British football’s culture wars

Cheerful Tottenham supporters arrive at White Hart Lane station

Cheerful Tottenham supporters arrive at White Hart Lane station

After Tottenham Hotspur scraped a win at home against a Hull City side whose aim to frustrate and suffocate exposed the home side’s lack of verve and imagination, Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas said: “We didn’t have the support that we should have had. There was much anxiety present in the fans which transmitted to the players.”

He also said: “I don’t intend with this message to send them a warning, neither do I intend to hurt their feelings” and also that “the away support has been immense”. But the media had its story, and it was that AVB “slams Spurs fans” with a “stinging attack”. An issue may, once again, have been confected to fill the gap between weekend and midweek games; AVB may have been unwise to give them the chance. But the episode touched a nerve.

Despite the Premier League’s success, there is a feeling that the game is becoming disconnected from the fans. The fans are worried because something we valued seems to be slipping away. The administrators worry because the passion of the crowd is a key part of what they like to call the brand, and that passion is flagging.

AVB’s comments about the Spurs crowd were amplified because the club’s White Hart Lane stadium had, until recently, retained much of the traditional rumbustuousness associated with British football grounds. In 2006, an article in the Bolton Evening News, often reproduced on Spurs fansites, praised the ground as “the greatest stage in the country” and said watching a game there “is like taking a step back in time in a good way. The noise is constant and electric and the passion is tangible.”

And yet, over the last few seasons, regulars have talked about a lack of atmosphere. The Spurs crowd has always been demanding, but it was passionate and supportive. Now, it seems impatient, with a sense of entitlement. But the angst in the game goes deeper.

When the question of whether the fans are right to criticise or even boo the players is raised, the response is usually that “for the money we pay, we can say what we like”. The Richest And Most Glamorous League In The World, it seems, is beginning to reap what it has sown.

Ticket prices are becoming a big issue. For years, the clubs have ramped up prices, exploiting the fierce loyalty of English football fans and the massive global demand for the game. Just before this season started, in an unprecedented show of unity, fans from over 20 different clubs put aside their differences to march on the Premier League HQ in protest at ticket prices. At the end of the previous season, Arsenal’s £62 tickets for the away section prompted protests from Manchester City fans, who had banners proclaiming “Enough is enough” removed. Liverpool fans have displayed banners saying “Supporters not customers”.

Protest has moved from grumbles in pubs and offices to visible spectacle in the stadiums. And that could damage the brand. But there’s more getting under fan’s skin than ticket prices. The experience of watching your team has become increasingly controlled and managed. The terraces are long gone, replaced by seats in which you must sit, not stand. Fans are told what they must and must not sing lest in cause offence – in Scotland there’s even a law prohibiting “offensive behaviour” – flags are fire risks, cards used in tifo displays could be used as missiles. In a move that is beyond parody, one council even prohibits musical instruments inside grounds.

Sit down, shut up, pay a premium, take second place to the corporate packages, don’t obscure the advertising hoardings, here are the rules you must obey… And they wonder why the atmosphere is flatter than it was. Or why the Against Modern Football movement is growing.

There is no easy explanation for the change, but there are plenty willing to grind an axe to try – my favourite was “the internet generation’s culture of instant gratification”. (I blame fluoride in the water myself). What’s undeniable is that there is change. Where once British fan culture set the standard, positively and negatively, now the Brits look abroad for inspiration with many younger fans styling themselves on European “ultras”, to the derision of some of the older heads. Crowds at Premier League grounds are older and more well off, prompting tensions with younger fans who feel excluded by price and alienated by a more sedate support.

For fans of my generation, there’s a danger of harking back to a mythical golden age of support. Much has improved, but the feeling that something has been lost won’t go away. And it’s a feeling that’s being picked up on outside the fiercely insular counter-culture of the committed fan. The game is not at ease with itself.

Martin Cloake will be taking a deeper look at British football’s culture wars in issue two of Thin White Line magazine. His website is at


Some books by Martin Cloake:

Sound of the Crowd - Martin Cloake

Sound of the crowd

At Tottenham Hotspur, the 1882 fan movement aims to recapture the days when “how loud you sing and how passionate you became wasn’t dependent on how well the team was playing”. Martin Cloake talks to the fans organising at Spurs, and places them in a context of a tradition of independent supporter organisation at the club, and of a wider movement to re-imagine the future of football. (Ebook only)

Danny Blanchflower

An appreciation of Tottenham Hotspur legend Danny Blanchflower and his impact on the game of football. This extended essay looks at Danny Blanchflower’s life and career and attempts to explain why he is still such an inspirational figure today. (Ebook only)

Arthur Rowe by Martin CloakeArthur Rowe

Why Arthur Rowe was English football’s quiet revolutionary.

Martin Cloake evaluates the influence of the great Tottenham Hotspur manager and argues that he had a much more pivotal role in the development of the modern game than is generally recognised. (Ebook only)