I was given the opportunity by my son’s local football club to make the two hour trip to Manchester last night and watch the Champions League fixture between Manchester City and Bayern Munich. I’m now well into my second season of boycotting Cardiff City in protest at the club’s rebranding and that decision has robbed my young sons’ of the experience of attending big professional games. The international team’s persistence with midweek home games, four hours away in Cardiff means that they don’t even get to see Wales play. I felt I owed them this one, and gladly forked out the £128 that would secure our seats and a place on the bus.
In a sense this was my first experience of the modern domestic game at the top level. I’ve been away with Cardiff at Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool in the past decade, but that was slightly different. The Cardiff away crowd at that time still hadn’t bought in to the new shininess and we were unwelcomed ragged-arse visitors smirking in awe as we stood on the padded seats and our naughty boys smoked weed in the expensively fitted disabled toilets. It wasn’t part of our world. We still gleefully booed every player we’d seen on Match of the Day.
So what did I make of the Etihad? Firstly, I found the name itself was really jarring. “Are you going to the Etihad?” That makes no sense, and neither does the “Emirates”. They are absurd names for stadia and I think it’s instructive that fans have happily adopted them. The names have no connection to the local area, yet it seems that those who count are prepared to embrace such naked commercialism for the perceived gift of high quality football that it gives them. And who am I to argue with the sycophantic banner that declared Manchester’s gratitude to the Sheik?
Eastland stadium is beautiful. Its curved roof and particularly the turreted entrances offer a welcome relief from the breeze block designs which blight so many cheap modern grounds. There is character in those new Manchester walls, and only a curmudgeon would resist a keen sense of anticipation as the stadium comes into view. The sky-blue floored Mercer Way adds a sense of grandeur to your approach to the arena – a nod to the famous Wembley Way.
But it was about the time that I saw my first programme seller that I started to get an uneasy feeling. The booths are decked out in images of old programmes from the seventies, eighties and beyond. And there were old images of action from Maine Road plastered everywhere on the concourse walls . There was a collection of huge images from the clubs history and a series of ‘my first game’ fan soundbites which provided a romantic, nostalgic background to your arrival. One such mural featured Helen ‘The Bell’ Turner, a wekk-known City supporter of 30 years standing. Ironically it celebrated the very type of obsessive fan that will struggle to emerge from the current generation.
In the now ubiquitous ‘fanzone’, we each ate a £10 meal of burger chips and pop while we listened to a live brass band – another conspicuous nod to nostalgia. Meanwhile, City ‘legend’ Paul Dickov was interviewed live on stage by a cheesy DJ in front of the Colin Bell Stand. Are you getting my drift? Manchester City are supreme exponents of modern football’s infallible business plan. They take the history generated from experiences that we helped create – and they re-package it as nostalgia for a wider audience and sell it back to us at premium prices. It’s brilliant, and we lap it up!
The turreted entrances at Eastlands offered a concrete metaphor for the Premier League ‘matchday experience’. This is Disneyland Football. And in that sense it’s great – I’ve been to Disneyland twice and I loved it. But this is just football as a theme park, and if you’ve experienced the real thing, this sanitised, shiny, processed event is nothing but an empty vessel. I’m from a generation that created its own entertainment – we watched Pongo repeatedly throw his bobble hat over the fence, we rushed to the back of the Bob Bank when a train arrived at Ninian Park halt, and we watched nutters worship flags and scarves in the centre circle as we sang our hearts out. These days, we’re not even trusted to celebrate a goal without loud music prompting us to sing along to Tom Hark.
Manchester City’s marketing team have expertly manipulated the fans’ hunger for nostalgia to create a feeling of attachment that seems unnecessary at a club who already had the most loyal fans in football as their customers. But it is working – not all of those many thousands of loyal fans who followed the club in Division 2 could now afford the £48 ticket to watch last night’s game. But somebody needs to finance the obscene salaries commanded by the players who were so outclassed by Bayern, and in the UK, ticket prices reflect that greed. The Bundesliga has it spectacularly right – the partying Bayern fans last night reminded me why I was attracted to football in the first place – and you could feel an old-fashioned connection between the team and its supporters . In contrast the home support was inflated by too many football tourists, by occasional special-event visitors, and by middle class spectators and businessmen who returned late from their delicious half-time nibbles. As one of the football tourists, my own half-time nibbles included a £2.50 bag of skittles. Somehow top class football has persuaded us that ridiculous prices are acceptable – much like outrageously priced popcorn at the cinema. Spending over-the-odds is part of the experience for the occasional visitor.
But it is the success of Man City’s unashamedly nostalgic marketing campaign which makes me wonder once again about Vincent Tan’s strategy at my club. If he had followed Manchester City’s model, kept the bluebird and milked our club’s history then I would have been putty in his hands. I’m very much in a minority now – I have great friends who are enjoying Cardiff’s time at the top, and there are many genuine, long-suffering supporters, who can happily look past the rebrand in the name of progress. I refuse to judge them, and respect their position, but I’m not one of them. I firmly believe that anybody who attends games, even if they protest-march their way to the ground are actively supporting Tan’s megalomania, and hastening the demise of Cardiff City as we know it. I just can’t be part of that.
I very much enjoyed watching the best club team I’ve ever seen live last night, but even my 13 year old son could tell the difference between the photo-snapping star-gazing of the large crowd and the collective intensity of a small club’s support. I’m not against modern football, it’s just a different, more polished product. I prefer my matchday experience to be a little rougher round the edges.