A few months ago, Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho committed what is often viewed as a cardinal sin in the world of Premier League management – publicly questioning the volume and passion of his own club’s fan base, following a rather subdued 2-1 home win over local rivals QPR.
Such criticisms have prior served several gaffers as a proverbial nail-in-coffin, but rather refreshingly, it’s lead to healthy debate between board and supporter at Chelsea, who both agree that more should be done to improve Stamford Bridge’s waning atmosphere.
The club have since come up with some interesting solutions. They plan to trial a new ‘singing section’ in the Shed End, encouraging competitive participation between home and away supporters in hope of increasing volume throughout the stadium, and will also appoint individuals with the responsibility of leading the singing. Moving away supporters away from the Shed End, creating a monolithic groundswell of vocal Blues support – a ‘hardcores’ end, if you will – remains a potential alternative.
Yet, the issue of poor atmosphere isn’t exclusive to the west London club. The size and militancy of English football crowds have been slowly, steadily declining for years and unless the Premier League wishes to forever lose arguably it’s most unique selling point, the governing bodies need to start implementing supporter-based reform.
Of course, part of the problem is the nature of the Premier League itself. It was founded on the platform of improved television revenues for England’s top twenty clubs, back in 1992, and the powers of finance continue to be its most powerful force, the underlying dynamo maintaining its dominance world-wide and bringing the biggest talents possible to the English game.
Resultantly however, the influence of corporations is spiralling out of control; younger fans are being priced out of match days in favour of the high-in-disposable-income middle classes, now prepared to bring their families, whilst the prawn-sandwich mob of corporate clientele – those empty seats you see just after half-time at Wembley, Old Trafford and the Emirates – seem to be granted more and more tickets for the cup finals every year.
Arsenal’s 3-2 victory over Hull City last summer, for example, was witnessed by 23,000 non-affiliated members of the ‘football family’ – translation: FA schmoozers that schmoozed their way to tickets – and 17,000 members of Club Wembley. In total, only 55% of Wembley Stadium contained actual supporters of either club.
Room for enthusiastic youths and vocal partisans at English football’s biggest matches, the undisputed source of the Premier League’s unique intensity and atmospheres, is continuing to decline, which makes you wonder how the matchday experience of the average football goer – or for that matter, which social demographic they’ll belong to – will compare in a decade’s time. The prior ten years have already witnessed a dramatic reconstruction of the once-booming terraces.
The inevitable elephant in the room is, of course, the growing support for safe standing. The Heysel and Hillsborough disasters remain daunting reminders of the potential consequences, forging the emotive argument against returning to a method of crowd participation that partly lead to 39 deaths in 1985 and 96 deaths in 1989 respectively, but a national survey by the Football Supporters’ Federation revealed that 90% of fans approve of the choice to stand or sit.
Since, Premier League clubs Aston Villa, Burnley, Crystal Palace, Hull City, Manchester United, Sunderland and Swansea have all publicly supported the introduction of standing areas, as well as the Scottish Premier League as an organisation, whilst it’s also being included in the Liberal Democrats’ 2015 manifesto for the next election. Chelsea’s Supporter Trust has also revealed a strong majority of fans in favour of safe standing since Mourinho’s public criticisms in November.
It’s potential introduction will be controversial, especially whilst inquests into the Hillsborough disaster continue, but safe standing could be the vehicle that reinvigorates fan participation in England, finding a balance between the corporate world and our game’s more traditional, working class roots. Not only will it improve atmospheres, as proven through it’s unprecedented success in the Bundesliga, but furthermore offers cheaper tickets, which should in turn increase attendance of younger supporters. In the German top flight for example, the cheapest matchday ticket for standing is just £9 – in England, it’s £20 (Hull, Leicester City and West Ham) for a seat.
It’s by no means the only solution on the table and concerns surrounding safe standing, especially in England, are more than understandable.
The Premier League, however, is a globe-spanning footballing empire and, like every empire throughout history, will eventually crumble under the weight of its own hypocrisy. Revolutionising supporter participation could protect its reign for significantly longer but, safe standing or no safe standing, the Premier League as a whole needs to act now.