Live football has given me some of my most cherished experiences.
I remember my first-ever football match in 1999 – Crystal Palace vs Grimsby on a chilly autumn afternoon at Selhurst Park. Aged eight, I only knew some of the Palace players at the time and, honestly, I don’t even remember the score. What I remember more strikingly is being in absolute awe of my surroundings. As my dad and I climbed the concrete steps to our seats midway up the Main Stand, one of my first observations was one of pure innocence.
“Why is there no commentary?”
To my dismay, I was told I had to watch the match closely, observe what was happening, and keep track of the score. I was also informed there was a big screen to our left. But it was just out of view so I tried to focus on the game as much as my eight-year-old attention span would allow.
As the game progressed, I became less interested in the footballing quality on display. Instead, I was engrossed by the sensory overload, which I had never experienced when watching a game on TV. The rousing hums of expectation when Palace went on the attack that pulled the tens of thousands of red and blue clad home supporters to their feet, the rumbles of discontent with a loose pass, the booming chants reverberating around a rundown Selhurst Park, the faint aroma of mud and grass kicked up from an uneven pitch, and, of course, the smell of half-time burgers luring cold fans to the kiosks. Ultimately, the experience was so strong that I can still vividly imagine the scene to this day.
Once the game concluded we trudged with the crowd away from the warm glow of the stadium floodlights and into the dark South Norwood night — I knew I had caught the football bug. Little did I know, it was an evening that would shape a fundamental part of my identity and how I perceive football today.
A few seasons later, I had been to enough matches at Selhurst Park that I was ready to become a ‘proper’ fan. From 2003 onwards, I decided to dedicate a portion of my lifetime finances and a tonne of my spare time to following Crystal Palace.
The lack of glamour didn’t bother me and this probably allured most fans to this edgy, crappy club in Thornton Heath with one title to their name; the 1991 Zenith Data Systems Cup. I was captivated enough by the live football experience that I was ready to show up each week and support the team. So I took the plunge and bought my first-ever season ticket for around £30 for the 2003/04 season. Such a small fee to experience professional football at pitch level was invaluable. Hearing the crunching tackles, watching shots ripple into the net on a rain-soaked midweek evening in January, and observing the players arguing with disgruntled fans mid-match gave me formative footballing memories.
This was the rawness of football that I craved as a young kid watching his first-ever football match.
Inside the ground, you become part of the crowd’s heartbeat. You feel a human yearning to empathise and sometimes dislike the players and the coaching staff, and these feelings cannot be caught through the camera lens. This individual and collective feeling of the agony and ecstasy of winning and losing makes the sport special. But it’s the social and cultural togetherness of football that keeps you coming back, too. The collective relief of a last-minute winner or the shared disappointment of a heavy loss that makes football so tangible, so lived and so real.
Those scenes at Selhurst Park taught me more about what football means than any Sky Sports analysis or newspaper match report could provide.
I learned that the physical beauty of watching a game from the stands will never be captured in the same way on TV. The lived experience of watching a club week-in-week out then means more in those big footballing moments, it feels as though you have put in the hard yards for the rewards, especially supporting a team outside of the footballing elite.
Since choosing Palace as my team, I have been lucky enough to see the team succeed firsthand at Wembley and Cardiff in play-off finals and I have seen us come so close to winning the 2016 FA Cup final when Croydon-born Jason Puncheon fired in a late opener in front of the ecstatic South London supporters at Wembley, only for us to typically throw away the match in extra time.
For me, there is no way for a broadcaster to capture such nostalgia. So often, a glorious footballing moment on the biggest stage is often overshadowed by the commentator’s clamour to find a poetic line or metaphor or interrupted over-analysis of a player kicking the ball into the net, like when Darren Ambrose thumped in a shot from 35-yards at Old Trafford in the League Cup. The moment seemed to last for an eternity high up in the away end on a rain-soaked Manchester evening in 2011. But re-watching the commentary on the train back down to London, more time was spent on the celebrations, the replay, the analysis and the moment lost all sentiment.
Simply just being present and taking in such moments is no longer enough.
As modern fans, we are consumers rather than supporters. Luckily, I grew up at a time when football was such a commodity. In my first two seasons as a Palace season ticket holder, I spent £130 to get access to all home games throughout each campaign. One was in the old Division 1 and the second was in the Premier League after we achieved promotion via the playoffs.
