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Was Spurs fans leaving Wembley early all part of the matchday experience?

It was a sight to make the heart sink. With 10 minutes left on the referee’s watch – plus, as it turned out, four minutes of time added on for stoppages – football fans at one end of Wembley were fleeing through every available exit with hardly a backward glance. From the helicopter camera showing the outside of the stadium, they resembled water pouring out of a colander and sluicing into a gutter.

Fourteen minutes in which to turn around a two-goal deficit in one of the biggest matches of the season, for which adult spectators had bought tickets priced from £30 – yet still the fans of Tottenham Hotspur were leaving the seats they had occupied with such optimism barely an hour earlier.

What did it say, that decision not to stick around and continue to encourage their players and see what happened? Something about the fans’ creeping fear of another late-season implosion, perhaps. But also something about modern football and the way we watch it, at least at the upper levels occupied by Spurs and Chelsea, their conquerors on Saturday.

To a neutral observer, sitting at home and enjoying a very good FA Cup semi-final, the sight of the mass defection seemed shocking. What kind of fans were these, who by turning their backs and heading for home made a gesture that could be seen as raising the white flag on behalf of themselves and their team?

My colleague John Crace, the Guardian’s political sketch writer, published a fine book about his addiction to Spurs a few years ago. Having stayed to the end on Saturday while so many around him fled, he suggested several reasons for the behaviour of those whose premature evacuation left the Spurs end practically deserted by the time the 94 minutes were up.

Among the more prosaic explanations were the supporters’ reluctance to endure an hour shuffling along Olympic Way in the queue for Wembley Park tube station while being bombarded by the taunts of gloating Chelsea fans. Another might have been the sense of depression engendered by yet another bad result at Wembley. This is the ground at which Spurs have chosen to play their home matches while the new White Hart Lane is being built, but where their record is abysmal in recent seasons, the previous wound being inflicted by a 2-2 draw with Gent which ensured their dismissal from the Europa League only a few weeks earlier.

Saturday’s defeat means that they have won just one of their nine matches at the stadium since 2008, a statistic that some might see as an insult to the half-dozen Spurs teams to have won the FA Cup final at Wembley, notably Bill Nicholson’s double winners of 1960-61 and Keith Burkinshaw’s 1980-81 squad, whose victory in a replay against Manchester City came thanks to Ricky Villa’s Wembley goal of the century.

Over the past decade Spurs have lost at the FA’s headquarters to Manchester United and Chelsea in the League Cup, to Portsmouth and Chelsea (twice now) in the FA Cup, and to Monaco and Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League. December’s victory against CSKA Moscow in the Champions League group stage is the only positive result to set against that dismal run, and even that failed to take them to the knockout stage.

So the Wembley hoodoo may have been in the minds of the supporters who turned their backs on the final stages of Saturday’s contest. There might also have been dismay at giving best to Chelsea, whom they were leading for half an hour at Stamford Bridge in November before conceding twice and losing, and whom they are attempting to challenge for the Premier League title.

But even when the 3-2 lead given to Chelsea by Eden Hazard in Saturday’s 75th minute was abruptly doubled by Nemanja Matic’s thunderous strike five minutes later, Spurs supporters might have drawn hope from the memory of two recent events. At home to fourth-tier Wycombe Wanderers in the FA Cup in January, they were trailing 3-2 before Dele Alli rescued them with an 89th-minute equaliser and Son Heung-min an even later winner. And at Swansea’s Liberty Stadium earlier this month they were 1-0 down to a team battling against relegation before coming alive to score goals in the 88th, 91st and 94th minutes.

Such dramatic turnarounds are not unusual in the Premier League of the 21st century. The strategic use of substitutes and the ability of the majority of today’s players to run hard for 90 minutes ensures that more teams can adopt the mindset of Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, for whom the most famous late comeback in English football history became an article of faith.

While seeming to illustrate the unendurable pain of an impending defeat in a big match against local rivals, however, perhaps the mass departure at Wembley also said something about the diminishing significance to today’s ticket-buying public of the actual football match itself. The embourgeoisification of the game in the Premier League era – with the arrival of automated turnstiles, merchandising superstores, corporate hospitality and more welcoming concourses – ensures that the game is now just a part of the matchday experience, and no longer its sole focal point. The majority of fans have long abandoned, or never knew, the tradition of assembling long before the kick-off, using the time for collective pre-match rituals.

The vastly increased cost of getting into a match – at a rate of inflation reaching 500% for season ticket holders at some clubs over the past quarter-century – also makes spectators feel more entitled to follow their own desires in the event of substandard performances or potential travel problems. At Arsenal, where season ticket prices are the highest in the league and the facilities for spectators unparalleled, large numbers of fans habitually signal the prioritisation of convenience over commitment by leaving early to avoid overcrowded tube stations.

In his book The Game of Our Lives, David Goldblatt suggests that “from the very earliest days of the new commercialism, football was simultaneously serving as a giant obituary notice for the death of industrial Britain, the passing of a masculine working-class world, rough but impassioned and alive, and its replacement with the comfortable but effete bourgeois world of the high arts.”

It would be overdoing it to suggest that Tottenham’s fans were behaving like outraged patrons of the Royal Opera House protesting against an unsatisfactory interpretation of The Marriage of Figaro. But something was going on at Wembley last weekend – something more than a natural reaction to a couple of goals for the opposition – and it didn’t look good.