Serving a touchline ban during yesterday’s 1-0 home win over Birmingham gave Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson (above) a chance to enjoy the tranquil atmosphere from an Old Trafford director’s box. “It was like a funeral out there”, moaned Fergie, though the Guardian’s Sean Ingle suggests this is no shocker (“Old Trafford has about as much soul as a Mick Hucknall tribute band”).
So why don’t fans sing like they used to? The easy answers – the big-dipper climb in prices and the institutionalisation of all-seater stadia – are also the right ones. Twenty years ago, when a terrace ticket was closer in price to the cinema than the Royal Ballet, there was less of a ‘here-we-are-now-entertain-us; expectation from fans. Sometimes the football was great. Often it was rubbish, but the chanting between rival fans could still make the experience – to use a dangerously corporate word – worth the fiver you’d spent to get in.Nowadays players are hyped like never before, earn more than they ever have done, and flaunt their bling-bling lifestyle with the cock-thrusting audacity of gangsta rappers in mid-1990s Los Angeles. When fans have paid £50 to watch a £90,000-a-week player scythe another shot into the crowd perhaps it’s not altogether surprising they shout bile, not encouragement.
Standing wasn’t always a pleasant experience, but there was something about being huddled together on the terraces, your head in someone else’s beer-sweated armpit, that encouraged singing. Chants were invented, rejected, sometimes laughed at. But the adrenaline surge that followed your shout being picked up by 10 people, then 50, then 500, then 5,000, was like being plugged into the national grid. Nowadays fewer supporters sing and those that do stick to the basics, the familiar refrains. It makes for a less spontaneous, less electric atmosphere.
But clubs certainly don’t help fans inject some fizz into a match. How can supporters be expected to loosen their vocal chords when some local-radio goon plays DJ Ã–tzi on loop before shouting, moments before kick-off: “Are you ready? I said: Are you ready? Let’s make some noise!”
Ferguson can’t have it both ways. English football has changed greatly since the Premier League’s inception, in many cases for the better. But the huge hike in prices and the sanitisation of the grounds has inevitability led to an accommodation that all clubs seem happy with: an increase in day-trippers and the prawn-sandwich brigade, a decline in the working-class teens and 20-somethings who are usually the most willing to sing themselves hoarse. If Ferguson was to suggest singing areas for fans, safe, well-stewarded terraces, or demand the Glazers cut ticket prices, then at least he would be offering a solution to go with his fire and bluster.
How many QPR fans grumbled and groaned while Fulham won a succession of promotions largely due to the checkbook of the Phony Pharaoh? How many Stupor Hoops supporters felt something approaching nausea as Roman Abramovich purchased Chelsea’s first league titles in half a century?
I don’t know the exact numbers, but we’re either about to find if Rangers can remain humble…or if the likes of Briatore, Eccelstone and Mittal are any better at buying their way out of a hole than Chris Wright.