Goodbye pies and fights: how football became the game of the middle classes

When the Prem began 20 years ago, and stadiums became all-seaters, with the season tickets costing a fortune, many of the working classes and twentysomething lads were excluded, unable to pay the prices.

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What is the single most important attraction of being at a game, in the flesh, as opposed to watching on television? How could I have missed it out when I was thinking of all the pros and cons of being in the crowd rather than slumped on a sofa? This element has always been there but is now much more important than it ever was. And that is showing off.

Football has become very fashionable among the middle and professional classes, a badge of belonging, conveying esteem and status, so to have been there gives you reflected glory – and if your team has triumphed, you can drop into conversations for the rest of the week about how “we” won, as if you actually played.

I was at the Arsenal game last weekend against Hull, sitting with two QCs, each on his mobile saying: “Yeah, am at the game, here at the Arse, yeah, I’ll send you a selfie, ciao.” When Arsenal managed a goal at the very end to draw, they were standing up, exchanging high-fives with their neighbours.

You can’t do this when you’re lolling at home, can you? No sport, no fun, no point in boasting that you were watching on the telly. Unless your clerk can somehow download crowd scenes and shove your phizog on ’em, you might as well keep shtum.

How did this happen, this snobbish, slavish, fashionable following of football? It clearly has a lot to do with money. When the Prem began 20 years ago, and stadiums became all-seaters, with the season tickets costing a fortune, many of the working classes and twentysomething lads were immediately excluded, unable to pay the prices.

It also excluded the hooligan element, putting an end to fights on the terraces between rival fans, therefore making it possible for nice, middle-class folk not to feel threatened. The environment, the food and drink, the prawn sandwiches and smoked salmon bagels, began to reflect the tastes and desires of the new clientele.

Multimillion-pound footballers became celebrities, the media obsessed by them, unlike the olden days when footballers were only one rung up from plumbers and joiners, earning slightly more but drinking in the same pubs, living the same sort of life. Everyone today, whether they are a football fan or not, must know what David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo look like. You can hardly escape their pecs or their bollocks.

The arrival of the all-seater superstadiums, and the change in social make-up of many of the fans, encouraged the growth of hospitality suites at Prem grounds – attracting fans who watch half drunk and have little knowledge of the players. The corporate sponsors know it is seen as a trendy treat to invite business contacts to join them in the private lounge.

My QC friends, and similar, are knowledgeable and love analysing, giving their opinions loudly – most of them critical of Wenger, which is mad when he’s the best thing at Arsenal.

Core supporters also have their form of showing off, which is to follow the team across Europe, proving you’re a true fan. Goodness knows how they get the money, or the time off. It’s noticeable when you see England playing in Europe that most of the fans’ banners are from the lower, less fashionable sides – Oxford United, Millwall, Notts County – or teams I’ve never heard of: Devon Rovers or Bingley. Perhaps supporters of the Big Clubs are too snobbish to travel.

Football’s fashionableness runs worldwide. And all fans show off to each other. You don’t have to speak a word of the local language to communicate – just mutter the name of their star player and put your thumb up. Or down.

We used to travel to Africa a lot when our eldest was living in Botswana, and I always took out a pile of football postcards or old programmes, especially those of Man United. There was always somebody in some remote place who said he was a Man United fan. There was never any chance of them ever going to a live game, but they loved having a real souvenir. For showing off, of course . . . 

Hunter Davies’s latest book is “The Beatles Lyrics: the Unseen Story Behind Their Music” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25)

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 22 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why Britain and Germany aren't natural enemies