Summer’s nearly here and the signs that mark the eternal passing of the seasons come round once more. Warm evenings, the goalposts in the park coming down (which always brings a pang of sadness when I first discover they’ve gone) and the arrival of my season ticket renewal pack.
This last option is no longer a reliable calendar as it seems to plop on the mat earlier and earlier each year. I’d make a joke about Spurs working it into a Christmas theme next time, were it not for the fact that some clubs have actually done this in the past. Spurs of course offered the two year ticket recently. A few extra weeks interest all adds up, after all.
The pack not only has my name on the front but also a row of Spurs shirts hanging in the dressing room, pre-match. Palacios is 12, Rafa 11 and next to him, side by side, is number 10, Fisher. I kind of like the idea that I wear the 10, the playmaker, revered in Brazil, Pele, Socrates…Be Part of the Team says the accompanying blurb. They can’t do without me.
Naturally I’ll renew. Like a besotted cuckold I watch as the object of my undying desire spurns my affections, behaves badly and and consorts with others, yet I’ll always remain loyal. As ever, the transparently false marketing platitudes grate at the same time as I once again prepare to do my bit to keep Barclay’s profits in the middle billions. Pile that debt mountain high, lads, our children will paying for it long after we’ve gone!
Despite the cash I’ve willingly given the club over the decades and the atmosphere generated by the fans that on the good nights makes the Lane the best ground in the land, I’m not really feeling part of things. It’s odd if you think about it. The Spurs marketing mob undoubtedly get paid a fortune but they are so far divorced from reality, they actually believe this appeal is going to tip the balance. You know, after over 40 years I wasn’t going to renew but I’ve read the pack and goddammit I’ve changed my mind! To be frank, I’d prefer it if they send me a scribbled handwritten photocopied note: ‘Here it is, do what you want. makes no difference to us.’ I’d applaud the honesty.
Being part of the team, it’s feelgood inclusivity, a sense of ownership and belonging, it’s what I as a manager in my day job try to create in my charity. However, to be believable there has to be some substance, a grounding in real everyday experience. As a part of the team, the price as gone up by over 6%. I’m not consulted over a decision that could shape the club’s future for the next 125 years, the new stadium. A cup of tea costs £2. My renewal pack says I have free use of the ticket exchange scheme, yet they refund only 75% of the price. That’s not my definition of ‘free’.
Now I’m getting petty and it doesn’t suit me. I know what I’m doing. Tottenham is my pleasure, my passion, my sanctuary, my lifelong companion. It’s a fatal mistake for a writer to use these words but I really cannot fully put into words how exhilarated and fulfilled I felt after the derby, or beating Chelsea and L’arse last season. They exploit my obsession but I’m a willing participant.
Increasingly however, clubs cannot take that loyalty for granted. Many fans are becoming disillusioned. Lifelong supporters they will stay, searching for results, their moods swinging this way and that according to our futures, but they will do so in a different way. They’ll be less likely to attend matches regularly, to make the sacrifices, the journeys, the late changes in kick-off times. Nowhere is the problem with the modern Premier League experience illustrated more pointedly than with the contrast with going non-league.
Time constraints restrict my available Saturdays but non-league has its own buzz, welcoming, friendly and inclusive. Even after I left southeast London I drove up up to watch Fisher Athletic (the attachment is obvious), buried deep in the docks where the support was hard core in more ways than one. The first time I went, I smiled knowingly as an irate voice bellowed abuse at his own players from behind me in the main stand. After 10 minutes I turned round to discover it was in fact their manager, Keith Stevens the old Millwall warhorse. None of this new fangled motivational psychology there. On another occasion a woman in a motorised wheelchair parked right next to the pitch. A steward immediately strode purposefully towards her. “Two sugars, is it, Mavis?’ ‘Thanks darlin’’
On Easter Monday I renewed my acquaintance with this world, and it does seem like another world, with a visit to my local team who play in the Ryman Premier. The most noticeable difference is off the field, pre-match: spontaneity. Rather than plan months ahead with investments in time and tickets, 30 minutes before kick-off the family are debating whether or not to come. It’s a social thing: bit of football, bit of chat, lots of laughs.
At the ground it’s clear that scenario has been played out in many other local households. Park two minutes away, families and die-hards mingle together in the sun on the halfway line before trooping to the end the home side are attacking. Here you can walk round the ground.
The game kicks off amidst plenty of noise. The stadium has a cowshed stand at either end, small but an expert in acoustics could not have designed it better. You could hear the crowd three miles away. It’s noticeable how many women and children are here, a setting where they feel comfortable. A couple of families wander off and picnic in the corner, the boys having a sly kickabout in the practice nets. In front of me, a group of 6 year olds guzzle crisps and coke as they join in the abuse of the away keeper. When you’re that age, what more do you want from an afternoon out?
The home team are well on top, buoyed by a dodgy early penalty. The football is enthusiastic but poor, although they go against type by forsaking the long hoof in favour of an attempt to play out from the back. Premier stars would struggle on this pitch, the mountains of sand unable to smooth out the lunar landscape of stones and bumps.
At half-time we chat with acquaintances we bump into on the short trip to the other end and share news from far flung Lowestoft and Horsham re the rivals for automatic promotion. The noise continues unabated for the whole of the second half, vibrant and ribald as all good crowds are. There was one remarkable episode that is decidedly unusual, unique in my experience.
One of the home faces who gets the chants going has brought his baby, no more than 14 months old. He’s decked out in home blue and white, complete with a delightful little drum to match the home drummer. My mate tells me this guy has toned down his behaviour considerably since he became a father. Once, he spent the entire first half pitchside giving dog’s abuse to the away keeper, who was black. At half-time the keeper, silent until then, turns round, looks him straight in the eye and says, ‘”At least I’ve got a bigger di*k than you”. Whereupon our man was stunned into silence and ended up shaking the keeper’s hand.
He’s a doting dad now, paying him plenty of attention as the match goes on and periodically handing him to willing grandparents who are here too. Baby loves the racket and joins in, gurgling away contentedly. There’s a moment’s silence. Baby burbles ‘blue army’, wordless but the tune and intonation is crystal clear. He goes ‘blue army’, the crowd answer. First baby, then the crowd. Call and response on the terrace, led by a 14 month year boy.
Same game but a vastly different experience. The problem for the Premier League is that many are saying it’s not different, it’s better. Close to the pitch and the players, feeling part of something, a sense of belonging that cannot be replicated by marketing ploys, however professional. I went with Villa and West Ham fans, both of whom used to have season tickets, both still follow their teams avidly but who rarely attend games now because they are disillusioned with the whole spectacle and the way they are treated.
In the short term it won’t make much difference. Cue Levy intoning the season ticket waiting list and whatever it has gone up to this week. However, unless something changes I fear Spurs and the entire league are setting up long term problems that will harm the game. Already the average age of premier league spectators is in the thirties, higher in some grounds. Football is still loved deeply but a new generation defines being a fan as watching on TV and buying the shirt rather than being there. Many of the spectators last week wore the colours of league teams but they choose to come here.
It can never be the same at the Lane and I don’t expect it but if they want us to be part of the team, the club could pay us a little more attention. Keep down ticket prices, food in the ground at an affordable cost, plenty of consultation, don’t rush to move kickoff days and times for TV, it would all help and all those points are easy to put into practice. My name on that shirt – it’s not a first team shirt. If it were, you could see some blue on the back and the collar’s wrong. I’m a fan, you see, I spotted that because I know the club better than the merchandising department. I know what’s happening and I understand my role but that doesn’t mean you have to take that for granted.