Villa Park Backlash – The Sterilisation Of Modern Football

Media Horror at Fans’ Enjoyment of Football

by Johnny Connelly

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Even in the current climate of nauseating Ofcom complaints, e-petitions, and general public shock at all things that deviate even slightly from wearisome pre-scripted television shows; the media’s outrage at the pitch invasion at Villa Park on Saturday was a bridge too far for me.

Tim Sherwood’s Aston Villa side ended 58 years of hurt, securing an FA Cup semi-final trip to Wembley at the expense of bitter rivals West Brom. The newly arrived gilet devotee spurred on his Villa side to an enthralling 2-0 win. We had the romance of the cup, red cards, a late winner, and even a pitch invasion or two to boot.

Short of a decent standard of football being on show (it was Aston Villa remember), the match was a spectacle for fans of the respective teams and neutrals alike. Everyone enjoyed it. Well, everyone except the BBC commentary and analysis team.

As the clock ticked down, a ragtag band of Villa fans made a dash for the pitch. A horrified Jonathan Pearce cried out: “We’ve got fans on the pitch! The game’s still going on!”.

Pearce’s words were strikingly similar to those of Kenneth Wolstenholme during the dying seconds of England’s famous 4-2 World Cup Final win over Germany in 1966; but the media furore that was incurred by virtue of the fans’ euphoria couldn’t have changed more in the 49 years that passed since then.

Jonathan Pearce’s wet blanket approach to football fan enjoyment was soon echoed by crisp enthusiast, Gary Lineker, and token Geordie thicko, Alan Shearer. With the BBC having set the tone, the morning papers followed suit. Shock horror at ordinary football fans enjoying a fleeting moment of spontaneity in the game. That wall to wall condemnation of the pitch invasion will forever serve as a marker for me in the game. When did football become so sterile and marginalised?

The pitch invasion at Villa Park was a beautiful one; an exertion of joy by football fans who’ve been suffering for a long time, and will now get something to shout about at one of the most famous football stadiums in the world. At a glance, you could see that those who ran on the pitch were ordinary football fans, not thugs. Even young kids got involved. A rare moment that they’ll be talking about for years to come.

I’m not advocating a pitch invasion every week. Nor am I suggesting that security developments since tragedies like Hillsborough should be undone. There was no thuggery, just good clean fun, albeit thanks to some unusually lax stewardship and policing. It’s clear to me that there’s a correlation between the decline in the impulsive, chaotic element of football, and the increase in money in the game.

Football seems to be becoming less and less about the punter going through the turnstiles; and more and more about how much cash can be force fed from broadcasters into an already morbidly obese handful of chosen leagues.

Only last month, Sky announced a deal that equates to around £100m per English Premiership game. This represents an increase of over 70%. I wonder, will the fans see a 70% reduction in their season ticket prices? They probably deserve one, seeing as Sky will be making them attend games at odd times like 12 noon on a Sunday to accommodate another two or three games per channel, per day.

For all the cash that’s been thrown at the English Premier League, where’s it got them to? Manchester United have gone from a near perfect football club, to a rudderless money pit, watched by football tourists, attracting B-list mercenaries to warm their bench. Chelsea’s ‘special one‘, has compared Stamford Bridge to a morgue. Arsenal’s Emirate’s Stadium is regularly referred to as ‘The Highbury Library’, and Manchester City even resorted to running a 2 for 1 offer on their Champions League tickets, thanks to woeful attendance figures.

Football on TV could be a great thing, but it’s failing to serve the fans at present. Sky forces the hand of all other broadcasters, and has been the driving force behind this pooh-poohing of all things spontaneous. When they should be concerned with the product and the appeal behind it, their focus seems rigidly stuck on punting you another HD box, with a subscription longer than most EPL players‘ contracts.

Leagues outside England, Spain, Germany and Italy all face the same problem. Scrambling for the scraps off the table of the TV money men. The game will die a slow, painful death unless this changes.

Peter Lawwell’s suggestion to shun the paltry £2m TV deal in Scotland is a bold one, and a step in the right direction, if nothing else. His argument is that the likes of Celtic could make more than this, if they reverted back to football at 3pm on a Saturday. At last, someone fighting the corner of the fans!

Do I think his suggestion will turn the game on its head? Probably not, but it’s as positive a step as could possibly be taken by someone representing a club in a ‘smaller’ league at present. Lord knows that the required changes won’t come from FIFA or governing bodies of that ilk. Perhaps a shift in technology could wrestle the control away from the big broadcasters in the future, but until that time, the status quo remains, and the big broadcasters hold all the cards.

The broadcasters’ control is suffocating the game. The poisonous discrediting of the Villa Park pitch invasion is just the tip of the iceberg, and drastic change is required before the beautiful game turns irreversibly ugly.

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