Magazine article The Spectator

Fever Pitch

Magazine article The Spectator

Fever Pitch

Article excerpt

Odd, really. As a ten-year-old I attended Anfield Road primary school, a corner kick from the Kop. As a teenager, I must have spent hundreds of Saturday afternoons leering along the city's pavements, my inanities blurred by the background roar of the rival grounds. But it did not once occur to me actually to go along and watch a Liverpool football match (as the son of Protestants, it would have been unthinkable to support the papist Antichrists at Everton).

I blame my mother. She was the kind of north Liverpool snob who never took her hat off in public, and for whom all football fans lived in council houses and voted Labour. I adopted her prejudices seamlessly. I was, after all, a sensitive grammar-school boy with a fondness for folk-evenings and poetry readings, who spent Wednesday games afternoons hiding behind the goal praying for death. Horror stories of large, beered-up Scousers emptying their bladders through rolled-up Liverpool Echos, and down the legs of close-pressed neighbours were more than enough to keep me from the terraces.

A couple of generations on, I may be wiser and orphaned, but I am no less squeamish: why is it that the producers of Match of the Day devote so much show-time to phlegm, flying like feathers as all those monstrous poseurs snarl up and down the sputum-soaked pitch looking for an excuse to fall over? I quite see that not everyone who rejects my prejudices keeps whippets in the bath and thinks The Spectator is a sports magazine. We have a Prime Minister who claims to be a lifelong Newcastle supporter, the middle classes have opinions on central defenders, and it is so long since football hooligans trashed trains as thoroughly as they do each other that nostalgia has lent them an almost heroic air.

So comprehensive has the change been that the chief circumlocutory twerp in the Premiership's press office insisted on calling football grounds 'accomplished entertainment venues', all of which are generously provided with 'food-serving facilities'. The money for this gentrification has come from sponsorship and TV, which, paradoxically to my mind, has not kept the fans slumped on their sofas watching the game but has spurred them on to attend in ever greater numbers. In the 13 years since the old first division became the Premiership, attendances have risen by almost 70 per cent and the stadia of the top 20 clubs enjoy over 90 per cent occupancy. In Manchester United's case, a capacity of 68,000 still means turning away more than 12,000 fans every home game. At the top level, football is immune from normal economics; clubs seem to be able to charge whatever ticket prices take their fancy. I realised, in a never-thought-much-about-it sort of way, that 30 bob probably didn't swing it at the turnstiles anymore, but £40 to watch a game that lasts 90 minutes? And of course even the lowliest clubs in the old fourth division (now 'rebranded' as Coca-Cola Football League Two) offer match-day hospitality. At one of the big-name London clubs, this can mean thousands for a box, or hundreds per head for a meal-and-ticket package.

So can the show be worth the shilling? In a generous attempt to challenge my preconceptions, Fulham Football Club invited me, together with my son, to drink champagne at the Salisbury, a locally celebrated gastropub, and watch the fixture with my old home-town club from the elite purlieus of the directors' box. …

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