I shouldn’t have much to worry about as a Chelsea supporter right now. I write this the night after my club’s best player ensured we beat one of our keenest rivals with an exquisite display of his talent. We won a game we were losing, away from home against a Liverpool side that had won every game this season. In 2018/19, what discomfort was caused by our abject relinquishing of the 2016/17 league title is, so far, being corrected by the delight at our current form.
And yet, there’s plenty to be discomforted about. My focus for my concerns is the Premier League. That is where I can be the best eyewitness to the things that trouble me.
It often starts with other supporters around you. Two weeks ago, Ben Gilbert wrote a magnificent piece for TifoFootball about the very serious issues arising for Tottenham supporters in relation to the redeveloped White Hart Lane.
Tottenham’s creation of an even bigger stadium to introduce even bigger prices, equalises the club’s pricing with other clubs who thought to do the same but simply did so earlier. And so comes the irony, that, as their stadium capacity increases to the biggest in London, Tottenham supporters may now be increasingly forced to watch games outside it.
The redeveloped White Hart Lane doesn’t involve Chelsea, Arsenal or West Ham fans but the issues involved are their problem too. If one set of supporters can be treated in a certain way, it becomes easier to do the same with another group elsewhere.
The evidence is there. In 2016, Liverpool supporters faced increased ticket prices before an estimated 10,000 supporter Anfield walk-out forced the club to change tack. This was a decade after Chelsea supporters had organised first to demand “Real prices for real supporters” campaign against ticket prices that were too high even then (and subsequently went up still further).
In the interim, there were frequent concerns across the league about the cost of English football. These included embarrassing comparisons with prices in other European leagues, innumerable articles by leading sports writers and marches to Premier League headquarters that united even the bitterest of rival supporters.
However, any concessions made by the Premier league (such as the cap on away ticket prices) seem compensated for by the action taken against the supporter’s pocket or sense of involvement elsewhere.
In the past year alone, I have found myself praising some of my club’s biggest rivals: supporters of Tottenham and Liverpool for the attempts to protect not just their own position but also, by extension, that of other supporters as they resisted or attempted to resist ever higher home ticket pricing.
Tribalism is in inherent to the nature of supporting a club but I can’t help but wonder whether the context of the times may cause it to diminish. Where will be the value in talking about the quality of your club’s support if it has been fragmented or segregated on the grounds of who can or can’t afford to enter the ground anymore? These are shared struggles across the league that are common to even rival supporters.
However, while ticket prices and the cost of entry are critical issues for consideration, they are the thin end of a wedge which sees supporters engaged in struggles for basic recognition all around the country. When Ian Lavery, Chairman of the Labour party, states openly that he will not enter St James’s Park until Mike Ashley has relinquished ownership of the club, you realise that supporter representation in club-decision making is not a fringe issue.
These days, without the threat of media attention or the threat of a damage to brand or share price, football supporters quickly find out just where their place is. Away from any real influence on the direction of their clubs. Epithets about being the 12th man and being the “soul” of the club hint at bonds and connection between club and supporter. However, the evidence of their reality seems to be increasingly scant.
Football supporters, in all English divisions and across the British Isles, are now organising and campaigning for better representation and recognition in decision making. The realisation striking hard that the game that is threatening to leave them out of its contemplation.
Obscenely high ticket prices, a choice as to whether to sit or stand in a ground, basic respect for their daily lives in timing of matches are struggles that will determine the place of the supporter in the future of the game. And they are struggles that football supporters are starting to realise they will have to win. Whether they do or not seems likely to depend on how they negotiate their worth to their clubs in a modern game that is so hungry for value.
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