Let We-eeeee Entertain You

Darren Young


Darren is a director at The Fan  Experience Company.

He has a background in working on customer service excellence projects in the UK and Europe, and an MBA that included studying in the United States. 

A UEFA Mentor and Fan Experience Company consultant, Darren works with clubs across Europe to improve the match-day experience and increase attendance through engagement with fans.

Blame the ‘commentator’s curse’ but as I drove home listening to the build-up to the Premier League game the other evening between Brighton and Wolves, they said the one thing they could guarantee was goals.

Brighton had scored 16 times against Wolves in their four previous encounters, and Wolves themselves had scored 9 goals in their last three games. With plenty of attacking threat on both sides, as well as porous defences and a predilection for playing out from the back, what could possibly go wrong?

Something, evidently.

The goal-fest didn’t quite materialise, and the game – despite the guarantees – finished without a goal of any kind. But I was still very taken by the quality of the football and, from Brighton in particular, the attacking intent on display. It was very good to watch and the lack of a goal or two didn’t diminish that much from the overall enjoyment.

I did, as armchair fans do, find myself switching over to the first-meets-third EFL clash on the other channel between Leicester City and Ipswich Town. This game too, saw end to end football and all-out attack. While the home team were slick and, at times, irresistible, the visitors played their part and when chasing the game late on, really put some great stuff together. When they did find an equaliser, they didn’t take their foot off the pedal either, still flying forward to try to nick the win.

So, two draws, but also two very exciting adverts for English football.

It also got me thinking. Would fans rather see this, or simply winning football, given that none of the clubs I’d watched that night had taken the three points?

Obviously they’d all say both. But if all these years in football has told me anything, it’s that you simply cannot guarantee a win (see Mansfield Town v Sutton United 23/1/24), whatever the circumstances. So, if the fans had to make a straight choice – an ugly win or an entertaining draw / defeat – which one would they go for?

I say this for a number of reasons. The Championship has long been regarded as an excitement-fuelled rollercoaster, but the Premier League seems to have stepped up this season too. A lot of clubs are playing very attacking football. Liverpool seem to only know ‘going forward’, Manchester City have done so for a while, Arsenal too although maybe without the benefit of a proven goalscorer that turns the chances into goals. Aston Villa have given their fans plenty to cheer with some scintillating displays – especially at Villa Park – while Spurs have also adopted a style that makes them much more fun to watch, even without Harry Kane. Even lower down the table, clubs have taken more risks and the promoted clubs have also tried to go about things on the front foot, despite the inherent risks of doing so.

This makes any club that isn’t, say, as easy on the eye, stand out a little more. This weekend, Crystal Palace fans made their feelings known about their club’s leadership and there was also criticism of the style of play under Roy Hodgson. West Ham fans, despite being sixth, also berated boss David Moyes, for ‘not knowing what he was doing’ when he replaced a striker with a defender when the scores were level. As it happened, he probably did know, and his team came within a VAR mistake or two that left everyone shrugging their shoulders, from winning the game at Sheffield United.

Commentator, Martin Tyler, says this is the best Premier League he’s known. And if anyone should know it’s him.

There is little doubt, as Danny Murphy articulated on TalkSport, that the more-attack-minded tactics are better for the fans and players, but what about the managers that decide upon them? In a time when patience is rarely seen, and the sack can come incredibly quickly, can a coach afford to let his team play so openly? That so many are seems to suggest that they’ve decided that if they go down – literally or metaphorically – it’s going to be in style rather than with a whimper.

And teams aren’t settling for just winning either. Whether it was for the fans’ benefit or not, the Arsenal players seemed to want to entertain, and rather than the ‘one-nil to the Arsenal’ we saw years ago, at the weekend the Gunners just kept going, adding two more goals to their earlier three in added time. This was a team who’d hit a rocky patch and could have been forgiven for grinding out a result rather than putting on a five-star show. But they’d had 48 shots in two defeats to West Ham and Fulham so, clearly, the performances hadn’t changed. It was just the outcome. But, as I said, that’s never guaranteed, so is it a case of just going for it and letting the results take care of themselves? 

The one group I didn’t address was the owners. Do they want wins or entertainment? As they are the ones who forever refer to the beautiful game in the slightly less flattering way as ‘a business’, you’d suspect it’s results first but who knows?

The changes at Manchester United might tell us more. There is a team who were perhaps the epitome of attacking football when they dominated the end of the 1900s and beginning of this century but now appear to be without a style all together under ETH. Will their new football directors demand a change back to the entertainment of old? Early noises suggest it’s probable. After all, the exciting wide play and positive football never did them much harm under Surrallex.

Back to the fans to finish off though. That is, after all, who the game is all about and why The Fan Experience Company exists too.

I think there has also been a change of attitude amongst fans. In the cyclical way that football works, I sense that they are increasingly looking for value for their up-to-a-thousand-pound-a-year season ticket or forty to fifty quid match ticket. Football, like all sport, is entertainment is it not?

At my age, I could possibly sit through a few more ugly wins with my own team, but the more modern fan doesn’t seem to see it in quite in the same way. We have to remember that this is the computer-game generation that is used to defence turning to attack very rapidly. They want more goals, more shots, maybe even more errors as long as it’s fun to watch. Sure, they’d much prefer their team to win but hopefully, the trend will begin to show that if a team attacks more, it will win more too.

I’ve had a concern for a while about the entertainment factor when it came to the fan experience. As a company, we assess everything that takes place off the pitch, but what happens on it is still the key ingredient for a fan and the increase in time-wasting and anti-football tendencies was a worry for me when it came to the longer-term health of the game.

I’d seen my own team concede a first minute goal at home to a struggling opponent who had then, from the second minute, began to try to run down the clock. Their goalkeeper was booked for time-wasting after about seven minutes. Later he took an eternity to move the ball from one side of the six-yard box to the other at goal kicks, lay on the ground with the ball for an age whenever it was in his hands and also spent several minutes getting treatment for ‘injuries’.  I don’t want to lay all the blame at the keeper – they have a union don’t they? – and other players were equally guilty, but I just wanted to make a point. The ball was probably ‘in play’ for about fifty minutes that night and it was bloody awful to watch. Yes, I was biased and the away fans no doubt loved it, but I had serious misgivings about the future as I drove home. As a spectacle it had been terrible, a complete waste of twenty-odd quid and a few hours of my time. Good value – or even just value – it was not. Were fans in ten year’s time going to be prepared to spend their hard-earned money to watch that?

Hopefully they won’t have to. At a time when crowd behaviour has reared its ugly head yet again, and whilst VAR – or the referees adopting it – are doing their best to take the shine off the game, the football on the field seems to be going in the right direction.

Long may it continue. Maybe football is a business. But it’s the business of entertainment.

Some might even call it show business.

And there’s no business like that.

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