Are the ‘Prawn Sandwich Brigade’ Killing Football?

Football has always been a working-class sport. Whether it be a working-class man taking his son to watch their beloved team every other Saturday, or men gathering in the pub on an away day, the sport has long been ingrained in the culture of working class communities. As the sport has become heavily monetised, however, things are changing.

What is Gentrification?

Gentrification of football is a massive problem – lifelong fans are being displaced, to make way for more affluent and middle-class clientele. The term ‘Gentrification’ is largely used to describe what happens in poorer parts of our inner cities, often London. It is the process which is sometimes called ‘regeneration’ and usually involves demolishing social housing and replacing it with luxury apartments – so extortionately priced that the natives can no longer afford to live there. Affluent residents take their place.

Doing so changes the culture of an area. Look at places in the North/East of London, such as Hackney or Dalston. Once working-class areas, gentrification has caused an influx of middle-class metropolitan hipsters, who try to cash in on the area’s ‘grittiness’. The same is happening to football clubs across the country.

Those who benefit from such changes try to rationalise them by saying they just want to make things better or ‘nicer’. To improve things and take them to the next level. But at what cost? These wide-scale attempts to upgrade clubs usually alienate the types of fan who don’t fit into the new set-up. Higher ticket prices drive away the poorer but most devoted fans, which can have a huge knock-on effect on the atmosphere at games.

West Ham United: A case study

West Ham are a prime example of a football club being gentrified. Existing in an already ‘regenerating’ area of London, it’s unsurprising the club have followed suit. A club which was a bit rough around the edges but had more than its fair share of character. Their beloved Upton Park was traded in, knocked down to build flats (selling for a minimum of £360k each), and replaced by the London Stadium, all nicely polished and PR-friendly. It might have the legacy of the 2012 Olympics, but the ground feels clinically corporate, cold, and isolating.

The move to pastures new almost tore the fanbase apart. The fans felt betrayed by the owners, and felt their working-class, community-based club had been sacrificed, in the pursuit of a new breed of middle-class, popcorn eating clientele. People who were customers, not fans. People who didn’t stand (during exciting moments, or at all), fans who wouldn’t sing, and who didn’t understand the traditions, but just came for a day out. Die hard fans felt pushed out by newcomers who just didn’t share their passion for the club.

The prevailing responses from the board, and other commentators was that fans should be more grateful for the new sanitised club image, and that shrugging off their past reputation would take them to the next level. Fans complained that there were no pubs in the immediate vicinity, and the only food available was in the Westfield shopping centre. This only alienated fans further. They didn’t want to spend £20 at Pizza Express before a match. What’s wrong with frequenting a burger van? Not only did the move to the London Stadium alienate fans from facilities, it spelled trouble for the businesses around Upton Park, who relied upon matchday footfall, and have now had to close.

The Prawn Sarnie Brigade

Part of it comes down to class. Modernisation of stadia with the purpose of reassuring the middle classes that they can feel comfortable at matches. That they’re not going to be surrounded by drunken football hooligans they’ve seen whilst reading the Daily Mail. They can have a nice day out at the football, safe in the knowledge they won’t have to join in any chanting or have to consume any dodgy looking pies. People who buy matchday hospitality packages from Thomas Cook for £300. This type of fan was targeted by Roy Keane in 2000, when he spoke of the Prawn sandwich brigade. Fans who often get corporate boxes, or sit motionless and silently in the stands, refusing to partake, sneering at those who show any form of passion or emotion.

These types of fans come with the territory of a club that has been gentrified. Arsenal fans are often mocked by rival supporters for supposedly being placid, suit-wearing, latte-drinking yuppies, with a penchant for Hummus and the Guardian. These are the types blamed for the Emirates (and previously Highbury) having no atmosphere whatsoever. Tottenham Hotspur’s new stadium is another prime example of elite entryism to football fanbases. An exclusive “H Club”, with a £15,000 joining fee, has been put forward which will offer clients access to a cheese room. A cheese room! The only cheese that belongs anywhere near a football ground is on the anaemic, soggy chips sold to fans at half time.

Clubs know what class of fan they want to attract, and so target them accordingly. They have deliberately set ticket prices to exclude ‘undesirable’ fans, assuming the worst trouble-makers would not be able to afford hiked prices.

Is this just the way things are now?

Whilst this is mainly just a problem for those in the premier league, commercialisation is slowly creeping into football in the lower leagues too. Straying from tradition and isolating real fans is getting worse on an international level too – with countries like Qatar, with no footballing history, being allowed to host the World Cup.

Is gentrification and modernisation at all costs just the price a football club must pay if they want to succeed? Chelsea and Man City, who have emerged as two of the richest clubs in the country after modest beginnings, have become global brands. Season tickets for Chelsea can be bought for a minimum of £750, Spurs’ are £795, and Arsenal’s cheapest is £891. Manchester City’s cheapest is a very reasonable £299.

Considering the extreme wealth of these clubs, it shows that like Man City, clubs could be reasonable if they wanted to. But they want to uphold the prestige of affluent fans buying a season ticket, with it not being easily obtainable to those with more modest bank balances.

The system in Germany’s Bundesliga couldn’t be any more different. Rather than an unfettered pursuit of profit from club owners, clubs are required to uphold certain standards, and listen to fans. German football clubs cannot play in the Bundesliga if commercial investors have more than a 49% stake in the club. Power is tilted in favour of the fans. It is a safeguard against feckless owners and ensures a supporter-centric approach.

Fans shouldn’t roll over and let their club be stripped of it’s identity. But sadly, in an age of individualism, it’s unlikely they will band together to put a stop to it. Boycotts are pointless for the bigger clubs – for every boycotter, there are 100 people who would take their place. Modern football has brought joy to many, but if those who seek to run clubs like a business aren’t closely monitored, the sport could soon be out of reach entirely for the average fan.

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