Pre 1996, a sports bar in England was as rare as ice in cider or a choice of more than two gins – so little live football was broadcast at times when pubs were allowed to open that the scope to increase revenue by broadcasting games was negligible. There were no big screens or surround sound commentary; no fixture lists on posters; no external banners collecting grime above doorways.
This all changed when Everton played Middlesbrough in the Charity Shield on 13th August 1995. Not exactly a glamour tie, but nearly every football pub in England can trace its roots back to that fixture as it was the first game shown legally in pubs on a Sunday afternoon.
Most punters were probably too pissed to remember Vinny Samways scoring the winner as being able to carry on drinking past 2:30 was still very much a novelty.
Sunday drinking culture was, traditionally, for many, a concerted effort to cram as many pints as possible into a two-hour lunchtime session before heading home for a Sunday roast. Then, all of a sudden, the pubs forgot to close and there was football on the TV.
This came as a bit of a shock to the system for the Great British Creature of Habit and it had to adapt accordingly.
Gone were the queues at the front door at five to twelve on a Sunday morning as the concentrated binges of the Sabbath abated. The four o’clock roast to soak up the booze became the two o’clock roast to line the stomach. The lunchtime drinking sprint became the afternoon marathon and the pubs adapted to this shift in trend as Sky and BSB became the honeypots for a new age in British publore.
23 years on and things have evolved. A monthly Sky and BT subscription for small pubs costs the equivalent of 10 karaoke nights or 4 good live bands. This has priced many publicans out of the football market and made many more consider its value. This isn’t helped by big games being seemingly deliberately screened at times when people wouldn’t normally be drinking – Man Utd v Spurs would mean a full house for many pubs on a Sunday afternoon or a Saturday evening, but when it’s on at 8pm on a Monday then the raucous five-pint crowd becomes a smattering of people nursing Cokes and warm lager because it’s a frigging school night!
A busy match also depends on the relative success and failure of well-supported clubs. The search goes on for the Man Utd fans that dominated Sunday afternoons for the majority of the early part of the century whilst most Man City supporters are still too young to drink; Leicester fans were everywhere for about four months before remembering that they didn’t really like football anyway, so for the last year or so pubs have been relying on the rebirth of the Liverpool following, which is great for business as they fall into one of two premium drinking categories; a) Those who adopted them as their club when they were winning leagues and cups in the 70s and 80s who are now middle-aged with grown-up kids and a small mortgage or b) Those who adopted them as their club when they won the European cup thirteen years ago who have no kids and a disposable income.
Of course England’s recent World Cup run made everyone in the country love football again. Pubs and Fan Fests were rammed with people displaying their lifelong love for our national game. You could tell that they were real fans because they were wearing brand new England shirts and threw their beer in the air when Harry Kane scored.
Maybe if they realised how much they loved watching football in pubs more than once every four years then that Sky bill wouldn’t seem so scary.