It started with my daughter taking an interest in Fulham Football Club. This happened after some players from Fulham had come to her school. Given Craven Cottage is located miles away from her school in south London, I thought this was somewhat peculiar, but I had no reason to think she was making it up. And even if she was, I was now being presented with a chance to go to a football match for the first time in a decade.
The last time I had attended a match live was in 2009. It was England v Belarus in a World Cup qualifying game at Wembley. It was notable mainly for one thing: it was David Beckham’s last ever England cap. Yes, it had been so long since I’d gone to a football match that David Beckham played in the last one for which I was present.
I bought two tickets for Craven Cottage to see Fulham take on Hull City. I was surprised at how easy it was to get tickets, and some quick internet research revealed to me the gulf between what premiership clubs can charge and still sell out, and what Championship clubs can charge and still have seats available a week out. The two tickets cost me £31 – and they were front row, by the goal line. Meanwhile, I looked into getting tickets for a premiership match for the two of us. Almost no club in London in the premiership had any tickets available for any match this season. In fact, most of them had waiting lists that last for years – all to see one match. Even the less glamorous clubs in the capital who have managed to stay in the premiership can charge a fortune for tickets. I looked into getting a pair to Selhurst Park to see Palace take on Bournemouth or Southampton or someone in that range. There were almost no tickets left and to get a restricted view seat in the corner behind the goal would have set me back £229 each. This wasn’t a ticket tout either, but from the club’s official website. Again, I’m not shitting on Palace for charging this much – it’s clear that it’s market rate, and given they might go down at any point, hay needs to be made while it is sunny and all that.
Craven Cottage is one of those grounds I had never been to but had always wanted to visit. It is a byword for quaintness as associated with association football and I was looking forward to that. A lot of the charm of the ground is unfortunately stripped away at present due to the fact that the stand facing the Thames is being redone. Other than that, I liked the place enough. One negative: the spaces under the stands are perilously narrow and it made half time very cosy. The crowd was interesting from several sociological vantage points. One, there were a lot of Russian men there in groups. This contrasted with the gangs of American women. I guess when you think about where the club is located this all makes more sense, but it was still the most interesting mix of tribes I’ve ever seen at an English football match. The other thing to mention was the lack of atmosphere. Part of this was down to the fact that Fulham were having a rubbish match – they lost 3-0 – but part of it is clearly by design. There was a very strict keeping to the rules I noticed, and at least in the stand I was in, singing and chanting were very much frowned upon. This was in contrast to the away end, where everyone was going mental. It’s like the home portions of the ground were in a different era of football spectatorship than the away end.
As it happens, my eldest son was upset that I had taken my daughter to the football and suddenly wanted me to take him to a match. Having crossed Craven Cottage off my list already, I wanted to try another ground. We talked about it and picked Loftus Road because he liked the hoops on the QPR uniforms. So, the very next weekend I found myself in west London once more, going to a football ground I had always wanted to visit but never had.
It may sound strange to some but back in the late 90s when I first moved to London, I had romantic ideas about Queen’s Park Rangers. I associated them with Shepherd’s Bush, which was linked in my head with a lot of rock musicians and particularly punk musicians. QPR were part of all that to me in some indelible way. I thought when I moved to London I might pick up QPR as my London team, trekking to Loftus Road on spare weekends. But my London social life went in a different direction and here I was, 20 years later, having never been to the place even once.
Loftus Road was smaller and more lower league in feel than I thought it would be. If I felt the space behind the stand at Craven Cottage was tight, at Loftus Road it was insanely tapered. My son and I watched QPR play Middlesbrough to a two-all draw. There was a lot more singing here than the week before, and the crowd was much less cosmopolitan and filled with more voices of people who had clearly grown up relatively near-by. Yet still they were dwarfed in this respect by the visiting fans, who like the Hull City supporters at Craven Cottage seemed to come from a different era. They were in the 90s, looking in through a time machine, and we were stuck in boring old 2019 where everyone is well-behaved.
I began to think at this point: is it a north-south thing? I had seen two London clubs play two northern clubs and been astonished by the difference between the home and away ends. Was this the culture war in action? The divide between Remainers and Leavers on display? The other thing I began to notice after this second match is how in many senses football has become middle-class, but primarily in dissatisfying ways to everyone. At Loftus Road it was pies, tea and beer to consume, none of which my middle-class son really wanted. Meanwhile, the working-class punters are paying twice as much for all this, even after you adjust for inflation. I would been fine with the old school football fare if the rest of the experience had felt sufficiently earthy, but it didn’t really. Football it seems to me has become too tame and civilised in one sense without becoming really civilised in another. I don’t know, maybe at the Emirates the whole thing feels global elitist and you can get a sushi platter for fifteen pounds, but in the Championship, it all feels stuck in the middle, unsatisfyingly caught between two worlds, at least in London.
After the QPR experience, my daughter wanted to go to the football again, to sort of one up her brother, so I got us tickets to see Charlton Athletic at the Valley take on Cardiff City. I don’t know if this was my twelve years of living in south London kicking in, but this was the match I felt most personally invested in by some way. I actually liked the Valley more than either Craven Cottage or Loftus Road; it was the one that really felt like a proper football stadium of all of them. I also liked the crowd. Very southeast London, very loyal, very devoted. The Valley had the best atmosphere by far. At one point, the home fans began singing “Jerusalem” in response to “Land of My Fathers” from the away end. It was the one portion of any of the three matches I went to that could have taken place in the 80s or 90s. And I know what some of you will be thinking: why should I applaud quasi-nationalistic singing at football matches? Isn’t it good that that sort of stuff has become much less prevalent? But those questions take my thinking somewhere else.
Have we “civilised” football so much – taken away its ability to be a forum for venting otherwise partly unsavoury feelings – that we’ve let those negative impulses bleed into society instead? I know this sounds like I’m trying to make the argument that the gentrification of football caused Brexit, which I’m not saying – but maybe it contributed a little? And of course, it’s good that the really bad stuff that used to happen at football matches has been driven out, like the open racism. But in cleaning up the stuff that had to go, like monkey chants, did we take it too far and end up taking away an escape hatch for a lot of pent up frustration? I genuinely don’t know. All I do know is, I can’t stop thinking about it now.
As the Charlton match came to a conclusion, another 2-2 draw – I didn’t get to see any of the home sides win on my travels around London – the chap beside me asked me if I was coming to the next home match. I was sad to say that I was not. The game still has the power to draw you in, even if you have neglected it for a while. And more than most the sport, I find football really is much, much better live, as in being at the ground to watch it. Not just because of the atmosphere either, but just being able to watch the game unfold over every part of the pitch. Whether anyone likes this fact or not, football is truly the national game. As such, it may be able to tell us a lot.