Over the past year, I have travelled and paid to watch football at a variety of different levels. These include Scottish Championship, Scottish Premiership, Scotland International (and England International), English Premiership, Czech First league and the Second Tier of Czech Football.
I have previously written about my Dilemma in terms of swapping regular attendance at Scotland International games for trips further afield to experience different cultures and football – something I have experienced before in the past alongside Scotland games and am keen to explore further or as an alternative. So having undertaken some fieldwork over the last year in taking in these various games, I’ve started to draw some conclusions and form opinions on the broader experience and where the best value lies.
Scottish Club Football
As written before, Scottish club football can be seen for relatively standard price points – £25 for a team like Aberdeen or Hibernian (Hibs) towards the top of the pyramid, or around £15 for the likes of Brechin at the foot of the Championship (second tier).
Aberdeen and Hibs are both sides capable of high quality football, with some good individual players and decent, young managers capable of organising their sides and picking the right players for the right games. Derek McInnes at Aberdeen has consistently steered Aberdeen to relative success – second or “best of the rest” behind Celtic over the past few years. However there is always a sense that while being a top side in Scottish terms (I think Hibs would fall under this category as well) that there is a reliance on the good old, traditional traits of Scottish Football – power, pace, grit determination and the like. Tactical innovation or focussed, constructed football doesn’t always come through with sides like these – they are more likely to score from a combative, ball-winning midfielder taking the ball and playing a hopeful ball out wide, a pacey winger running and crossing for a big striker to knock home. Now, there is nothing whatsoever wrong with this and it is clearly successful – but it does highlight a reliance on physical attributes rather than technical or tactical attributes.
Real life examples at Aberdeen would be Graeme Shinnie, a full back converted to a hard working central midfielder who can patrol the centre, win the ball and distribute to wide men such as Niall McGinn or Gary Mackay-Steven who in turn beat a man and cross for a big target man like Adam Rooney to finish. Tried, trusted, successful. The Hibs example would include John McGinn, Martin Boyle and Simon Murray or Florian Kamberi.
Furthermore, when challenged by a tactically superior opposition, things don’t go as well. An example would be when Aberdeen played Celtic in October 2017. Both teams had started the season well and met at Pittodrie. From the start it was clear that Aberdeen had set up specifically to try and nullify Celtic, with a rigid formation and even the attacking players tasked with tracking back and defending from wide positions. This worked to an extent, but when Celtic found free men at centre half they progressed forward with the ball and given Aberdeen’s rigidity, clever Celtic midfielders could find space “between the lines” and essentially get the better of Aberdeen through tactical or technical innovation, thereby bettering Aberdeen’s physical approach by being able to play through the system and avoid being drawn into a more physical battle.
Now the above might all seem like a sweeping generalisation, weekly or more regular fans may completely disagree, but as a subjective football fan, the physical blood and thunder style football can only go so far. It becomes painfully apparent when technical or tactical approaches roll into town that these are vastly superior and offer a far better spectacle and experience. The emotion of a blood and thunder game can add a bit, being drawn into the tribal feeling when a crushing tackle comes in, but again from an experience perspective – you can see this down at Sunday league level for free and don’t necessarily need to fork out £25 for the privilege. So Scottish club football offers some good elements, but does seem limited.
As written previously, Scotland games have been my staple football diet for over 15 years. There have been good times, bad times and worse times. The social side of the matches have always been appealing and added to the occasion. Again, I have commented previously as well as above on the various tactical levels and differences experienced with a variety of international opponents visiting. I’m not going to revisit some of the tactical analysis or opinions offered in previous articles, suffice to say that Scotland have often lined up in a 4-5-1 formation and have favoured solidity and organisation over innovation – things may change now in the great new age under Alex McLeish’s second reign however (here’s hoping).
Much like club games, Scotland games can often revert to more of a tribal atmosphere where grit, determination, tackles and fighting for the shirt are the highest valued commodities. The odd, sporadic and infrequent moments of quality intersperse this and act as a kind of drug which grips us as fans and keeps us coming back for more, in the forlorn hope of replicating the sensation and euphoria.
The above was perfectly encapsulated in the Scotland v England game at Hampden in June 2017. The game finished 2-2, with the last 5 minutes the only real points of note after a game of limited quality but no shortage of grit and determination as expected. Now, Scotland didn’t show a great deal of quality throughout – nor did England to be perfectly honest. Then 87 minutes ticked over, with the score 0-1 to England and Scotland won a free kick on the edge of the box. Griffiths stepped up to curl one home to level the scores – Hampden went wild. This was one of the joyous moments eluded to above, like beating France in 2007 or (possibly more relevant for Scotland’s recent level) scoring a last minute winner against Liechtenstein in 2010. When the same player scored a similar free kick a couple of minutes later, the place went bonkers, absolute pandemonium as people (including myself) roared, jumped around and basically went mental. England scored an equaliser themselves a couple of minutes into injury time to bring things back to earth with a bump – thereby perfectly capturing the polarised experience of a Scotland game in a nice little 5 minute nutshell.
