How the Premier League experience can leave a sour taste for fans

Estimated read time 6 min read

It is about an hour before kick-off at Stamford Bridge and Everton fans are milling outside the gate that leads to the away end. It’s a Monday night and people look tired, having just been dispatched from their coaches at the end of a five-hour journey. Some are waiting for friends, clasping cups of coffee, others are looking for spare tickets. The consistent topic of conversation, meanwhile, is the Premier League’s profitability and sustainability rules.

“As a fan you just want to go to the game, you want to watch the match, you want to live and breathe your team and your club and everything,” says Hanif Karimi, who follows Everton home and away. “Instead you’re spending your evenings reading through reports just to see what they’ve done to us.”

Karimi has travelled from Southampton for Everton’s match, as he and his son Jasper always do. He estimates an 11-hour round trip each time they travel to Goodison Park and says the cost means his family have not had a holiday in years. But when he talks about the sport to which he commits his life, there’s a tone of disgust to his words.

“You know, when we played Man City, our whole first XI cost less than Jack Grealish, who was on the bench and came on for 10 minutes,” he says. “And yet we’re the ones done for a points deduction, for an overspend, while they can do what they’re doing, get all their oil money, spin it through their different companies, through their PO boxes or whatever they’re doing and get away with it.

“No doubt about it, our ownership for the last seven years and longer, the Bill Kenwright days through to [Farhad] Moshiri is shocking; we’ve been mismanaged from top down. It’s awful, but I don’t love the managers, I don’t love the owners, I love my club, I love my team, I love coming away with my boys to the matches, and this is never going to change.”

If you know, know of or are a person who likes to physically support a Premier League football team you will probably have heard opinions like Hanif’s. You may even have articulated them. Every fanbase at every club appears in some way to be frustrated, cheesed off and likely a bit cynical about the game they love. No doubt there have been tougher times to be a football fan – stadiums are nowadays largely safe after all – but this season appears to have accelerated trends that have soured the supporter experience.

Silhouettes of fans outside the stadium prior to the Premier League match between Chelsea and EvertonView image in fullscreen

A short list of the factors involved would include: an increase in costs across the board from travel to tickets to food and drink; matches scheduled at inconvenient times (the bank of away coaches parked a few blocks fromnear Stamford Bridge would probably not have begun their schlep back up the M40 – after a 6-0 defeat – until 10.30pm); matches disrupted and emotions mangled by the technology of VAR; the wellspring of PSR charges, rulings and appeals that have not only complicated the experience of being a fan but sullied it. And then there’s what Hanif calls “the money game”.

Speaking to fans of clubs fighting to avoid relegation from the Premier League this season, money was a consistent theme. It could be money that their club doesn’t have, or money that owners have wasted. More commonly it was the money that others had, money that they couldn’t compete with or money that, in their view, unduly influenced the outcome of events on and off the field. In turn, it seemed that these were problems that could be fixed only by more money.

“We’ve got the only Saudi prince that’s not rich,” says Catherine Woodworth, who has followed Sheffield United across the country for 70 years. “And he’s bought more clubs since he bought Sheffield United. We never see him, do we? Never see him. So it does sound like there’s a little bit of frustration with him.”

Woodworth is speaking from her seat on the chartered coach that has brought her and a horde of other Blades down to west London for United’s match with Brentford. Sitting next to her is her friend Helen Barker, who also bemoans her club’s spending power.

“Chelsea last week [when Sheffield United earned an unexpected draw], they had a player they’d bought for £100m. That’s more than the cost of our first team, second team, third team put together,” she says. “When we had Paul Heckingbottom, the money he was given to spend was £20m. It’s not even going to get you one player, is it? And that’s why we haven’t got Premier League quality. What can you buy for £20m?”

Woodward and Barker discuss the relative merits of being owned by a non-billionaire Saudi prince against those of an American private equity fund and the result is a score draw.

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The Sheffield United duo are happy to contemplate a return to the Championship. “I can’t wait to say goodbye to VAR,” says Barker. But despite the inequalities and the ownership structures and the insults (“On Twitter, fans from other clubs say: ‘Why were Sheffield United allowed in the league?’” says Woodworth), neither wants to wave the white flag in the Premier League.

Fans eating chips before the Premier League match between Sheffield United and Manchester City last AugustView image in fullscreen

‘I always feel that anyone can support a winning team,” says Woodworth. “It’s when things aren’t going well that you need your supporters, and that’s why we’re here. We’re here to support them when they need it, and they need it now.”

With that final sentiment, Woodworth captures the other consistent theme among the fans who spoke about the travails of themselves and their team: none were about to give up, from the Irish family who fly over every week to watch Sheffield United to the Brentford fans who have followed their team from League Two.

“We’ve gone through years and years and years of watching the team in places like Workington and Rochdale, Darlington on a Tuesday night – we’ve done all that,” says Bees supporter Alan Gilding, who took a philosophical approach to his team’s recent struggles in the top flight.

“We’re just going to enjoy this as long as it lasts. It’s nice to know that we’re up there getting the money as well as the prestige that goes with it but it wouldn’t worry me unduly if we ended back in the Championship.”

Jock Stein said that football without fans is nothing. Much of the time it can feel as if those who run the game have forgotten that. But the psychology of the loyal supporter is complex: an unconditional love nurtured as much by disappointment as by joy. The sense from a snapshot taken on one Premier League weekend is that, despite everything, the fans aren’t going anywhere. Like the dude, they abide.


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