The Beautiful Game they call it, and it can be at times, especially watching the Galacticos. The problem is that at its most beautiful it is the artistry of well-documented overpaid, petulant professionals who dazzle us with their skills. But in 1970 when my friends and I started going to matches it really was at grass-roots level or seemed that way from the hard concrete of Aldershot’s Recreation Ground and behind the white perimeter bar at Hampshire Leagues finest, Alton Town 200 yards from my house.
Even at The Dell, then the home of first division Southampton, where we watched Chelsea, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle and Spurs it was the feel and atmosphere of what would be League 1 or 2 now. That’s how I think of it in terms of standard of play and the “stadium” experience, as most of these grounds had incomplete or no stands on some sides, certainly not ones that matched.
Attendances nevertheless averaged about 30,000
Now we have the Premier league with all the extravagance that goes with it, and greed, and plenty of bad behaviour. For better or worse most of us are priced out of it so in my case I’ve been watching at the lower half of the pyramid for the last nine years and supporting the Gas – that’s the blue and white quartered Rovers of Bristol; this is partly due to a family connection locally but also my son is a season-ticket holder and loves the club so the Memorial Stadium has been a chance to meet up regularly for a matchday experience with his mates and I drive an hour from Wiltshire. Not only home games but some away games, which can be a great day out
This is not the case of a boyhood affiliation. For years I was a Portsmouth (Pompey) fan and watched them in the mid-seventies. Before that and when the world of pro-footie initially pulled me in as a teenager I nailed my colours to Don Revi’s tough-tackling dream team Leeds United featuring the likes of Bremner, Clarke, Charlton, Gray, Giles and Cooper immediately after seeing them lose to Chelsea in the FA Cup final in 1970 and they became my team. My friends also had their heroes and supported Chelsea, Spurs, Liverpool and (surprise) Manchester United; I chose well as Leeds went on to a fair amount of success. England were about to play in the Mexico World Cup and we were the holders, it was an exciting time, we were football mad!
In the years since, the changes have been dramatic and there is a huge divide now between cash-rich and poor. In league one and lower down the ladder the match experience is obviously basic and more imperfect with uncomfortable conditions, you freeze, get wet and jostle for position, never getting a brilliant view of the pitch for all kinds of different reasons, but somehow it is an honest way of watching your favourite sport. I also enjoy the big venues like the Madejski stadium, reading but it’s different and you compromise a bit for your comfort.
However, we watch though, whether at the top or at the bottom of the “soccer” pyramid, it’s still the beautiful game