The 6 Worst Things About The Modern Matchday Experience
What you're about to read might come across as one long rant, and to some degree that's exactly what it is (you've been warned).
In my relatively short amount of time on this planet, I've already witnessed the destruction of my local football ground (Underhill) and noticed how the game has rapidly changed, with growing anger and resentment building amongst the more traditional fans who feel more detached and alienated than ever before.
As football moves towards a more sanitised 'product' that glistens on the TV screens for a world wide audience, the matchday atmosphere has taken a hit and a few common trends have appeared over the years that are ruining the matchday experience.
Music pre-match and after a goal
What's the easiest way to suppress any kind of atmosphere and turn it into a poor man's music festival? Crank up the volume at some of the most important and authentic moments.
Part of the football experience is to hear the vibrant and energetic crowd as the seats pack out with kick off approaching. To hear the first chants as the away fans chug their final pint and congregate in someone else's seat, with the home fans perking up from their slumber and making their voices heard.
Some clubs add to the tension and build up, like when the Barnet tannoy played 'right here, right now' by Fatboy Slim. The music helped to build up the atmosphere towards kick off but never overpowered the moment. It's a far cry from the bigger grounds today where you can barely hear yourself think over some dreadful pop music. It's also evolving, as the common theme of today is to play some kind of cringeworthy two minute film trailer minutes before kick off, doubling down on the volume and overpowering any authentic chants and build-up from the crowd.
One of the most enjoyable moments in football is the sound when a goal goes in. The sound of thousands upon thousands of voices reverberating around the ground in a moment that makes the game so magical. Sadly, many clubs have now adopted to playing music as soon as the ball hits the net, silencing the organic sound of the terraces and replacing it with a drab UK top 40 hit. Even the FIFA gaming series has got in on the act. There really is no escape.
Mobile Phone Usage
This one is much bigger than football and is an epidemic across all kinds of social situations (gigs, parties, dinners). Within grounds up and down the land, the sight of thousands of fans whipping their phone out at the possibility of any kind of action means they're not actively contributing to the scene (no limbs, no chants).
I vividly remember watching Spurs versus Arsenal at Wembley in the North London derby. Aubameyang had the chance to win it for the Gunners right at the death and I'd estimate 80% of those around me got their phone out, despite being in situated right up in the third tier and miles from the action. And let's be honest, who really wants to see your grainy video anyway?
This kind of behaviour is sucking the life out of the game and distracting fans from being in the moment. I'm all for a few snaps here and there (guilty as charged) but when you're filming half the game on your phone, there's a problem.
Continuing with our obsession of screens, it's now become a staple for new grounds to outdo each other with bigger screens. Spurs now proudly boast the four largest screens in Europe, with one plonked in each corner
Don't get me wrong, a screen has its use. To tell the time, the score and for the line-ups. Unfortunately things have moved on since the 90s and now the job of a giant screen is to distract you as much as possible with short meme-esque clips, especially after a goal with a player raising his hands. This only leads to fans obsessively turning away from the action on the pitch to check out what's happening on those giant pixelated screen.
Sometimes they'll even show the game with a few seconds delay, which is utterly pointless and distracting. The worst is yet to come with VAR making the role of the giant screen all the more important in the matchday experience.
Whilst there is nothing inherently wrong with a casual football fan going to a new ground or a far away fan visiting his or hers beloved club, the danger is that once this number matches or exceeds the regulars, it leads to a sanitised and plastic matchday experience for everyone.
The Premier League has been guilty of this for a while now, with streams of overseas fans visiting the likes of Chelsea, Arsenal and United in search of an authentic English experience. Bigger clubs across Europe also suffer from this, most noticeably Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus. The ever-increasing reliance on tourist fans was laid bare during the pandemic when many of the sides mentioned above took a huge hit in home attendances as foreign fans stayed away.
The problem is that 'authentic experience' is dwindling away in the modern era of football and will now only be most likely experienced in the lower leagues. Blamed for the rise in half and half scarves and contributing to a poor atmosphere, tourist fans will also no doubt be taking an unhealthy amount of snaps, and thus the negative loop goes round and round.
Fan safety is of paramount importance and the Taylor Report of 1992 has made football stadiums such a safe environment that families have been turning up to games in their numbers, much to the delight of Premier League bosses.
The issue arises from the overzealous stewards, who'll do absolutely anything in their power to keep you sitting down in your seat as quiet as possible at all times. The amount of times I've experienced this in person or have witnessed on TV a steward block or restrain fans during goal celebrations from getting close to players is depressing. These magical moments between fans and players are what football is all about and stewards try their upmost to suck the life out of them.
In the worst case scenario where fans do become violent, aggressive, or don't follow the rules, stewards do very little to help solve the situation, making their roles all the more questionable (see the Euro 2020 final at Wembley as an example).
Linked somewhat to the point above, sitting at football games is a largely uncomfortable and suppressive way to watch a game, stifling any efforts to create an atmosphere.
What's more, you're almost guaranteed to have to keep standing up and sitting down as kick off, half-time and the final whistle approaches as your fellow fans awkwardly shuffle by you. to leave for the toilet or get to their seat. It's an absolute pain.
Depending on which stand you're in, you might also be faced with the uncomfortable dilemma of sitting down or standing up at key moments in the game (corners, free kicks, penalties, counter attacks) as you suss out fans around you, hoping not to block those behind you but equally not having your view restricted by those in the row ahead. At six foot four I've always felt sorry if there's a kid sitting behind me, but then again at least he or she hasn't got their knees digging into the back of the seat in front due to the narrow rows.
Fortunately, safe-standing is now being implemented in sections of grounds up and down the UK. This is a win for the majority of football fans that prefer to stand safely and contribute to the matchday atmosphere.
With that out my system, I'm going to try and balance the books a little and say it's not all doom and gloom. Whilst we look back fondly to the past, it's clear all was not well. Racism and sexism was rife, hooliganism was rampart, facilities was inadequate and this ultimately led to fans leaving the terraces in their droves during the early 80s, only to return once football started to address its problems head on.
The pendulum has now fully swung the other way and we've all become a bit numb to the sleek and cosy matchday experiences of today. To find the best balance of both, we need to adapt to the German model, where stadiums are safe and the atmosphere is rocking largely thanks to the introduction of safe standing.
It might not fix all the nuances of today (screen addiction for one) but it would go some way to balancing out the trends of the modern matchday experience.
Written by Richard Tester