In Two Minds About the English Premiership
It’s been a few weeks now since I’ve returned from my trip to England to watch four Premiership matches and one Champions League match in the space of eight days. During that time, I’ve had a chance to reflect on what I saw. I was originally planning on writing a series of articles for the EPL Talk Magazine, but now that we’ve decided to forego any future issues of the mag, and post the articles here, feel free to go ahead and read my first piece below which summarizes my feelings from the entire trip. Over the next week, I plan on writing more detailed pieces about each ground I visited (which totalled 12 in all).
Ever since I’ve returned from my trip to England to watch five matches in eight days, I’ve been feeling a bit schizophrenic. That’s because when people ask me how my trip was, I have two totally different answers depending on who’s asking the question. Let me explain why.
Having lived in Wales until I was 14, I had the pleasure of seeing the meteoric rise of my local team Swansea City from the old Fourth Division to the First Division (today’s modern day equivalent of the Premiership). I attended my first match when I was 10 and went to more than 50 games from 1979-84 watching some of the biggest clubs in the country at Swansea’s Vetch Field.
After I moved to Florida in 1984, I had the pleasure of visiting the UK on numerous trips back and went to see plenty of football matches but they usually ended up being home friendlies played by Swansea (due to work reasons, I could only get back to the UK in the summertime). In the U.S., meanwhile, I went to all of the matches I could, which included international friendlies (Germany v Argentina, Brazil v Mexico, USA v Russia, etc) as well as local teams (Miami Fusion, Tampa Bay Mutiny, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, etc).
So when I went to England this past November, it had been more than 20 years since I had experienced the enjoyment of watching top flight football in the UK. For me, it felt like I was experiencing a time warp being sent back to England and re-living my experiences all over again, but being able to compare them vividly in my head to what I remember from the early 80s.
Of course, football has changed tremendously from 1984 to 2006. During that time, British football has experienced the tragedies of the fire at Bradford City, Heysel, and Hillsborough as well as a complete revolution in terms of football both on the pitch and off it with the formation of the Premier League, removal of the fencing, the move from terracing to all-seater grounds and — let us not forget — a completely different style of play on the pitch.
So why do I feel schizophrenic when people ask me how my trip was? Well, it all depends on the context of the question. If I’m being asked to share my feedback on the trip on the whole (without comparing it to the early 80s), then I can unequivocally say that it was a trip of a lifetime and a dream come true for me. Being there at grounds like Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, Craven Cottage, Ewood Park, Emirates Stadium and several others, the experience was awe-inspiring.
I was able to soak up the atmosphere of being at the grounds. I felt the rush of blood as the build-up to the 3pm kickoff approached. As I walked through the thousands of strangers, I felt like I belonged and related to every one of them because we all had the same common passion for football. And, of course, I loved hearing the sounds of the fans cheering and singing — so much so in fact that sometimes I found myself watching the crowds instead of the football on the pitch.
The football on the pitch wasn’t surprising. I’ve been watching almost every minute of the Premiership ever since the first highlight shows starting appear on the air in the early 90s. The only moment I felt I had an advantage watching the football in person than on TV was during the second half of the Man United against Chelsea match at Old Trafford as I watched Mourinho change his tactics by bringing on Robben and witnessed Michael Essien playing right back but pushing far forward and creating acres of space down the right. I’m not sure how apparent it was on TV how much space Essien had (which resulted in Chelsea controlling the second half and Essien was instrumental in helping the Blues get the equalizer).
BUT when I’m asked about how my trip to England was in terms of how it compared to the football I experienced in the early 80s, I have to admit that the trip was a disappointment. I had heard the countless criticisms over the years about the Premiership being too expensive and losing a lot of the passion that used to be in the stands. But until you experience it in person, it doesn’t sink in.
There were so many things that surprised me at the grounds. First was the lack of singing by fans prior to matches. Even a few minutes before kickoff, the grounds sounded like ghost towns outside. Second was the lack of singing inside the ground. There were many moments in matches when the fans would be silent even during the “match of the season” at Old Trafford versus Chelsea.
To me, the last bastion of the true Premiership football experience in England is following your team to away matches. In every match I went to, I was more impressed by the away support than by the home spectators (the Bolton fans against Everton, the Spurs fans against Blackburn, the Hamburg fans against Arsenal, the Reading fans against Fulham, and the Chelsea fans against Man United). In all of those examples, the away fans seemed like they were having more fun than the home support and the noise created by each away fan was MUCH more than louder than the average home fan.
In the early 80s, you could hear the sounds of the fans singing at least thirty minutes before kickoff from about half a mile away. The sound would make your hairs on the back of your neck stand up, or would strike fear in your heart (if you were an away supporter). You could feel the tension and passion in the air. You could smell it.
In the four Premiership matches I went to, the vast majority of fans were in their seats for the entire match and were practically silent except for small sets of more vociferous fans. The age of the fans had changed too. The majority of them were 30-40 or older and there were few teenagers there (unless they were accompanied by their parents).
The other surprising thing was how late the grounds filled up. I arrived at Old Trafford more than four hours before kickoff and was surprised but glad to see large numbers of people at the ground even at that time. But five minutes before kickoff, there were a huge amount of empty seats at Old Trafford and it wasn’t until five minutes into the match that most seats filled up. This wasn’t the case just at Old Trafford, but was commonplace at every ground I visited.
Another surprising factor was the mingling of the away fans with home fans. In the early 80s, I was used to seeing the away fans being herded into pens and treated like animals. They would have been escorted by police via train or bus to the ground, and then escorted by policemen and German Shepherds to the away turnstiles. All the while, the away fans would have been singing their hearts out and provoking the home fans who wanted a piece of them.
During my trip to England, away fans would walk down the street wearing their club’s jersey and even sitting among home fans. The away fans arrived at the ground via their own transportation and, although there were police in the area keeping a close eye on events, they walked around the ground uninterrupted. For me, it was like watching aliens land on earth. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
To summarize, the experience of watching football in England has changed 180 degrees. It’s now watched by older, more affluent football fans who sit for 90 minutes but still support their club with a ton of passion. The experience of going to a match is safer, quieter and more organized. Take it for what it’s worth, but the experience of going to a Premiership match now resembles going to a sporting event in America. Is there anything wrong with that? No, not necessarily, but the end-result is that the experience feels more plastic, more focused on capitalism (taking money out of your pocket at every opportunity) and less about the communal experience of sharing a football match with thousands of football fans.
Even in a crowd of 76,000 at Old Trafford, I felt alone.