The Sucker Game

By Nick Hornby  |  02 Feb 2015

This article first appeared in Issue 6 of The Green Soccer Journal, March 2014


I won’t tell you how much I used to pay to watch Arsenal when I was a teenager in the 1970s. The sum would make no sense to you, and in any case, it’s an old trick, throwing figures that haven’t been adjusted for inflation into a conversation about the old days. “And it cost 17 shillings and sixpence! That’s seventy-seven-and-a-half p, in today’s money!” No it’s not. It’s seven quid, or seventy, or seven thousand, depending on whether it’s Jimmy Greaves or Charles Dickens doing the talking. Instead, I would like to tell you what else I could buy with the same money, and I’m certain that the information is correct because I used to buy these goods and services on the days that I went to football.

I could buy five Evening Standards, for example, although that probably doesn’t help you, because parting with any cash at all for the Standard—on a Saturday!—probably seems ridiculously quaint now. But I bought one Evening Standard and one Evening News, 40-odd minutes after the final whistle, and both of them contained the classified results, and reports from the first half of that afternoon’s game. The extraordinary time constraints frequently meant a headline on the front page saying something like EARLY BREAKTHROUGH FOR ARSENAL, a few hundred words about the team selection and the opening goal, and then the bathetic scoreline—FT Arsenal 1 Leeds Utd 2.

I could have bought five programmes, and five bags of chips; I could have, and did, buy one return tube ticket, from Paddington to Arsenal and back again. I will repeat that, because it’s worth emphasising: I paid exactly the same to get into Highbury as I paid to get there on the underground. That tube fare is something like seven quid now, much less if you have an Oyster card; the cheapest seat for a big game is 60.

What can you realistically expect from a team that charges you the equivalent of a tube ticket to watch them? Not a great deal, I don’t think. Admission to the stadium and a game of football lasting 90 minutes, yes. But your desire to see that team win, a desire born out of familiarity and the need to intensify the experience of live sporting entertainment, is something you’re bringing with you at your own expense. The tube-ticket team will do its best, not least because competitive young men would rather play and win, but they can’t be expected to guarantee you a happy Saturday or Sunday afternoon, not for that money.

And nor can you demand to see the best players in the world, loads of them. You might happen to have one at your club, but before globalisation and the terrifying rise of the super-agent, that seemed more like a matter of luck than judgement, and he had to be British. Gordon Banks played for Stoke, Bobby Moore for West Ham, and neither West Ham nor Stoke were good teams.

Arsenal bought Alan Ball for a lot of money in 1972, and he was the only established international in the side. Manchester United were dismal, when I started watching football. They were at the beginning of a slow decline that would end with their relegation in 1974. That was the way their cookie had crumbled, and though they routinely had the highest average attendance in the league, all those tube tickets (and everyone charged the same admission prices, back then – there was no wild disparity between one club and the next) didn’t add up to enough to stop the rot.

Contrary to myth, the stadiums weren’t full very often, even at those prices. Famously, four-and-a-half thousand people turned up to watch Arsenal play Leeds in 1966; there was a crowd of 21,000 for the season opener against Southampton in 1985. The hopeless Arsenal team of 1975/76 got an average gate of 26,000, in the days when the capacity of Highbury was over 60. But the people who did go seemed phlegmatic about failure. Between 1971 and 1987 there was a solitary FA Cup win and much grumbling. But I don’t remember any outrage. We hadn’t paid enough to earn it.

We all know what happened next: Hillsborough; the Taylor report; Sky; Abramovich; the £300,000 a-week footballer; and admission prices that are more or less the same as West End theatre tickets. Arsenal have been charging more than any other club in England, which means more than any other club in Europe, which means more than any other club in the world. What do you expect for 60 (70, 80) quid? What can you ask of a club, a comedian, a meal, a band? Admission and access to a toilet and a bar is no longer enough, clearly.  You want top-class, international-quality entertainment too. You could argue that for the most part, casual visitors to the Emirates have received it, even over the last seven or eight trophy-less years. If Arsenal were playing a weak team, you’d see a couple of fantastic Van Persie goals and some sublime Fàbregas passes; if Arsenal were playing United or Chelsea, then you’d see Rooney, Ronaldo and Drogba smash up Eboué and Senderos before drilling the ball past poor old Manuel Almunia. Very few of the games were objectively unentertaining. But most visitors to the Emirates are not casual. They pay West End theatre prices 25 times a year, and now the young men they pay to see really do have to shoulder the expectations of the crowd.

There is nothing certain in professional sport. Players get injured, restless and greedy, coaches make mistakes. Fans can’t demand a trophy or their money back. But football is becoming more predictable than it ever has been.

We more or less know at the beginning of every season the teams that will qualify for the Champions’ League, the teams that will be competing to win the championship, the teams that will be fighting relegation. We know that one of two teams will win the league in Spain and France, and that one team will win the league in Germany, and we know why. Over the last few years, Arsenal has decided that their ticket prices at the Emirates should be higher than ticket prices at the Etihad or Old Trafford, and the same, more or less, as ticket prices at Stamford Bridge, while at the same time selling their best players to the clubs that play at those stadiums and win all the trophies that matter. How can this not cause dissatisfaction?

When, a couple of years ago, Arsenal started the season with Almunia as first-choice goalkeeper, the message was clear: “You will pay more for less.” There was never any chance of Arsenal winning the league with Manuel; we knew it, the players knew it, which is why so many of the good ones subsequently left, and the atmosphere inside the stadium became ugly on occasions. Before the arrival of Mesut Özil in the last hours of the transfer window, stewards were required to separate warring factions of the home support during the apparently significant home defeat to Aston Villa on the opening game of the season. This kind of dissent was unimaginable thirty or forty years ago, when Saturday afternoons were routinely ugly and violent – but then, when you’ve paid nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.

Maybe it’s over at Arsenal now, and the club is finally on a path that will lead them to a glorious and dominant tomorrow. But there will be similar problems at other clubs who want to build new stadiums so that they can make more money to give to astonishingly wealthy young players.  How much is your no-hoper team worth to you?  We are the first generation of fans which has had to ask the question.

Nick Hornby is a British novelist, essayist and screenwriter best known for his novels High Fidelity and Fever Pitch, the latter of which recounts the autobiographical tale of his lifelong love affair with Arsenal Football Club.
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