I’ve done a couple of things I’m not proud of this month. I’ve handed over money for service I won’t boast about. And the worst thing is that, I know, I’ll go back.
I’ve bought Forever Bristol membership, and I’ve bought a ticket to Hillsbrough for the opening game of the season. While neither of these are shameful, precisely, both of them have left me at the very edge of my moral comfort zone.
Second things first. The ticket for Sheffield Wednesday cost me £39. Which, undeniably, is a hell of a lot; enough for a lot of people, very reasonably, to decide that it’s not worth the candle. And the Supporters’ Club and Trust have gone further, and announced that they’re not going to attend. They’ve stopped short of calling a boycott because some people have already booked travel, but they’ve made it very clear that this is the next best thing.
They are, of course, absolutely right. Exploitative pricing is a major issue in football at the moment, especially in the revoltingly rich upper divisions of the English game. Fans prize loyalty above any other trait, but the clubs upon which they bestow this prized characteristic strip-mine it for money. It’s a bad, bad business, and City fans are right to stand up to it.
But. This was the game I looked for when the results came out. This is the game which my friend Dave the big Sheffield Wednesday fan were planning to organise a night out around. And there it was, first game of the season, barely a month after the fixtures came out. It was too perfect not to.
So I'm going up on Saturday; I've held my nose, not looked at the bank account, and bought a ticket. I'll send some money Sheffield FC's way, but I won't be able to pretend that's any better than giving a quid to one homeless guy in every twenty as an assuaging of the conscience. I'm looking forward to the first game of the season, looking forward more to the evening out in a lovely city – but don't get me wrong, if the SC&T had announced a full boycott I'd have fallen in line. I'd never break a boycott. I'm all too aware I'm using a semantic distinction as justification; but it has to be enough.
Before I even bought that ticket, though, I'd caved and bought Forever Bristol membership – and that really stuck in the craw. I dislike the concept of Forever Bristol immensely. It's the Speedy Boarding of the football world – an opportunity for the seller to monetise, rather than the provision of a service, the non-removal of an already existing service. If you don't offer Speedy Boarding, everyone gets the same chance to board the plane – as soon as you do, you take away that first chance from passengers who don't pay the premium. Forever Bristol is precisely the same. If it didn't exist, everyone would have the same chance to buy tickets. Introduce it, and suddenly you create a second tier of fans, which we all have to pay £20 to avoid joining. The club has to do nothing – literally nothing – extra, except stick out a virtual hand and extract a crispy purple note from fans who'll be buying tickets anyway.
The only way this can work, of course, is by frightening people into joining the upper tier. After all, if nobody bought Speedy Boarding, nobody else would feel they had to. There would no longer be a queue to jump. And all last season the club's website yelled at us that we had to become FB members if we wanted to see the games. This reached a particular nadir after the FA Cup draw pitting us against West Ham when a Forever Bristol membership ad, rather than news of the fixture itself, took pride of place on the website.
The West Ham game still didn't sell out to members, mind; I think only the last game of the season did. Which must have provoked sighs of relief from the accounts department. A Cup game hadn't, the game where we sealed the title hadn't; thank God that at the very last minute they showed the fans that without paying the premium you risked getting bupkis.
Hang on... now I think of it, it's odd that a match didn't sell out to members until the last possible opportunity for one to do so...
...and after some more attractive games had failed to. You don't think...?
No. I'm sure it was all above board and honest.
Now I'm not an idiot and I understand that scarcity = demand = increased pricing. I get that. But we seem to have the worst of both here – increased prices this season and a membership fee if you actually want the opportunity to pay any of them.
And yet I know all this, and I complain about it, but once again I have the wallet out. Why? Why have I chosen willingly to be exploited, once by my own club, once by a bunch of Yorkshire blue-and-whites to whom I have no allegiance?
As ever, the answer at its most reductionist is: because football. But that won't quite do. The simple action of walloping a ball into a net can be exciting, sure, but it's hard to believe it's exciting enough to mesmerise us all into agreeing to this mechanised asset-stripping.
Football isn't just football for most of us. It's not the 'bunch of lads kicking a ball around' of repute. It's a weird bundle of connections in our mind, pre-season most of all – echoes of triumph ringing around the brain, the chemical memory of those endorphin rushes, those odd moments when everything aligns in a wonderful, natural high. It's the friendships it's connected with, the old friends I most often see at Ashton Gate now, the new friendships the game throws our way, the sharing of something mutually beloved. And more than that it's the primal sense of identity, of belonging; as humans we congregate, if not at football games then music festivals, airshows, comic book conventions, whatever you like. For everyone reading this, football provides something – several somethings – that I think drive us as animals. Great swathes of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs can be fulfilled at your local Championship ground, 3pm every other winter Saturday.
That's why advertisers are so desperate to stick Ray Winstone's stupid face into the Champion's League; why David Fishwick Minibus Sales hangs on to that prime location at Turf Moor; why Manchester United have an Official Office Equipment Partner. Everyone knows that – but it's indirect. “When football strips away their higher brain functions” runs the commercial logic, “we'll step in and shove our tat right down their pleasure centres”.
What I've been paying for is the real thing. The direct hit. Liquid football. And like anyone who comes back for more when they know they shouldn't, who spends money they don't really have, who has an order of priority they probably won't admit to anybody, I'm far too tarnished to start pretending my hands aren't dirty.
And I can't wait for the season to start, so that my millions of fellow-sufferers and I can debase ourselves once again.