Saturday, 22 September 2007

Keeping football live

First published in The Grecian,22 September 2007, Exeter City -v- Ebbsfleet

The Premier league isn’t exactly trumpeting the statistics from the rooftop, but according to its latest survey of fan demographics, just nine per cent of those who attend big matches are under 24 years, and the average age of spectators is 43 – which is pretty old (given that this means a very substantial number are well above that age).

OK, I hear you say: I attend Exeter City in the Blue Square Premier, rather than the multi-million pound version, so why should I care? And the answer is because of what figures like this tell us about the connection between young people and live football – or rather, the growing disconnect.

Given the size of the local population, the league we play in and the fact that the southwest isn’t the most football-saturated region in Britain, the Grecians get a decent crowd – and we are working hard to make it even bigger, of course.

Though regulars may grouch about ‘tourists’ and ‘glory hunters’ for glamorous FA Cup ties or Wembley play-offs, those bursts of occasional local interest also give us a tantalising glimpse of the huge pool of potential fans that exists out there. But how do we get to them?

The real challenge is getting new generations in. Many of us caught the live football bug early. Once you’ve tasted the atmosphere, the camaraderie and the sheer physical and emotional presence of ‘being there’, you’re unlikely to find watching two-dimensional stick men moving around a screen quite the same – even if some of them are superstars and it’s HTD.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking TV football. It keeps the lifeblood of the game flowing for more than just the Saturday (and increasingly Sunday, Monday and Tuesday) experience. It also puts resources and a massive publicity machine at football’s disposal. But it just isn’t the same if you’ve got a certain kind of bug in your bloodstream.

Which brings us back to those Premier League statistics. The truth is that the majority of youngsters who aren’t going to see Chelsea, Manchester United and the rest (because they can’t afford to, can’t get the tickets or can’t summon up the peer group interest), aren’t going to many – and in some cases any – other games.

In the 1960s and ’70s, especially, people often caught their live footie addiction by starting out with a lower league team, even if they also craved the old First Division too. My grandfather inducted me into the magic circle at Griffin Park, Brentford.

I vividly remember that first game on a bleak midwinter’s day. The Bees beat Notts County 2-1, I nursed my blue lips round a Styrofoam cuppa (pre-eco consciousness) and the late Jimmy Sirrell, the Brentford manager, punched the cold air in delight. That was it, I was hooked. And so was my schoolmate Guy, also aged 10, who came along with us.

As it happened, I didn’t become a Brentford supporter (though I still look out for their results). Bizarrely, for reasons that I might explain one day, I came to follow Dumbarton up in Scotland. And now I’ve settled in Exeter I’m at St James Park whenever I can. But it would never have happened if someone hadn’t caught me at an impressionable age.

Exeter is among the clubs who are making the most effort to get kids into the game, both in the stands and on the turf. Given all the other distractions of post-modern life, it isn’t easy and the dividends aren’t instant. But it’s where the future of this great game lies.

No comments: