Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The People's Game

Christmas is a time of heightened nostalgia among football fans, as Santa drops off a load of books and DVDs reminiscing about players/managers/grounds of yore and we prepare for the feast of Saint Stephen (or ideally Santi Cazorla). Though the reality is often travel delays only made tolerable by booze, Boxing Day can claim to be the real highlight of the football calendar in England, more so than the FA Cup Final, combining as it does both normal hostilities (lots of derbies) and ironic sentimentality (funny hats and a brief uptick in community singing). The myth of the no-mans-land kickabout in 1914 tells us a lot more about the contemporary role of football than it does about World War One. What began as the recovery of football's neglected social history in the 1980s has been recuperated as a commercial drive to retrospectively colonise all of history. I fully expect to shortly discover that Queen Victoria was an Aston Villa fan.

One theory about the relative decline of the Cup Final in the nation's affections is that in the modern era it is difficult for neutral fans to temporarily identify with one side or the other, making redundant the traditional coverage of the pre-match build-up, which was a way of familiarising TV viewers with players in an age when social media meant Shoot! magazine. Modern support is more "fanatic" - requiring contempt for others as much as love of one's own - which is the product of the commercial imperative (i.e. commoditise everything in your life and devote every waking moment to consumption). Boxing Day has the advantage that everyone has a stake. Just as the turn of the year is the point when the ruling narratives reach their most absurd (Chelsea to win the quadruple, Manure to win the league, Liverpool's season "turned around"), it is also the point - in advance of the third round of the FA Cup and with enough league games left to escape the relegation zone or push for Europe/promotion - when everyone has grounds for optimism.

This seasonal nostalgia can't help but reflect wider social anxieties, thus fans (such as Bernard Porter) who lament the decline of locally-sourced players worry they're being infected by "Ukippery". The search for authenticity is vain. The observation that "very few successful clubs can claim their success has anything to do with the character or qualities of the localities whose names they take" is less surprising when you consider that names such as "United" and "Rangers" explicitly point to mergers and deracination (do I need to mention Woolwich Arsenal as well?). The lauding of famous local cohorts who form the core of a team (West Ham and Celtic in the 60s, Manure in the 90s) points to the exceptional nature of these coincidences. While importing "foreign" players en masse is a development of the Premier League era (and globalisation), most English top-flight teams have been importing players from Scotland or the English periphery (e.g. the North East) since their foundation.

Porter's question, "Is it so very bad, or necessarily chauvinist, to want your favourite team to have genuine social links with its neighbourhood, and so with you?", reflects the age of the questioner. Before WW2, clubs were seen as much more progressive and socially disruptive, the obvious example being Arsenal with their art deco stands, film appearances and international reputation, not to mention players from all four quarters of Britain. The homely era of Brylcreem and Johnny Haynes was the product of under-investment in the 40s and 50s (available capital being prioritised for industry), which in turn encouraged the willed isolation from continental coaching developments that 1966 only briefly punctured. The internationalisation of top clubs since the 1990s reflects not only globalisation and the dominance of brand capital, but also the multi-ethnic reality of their metropolitan homes. Per Mertesacker revealing that he had an Arsenal strip as a kid is a "genuine social link" in this age.

The chief social anxiety is economic at root, hence the focus on ticket prices and the angry resort to "spend some fucking money" whenever anything goes awry. Many fans now blithely talk of being "priced out", which shows the extent to which the technical language of the market has colonised everyday speech. This started as an excuse ("I can't afford it any more"), morphed into a lament (a second wind for "there used to be a football club over there"), and has now graduated to a consumption preference ("I prefer to watch it on TV and spend my money on beer"). Of course, it must still be couched in terms of regret, so it is preceded by operatic warnings ("sort it out or I'm off!") and synthetic anger, in order to make plain that the club has let down the fan and not vice versa. The febrile nature of modern popular commentary owes less to the corrupting nature of social media (as old media would have you believe) and more to the transference of guilt as we are frustrated by the failure of our spending to influence events ("I bought a season ticket and you didn't win the league").

This sense of the game moving away from its roots, which is often nothing more than an ahistorical sense of entitlement, leads to the selective reinterpretation of football's history in order to accentuate the distance travelled. Thus in the New Statesmen, Dave Webber assures us that "What was once 'the people’s game' now no longer belongs to 'the people'. A combination of greed and inequality has disconnected the sport from its working-class roots, and has taken the game away from the fans who, even by the Premier League’s own admission, 'make the game' what it is". The game never belonged to the people. Its initial growth depended on emergent bourgeois interests that sought to adopt a public school-codified game as a means of social advancement. The game's popular success (owing much to the introduction of half-day Saturdays in the 1870s) led to those bourgeois interests shifting from snobbish emulation to assertive localism, which in turn reflected the developments of municipalism and electoral reform in the 1880s as much as the foundation of the Football League.

Webber tries to fit football into Karl Polanyi's "double movement" frame, describing current dissent over pricing and corporate control as "a movement against modern football." Once more, history is laid upon the bed of Procrustes: "For over 100 years, football was a sport embedded within England’s working-class communities. Although it may have been the aristocracy that codified the sport, it was a game played and enjoyed predominately by the masses. Indeed, England’s biggest and most successful clubs have historically not come from London, but from the country’s industrial heartlands in the north-west. Over the past 50 years Merseyside and then Manchester have enjoyed unrivalled supremacy in the English game. For all the economic power and financial muscle of the capital, the London clubs remain perennial underachievers compared to their more decorated rivals in the north".

London has always had a large number of clubs (currently 13 in the top four divisions), which reflects the historic dominance of the capital (compare and contrast with Paris, Rome, Madrid ... you get the point). There are currently 6 London clubs in the Premier League, which means they account for 30% of the total (the peak was 8 clubs in 1989/90). Neither Manchester nor Liverpool has ever had more than 2 in the top division, while other Northern powerhouses, such as Leeds and Newcastle, have only ever managed 1. Liverpool and Manchester have won more league titles, but London (even excluding amateur teams) has won more trophies in total. Liverpool and Man Utd enjoyed purple patches in the 70s/80s and 90s/00s respectively, but these both came after "the country’s industrial heartlands in the north-west" went into decline. The moral equivalence of industry and success, as opposed to financial capital and trophies, is not just silly but conservative.

Webber continues with his idyll: "Insofar as the business of football was concerned, up until the 1990s, commercialism was limited by and large to a handful of local firms sponsoring the kit, the ball, and perhaps donating the odd bottle of champagne to the man-of-the-match. The grounds themselves were damp, creaking relics of Edwardian England, a million miles away from the space-age stadiums that today serve as monuments to global capitalism". Though many grounds dated from the Edwardian era, the stands (i.e. what we really mean by "ground") were built later, and continued to be built (and upgraded) decade on decade. England pioneered floodlights, executive boxes, all-seaters (before the Taylor report) and artificial pitches. Highbury was the "space-age" stadium of the 1930s, and recognised as such worldwide. The idea that Old Trafford in the 1970s was a "creaking relic of Edwardian England" is ridiculous. The idea that commercialism was absent or merely amateurish before the 90s is blithering idiocy, particularly when you consider that Webber's piece is "sponsored" in the NS by Martin Cloake, a professional Spurs fan ("qu'est ce que c'est Le Coq Sportif?").

By the 1980s, some grounds were decrepit (though not those of the top clubs), but this reflected the gradual decline in attendances and lack of capital in the postwar era, not a deliberate programme of immiseration. The trope of pre-Taylor football is an example of how the commoditisation of life, which has been a general and widespread phenomenon during the neoliberal era, is isolated in a specific and sentimental field where its corrosive effects can be more easily lamented (and thus isolated and ultimately recuperated). Toilets at football grounds in the 80s were appalling, but so were toilets in pubs and restaurants. Webber concludes: "English football is increasingly a rich man’s game". Football has always been a business, and consequently always a rich man's game in terms of control. Though many clubs trace their origins to works' teams, most were taken over by "local businessmen" well before 1900. Without capital, grounds could neither have been bought nor developed in the first place. The recent takeover of so many clubs by foreign capitalists marks a change in the nature of capital, not of football clubs. The happy past of the people's game never existed.


  1. I liked it. There's a Simon Kuper piece about why we should all be grateful to Murdoch and Berlusconi as they wanted big stars; that meant good players couldn't just get kicked; so we got Messi, Ronaldo, Henry etcetera. In the 60s (?), they'd have been kicked off the pitch by honest yeomen cloggers.

  2. Luke, you've been thoroughly sucked in by the stereotypes of the revisionists. You seem to be suggesting that either there were not any 'big stars' in European football until the mid-1980s, or that Murdoch and Berlusconi were issuing orders to referees.
    The fact is that football really has not changed qualitatively for a long time. Some aspects are better, in that 'kicking' players is punished more regularly now, but other features have declined, for example the increase in diving and the ridiculous amount of fouling that occurs at every corner kick. Off field is the same, with improved facilities accompanied by relentless commercialism.
    As FATE argues, football has always been a part of the entertainment industry, and as such reflects the general socio-economic trends of capitalism. Way too closely in my opinion! Where I would raise issue with him is in his downgrading of the part played by local players in teams. It is true that there have been few cases where sides have been composed exclusively of local lads, but I would argue that most clubs had a significant number of local players that contributed significantly. The exceptions have often been where a club has needed a 'niche' to compete- for example, as a small town in a crowded footballing region, Burnley relied on their developed scouting network in the North East. In other cases, when a club has money, as Sunderland did in the 1950s, the local element is diminished, but between the 1960s and late 1990s Sunderland almost always fielded a core of young local players, if only to sell them on later. I like this, as it does provide more of an attachment between club and fans. The money aspect is the main reason why I think this has declined. It is much easier to acquire 'fully-developed' mediocrity than it is in the days where most clubs had no option but to give youth a chance. What I would concede, however, is that for many people it doesn't seem to matter. The only vaguely local players in Sunderland's team at the moment cost millions to acquire, yet the city is always thoroughly decked out in red-and-white and fans flock to watch a stunningly ordinary team.

    1. Igor, Sunderland had a core of local players up to the 90s, like most English teams, but they also dependend on Scottish imports. The same was true for Newcastle and 'Boro. Far from being a "hotbed" of talent, the North East was merely a stepping-stone (a bit like Portugal for Brazilians entering Europe).

      The local core were rarely the best players produced in the region, at least from the 60s onwards, as those tended to be attracted South by better wages. Similarly, the Scottish imports tended to be as "average" as the foreign players criticised today (i.e. more often the likes of Bobby Kerr and Jimmy Smith than Graham Souness).

    2. I didn't suggest the whole Sunderland team was local, but I would argue that, like Burnley with the NE, there was a consistent influx of Scots to Sunderland until the 1970s, and many, like Bobby Kerr, were 'home grown' in the sense that they signed on from school. There were relatively few like Cabral who were signed as adults from 'foreign' teams and left in the reserves for one-and-a-half seasons.
      You are right in the sense that the best young players tended to leave by the 1970s, but this was evidence of the financial and footballing decline of the region's clubs in that era, as well as gross mismanagement. Middlesbrough's descent into bankruptcy in the mid-1980s came after a 6 or 7 year period in which they sold players like Mills, Souness, Armstrong, Johnson, Hodgson, Cummins, Proctor and Wood. They were not bringing in expensive replacements either.

  3. I'm not entirely convinced by Kuper's argument. The disappearance of the clogger (or, rather, the increased difficulty in clogging) probably owes more to the improvement in pitch quality than it does to the desire of TV to protect its stars. A mud-bath is a great leveller.

    It's worth noting that the average number of fouls per game is lower in England than in other top European leagues, and has been edging down for years. This appears to correlate with the speed of the game, rather than greater refereeing tolerance, which is obviously facilitated by better pitches.

    As speed increases the likelihood of a foul being given, cloggers are doubly disadvantaged. Unsurprisingly, the most persistent foulers are increasingly forwards or advanced midfielders trying to turn over possession further up the pitch.

    1. I was a great admirer of 'Football Against The Enemy', but I fear Kuper has slid into a position where he has become contrarian and has become rather over-zealous on countering the nostalgia that you criticise in the OP. This line of argument was particularly strong in the early 1990s, where in criticising some of the more backward facets of English football, 'modernising' journalists were a bit keen to throw the baby out with the bathwater and tended not to think about any of the positive features that must have been present ten years earlier when English clubs were winning the European Cup every season.

  4. Igor, is it OK to admit that I'm not that bothered by diving? I don't see why cheating by deceiving the referee is worse than cheating by trying to intimidate/injure your opponent. I may be influenced by a misspent youth playing rugby where "playing the referee" (ie seeing how much cheating you can get away with) is accepted.

  5. I didn't say either was worse than the other, but I still don't understand how you can 'not be bothered' by blatant dishonesty.

  6. Igor, it's sport, not life. I'm not bothered by Shane Warne deceiving batsmen into thinking the ball will spin one way when in fact it will spin the other way. Is that blatant dishonesty?

    And on your analysis breaking someone's leg and potentially ending their career is the same as getting a penalty. I personally think what was done to Eduardo da Silva was worse than the injustice of an undeserved booking/free kick.

  7. Herbie Destroys the Environment2 January 2015 at 11:32

    My problem with football as it currently stands is that the referees generally appear to be refereeing in their own interests and not in the interests of the game. They appear to be incapable of consistently making decisions that may cause controversy, so they basically abdicate any responsibility, and referee in a way that causes themselves minimum grief (and remember these guys are supposed to be professionals!).

    This is why they hardly ever punish defenders holding at corners, or why they constantly fail to give penalties, or why a defender simply has to fling himself to the floor in order to get a foul. I think defenders have it very easy actually, they don't have to defend, they can simply hold and get away with it. Defending requires very little talent in these circumstances, in fact referees reward bad defending! In Euro 2000 football reached a peak in entertainment, this was because referees were given strict guidelines, but left to themselves referees will always descend into refereeing for their own convenience. The authorities should be on top of refereeing all the time.

    That isn't to say it was better in the old days because kicking lumps out of attackers made defending easy, there is no art in defending when you can get away with anything. Those who want to bring back the art of defending should be calling for far stricter punishment for bad defending!

    I also think diving is over emphasized and time wasting, feigning injury is a far bigger problem. There was an example recently where a player hand balled and pretended it hit his face, the commentators were laughing, but when Rivaldo did the same they called him a cheat! This brings me onto the ultimate problem, idiots like Robbie Savage and Chris Kamara.