Flames, fireworks, and the escalation of the Premier League’s pre-match ceremony

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
November 1, 2018

Fire is becoming a staple of the Premier League’s kick-off ceremony. Television fans might have missed this, but anyone who has been in a ground this season will have seen those little black boxes lining the touchline and will have raised (or lost) an eyebrow when they’ve shot their flames high into the sky.

There’s a cliched response to this. It’s something new, therefore we must hate it. It’s the kind of eye-rolling razzmatazz which will always be associated with American sports and which, when it’s imported into Britain, can’t help but be toe-curlingly naff. It’s forced fun and, sorry America, we hate that. The fashionable reaction, of course, is to groan and complain, and to mumble incoherently about how things aren’t how they used to be.

That cynicism certainly has a point. For years, Arsenal have been employing the disco setting on the Emirates floodlights ahead of Champions League games and that has seemed to fit nicely with the club’s superficial, “for the kids” reputation. The electricians have recently been busy on the south-coast, too, and at Southampton against Brighton this season, the St Mary’s lights danced, strobed and blinked before kick-off. One of the pitch announcers, in that strange, mid-Atlantic accent that is becoming more prevalent, promised something special, told us that we should be taking our seats early ahead of kick-off, and – yes – it really was something which had to be seen.

The obvious question: where does this end? Go to enough games and you realise that some kind of one-upmanship is taking place here and that every burst of fire and every firework lit likely provokes a reaction in some other part of the country. In fact, it’s easy to imagine the small cupboard meeting-rooms in which these displays are plotted. Between Monday and Friday, grim-faced marketing types (hair gel, skinny tie, mockney accent) stare at footage from rival grounds, wondering how to crank the celebration up to that elusive eleven. A Roman candle, perhaps, maybe Catherine wheels on the crossbars?

Yes, there is something Spinal Tap-ish at work and it’s incredibly easy to mock.

The easy rebuttal is to say that, actually, it’s alright that football isn’t entirely geared towards overweight men in their fifties. They can still chug their Bovril and pine for the days of a marching band and a half-time Tug O’ War, but to look around the stands now is to see many more women, many more children and to recognise that the game is meant to be for everyone. Traditionally, just the promise of actual football was enough to tempt people through the turnstiles, but now – not least because of escalating ticket prices – the game has to give a little more back and, crucially, to provide that something to a wider group of people.

Earlier this week, I found myself walking the streets of a town in which I didn’t belong, many miles from home, listening to Black Country Communion on my iPhone. Was there ever a more egregious case of cultural appropriation than that? Probably not, but it’s easy to explain how the band ear-wormed their way into my Spotify account: BCC are part of the pre-game routine at Moulineux and, actually, it works. It really, really works. When it’s happening I pretend to be completely unimpressed, of course, but at the same time I’m secretly filming every last minute and hoping it bangs on Instagram.

Wolves are playing in a haze of excitement at the moment. The club is extremely well-funded, have rocketed back into the Premier League and the team, in spite of a couple of lacklustre recent defeats, are playing well. Clearly, there isn’t much cynicism at Molineux and there exists plenty of latitude for this kind of thing. It’s still strange, though, because while they too have fire and arguably the most decadent fireworks display in the league, it all fits together rather nicely. In fact, ahead of reporting on Tottenham’s visit on Saturday night, I find myself looking forward to the fifteen minutes before kick-off as much as the actual game.

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I know, I know, I must be excommunicated from the sport immediately, have my press-pass confiscated and then be fired into the sun without further delay. Whatever – I’ve already got a double-barrelled surname and am therefore not allowed to like, watch or discuss football in any way at all. Nevertheless, it does show that creeping modernity can be tolerable if it’s combined with enough tradition.

That’s the key at Wolves, because there isn’t the sense that anything is being replaced. One of the most common complaints at Wembley, for instance, is that generic pop music often drowns out organic crowd noise and moments of victory are tainted by the Black Eyed Peas or some other top-forty vacuousness. It’s hard to feel the gravitas when it’s soundtracked by the post-midnight mood of a regional Wetherspoons. By contrast, Molineux shakes to Led Zeppelin’s thunder and, later, when Glenn Hughes’ vocals crack in the air, there’s this overwhelming sense of authenticity. You are not at a venue to watch an event, but in place where the football team is still tied to its community.

Hughes was born in the West Midlands, so too was Robert Plant (who is obviously a supporter, too), and their voices being matchday staples makes everything else not only easier to digest and tolerate, but also – somehow – appropriate. On Saturday evening, when Wolves and Spurs walk onto the pitch, the fire will pulse and an immaculately choreographed firework display will light up the night sky, but the careful preservation of a core identity allows even the hardest heart to sing. Between the Premier League’s official music (muzak?) playing and the game actually starting, it’s also okay that the sing-a-long to Hi Ho Silver Lining will sometimes run into the first few seconds of the match. Richad Scudamore doesn’t parachute into the stadium in protest and an advertising executive doesn’t trip the mains and demand that everything starts all over again.

It’s rational appeasement. Nothing can stay as it was and there are many good reasons behind football’s evolution. However, there is a way to modernise without disenfranchising those who have allowed the game to arrive at this commercial crescendo. It’s not a difficult balance to find, either, because it amounts to nothing more complicated than not needlessly fraying the tethers. Make the stadiums safe, allow the mascots to prance on the pitch and light as many rockets as you like, but don’t take away the crowd’s sense of where they are. In the half-an-hour before kick-off, anything goes up to the point at which the game is actually taking place in Will.I.Am Land.

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