By James Appell
You’ll have to speak up, my dear – I’m a trifle deaf
“You’re not singing any more.” It’s the classic football catcall, the terrace version of cuckolding. The message, effectively, is as follows: We’ve silenced you, and as a result you are collectively shamed. Your silence suggests you are weak. You are impotent. Your wife is almost certainly cheating on you.
When you boil it down, so much about English fan culture revolves around the verbal jousting between sets of supporters. There are countless versions of “you’re not singing any more” – think “you’re supposed to be at home”, or even the sound of hushing – all of which reflect a mockery of the quiet, passive football fan. Which is strange, because having spent time touring stadiums around Europe over the last few years, I would argue that English fans are now fairly low down the pecking (shouting?) order.
Though our continental chums often laud us as the example to follow, mostly citing the high-watermark of the 1980s as a time when English fans outshouted all-comers, these days it’s across the Channel where you get a proper match-day atmosphere.
In my experience, for real colour and vibrancy on the terraces, England’s top flight is no match for many European leagues. Some of the things I’ve witnessed in stadiums across the continent – Rapid Bucharest fans loudly rejoicing as they set off smoke bombs, Spartak Moscow fans unfurling banners 300ft wide – simply take your breath away.
And the difference isn’t just visible, it’s audible too. To put it another way: we’re not singing any more.
I accept that not all readers will welcome such a statement. Some will dispute the truth of the initial hypothesis. Others will say that, while many clubs do suffer from this problem, their own club’s fans are the loudest/most colourful/hardest this side of the Urals/the Channel/the Pennines. To those I say: travel abroad and see/hear it for yourself. Or, failing that, dig out some YoutTube clips of Lech Poznan v Manchester City or Young Boys v Spurs from this season’s European competition. Even England’s best-supported clubs have some way to go to beat that.
Considerably louder than your club’s fans: Lech Poznan fans bring the noise at Man City earlier this season – for the whole 90 minutes too
Others will try to shoot me down by second-guessing my line of argumentation. To those I say: you’re right, I do think that the combined forces of the Premier League and the Taylor Report have killed the atmosphere in England’s top-flight stadiums – hackneyed though this argument undoubtedly is.
But I’m not calling for a return to the good-old bad-old-days of the ’80s. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have survived on the terraces a generation ago. Nor am I connecting the word ‘atmosphere’ with the word ‘violence’ – the German Bundesliga is no less civilised than the Premier League, and yet their fan culture is very much alive and kicking.
What I would argue is that the combined advent of the Premier League and the Taylor Report forced English football into a trade-off. From 1992 the safety and security of fans were made paramount; at the same time, business-oriented football clubs sought to break into previously untapped markets for new fans: women, children, the middle classes, aka the prawn sandwich nibblers who Roy Keane once berated. You can’t argue with the logic, nor dismiss its benefits.
But along with the knives and the bottles, the flares and the banners also became contraband in English stadiums; the raucous terraces became seated and serene; and those who traditionally sung the loudest, young working-class males, found their collective voice diluted by others who were there for a nice day out.
Moreover, with its market-oriented approach, the Premier League has turned many fans into passive consumers, spending their money with the expectation that entertainment wille be provided. Singing (i.e. approval) is now conditional on the quality of the football being played.
And so over the last 20 years the volume has been turned down, and colour has slowly turned to monochrome. I find this a lamentable situation. If I wanted to sit and watch a game in silence I can do that at home for a fraction of the price of a match ticket.
Is there a solution? I have a feeling re-introducing terraces might be part of it, but coming from the post-Hillsborough generation means I am less appreciative of the problems which standing areas can cause.
Whatever the answer, identifying the problem is a small step on the way towards solving it. And I for one am convinced: it’s all gone quiet over here.
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