Lately, I find myself using the phrase “the modern game” a lot and nearly always in a disparaging way. Whenever an article touches on ticket prices, the behaviour of players, or even just the texture of contemporary sport, there it is:
The modern game. The modern game. The modern game.
Some self-indulgence – albeit for it context-giving purposes: I’m 32 years-old, I attended my first game in March 1992 (Bristol City vs Cambridge United), and can claim to have only just arrived before the dawn of the Premier League. Even then, I was too young to have travelled to the match alone, had my ticket paid for, and was gifted a scarf on the way out.
Sorry Bristol City, I was already promised to another.
The point is this: when people of my age or younger talk of the “modern game”, the implication is that we experienced something different. When a grizzled septuagenarian with a fixed expression, cheeks hardened by the cold, proclaims that things aren’t as they were and are poorer as a result, it’s only right to listen. But us? Our generation and below? There’s no credibility there.
What’s worse, this inherited nostalgia seems to be heavily redacted. When those who were never there talk of a time that they weren’t around to experience, it’s always in solely good terms. Those constructed memories are concerned only with the sense of community, players earning less, and supporters being able to pay their entrance with a fist full of pennies. But history records that, while not wholly inaccurate, that’s a heavily doctored version of the reality, one which ignores the squalor the supporters suffered, the pejorative associations they were forced to wear, and the societal problems which bled into the terraces. Contemporary fans may now complain – rightly – of being treated as customers, but it wasn’t so long ago that they were perceived to be sub-human. Government attitudes and the clubs’ cavalier approach to supporter safety betrayed that and, surely, it’s better to be seen as a customer than as vermin.
This happens with any form of nostalgia. When the United Kingdom went to the polls last summer and voted to leave the European Union, at least some of those Xs would have been cast in the hope of recreating a past which never actually existed; bowler hats, impeccable manners and croquet on village lawns are part of a stylised view of this country which, seemingly, wasn’t entirely faithful.
Football is the same.
So where does this come from? In all likelihood, the fairytales. As a younger person, my first contact with “the way things were” typically came through the comic books: Roy of the Rovers, Billy’s Boots (guesting in ROTR), and also the range of characters and events described in Football Picture Story Monthly. Quite understandably, they all presented the sport in a certain way. Any sort of ugliness was generally redacted or, if it wasn’t, it would be used as part of a moralistic tale. In that world, crooked agents never prospered, lazy players never fulfilled their talent, and any vaguely unpleasant behaviour was righteously punished. Stadiums were never shown to be dangerous and social problems like racism, homophobia and misogyny were rarely tackled, if at all. They were written for their own times (and for children) and before many of the irritations that exist today had emerged, but they were still careful to omit the more rugged aspects which existed.
Perhaps this has changed in the decades since, but I also remember there being a dearth of football fiction in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Occasionally, a library shelf might offer a Paul Hardcastle book or something similar, but – again – the view of the game was universally idealised. In fact, with the exception of Dennis Hamley’s “Death Penalty”, I don’t recall reading anything which depicted football in anything other than a pure, positive way until I was much older. Even Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, excellent though it remains, offered a flattering view of what 1970s and 1980s football might have been like for a fan.
Over time, that changes. Deeper interest leads to both first-hand experience and a growing thirst for the sport’s past, but that initial exposure seems to have a lasting impact. Because they appeared in our imaginations at such a young age, it’s as if the characters and events presented in those comics become fact, with their values assumed to be representative of the times.
That’s what it must have been like.
Much of what has now been lost in the game remains desirable, not least its basic affordability, but the lasting suspicion is that younger generations – people of my age and below – long for something which never really existed. Something so perfect that we can’t help but use it to flog everything which now exists in its place.