderment and incredulousness seem to be the default setting of many football fans these days. When really it should be a mixture of excitement and anticipation with a huge dollop of consigned misery but ultimately hilarity.
Why is that so? In Scotland we have the quite reasonable excuse that playing the same teams three, four, five times a season can become quite wearisome. But there is much more to it than that. The globalisation and commercialisation of the game has saturated the market. Between Friday, October 14 to Thursday, October 20 there were/are 69 games available to watch in the country.
Then there is the analysis, reviews, previews, columns, features, interviews, podcasts; there is a lot of truly excellent content. However, with wall to wall coverage there is an awful lot of banality. Airwaves, column inches, web pages need filled. Statements, opinions, views and thoughts are increasingly sweeping and reactionary. Everything is immediate, has to be immediate. Common sense and objectivity are the biggest losers.
Fans are subjected to so much football that that feeling can be diluted. They can see the best play the best in the Champions League, English Premier League, La Liga, the large, noisy crowds and it becomes more of a priority than their local team, the team they grew up supporting. Then there are those who opt for the pub and dunderhead central, Gillette Soccer Saturday.
There is no better example of this globalisation and commercialisation than the Premier League. The league is ubiquitous. Their branding and logo is omnipresent. While managers, coaches, chief executives, owners and players may not be clean, their production is. Their stadiums are welcoming environments. Everything is organised, everything is structured. They may even begin to edge out the German cliché for efficiency.
Then there are those damn microphones. So prominent in every interview this season. On them is the redesigned lion which appears overly friendly, you certainly wouldn’t leave him alone with your other half. And of course there is the Dulux colour chart branding. It looks like the Old English Sheepdog has got in about the paint samples at B&Q and shat over everything which carries the words Premier League.
I actually pity the fans of clubs in the top tier of England. The game, for them, has changed. There is too much . . . everything.
It all reminds me of a scene from Jurassic Park. Dr Malcolm – played by A-lister Jeff Goldblum – shares his reservations about the experiment that is being carried out on Isla Nublar.
“ . . . and before you knew what you had, you patented it, packaged it, slapped it on a plastic lunch box, and now you want to sell it.
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
The TV deals, the exuberant wages, the egregious transfer fees, the pre (AND POST)-season tours, exploitation of the Asian and American markets, the potential for a 39th game, the avarice, Super Leagues, the ticket prices, the merchandise, the control. The Premier League is well down the road; the T-Rex has long escaped and the velociraptors are cooking a nice steak in the kitchen.
There is a real desire, an understandable one, to market the game better in Scotland, aspire to what our neighbours have achieved – in relative terms of course. Smoothen out the edges, become more savvy on social media, increase consumer engagement. Commercialise the game and make the product and service better. Effectively make the industry more professional; progress forward, into the 21st century.
Far more knowledgeable people than me write about the specific issue of marketing our game, making it a more attractive proposition for current, lapsed and prospective fans. It has been discussed passionately on Twitter. You know the threads, often containing the same names, reaching into triple figures of replies. These individuals have innovative, exciting, interesting and original ideas. They are often backed up with simple and workable examples. For many of these examples inspiration comes from America. A country that knows how to market and commercialise sport, entertainment, even the simple task of eating food that it wouldn’t be surprising to find out there is extensive marketing classes in Kindergarten.
Label me a dinosaur, call me Billy Brown, forgive me for sounding close-minded or old fashioned but I enjoy the rough edges to our games. What’s wrong with, if not standing still, then making small tweaks rather than sweeping changes. Do we want our game to change that much?
The term ‘only in Scotland’ gets chucked around far too freely. Yes, we have struggled to attract sponsorships for leagues and cups. Yes, TV deals have been a bit of a mess in recent years. But, for two examples, you look at La Liga and Serie A where some of the biggest teams in the world struggle to get sufficient sponsorship; TV deals have been the point of constant consternation; clubs potentially being fined for showing empty seats (a product of trying to make the league ‘look better’), kick-off times which are not fan-friendly (the league trying to have a greater presence in foreign markets).
Steady progress would be ideal without the corporatisation. I am of course biased but the Scottish league is more attractive to me than the ‘show’ in England. The omnipresent branding, the multiple sponsorships, the games abroad, the pre-match handshakes, the sanitised new stadia I could do without.
We have the tendency to occasionally make amateur hour become amateur week. Last year’s Scottish Cup quarter-final round draw mix-up was labelled an embarrassment by many; I thought it was wonderful. David Tanner’s face was a particular highlight, like a gameshow host presiding over two hapless contestants who think Canada is a state in America.
These instances add to the enjoyment. I want to go to a game with the hope of seeing a player knock a manager over with his chest; I want to hear about a team getting locked out of their dressing room at half-time; I want see and hear opposition fans, players and the officials being harangued and heckled (within reason). I want to go to the football knowing it could be miserable and then have a moan that it was. I don’t want to go and sit in a characterless, bland environment, with fans behind their phones and tablets. I want to go and stand, have a laugh with mates, even if it means our view being obstructed by a pillar.
I am not ‘against modern football’. It’s just that a lot of it is mere cosmetics. And as cosmetics they don’t give me that feeling. Branding, food choices, half-time entertainment, being able to drink at the game, flashy Twitter goal or team alerts, new stadia or infrastructure, corporate gimmicks don’t put the bounce into those 618 steps.
It’s the not knowing what is going to happen on the pitch, it’s the goals, the mistakes, the pre and post-match pints, the laughs, the train to Dingwall, the car ride on a Tuesday night to Forfar and having to suffer extra-time, it’s the suffering, the occasional joy, the players, good and bad, the villains. It’s those 618 steps. That’s Scottish football. That’s football. It shouldn’t change. There is nothing better than that feeling.
Written by Joel Sked