It was a tiny financial cost, which I wholeheartedly justified in terms of the memories created by watching football during this period. In particular, watching the humble Eagles try to manage the likes of a prime Thierry Henry, a budding superstar named Wayne Rooney, and all-action midfielder Frank Lampard added to my love of football as a young fan.
I had watched these players live on TV before, but seeing them perform close up, in the flesh on the less than pristine Selhurst turf was the stuff of dreams. To this day, I remember the absolute stillness around the ground when Henry scored a backheel nearly 20 years ago. Time seemed to freeze and the entire stadium was stunned by the moment of magic. This memory is more real to me now compared to some of my other life events that have happened in the last five years!
But, if I was the same young kid today who wanted to watch their local side, or was dragged along to their first football match because it was a cheap weekend activity, I don’t think I would have the same opportunity and the experience wouldn’t be the same. The top-level pitches are pristine, the football is smooth and suave, players are punished for a crunching tackle, referees are berated for minuscule errors and the boom of VAR announcements detracts from the flow and excitement of 11v11 on the pitch.
And all of the perfection of modern professional football comes at a cost. For the same season ticket I had at Selhurst Park nearly 20 years ago, a kid would now pay £545. Of course, the seats are no longer wooden, the surroundings are more comfortable and the quality of play is generally better. But is there a real chance for a football-loving kid to truly connect with their footballing surroundings? To join a footballing community, and fall in love with the feel of the game? Would families and fans today rather avoid the astronomical costs of seeing their heroes up close and opt for coverage from their phone and sofa?
Of course, there is a positive towards drawing in a larger group of global viewers who cannot physically get to a Premier League or top-level ground easily. I have certainly become less of a regular at Selhurst Park since our promotion back to the Premier League in 2013 as life commitments of work and home life have taken precedence, yet the immediate nature of highlights and the occasional broadcast match has kept me in tune with my team’s performance.
Yet, as my opportunities to go to Selhurst Park on a whim dwindle, I am left largely with my ever-lasting memories of showing up at a rickety Selhurst Park, watching both average, top-tier and sometimes comical football with similarly passionate South Londoners searching for those glimpses of glory.
It is hard to watch what football is becoming. Megabucks, 24-hour coverage and the quest for dominance upset me and my inner Palace-loving child. And the pureness of what football makes football special is under threat. Today’s game couldn’t be further from the essence of true and real support so many grew up with and loved. It is a sport on monetary steroids, focusing on producing revenue, building global fan bases, and immediate success. At the highest levels, fans are being forgotten and chances to get involved with the local club are dwindling. In my case, the hoop jumping of paying for a membership just to get a chance of watching the team I love dearly for one or two matches a year is in contrast to the days in the 2012/13 Championship season, when I showed up at Selhurst for nearly every home game and paid cash on the gate.
Yet, the pure version of real football is still available for fans wanting to experience tangibility, for those who want to feel the passion for live matches once again.
Go to your local non-league club or support your nearest women’s team. It is here you will find that football still exists behind the garish Premier League mill. Get close to the action and observe the beauty of football from the sidelines, not the padded seat. For you will hear every kick, each piece of bad language, the rain tumbling down on the gritted faces of hard-working players and each crowd murmuring and cheering. It is here where football remains untarnished and it is where I am willing to spend my hard-earned cash. I feel a sense of closeness with the pitch yet again when attending non-league matches or women’s football. Watching the players and fans interact pre and post-match creates the communal spirit of what football is – young footballers can meet their icons in person and realise they are not TV characters like some of the Premier League’s best.
Today, I often feel like that young kid again walking up the steps at Selhurst Park, but the setting has changed. After visiting a few local non-league football matches last season and covering women’s football in previous seasons, I am dedicated to seeing more in the 2023/24 campaign.
Although I will be following Palace from afar, I am swapping the Premier League plush for a match that is called off because half the pitch is underwater or standing under a tin roof as the rain thumps from up above on a sub-zero winter’s night; such experiences that tell my heart that I’m in the right place. This season, I can head to a new club or a new stadium without worrying about the cost or the quality of football, much like that young boy walking his first steps at Selhurst Park who was unknowingly heading towards the tangibility of football.