It was, somewhat inevitably, the Cheese Room wot dun it. When Tottenham Hotspur press-launched the top end offering of its top end new stadium last week, it was the room offering specially-sourced cheese at half time to those fans able to fork – I’m resisting a cheese utensil wordplay here – out £30,000 for a pair of tickets that caught the eye, while failing to whet everyone’s appetite.
Here was, for those willing to see it that way, evidence of all that was wrong with the modern game. A cheese room! Most self respecting fans couldn’t give Edam (sorry but, you know, open goal). Wasn’t this the end? The final ignominy for a working class game gone up its own arse? Witty one-liners about the dangers of players being hit by a stray Brie thrown from the crowd interspersed with more earnest comments about the obscenity of it all and the general feeling that, as one friend of mine said, that “This just isn’t football!”.
But way back in the days when Julie Welch was the first woman reporting football for the nationals, the press box at White Hart Lane was the first to introduce a women’s toilet and someone then was probably wondering if “this” was football. Things change, and not always for the worse. And the New Spurs Stadium Story throws up a nice little vignette about change and football and our attitudes to our past and future.
It is true that much of the publicity around the posh seats does tend towards the irritating. Slick artist’s impressions of sleek bars and dining areas populated by thirtysomething hipsters with beards and casual jackets – and I’m not talking CP Company here – well-groomed types chatting across bistro tables against a beige wash… it doesn’t look like a football ground concourse I’ve ever been on. And as for the Tunnel Club, where high rollers can sit right next to the players in the tunnel and gawp through one-way glass for a premium premium price; yes, it sounds bloody creepy and, as someone remarked, if I had a spare £10,000 I wouldn’t spend it on getting a seat right next to a footballer nervously scratching their bollocks before kick-off.
But while we can worry about the perception that the type of fans who we do see at matches now are being airbrushed out of the picture, we can also be a little too eager to pull on the hair shirt. A bit like those people who insist the slums of East London were great without realising that the people who actually had to endure them couldn’t wait to get out.
Bear with me here. I started going to football in the 1970s. I grew streetwise at football, learned some life lessons and made some great friends. There was a lot I loved about the anarchic, chaotic shambles of going to the game, and the fact that much has been lost since those days has been well-documented, most notably recently in Adrian Tempany’s And the Sun Shines Now, a book I will never tire of plugging. But there was much I don’t miss – the squalor and the danger particularly. The extent of which I didn’t fully realise until I was much older.
Picture this: Footballers as Cheese
And there will be much I don’t miss about today’s supposedly better Premier League experience too. I won’t be paying anywhere near £15,000, but if I can get something that tastes vaguely decent at half time it would be a welcome improvement. In fact, just having somewhere that isn’t surprised that thousands of fans have turned up would be an improvement. Or somewhere that knew how to make a cup of tea. And while I wouldn’t want to do it for every game, the idea of going for a decent meal before the game doesn’t affront me. I’m even partial to a nice bit of cheese.
The point here is that being able to have decent facilities at a football ground is not, in itself, a bad thing. The real worry is whether the fans who have stuck with the club for so long, who have made it the business it is, will be priced out. And that’s an argument about price, rather than what is offered. The two are, of course, connected, but that connection does not have to mean only expensive is good. The idea that fans have pushed for at the new Spurs stadium is that the pricey seats should help keep the prices of the rest down.
It’s the success in achieving that, and in ensuring that, for all the slick bars and exclusive clubs, the raw passion of the crowd remains, that will be the measure of this stadium. Architects Populous talk of ‘designing the experience’, and the challenge for any stadium project these days is to attract people to a physical place who could watch the event in a time and place of their own choosing with far less effort. Those who have seen the plans in detail express optimism that this stadium may not replicate the mistakes made at so many new grounds, where personality and atmosphere were lost in the steel, glass and corporate offer.
At the risk of stirring memories of Peter Mandelson’s infamous “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” comment – that didn’t work out well, after all – is it worth getting exercised about the posh offer? All modern sports stadiums need to pay their way and if people want to pay silly money then that’s their choice. What counts is that the widest number of people possible are offered the widest possible choice, and that the atmosphere and personality of one of this countries most revered grounds is developed in this new stadium.
It will be a difficult adjustment, and it will take time. Worries that it might not happen have been fuelled by the daft decision not to reveal at least some of the general offer – the Club’s clunking PR machine seemingly unable to work out that releasing only the posh end of the offer may fuel the perception that the rest don’t matter. But there is the chance to achieve something special here – a modern sports stadium that has a high end offer and the passion and edge of a traditional ground.
I want that because I’m a Spurs fan, but also because I’m a football fan and I’d like this stadium to show that another way is possible, that the choice isn’t simply prawn sandwiches or rivers of piss.