My daughter went to her first football match this Boxing Day. She is in her late 20’s and despite being brought up in a city (Birmingham) where in every direction you look there is a relatively well known club (West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa and Birmingham City) we have never taken her to a match. One of the reasons was that during the 80’s and 90’s football lost its way. It became more about money, the stars and Manchester United. And because it was about money it also became too expensive to go to see a match.
My first match was in 1968. I went to see the Baggies at the Hawthorns (which was at one time the highest ground above sea level in the county, which is probably why West Bromwich always has a chill factor of minus 3). I was 9 and our summer au pair (local teenage girl hired to keep us occupied) took me and my cousin to the first match of the season after they had won the FA cup. I then went on and off for a few years with my male cousins, as in the 60’s and 70’s, local people supported local clubs not just the ones who won every trophy. In 1975 I was dating the captain of the Halesowen College football team, who was also a Baggies fan, and consequently spent most Saturday afternoons with him and the rest of the team, on the terraces, drinking Bovril and eating pies.
For footie fans the Boxing Day match is pretty much of a tradition, possibly established originally for men to escape the sales fever and the family for a day. What swung this first visit to a football match for the daughter was that it involved dinner in an executive box as opposed to being freezing cold, drinking Bovril and eating pies on the terraces. Her partner is a Villa fan, and his friend works/owns a company who has this box to entertain clients, so on Boxing Day (which is a holiday in the UK) the box was available for him to entertain his friends. I’m slightly disappointed that her first match was at the Villa, but hey even I dated a Villa fan, once. I ended up marrying a Leeds fan, although the last match he went to was back in 1985.
My son hated football. And, because of this got bullied at school. Which made him hate it even more. His peers were obsessed with having the latest, overpriced Man United shirt, and many I suspect had soccer moms and dads who were known for kicking off on the sidelines. He also became a PE lesson refuser as the only thing they ever did was play football at his secondary school. Tennis courts were used for 5 a side, the athletic stadium only used on sports day, with hurried lessons in shot put and the long jump for a couple of weeks in the hope that they may get one student they could trust to throw a javelin without killing someone from a rival gang.
Despite the wonderful recent success of Team GB at the London Olympics, I do wonder how much better we could have done and how many more British contenders for Wimbledon we’d have if sport was seen as important on the curriculum as IT. One head teacher, John Tomsett who I admire, blogged about how he actively encourages competitive sport at his school. This is within a house system, not against other schools and I think this is a model that needs to be encouraged. I’m not very sporty, yet because of the house system I could participate and enjoy sport to the best level I could achieve. Not left on the bench because I wasn’t good enough to win a match against every other school in the borough. And my school produced an Olympic swimmer because of this.
In the days when footballers didn’t earn silly money they were still, almost, one of us. Yes, there were the exceptions to this, like Georgie Best, who lived life in the fast lane (and look what happened to him, poor man) but it was nothing compared to the Beckhams, who are treated like minor royalty. I’m not saying Beckham isn’t a good role model, because he is, apart from the ‘be a footballer and you’ll be rich like me’ stuff and that their 11 year son is a model.
To get things into perspective, money and fame wise, Jeff Astle, when he retired from football established a window cleaning company. Post match curry in Wolverhampton and Derek Statham was sat at the next table. It wasn’t “ooo I must get his autograph” in so much as “great match today Derek” and we got on with our curry. And once I saw Robert Plant get off a bus outside the Hawthorns for a local derby with the team he supported, Wolverhampton Wanders. At the same match was Eric Clapton and Annie Nightingale, I know this as she mentioned it the next day on her Sunday afternoon national radio show. Eric even has a West Brom scarf strewn across a chair on the album, Backless.
So I’m nostalgic for the football of the 70’s and extremely pleased that three West Bromwich Albion footballers, Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson who inspired a generation of black professional players in the UK are to be honoured with a statue. And if pushed, despite not having gone to match for many years, I would say I’m a Baggies fan. I can’t name a player, but they are my local team. I’ve been to the ground quite a few times for conferences and I still get a thrill seeing the pitch.
And the fashion in supporting famous teams continues in that David Cameron and Prince William are Villa supporters. At the time that they made this decision the team was doing well and perhaps this gave them the common touch, that the working class could identify with, not as glitzy as Manchester United and of course Beckham went to The Wedding!
Football teams and players are just another commodity for increasingly overseas investors who you don’t normally associate with footie. One of the weirdest things was to see a Leicester City souvenir shop in Bangkok Airport. Again, back in the day it was a pop stars whim to to buy a football club as did Elton John, not as an investment, but because they needed the money and it was the team he supported. Now we have players earning more a week than most of their fans earn a year, yet they still can’t score a goal. Unless of course you happen to be a team playing the Villa recently. It seems get 8 goals past their defence is pretty easy at the moment.
So how are the Baggies doing this season? Not to rub it in, of course.