I’m not a Bristol City fan, but they are part of my life. I’ve attended a few games this season, mostly because I get tickets for free from my workplace, which happens to be their homeground.
Almost all the students are supporters, so I feel like I’ve developed a soft spot for them, even if for most of the autumn, things were pretty bleak. A long winless run, no one who looked like they could score, anger, blame, and the championship is a league that captures microcosms of form better than any other; such is its tightness that two or three wins, or two or three games without wins, immediately gets reflected in the table. There’s usually something like five points separating thirteen teams, and anyone who can string a win or two together usually shoots up ten places, or, conversely, anyone who can’t win for a few games sees themselves fall down, pretty quickly.
So there was a point where Bristol City were looking like strong relegation candidates.
And, something which is something like the main point of this piece, is this downturn in team form was either the cause, or consequence of, a dreary, flat, quiet atmosphere in the stadium. It’s almost evolutionary; deciding which came first is a circular question.
Something that might help decide whichever side can be believed to be the initiator, the team performances or the atmosphere, is the moment it all changed. And it almost was a single moment.
A draw against Swansea City in the third round of the F.A. cup gave me another chance to sit in the home stand and pretend to be a home fan, and it also presented a tough challenge as a match in itself. Swansea were dominating that first half, and then went and scored when the goalkeeper mistakenly passed the ball out directly to Liam Cullen, who casually gave it to Joel Piroe, who scored into an empty net. The already muted atmosphere became de-volumed even more, and Swansea cantered their way to half time, looking comfortable. The Ateyo Stand, the smallest stand, where the away fans are compartmentalised, was loud, and such is the acoustical build of the stadium that the noise from that stand seems to reverberate around the ground, amplified and hostile. (There have been discussions about why the away fans are put in that stand to begin with, as the sound advantage it gives them is well documented, and while there have been suggestions of moving them to the rarefied nether regions of the upper Landsdown, to me it seems pretty simply a decision based on security: the Ateyo Stand is the best place to manage the access points to the ground and keep the fans separated.)
At this point the only singing to be heard was Ar Hyd Y Nos.
Had Swansea made that dominance pay more in the first half, it might’ve been different.
It’s not clear whose idea it was to begin with, but someone from a group of young Bristol City fans, teenagers, who’re heavily influenced by the pop-cultural images of intimidating football fans, decided the battle didn’t only need to be fought on the pitch, and, because the stadium was less than half full and there were plenty of empty seats, they decided to move to the E34 stand, the one closest to the away fans. The rationale was simple: drown them out.
They gathered numbers and ensued in a singing match in the second half. It’s probably not possible to conclude whether this was the deciding factor – it might have been the formation change from Nigel Pearson – it also might have been Swansea’s overconfidence – but that second half was a different game, and a goal (which was somewhat fortunate) from Semenyo levelled it, and by the end Bristol City were the one pushing to win.
It went to a replay, but that was a turning point. Fans now regularly target the E34 stand as a key piece of real estate during games, and the evidence is demonstrable: an unbeaten run stretching into double figures, and, as a direct reward for taking that F.A cup to a replay and winning it and then beating West Brom in the next round: an already famous cup tie against Manchester City.
So which came first? The sound or the performance? The positivity or the results? It’s quite philosophical in a way, but from someone who attends games as a neutral, from my vantage point it’s clear. Those sixteen year olds who walk as if to an Oasis soundtrack figured something out when they packed that E34 stand.
And this is something I’ve been thinking about. The noise at football games is its own soundtrack, it’s instantly recognisable, and it’s well documented as a contributing factor to the performances of teams. The twelfth man. And part of that, an inherent part, is the hostility that it comes with, that it produces and instils. Home and away advantage wouldn’t be a thing if it wasn’t for large groups of people all shouting incendiary things at teams while they played (and that’s something I always marvel at in football games, from a sociological point of view, how it’s one of the few environments in which it’s easy to get tens of thousands of people all saying the exact same thing, all together) and while it’s not very palatable for the modern football fan, whose nose scrunches up when they hear the naughty words and the intonations of aggression, without it, you end up with that first half against Swansea: a dentist’s waiting room.
Maybe it’s because it reminds people too much of the eighties, when fans fought and killed each other, when English teams were banned from European competition for several years, but in the modern, twenty-first century, globalised game, there’s increasingly less and less place for the tribal hostility of the fans. But it’s coming at something of a cost. At the top, in the stadiums where teams owned by oligarchs and sheiks play, a significant percentage of seats are taken up by corporate executives, tourists, unless it’s the Etihad, which is known for regularly being at less than full capacity. (And tied in with this is the story I read about the American who couldn’t understand why fans of rival teams liked to point to this so much. He thought they should focus on their own team and not turn fan attendance into a “big dick” competition. But that hostility among fans is one of the key things I’m saying which makes the game compelling. The whole thing is a “big dick” competition, and if it wasn’t, no one would want to watch it.)
At World Cup games in Qatar, it was reminiscent of the pandemic games played in empty stadiums, where conversations between players on the pitch could actually be heard.
Maybe you could say it comes down to how humans just aren’t very good at finding the happy medium, how they oscillate between two extremes. Somewhere along the continuum of eighties hooliganism to sanitised modern day executive suite, some balanced middle ground, would be nice. But that’s not likely. We’ll maybe go back to the violent extreme, all the way, finding maybe a week or two of balance along the way.
I recently had a discussion with students in which a question was posed: would you rather attend a game in the eighties, when the tribal hostility was at its highest, when the noise often turned into violence, or, would you rather attend one now, in a safer but less raucous atmosphere, where a beer costs £8, where all the working class, street and tribal roots of football have almost been entirely lost? Almost unanimously the students agreed they would prefer to attend the eighties game, where they’d risk getting a brick or bottle thrown at them to participate in the ritualistic singing and hurling limericks of abuse at the opposing fans and players.
This was an interesting discussion actually, which was originally meant to be about whether or not premier league clubs should filter money down the pyramid to keep non league teams afloat, but turned into this kind of territory, philosophical, sociological, and even ended with one student comparing football fandom to racism, describing it “as a form of discrimination based on colour and the primal fear of ‘the other”’.
Those students seem to think the eighties is coming back. And maybe it’s just because we live in Bristol, but I already see the eighties everywhere, in the fashion sense, and I hear it in the music. So maybe they’re right.