It was a beautiful, warm July evening on Tuesday gone. The late summer sun was bleaching our eye lids and causing us to watch the match with a slight wince. My two eldest and I were in great seats with a fortunate viewpoint.
My generous boss had invited us to enjoy all the trappings of a corporate box and the kids were smiley and enthusiastic. They felt like royalty. They delighted in the grown up feeling of drinking a diet coke from a pint glass delivered by an excitable waitress. They enjoyed the idea of gorging on complimentary chocolates and sneaking an extra chocolate hob nob or two into their pockets for a summery in-game snack. They even had their picture taken with Angus the Monkey, who fortunately hid his rope burns very well by a carefully positioned polo neck.
We watched in eagerness as the lads warmed up and then strapped ourselves in for what we hoped to be an enthralling local friendly.
I won’t go into every detail of an incredibly dull game and this article is not going to grade the players out of 10. Others have already skilfully written such informative and slightly depressing pieces. This is an article of fatherly heart as I look to the future - a future that was mapped out for me quite easily growing up in the 80’s where all my family, including cousins and grandparents, lived within 10 minutes of each other.
They were Sunderland and that instantly meant we were Sunderland. Today we live in different times. We are not in 1986 anymore. Roker Park does not exist and me running out with Gary Bennett as a mascot is barely a memory.
The first half was almost over at Victoria Park and neither side had really had a shot or chance worth watching or remembering. I sat there worrying about every position. Concerned that James Vaughan had not won a single header in nearly 40 minutes. Disturbed by the panicked look on Adam Matthews face every time the ball or a player came anywhere close to him.
Then came the question - the question that my had boss and colleagues in heaps of laughter. The question that all parents who support perpetually terrible clubs, live in fear of hearing. The time on the clock was 38 minutes and 24 seconds.
“Dad can we support Arsenal instead?”
My little lad is only 8. His football education comes from an unceasingly frustrated dad, a grandfather who lives in a long gone, rose tinted era of legends that my son has never heard of and of course FIFA 17. He goes to a school where his peers probably support 20 clubs between them and dress down days are show pieces for Chelsea and Barcelona tops. He loves Sunderland of course, because his Dad loves Sunderland. Likewise his 10 year old sister who was at the match with us. They went berserk when Sunderland scored and booed in all the right places when Pools threatened.
But since I’ve been taking them to games on and off for the last couple of seasons, the football itself has largely been woeful. The atmosphere at the games has been bitter and for an 8 year old kid, intimidating and a little scary. The Stadium of Light has been an unhappy and dark place. But my kids are still young enough to simply enjoy the size and noise of the event. I have friends with older kids who can’t motivate their teens away from the myriad of activities they have on offer in today’s competitive market place ‘of where to take your kids and entertain them.’
Likewise they’re old enough to support teams of their own free will and choose which shirt of which random club they would prefer to show allegiance to.
After conducting years of research, The New Economics Foundation reported that 1976 was the happiest year in Britain since the second world war. Part of the reason for this contented generation is that they had something approaching full employment in Britain until the early 70s, which meant there was relatively little need for people to uproot and look for work elsewhere. Which meant that communities remained intact, you knew your neighbours names and your kids played out in the streets till all hours as everyone was looking out for them.
When I was my son’s age in 1983 the full extent of my social life was the street outside and my friends up the road and the Roker End with my Dad. It wasn’t until 1988 when I received anything near a games console and I would hardly describe waiting 5 minutes for game to load on my ZX Spectrum 48k as really being a console. More like a slow brick with stick men graphics.
In recent times while surveys have indicated that 97% of season ticket holders across the country believe they would bring their kids to the games, only 13% of season ticket holders across the board are children. Part of this reason is undoubtedly cost and as a father of 3 young kids I know what it is to feel the pinch.
In recent years some eye-catching research came from one of England’s biggest clubs: in 1968, the average age of supporters on the Stretford End at Old Trafford was 17; by 2010, it was over 40. Similarly, the average age of Newcastle supporters at St James’ Park in 2002 was 35; by 2012, that had risen to 45. These are the same loyal Geordies, simply a decade older.
So where do the teenagers go? There is a widely held suspicion within the game that kids are welcome in their school years not because they are worth cultivating as the next generation of supporters, but because they deliver family groups – Mum and Dad, with their higher spending patterns.
An anonymous spokesperson for a leading football supporters’ organisation described to a national newspaper:
Anecdotally, we’re hearing that even teenagers who do have season tickets are feeling disillusioned, because they pay all that money and turn up and unless you’re at the best clubs, the football is poor, no-one reaches out to them as customers and like all consumers they eventually go elsewhere if they are not satisfied.
Honestly - in the last X amount of years how many young fans have we potentially lost? What have we offered them that is a more enjoyable, more fulfilling and more uplifting experience than any of the million and one alternatives they have on offer now?
In terms of being a sustainable business model that has tied in the next generation of customers, its been nothing short of an abysmal failure. Yes we still have youngsters coming through the gates and yes there will always be those who will come to the game regardless. But this is a different generation to the one I grew up in. This is a time for instant gratification, of finding anything you want by the flick of a thumb. Some kids can get through their whole adolescence without need of a conversation, never mind the need to gather together socially for a unified cause.
My lad loves Sunderland as does my little girl. But for how long can I keep them interested and if things don’t change, how long do I want to? I actually enjoy my girl’s Horse Riding competitions and my boy is nearly Gold standard in Climbing and Rugby. I love watching them engage in the activities they genuinely love. At the moment they love the match, but I fear it’s only a matter of time they choose a more satisfying and a less depressing way to enjoy their Saturday afternoons.
And in some ways, who can blame them?