Kevin Henning compares the treatment and respect of fans in England to their German counterparts and is astonished by the difference.
Prior to kick off at Anfield in last Super Sunday’s showdown between Liverpool and Manchester City, both sets of supporters gave an airing of the songs each club has become synonymous with. The Kop bellowed out You’ll Never Walk Alone and 3,000 visiting City fans attempted to compete with 49,000 red men with a chorus of Blue Moon. They were doing alright as well. Those of a blue persuasion watching on Sky could clearly hear the words “You saw me standing” before the broadcaster did something remarkable and turned the mics off in front of the visiting section of the Anfield Road Stand. Commentator Martin Tyler sort of explained the decision, “Other teams have songs, Liverpool have an anthem.” Maybe it was viewed that City fans were disrespecting the anthem.
Fast forward five days and ponder how England’s match in Croatia could have used the noise generated by the muted Mancunians as they played out a bore draw in a soulless stadium in Rijeka. It was so apparent in the Nations League match that fans are everything when it comes to football. The empty stadium dominated the build-up. England manager Gareth Southgate and his players were continually asked how having no supporters in the stands would affect them. Pre-match, Sky wondered whether it would benefit England to not have to face a hostile home crowd. The unfairness of England fans being denied entry as a way of punishing Croatia was bemoaned. Basically, the watching world wanted fans at the match. Jadon Sancho certainly would’ve wanted a crowd on what was probably the proudest night of his career so far. He’d starred in front of a capacity crowd for his club side Borussia Dortmund the weekend before so his England debut would have felt like an almighty comedown.
Why then, are English football fans treated as a commodity?
Of course we are. We pay through the nose for match tickets. Everton’s cheapest adult match ticket this season is £38. Fans had to campaign to get a £30 limit placed on away tickets after Arsenal’s away allocation reached £55. If you don’t live in the same city as the match you wish to attend, you’ll need to drive meaning a restriction on the time you’ll spend at the venue and not be able to enjoy a pre or post-match drink. Alternatively, pay an ever-increasing ticket price for a train and then the cost of getting from the station to the stadium. To take my two lads to a match in another city right now, I’m looking at over £150 all in.
But we know all this, don’t we? We know that the money we put into elite clubs isn’t important anymore. We know that Sky don’t give a second’s thought when they schedule Friday night, Saturday lunch, Sunday dinner time and Monday night matches. When Bournemouth played Palace on Monday Night Football recently, it struck me that Ed Chamberlain, Jamie Carragher and Frank De Boer were in a studio in London because travelling to the South coast on a Monday night is an inconvenience. The people whose job is to talk about the match couldn’t be arsed travelling to the match. The Palace fans weren’t invited to the studio but were probably at work on both Monday and Tuesday. We know that the FA are happy to kick cup semi finals off at a time that makes train travel back to the north impossible. We know that we’re just viewed as cash cows who will do what we’re told or be mocked by the likes of Jason Cundy if there’s a few thousand empty seats at a European match or called disloyal by Gary Neville if a downturn in fortunes at our favourite club leads to a lower crowd.
What many people don’t know is that it isn’t like this everywhere. My group of friends didn’t before last weekend when we attended the same match that Jadon Sancho played in. We didn’t know that football matches are put on purely for the fans in some countries and everything is designed to keep them coming back again and again.
One member of the group who joined us in Germany had been before. He’s a Hull City fan as are his mates. When he and his fellow Tigers were faced with a £39 ticket to watch their team away at Leeds United in the Championship last January, they started making comparisons with European football. A flight to Berlin cost less than a train ticket that covered the 60 miles from Hull to Leeds. Hotels in Berlin and Leeds were much of a muchness and the match ticket was far cheaper to watch top flight Bundesliga than second tier EFL. Ben therefore found himself in the Olympiastadion amongst the 65,893 watching Hertha Berlin face Borussia Dortmund rather than in the away end as Leeds beat Hull 1-0.
This trip was the inspiration for my 40th birthday celebrations. I’ve long fancied travelling to Europe to watch football. My home and away days watching Manchester City came as they yo-yo’d up and down the divisions and now that I live in East Yorkshire with three kids, can’t commit to season tickets and therefore watching City on the continent is a non-starter. I used a ticket website and bought eight tickets for Borussia Dortmund versus Augsburg on the weekend after my birthday and along with a handful of mates and my eldest son, flew to Cologne.
