When we talk about nostalgia and football we think of images of photographs of 20,000 people crammed onto an open concrete terrace, a black and white sea of flat-caps and players kicking a ball that weighed half a tonne. The matchday experience at top-flight ground these days couldn’t be any more different.
With the exception of the likes of Fratton Park and Craven Cottage, the stadia appear to have taken on a very American influence to be more arena like. The modern english ground is neat and tidy, everyone has a good view of the pitch, stands are often the same height and more bowl-shaped designs are appearing when clubs either remodel or move home.
Plastic seats, Coca Cola on sale, pizza in some places and yes – even the chips look more like french fries! Of course we now pay through the nose for these – I seem to remember going to Arsenal’s Emirates stadium this season and purchasing a pint of Budweiser in a plastic glass and a hot dog costing me something in the region of £6. Not bad to say both were as bland a petrol station sandwich. Of course the damage to my wallet wasn’t really helped by the fact that my beloved Sheffield United had their backside handed to them on a plate by the Arsenal youth team to the tune of 6-0.
For all my whingeing the facilities at the stadium were superb. Everything at the Emirates was immaculate. A large padded seat, plenty of toilet facilities – even outside the ground, spectacular looking ground and tonnes of leg room. However at the same time I was slightly saddened by the comparative luxury of this new 60,000 seater stadium. It didn’t FEEL like I was going to a football game. Oddly part of me yearned for the smell of hot Bovril, sausage rolls and the sense of being crammed in to the stand like a battery hen. Despite the wretched physical conditions of some grounds, I miss going the atmosphere that only seems to be generated in a packed small stadium with pitched roofs and a great fat steel pole obscuring your view of every single corner kick!
The Premier League and Championship lead the way for the flat atmosphere grounds built on wasteland. Middlesbrough is a perfect example of this, completely bland inside and out, built next to some form of trawler yard and usually a few thousand short of capacity. Of course the Taylor report that cited the need to change to all-seater stadia has had a huge influence on our matchday experience. Then came the introduction of the enormous television revenues which have enabled clubs to ‘improve’ their grounds.
Some of the atmosphere has no doubt left the game these days but it is a price I will gladly pay – and i don’t mean the expensive ticket prices. For all some people will moan about all of the above there is something that they forget. Before these changes to the grounds and the matchday experience, was it ever this safe to take children to a game? That alone is worth it, even worth the camp ‘razamataz’ of cheer leaders, worth the large sponge mascots and even worth the annoying inflatable clappers.
Gone are the dark days of the 1980′s where supporters were herded like cattle into standing pens, where hooliganism was rife at some clubs and where crowd control meant using a truncheon. Football has become a more family orientated experience, albeit an overpriced one. Many more women and children can be seen at grounds today, even outside the grounds in the pubs I no longer feel under any threat by opposing fans. Alright, the crowd may be a bit quieter than it was, and there was something special about 25000 home fans terrifying the opposition with deafening noise but at least you can expect a safe trip wherever you go in the country now.
With possible promotion looming back to the Premier League for my club, that will decided tomorrow (May 3rd) or failing that the dreaded play-offs. I know that the first grounds I will want to visit will be Fulham, Portsmouth and Liverpool, three ‘proper’ football grounds I am yet to visit – you can keep your Hull City style bowls until I’ve been to the old style grounds thank you.
Incidentally here is a fantastic website for planning a day out to a game www.footballgroundguide.com/ , the old grounds and stands section is a great tool for showing the differences in our stadia over the last 20 years.