Wednesday, 19 October 2011

18 October 2011: Crystal Palace 1 Bristol City 0

It was recently remarked to me that the experience of attending a football match isn’t an event.  After all, most other public leisure activities for which you’d fork out £25+ for a ticket present themselves with a bit more razzmatazz – a bit more sense of occasion.  I’m talking here about the experience of going to a game, of course, not watching it on TV.  We all know that TV, Sky in particular, is exceptional at hyping the most mundane of Friday night fixtures, as so adroitly parodied by David Mitchell.

Crystal Palace have tried harder than most clubs to razzle up the fan’s experience.  So at Selhurst Park we’re treated to two sets of cheerleaders, the Palace regulars performing before the game and a visiting troupe from America entertaining us at half-time.  We’re given a display of austringry by a man with a mighty gauntlet and a tame eagle.  We’re treated (and treated must be the word) to the strains of the Dave Clark Five’s Glad All Over both as the teams jog out and after Glenn Murray slots the game’s only goal from the penalty spot.  Each gesture pointing to a feeling on the club’s part that we, the punters, perhaps expect something more from our evening than 90 minutes of competitive but desperately mediocre fare.

And on paper that must sound great.  Transatlantic girls dance!  A mighty bird of prey swoops!  Rock ‘n’ roll blares from every speaker!  The last days of Rome come at last to South Norwood.

Yep.  There you are.  That’s the problem.  If football excels at anything, it excels at bathos. We’re all used to it; the phenomenal run down the right flank ending up with a winger arse-over-tit on a commercial hoaring.  The silky step round the keeper followed by the shank wide of an untenanted goal.  And here we have it in its purest form; a carnival of wonders done on a budget in an enclave of Croydon, on a chilly October evening.
The eagle, for instance.  The idea of flying a real live eagle around the groud has been shamelessly half-inched from Lazio, that mighty bastion of Italy’s capital.  I’ll bet it’s damn impressive taking wing above the Stadio Olympico: catching the air currents high above the Curva Sud; coasting and diving over the heads of 70,000 rabid Romans.  Apart from on derby day, when it’s banned in case Roma fans try to kill it.

It’s not quite the same at Selhurst Park.  Sure, the eagle can fly, there’s no question of that. But once it’s passed over the cheerleaders a couple of times, it’s happy to hop along the ground behind two men with pitchforks who remain on the pitch during the entire ‘opening sequence’. There’s a sense that neither the trainer nor the bird itself know what to do now.  It’s certainly getting no response from the crowd.  The collision between theory and practice couldn’t really be more pronounced.

Then there are the cheerleaders.  We think of cheerleaders as an import from American sport, a point highlighted by the presence of actual moms-apple-pie American girls alongside their SE25 counterparts.  I remember, as a young teenage fan, the very concept of cheerleaders at the football being ridiculed; they seem to have crept back in unheralded.  But they sort of make sense in America.  I’ll be honest and admit that I’ve never attended an American sporting event but the sense I have of them is that the ancillary entertainment aspect is played up a great deal more than it is over here.  No doubt  a group of dancing girls from the local college make sense on a balmy summer’s evening before some World Series Baseball. 

I’m not convinced they fit before  a turgid encounter at Norwood Junction.  Can the American team really have been expecting this evening, the first properly cold one since summer; this mismatched, half empty ground; these men who cough, drink hot chocolate, read the programme and leer?

I’m not for a second suggesting that men in America don’t leer, of course.  But I have never heard a single football fan making a comment about a cheerleader that wouldn’t be equally appropriate in a strip club.  There’s no sense of artistic appreciation in the crowd, no sense that we are being entertained by a high-quality calisthenic display.  A comparison of the girls’ physical assets is the order of the day and I’d be a hypocrite if I pretended never to have indulged in this.

The Dave Clark Five speak for themselves; I don’t intend to pass comment on them.

I think this comes down to a trans-atlantic distinction.  American sport is like that; relentless, point or run or basket follows point or run or basket. It makes sense the presentation to be frantic and relentless.  Football isn’t the same; the joy of goals is their rarity value and therefore you don’t come expecting perpetual scoring. 
We’re not entertained by the pre-game and half-time proceedings because, I think, we don’t come to be entertained.  We come expecting to watch, to follow play, rather than enjoy ourselves.  Even Barcelona score only four, five, six times in 90 minutes of play.  Two or three times a half!  It’s wonderful to watch but it doesn’t threaten to take off in Des Moines.  Not to the level domestic sports have, anyway.

Again, I would distinguish between people who go to watch a game and people who watch it on TV.  I do both many times per season and the experience is different.  On TV I’m more often neutral and am choosing to do this rather than watch a film or play some records.  There is an entertainment factor; I’m a consumer, not a supporter.  But at the game it’s different.  At the game I’m a supporter – I might get some pleasure from some good play but really it’s all about the odd goal and the result.  It’s winning that gets the juices flowing.  It’s the ends, not the means.  And that I think is why so much entertainment falls flat.  And that, in turn, is why so little time and money has been invested in it.  The return for outlay isn’t great.

Of course, if I supported Barcelona (or Arsenal or Bayern Munich) things might feel very different – I’d certainly not have the TV/live consumer/supporter distinction.  But that’s how it felt on a cold Tuesday evening at Selhurst Park.

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