Beating the Wrong Drum

Last updated : 20 March 2008 By Richard Oldroyd

A 4-0 victory over Peterborough was thrilling, but the game itself passed me by. I do, though, carry memories of walking down Brunshaw Road, through the Bob Lord turnstiles and up the steps to set eyes upon the pitch and the sweeping, seething bank of the Longside and the Bee Hole End.

Turf Moor then was an intimidating place. It has changed now, of course: progress has forced the replacement of that dramatic, enclosing half-bowl of terracing with two ill-conceived double decker stands. With seating, and the end of the anonymity of terrace culture, has come a sea-change in the dynamic of football grounds. Gone is the mass culture, replaced instead by individuals sat in self-conscious isolation and subjected to rules and regulations which inevitably constrain the raucous behaviour which once characterised grounds such as ours.

It is worse at our place than at most: hindsight is a wonderful thing, and those two stands represent lessons which later developments have learnt. Double decker stands don't work; they create incoherent, disjointed stadia and what noise those in the gods of the James Hargreaves upper tier can muster floats out over the grounds, barely registering with those making their own efforts below in the lower tier or those elsewhere in the ground.

Back in 1991, my first impression of a football ground was a noisy, expectant and desperate place, where the normal rules of behaviour drummed into me at home and school were allowed to pass. I remember the swearing, the smell of stale cigarette smoke and I remember thinking it somewhat strange that 10,000 people who would never normally dream of bursting into song did so with impunity once they passed through a turnstile and into the enclosed parallel universe of a football ground.

The whole point was that at football, people were spontaneous and emotional. No-one prescribed how a crowd should react, yet it did so instinctively, with a glorious and uncoordinated coherence. And, to a kid of 7 or 8, sat in the posh seats of the Bob Lord with my father, it was heady, intoxicating and hopelessly addictive.

But in the modern era, all football grounds suffer from the same basic inconsistency: football continues to cling to the idea of intimidating, atmospheric venues despite having ripped up the formula by which that existed. And so, in a desperate and misguided attempt to overcome that deep-seated flaw, football clubs have turned to artificial stimulants such as a goal jingles and drummers.

Next year, we are informed that both should be expected at Burnley. We have reached the hopelessly ironic watershed: Burnley Football Club now seeks to impose regulation in order create the sort of hostile atmosphere which once existed precisely because the reactions of those on the terraces were unregulated. In seeking a solution to a question, we have opted to remove the ultimate answer.

Goal music is one thing: as Darren Bentley points out on behalf of the club, it only lasts for 10 seconds. The continual pounding of a drum, however, is entirely different. Before making such an overwhelming imposition, it is probably worth the club ensuring that the current, limited, artificial influence is welcome and successful.

I made this point to Mr Bentley this week, and our club's PR and Communications manager responded by insisting that both a majority of fans are in favour of the music, and that it has enhanced the Turf Moor atmosphere. Were that true, then personal opinions aside, there were would be no reason for dissent. But the trouble for Bentley and for Burnley Football Club is that there is no evidence to prove or disprove those contentions either way, and instinct tells me that the club is simply wrong.

Indeed, the only survey that the club can lay its hands on is one done by Kev Robinson, a regular contributor of this parish, and his findings suggest that over 60% of supporters are actively against the concept. I was told that the club intended to perform a survey at Saturday's fixture with Wolves, but when I arrived at the ground 25 minutes before kick off, I could see no evidence of this. Regardless, over the years in which goal music has been played at Turf Moor, the club have been so desperate to canvass opinion that season ticket holders been asked for their thoughts on precisely zero occasions.

As for the question of atmosphere, logic would dictate that in order to test whether the music has a positive or negative effect, a representative sample of matches both with and without the stuff would be necessary. At the beginning of this season that experiment was supposedly tried, but after two games the club somewhat arbitrarily concluded that the atmosphere was "a bit flat", and re-introduced the music to remedy the problem.

I am told that these innovations promote atmosphere because supporters react to it; I'd say that supporters react because, short of sitting in silence, they have little option. And should a drummer pitch up at Turf Moor next season, those people will have even less option for even more of the game. The monotonous beat of the drum will drain the life out of a crowd which is not conditioned to respond to official promptings.

We have had goal music at Turf Moor for 7 seasons now; in each of those seasons crowds have dropped, which hardly enhances the argument that it appeals to an audience who might once have been seduced by a proper atmosphere. Even if it were an innovation which appealed to younger fans, the idea of targeting those fans to the exclusion of all else is rather undermined by the fact that, at age 16, they must shell out a vastly increased sum of money for a season ticket, or move to a new area of the ground with or without those with whom they have always sat.

Meanwhile, a generation of supporters a little older than me have stopped going to Turf Moor. It might, as the club points out, be partly a result of 8 static seasons at this level with minimal interest. But it is also because those people have seen the things which first attracted them to football eroded around them. And the point is this: these supporters just about have kids now, lads and lasses of their own who want to emulate their dad and accompany him to the football.

Being a Burnley supporter is not fashionable or desirable in its own right. We aren't glamorous enough to attract great hordes of kids who have no tie to the club. We rely on the influence of families to persuade their kids to take up the baton, and for those kids who have come under the influence to pass it on to their peers.

The club is absolutely right to say that it needs to attract new blood, but it is wrong to try to do that by disenfranchising and ignoring its core support. Atmosphere isn't created by music or drum beats or cheerleaders; it is created by excitement, by endeavour and by good football. I'm not out of my seat when we score a goal in anticipation of a mass game of musical chairs - I'm there because there is a moment of euphoric reaction when we score a goal. And what I love, or what I did love and what first attracted me to football, was the fact it was uninhibited, natural and devoid of etiquette.

If Burnley Football Club wants to attract kids and other new supporters, then it might be best advised at present to stick them all on a coach to an away game. There, they would receive the baptism which is denied to home supporters: the uninterrupted, spontaneous and extended glee at a goal, the tribal unity and the sense of belonging. Even if they don't understand the game itself, then like me, they might instinctively come to love its culture. They won't get that at Turf Moor, because with music, let alone that drum, football's unique culture has been eroded so far as to barely exist at all.