Extracts of Blagg's football blogs as he follows West Ham United and England through the usual series of near disasters.

Featuring links to the Annual Billy Blagg Advent Calendar of Christmas Songs.

Also featuring guest appearances by 'Captain Olympic'.

Monday, 14 April 2014

The Golden Fleecing

It's been a quiet week for West Ham with Hull's efforts in the FA Cup meaning the Hammers have a break they would probably rather have done without. Doubtless though, in a World Cup year, there will be talk of burn-out and winter breaks and all the other things that seem to go hand-in-hand with the Champions League and Premier League, even though several clubs will have players sitting around twiddling their thumbs for the best part of 10 days.

It's made me think -- not for the first time I hasten to add -- just what a bizarre package 21st century football is. A game that wouldn't exist but for the paying customers (i.e., you and me), but a sport that forces those who watch it to shell out eye-watering amounts of money to watch club or country every week, either through the turnstiles or via Sky-high (pun fully intended) TV subscriptions; a game that couldn't survive without us either in terms of finance or support, yet one that, week in and week out, royally dumps on those it professes to exist for.

Javier Garrido TV cameran Norwich vs Arsenal
PA Photos Matches are routinely moved for TV with little thought for the fans.

Take the tedious England game at Wembley. Surely everyone knew a midweek international game in the middle of the serious part of the season wouldn't provide much in the way of entertainment or excitement? None of those players who took part in the 1-0 win over Denmark would have wanted to expend much energy or get injured in the club run-in. So why didn't the FA take the opportunity to pack Wembley by making cheap 10 pound tickets available? Perhaps get the kids in for a fiver and try to instil some passion for future generations? I mean these are the people enabling Wayne Rooney to get a ridiculous 300,000 pounds a week, is it really too much to ask the game to give us something back?

But of course we can never do that. We live in a football world akin to the fairy tale of the emperor's new clothes. Nobody wants to point out the emperor is naked lest we appear foolish. We'll pretend then; pretend that the midweek international no-one wants is a really big test for Roy Hodgson and anyone wanting to see it needs to shell out the best part of 50-plus pounds for the dubious privilege.

In a big FA Cup weekend, Charlton supporters wanting to see their team's game at Bramall Lane would have had to stay in Sheffield overnight. The reason? The FA had moved the tie for TV purposes to a noon kickoff, the early start ensuring there would be no trains arriving from London until after the match had started. What other form of entertainment would treat its paying customers in this way? Can you imagine any other sport, a theatre or a cinema only opening when no one can get there?

I'm reminded of the old joke about the fan who is supporting a struggling club, ringing the ground to ask what time the game starts: "When can you get here?" comes the reply. That joke would have no meaning now unless the supporter says: "Ohhh how about 3 p.m. on Saturday?" To which the club official would probably say: "OK we'll start at 1 p.m. then"

The fascinating thing is that every season the red flag is raised whenever a team is in danger of being relegated. Two seasons in the Championship can almost be a death knell for some clubs if we read the chairman's statements correctly; the amount of money lost in TV revenue alone is enough to bring tears to the eyes of most accountants. Yet every time a team has been relegated and is fighting to return quickly -- usually via the playoffs -- figures of 90 million plus pounds (there is usually a 30 million pound variance depending on what paper you read) are bandied about as the prize for the club that runs out victorious. This money never seems to be reflected the following season, though; few sides spend that in transfers or wages, yet if the club is relatively successful and stays in the Premier League, the successive 90 million pounds never seem to equate to lower ticket prices or even special benefits for fans.

Let's be clear, though: This isn't a complaint particularly aimed at Europe or the bloated Premier League. In fact, football has always treated its fans this way. Through the 1960s and into the 1980s, supporters were herded about like cattle and treated like scum by most everybody.

The Taylor Report, which came out following the Hillsborough tragedy, highlighted this. Obviously the revolution that the report engendered isn't a bad thing; in terms of safety, comfort, crowd control and, for the most part anyway, the authorities respect for the fans, things have improved beyond measure, but as far as treatment of the supporters goes in general terms, fans are still being used and abused -- it's just that this time it's not being done with a snarling face and a truncheon but rather an avaristic grin and bank vault with a black hole at its centre.

The fascinating thing for the football fan though is that this wholesale fleecing of the paying customer is carried out in a style that would have Bill Sykes' pick-pockets purring with pleasure. Every season the supporter is told we have more choice, more matches to watch, more goals to see, more channels and more media to catch it on yet -- in an style of "doublespeak" that George Orwell would recognise -- we're steadily getting worse off. As the ability to communicate becomes easier and cheaper elsewhere, in football it becomes ever more expensive.

Perhaps it's too altruistic to say that supporters should now be getting their football fare for free, but it is fascinating to think that the costs for the football fan rise more and more every year, yet every season the needs of the paying supporter are ignored exponentially. But should we be surprised? The rich have always exploited the poor and the nouveau riche are the worst of all.

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