The photo above is one I found during an internet trawl for decent images of female football fans for this fanzine; one of the few I found that doesn’t involve gratuitous cleavage. What I love about it is the look of wonder and astonishment on the little girl•s face. Now she is holding a Liverpool scarf, and it was taken in 2007, so the look might have been caused by recognising Peter Crouch from the previous Saturday’s trip to Chester Zoo, but I think it sums up the amazement we felt at that age when we first started going to the match. Amazement at how many people could fit into one space and make so much noise, at seeing those heroes you’ve seen so many times on telly and have pictures of all over your bedroom wall there in front of you in the flesh for the first time. Amazement at suddenly having everything click in your head and realising exactly why people go so mad over football, and taking the first step to becoming one of those daft obsessives yourself.
Supposedly little girls shouldn’t get so excited over football. They should get excited over dolls and kittens and plastic jewellery and going to Brownies, not to the match. But every year there are thousands of girls who start swapping boyband posters for football squad lineups on their bedroom walls; who stop drawing hearts and peace signs on their schoolbooks and start practicing drawing their club’s badge, and who start spending more time trying to make up songs for new signings than dances for new Girls Aloud songs. And they put the Babysitters Club books (or whatever Americanised shite they read these days) aside for a little while to start delving into old football annuals and player biographies (and probably these days hoolie memoir books as well..) and reading about he history of the club
that has captured their hearts.
I’m such a daft sentimental idiot when it comes to kids getting into football. The day after the European Cup Final in 2008, I met a pair of kids, about 5 and 7, waiting with their mum for their dad to come back from Moscow in a pub next to Old Trafford. They were proudly waving mini inflatable cups around and wearing I Heart MUFC T-shirts. They were fucking ace. The little boy, named Ryan after Ryan Giggs, replied when his mum asked him “Who do you love, Ryan?” with an enthusiastic “UNITED!” “And who do you hate?” “SCOUSERS!”. Teach them while they’re young. I’ve come across a couple of kids under the age of 10 in the last year or two whose knowledge of United’s vast songbook has been absolutely immense, who sing with the passion that only a little kid giddy in the first throes of footballing obsession can.
It makes me proper buzzing to know that there are kids getting into football in just the same way as I did all those years ago and who will soon be experiencing all the emotions, good and bad, that I have over the years. In my diary on the February 6th 2008, the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster, I wrote the following… “Across the world today there are kids reading books and learning for the first time what happened and feeling the same things as I did when I was a ten year old. Some of them will be about to embark upon an incredible journey that will see them cross seas and borders and continents, make and break relationships, drink and sing and cheer and dance, and have, or rather let, this club shape their personality and life and soul and destiny. Watching them will be parents who have themselves undergone a similar transformation, who have themselves been through all the highs and lows and swings from solitary depression in the bad times to collective euphoria in the good times. And they will realise one day that while you have these very personal moments of joy and anger and sadness and grief, you are in some strange way bound to thousands of others who feel exactly the same way as you do, and though you’ve never met the vast majority of them, when you do meet them you realise your shared experience means you do actually know a strange amount about them”. Like I said, a proper overly sentimental misty eyed dickhead I am at times.
But this over-romantic optimism for the future soon turns sour when I realise, actually, a lot of the kids who once upon a time would go through all this stuff nowadays WON’T be going through it. Not because they don’t feel it in the same way, not because they aren’t interested, not because they don’t want to – but because they CAN’T do it anymore. How many kids get to go to matches these days on a regular basis when it costs at least £15, usually over £20 a pop? How many parents of young kids these days can afford to pay for themselves to go to matches regularly, let alone for 1 or 2 kids to go with them? Football is increasingly the preserve of the young single person with a disposable income they can spunk away on football without worrying about putting food in kids mouths, the early middle aged lot whose dedication to the cause has resulted them staying or re-becoming depressingly single and with not much else bar Wetherspoon’s Curry Club and the Sky Plus subscription to jizz their money away on, and the older lot whose kids are old enough to pay their own way (or would rather jib it with their mates than be paid to go with the embarrassingly past it parents).
I’m not going to carry on with this as yet another long overdrawn rant about ticket prices, which you get in every other football fanzine under the sun more or less; it’s just a little something that the older I get and more I start to think about having my own kids I start to worry about. As someone who works with kids I constantly see kids with replica shirts on, talking excitedly about whatever match was on telly last night, recreating Ronaldo’s stepover, fighting over who gets to be which team on Pro Evo, winding their mates up who support lesser teams. They know I go to matches and ask me keen as hell about what its like, how close was I to the pitch, am I going this weekend, how loud is the crowd, do I swear (they never seem to believe my attempts to maintain my professional head and say how terrible swearing is…) But almost never do I hear any of them talk about going and watching live football. The closest most get is seeing their Dad play Sunday league. And I know for a fact some of these have parents who go to, or at least used to go to, football; so why aren’t they going now and taking their kids to do something they’d blatantly love? Bad parenting? General disinterest? Can’t be arsed? I’ve asked a few, and it won’t surprise you to find the answers are economic rather than social.
It’s the same with mates at the match. Some of the most hardcore match attenders I know, those who used to go every game with their parents, and still go today, have kids who’ve only ever been to a handful of games. Not just because they’d rather go on the piss without a kid in tow, but they just can’t do it. Going to the match is pricey enough and a lot can barely afford it; even though ticket prices are lower for them, when you factor in all the extra crap you have to buy when you’re with a kid to keep them happy and quiet, it’s pushing the cost to double an amount you struggle to pay in the first place. They don’t want to start taking their kids regularly to games, getting them hooked and then making them feel disappointed and let down when they can’t afford to take them more often. That generation I get misty eyed about almost doesn’t ex-ist anymore.
Every time this issue gets brought up, blame is laid at the usual doorsteps. Greedy chairmen and directors pushing prices up. Agents and players demanding fees that force clubs to raise prices. Sky TV for creating a climate where the armchair rather than match attending fan is the most valued. The Government whose intervention is causing the rebuilding of stadia and subsequent increase in prices to pay for them. All the usual villains get accused. We’re not going to condense complex arguments and the intricate workings of football political economy into a handy line to sum up this article because things just don’t work like that. Complicated problems don’t lend themselves to simple answers. What we want to do is throw the debate open. We want to hear YOUR opinions, to hear from matchgoing women and men about YOUR experiences of taking kids at the match, particularly if you’re a parent. What do YOU think needs to happen to increase the numbers of kids getting into football, and how can this be achieved? Join the debate by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll print all responses here.