Beer and rowdiness allowed

A new study suggests more fans are watching football in the pub because, thanks to the footie police, stadiums have become dull, rigid and regimented.

Good news for pub landlords. New research shows that watching football in the pub is just as exciting as going to a match.

In theory, going to a live match is the ‘real thing’ while watching the game on TV in a pub is an inferior experience. However, Professor Mike Weed from Canterbury Christ Church University in England believes that the thrill of watching football is more about sharing the experience with friends than about physical proximity to the pitch. ‘The pub provides a place where the male holy trinity of alcohol, football and male bonding come together’, Weed explains in an article published in the journal Soccer and Society. ‘In recent years there has been a change in the role played by the pub. Its centrality in football culture certainly hasn’t changed, but it is increasingly becoming clear that the pub itself is now a venue in which to watch live football.’ (1)

That strikes a chord with me but did we really need a piece of academic research to tell us that men like drinking and watching football? My first taste of big screen football was in a Huddersfield student bar during Italia ‘90. It was a revelation; the first time I’d been able to watch live football in a public space and drink at the same time. Back then it was a fairly unusual thing to do. I don’t recall watching another game in a pub until Ireland v Italy in the 1994 World Cup. Today, however, watching football in pubs is commonplace. In 2002, more people watched televised sport in a bar or a pub (9.1million) than attended live sporting events (8.7million).

I asked Mike Weed how he conducted his research. I had visions of university boffins attempting to interview drunken fans and using whizzy electronic gizmos to measure ‘atmosphere’ levels inside pubs. ‘We didn’t fill in questionnaires in pubs’, he laughs. His research team did, however, spend the 2002 World Cup in Sheffield pubs observing and talking to fans watching the England games. Nice work if you can get it!

So why did watching football in pubs take off in the 1990s? Weed puts it down to three factors. Firstly, the availability of affordable big-screen technology. Secondly, the advent of pay television and the Premiership. Weed estimates that in 1993 only 8 to 10 per cent of households had access to non-terrestrial channels compared with 47 per cent today. So, if you wanted to watch live Premiership football and didn’t have a Sky dish, your only option was to go down the pub. During the 2002 World Cup England fans opted for the pub even though the matches were being shown on terrestrial TV because they enjoyed the ‘shared communal experience’.

The third and most interesting factor, suggested by Weed, is the sanitisation of football stadiums in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster and subsequent Taylor Report. Typically, the loss of atmosphere at football matches tends to be explained rather simplistically as a consequence of all-seater stadiums or else ‘gentrification’, a process whereby the proles have been priced out and displaced by prawn-sandwich munching nouveau riche fans and corporate hospitality clients. Weed, however, sees the loss of atmosphere rather as a by-product of the drive to suppress football hooliganism. In his article Weed points to the ‘wide-ranging definition of disorder’ in the Football (Disorder) Act 2000 which includes ‘using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour’. ‘In fact almost all football chants could be defined as “insulting”; indeed to be such is almost their raison d’etre’, he remarks. Does Weed think the anti-hooligan measures have gone too far? ‘There’s an issue about the extent to which spectator legislation criminalises groups that don’t deserve to be criminalised’, he says.

If non-violent fans are treated like criminals inside stadiums for simply effing and blinding, little wonder that they prefer to watch football in the pub. Many of the fans Weed spoke to felt that the atmosphere in the pub was now better than in a football stadium. ‘It’s a bit like the old terraces, we’re all packed in and you can feel yourself swaying with the chants and songs’, one fan told the researchers. The ability to have a drink while watching the match – otherwise known as male multi-tasking - was another obvious attraction. ‘It’s got to be the beer hasn’t it…everyone’s really tanked up ‘cos they’re not waiting ‘til half time or whatever to get the next drink in’, explained another fan.

Alcohol consumption is, of course, now strictly controlled at football matches. It is illegal to consume alcohol within sight of the pitch (presumably because beer plus a glimpse of turf equals aggro). It is also illegal to be drunk or in possession of alcohol on a football coach or train or to enter a stadium drunk. And as Middlesborough fan Adrian Carr discovered to his cost, it is even illegal to drink six pints and then fall asleep inside a football stadium. Take away alcohol from what Weed calls the ‘holy trinity’ and, if the football is crap, you’re just left with male bonding which, to be honest, isn’t quite as appealing when you’re sober.

Interestingly, Weed told me that interviews with security staff had revealed that some of the boisterous behaviour tolerated in pubs during televised football matches wouldn’t be allowed in those same pubs on a normal Friday or Saturday night. In other words, pub landlords appear to have grasped something that the government and football authorities have lost sight of; namely that the normal rules of conduct are temporarily altered during a football match. Drunkenness, swearing and abusive chanting have all traditionally been permitted inside a football stadium but not in other social arenas. Weed says that this is known as ‘ritual inversion’ in tourism studies parlance (stop sniggering - some of my best friends are tourism lecturers). Just as people behave quite differently when they go on holiday (that is, they get wankered on sangria, lose all inhibitions and sleep around), so too responsible adults act like children when they’re at a football match.

And it’s because the authorities can’t tell the difference between a drunken football crowd and a hooligan mob that they’ve contrived to ruin the match day experience at live games. It’s enough to turn anyone to drink.

Read on: spiked-issue Sport

(1) ‘The Pub as a Virtual Football Fandom Venue: An Alternative to ‘Being there?’ Mike Weed, in Soccer & Society, 8:2, 399-414, April 2007

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