We woke up on the Saturday morning following a great night out in Cologne and after breakfast, headed to the train station to make the 93-mile trip to Dortmund. Now had we not been going to the match, the price of travel would’ve been 13 euros, almost half the price of train travel from Hull to Leeds on a Saturday morning. Due to us all having match tickets though, travel was free. As long as it’s clear that the train you are taking is heading towards the match you have a ticket for, you aren’t expected to pay a cent. This is also the case after the match providing you board the train within two hours of the final whistle.
We arrived at Dortmund station and after buying cans of lager, followed the masses onto a tram that would take five minutes to the Signal Iduna Park – again free of charge. Foolishly, we got to the stadium and just started queuing. It was the most casual queue I’ve ever been in though. We bought huge cans of local lager Brinkhoff’s for two euros, stopped at a souvenir stall to buy badges and scarves (proper tourists) and laughed with the locals. Along the walkway, homeless and unemployed people stood with bags and shopping trolleys collecting empty beer cans and bottles. They’ll later take them to the recycling centre and exchange them for money rather than sit and beg for change. After 40 minutes of taking in the atmosphere, we approached check points and were told that we were at the wrong end of the stadium. We’d been queuing for the famous Yellow Wall and should’ve been round at the north end of the stadium. It hadn’t felt like wasted time though. It was all part of the fun. I don’t remember being ushered along by the police or paying through the nose for food and drink.
We finally got to our turnstiles and entered the Nordtribune in time for the home fans to give their own rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone. Somehow, I can’t imagine the TV broadcasters in Germany turning the sound down on the boisterous Augsburg supporters to fit their narrative. The away fans only added to what was a truly awe-inspiring atmosphere. We were watching top flight German football on tickets that were priced at 17 euros and 60 cents. We’d travelled from Cologne by train and tram on the same ticket. Can you imagine paying just over £15 for a ticket to watch Leicester City play at Chelsea and being able to get to London and back for free?
Can you also imagine being able to stand behind the goal with your mates then shout over to a club employee who’ll pour you a lager where you stand? Eight of us enjoyed a pint in full view of the pitch and not one of us felt compelled to throw it at the away fans nor invade the pitch. Can you remember the days when children stood at the front of the stand back in the 80’s and their parents relaxed knowing they’d be fine for an hour or so? The children at Dortmund did this. Their parents had paid a single euro to get them into one of the finest football venues in the world.
Dortmund won a thrilling match 4-3 with a last kick of the game winner in front of 81,365 fans. To put this into perspective, and with no disrespect meant to the Cherries, this was the equivalent of a home match against Bournemouth and yet there wasn’t an empty seat in sight. We took a few photos and left the stadium somewhat speechless. Brinkhoff’s, whose lager we’d sampled earlier provide beer gardens around the stadium before and after the game. There were stalls selling fast food at reasonable prices and people just loiter and discuss the game they’ve just been at. We saw people coming in who’d not been to the game to meet friends and relatives who had. It was a family event where men, women and children met to eat and drink amidst the atmosphere of a tense football match.
On the train back to Cologne, we began to discuss where English football had gone wrong. Why it took a trip across Europe for two Manchester City, one Manchester United, two Liverpool and three Hull City supporters to enjoy a match together. We simply couldn’t experience what we had in Dortmund back home unless we were watching non-league football.
It feels like English football has lost its way. Go to a Champions League game at the Etihad and feel flat before the match even kicks off, watch Hull City at home in the Championship in front of a closed down Upper West Stand because the locals simply won’t be ripped off to watch that standard of football and it doesn’t occur to the owners to lower the prices instead of shutting a tier. Stump up over £50 to visit Old Trafford or literally lose your voice in the away end at Anfield. Pay three or four pounds for less than a pint of watered down flat lager, over a fiver for a bite to eat. Be ushered along by stewards or police officers if you pause in the vicinity of the stadium after the game. Do this when Sky tell you to and don’t complain.
My advice would be to price up a game in the Bundesliga and take the plunge. Go and see what it’s like to be valued as a football supporter and I guarantee you’ll be desperate to go again. It’s not just on the pitch that we have a lot to learn about football from the Germans, the life and soul of the beautiful game are the fans. We need to be appreciated as such before we lose our voice completely.