As opponents that day, England will also get drawn into this next overview. A fairly turgid affair, full of industry with limited sustained quality from either side was lit up with sporadic moments of drama, sparks of individual quality and plenty of fight and passion. As with Scottish club football, these games can offer a very pure, raw form of joy and emotion which is amazing at the time but in the cold light of day act as a reminder of the leaner times, or the other 90% of the game in this instance, where high quality had to be searched for.
Ticket prices for this game, officially, reached somewhere in the region of £60 for members of the public to attend. Now the game was a sellout, so in economic terms this was a perfectly viable price point – demand likely still outstripping supply even at this high price level. But in reality this is far, far too expensive for a game of football.
In retrospect, the moments of drama and euphoria could be described as priceless by some. But I would still argue that paying £60 to attend an “event” as a “consumer” should mean that I get to see or experience a complete performance or a guaranteed quality. Taking the last few minutes out of the equation here, this game did not represent optimal value – much like a lot of games.
English Club Football
Visiting Huddersfield recently, a side at the lower end of the English Premier League admittedly and it must be said who make conscious, applaudable efforts to accommodate families and children at games, provides a neat next step to the above.
Priced at £30 for an adult ticket, for a higher quality than Aberdeen or Hibs but probably a lower quality (albeit different nature) of football from an International game, this would seem a fair price point for the spectacle.
Just like the games and experiences covered above, the Huddersfield v Crystal Palace game I attended was full of effort, physicality and with a reliance on the physical attributes like pace, power and strength as opposed to technical or tactical quality. Defined formations clearly visible on the pitch and sparks of quality or innovation from individuals helped shape the game. There were quality players on show, players like Zaha with the ability to beat players and excite the crowd and Milivojevic in the centre of the Palace midfield offering flashes of close control and quality. There were however players on show clearly there for their physical attributes above everything else – Sakho for Palace and Quaner for Huddersfield showing flashes of very limited (or poor) technique which belied the status of the game in one of the top leagues in the world.
Now this was a relegation battle, so solidity will have been valued ahead of technique – quite understandably. However, for a game of such magnitude in the context of a relegation battle where fans are attending in the knowledge and expectation that both sides will have to slug it out rather than try something innovative, I would have expected the atmosphere here to have been a bit closer to boiling point.
I’ve said previously about the great effort Huddersfield clearly make to accommodate families and children, so a hostile or more passionate atmosphere is never likely to happen – the tribal mentality is less likely to catch on when so many families are in attendance. But even with this caveat, the atmosphere seemed somewhat sterile or subdued – almost manufactured or polite. Applause at the right moments with quiet disdain at the bad moments, the atmosphere never really took off and this served to influence my experience of the game. Much as the Scotland game covered above, this match was another indication of the consumerism of football, where you are sold an experience – £30 for a ticket, with polite applause and cheering, much like an outing to the theatre. Hypocritical as it may be as a bit of a football tourist, the experience here was very much one as a customer attending an event, rather than a fan attending a football battle.
Czech Club Football
In a trip to Prague to visit @velvetsoccer and watch some football we took in three games, two from the Czech First League and one from the second tier. With ticket prices of £11, £8 and £2 for a (on paper) descending scale of football quality, this trip offered exceptional value.
Games at Viktoria Žižkov in the second tier and Bohemians Praha 1905 from the middle to lower portion of the First League served up what you would expect. Open, slightly ramshackle stadia were never going to generate the most vibrant of atmospheres. But with low ticket prices, accessible ticket purchasing mechanisms added to the tasty beer and klobasa sausages from the concession stalls, the facilities set things up for a great experience.
Like most of Europe, both sides above plus Sparta Prague who I also visited have their own Ultras – passionate, noisy and dedicated fans. These are seldom present in British Football. Even in the lower level games, there were a select few fans still generating noise and geeing on their side. The Sparta Ultras however were especially vociferous, constantly singing, making noise, orchestrating the rest of the stadium and almost sucking the ball into the net on occasions as they drove their side forward through the game.
Without doubt, the Sparta game and their Ultras provided an exceptional atmosphere. While the passion and euphoria of good moments at Scotland games provide small hits, the Sparta game provided 90 minutes of dedication and attachment to the game. The atmosphere generated was all the more impressive given the less than half full stadium and the fact that Sparta the team are struggling this season.
The general quality of football at the Sparta, Bohemians and Zizkov was on the whole really high. Fluid passing moves, players at all levels comfortable on the ball and capable of close control. The technical and tactical side of the game is certainly more prominent in the Czech League as opposed to UK football. Yes, there are still physical elements – target men still exist up front and there are fast wingers providing them with ammunition. But there seems to be less reliance on these aspects with the balance tipping this way in contrast to the opposite in the UK.
Drawing on my experience therefore, I’m drawn to favour the more exotic travel based football experiences. Vibrant atmospheres and technical football, for me, outweighs the physicality of the UK game. Add in the cheaper ticket prices and overall “fan” atmosphere as opposed to being seen as a “client” or “customer” at an event, the experience is far more favourable.
Having said all that, I will continue conducting “fieldwork” or “research” by attending matches at home and abroad. I am after all, a football fan first and foremost.