The recent exposure of greed and possible corruption at the highest levels of English football raise questions about the way sport in Britain, under tremendously strong and well-financed commercial pressures, is changing. In the first of a series of articles, Martin Cloake provides an introduction to football's 'culture wars', linking the history of football and issues in the modern game to the capitalist economic and social environment which informs and conditions a game whose core is community.
It is possible to trace a social, economic and political history of England alongside a history of its football clubs. And the current deep sense of discontent in the English game is rooted in this fact. The roots of England’s football clubs lie in the efforts of church and factory to create community. Those who stood in the pulpit saw something that could provide a more wholesome outlet for the energies of the mass than drink and brawling. That mass of people had been brought together as never before by industry, and it is industry that looms large in English football’s formative years. The game’s early giants came from Blackburn, Preston, Burnley, Manchester, Sheffield, Birmingham, Bolton, Derby, Nottingham, Stoke, brought together by men connected with steel, railways, textiles, manufacture… The world’s first Industrial Revolution shaped England, and England’s sport. Community is at the core of football, and with it notions of identity and place.
As the country changed, so did football. As the heavy industrial age petered out, affecting the fortunes of the early northern giants, the suburbs began to rise in the south. London, of course, had its industrial clubs, West Ham from the Thames Ironworks, Millwall from the docks, Arsenal from the munitions plant in Woolwich. But there was also Fulham, formed by a schoolteacher and churchmaster; Chelsea, established by a businessman who wanted to utilise a stadium; and Tottenham Hotspur, formed by a group of middle class boys under the watchful eye of a Bible teacher from a local church. These were teams that rose to represent the south and the suburbs, the new world. When Tottenham Hotspur took on Sheffield United in the 1901 FA Cup final, 114,000 went to Crystal Palace park in south east London to see the Flower of the South against the established might of the north. A turning point in football on the turn of the century itself.
Now, the Premier League is the richest and most glamorous in the world, English football is an in-demand global brand. But while it attracts support it does not inspire love. Love the game, hate the business; love the team, hate the club… The phrases fall readily from the lips of fans as we struggle with the contradictions that define us as football supporters. So too does the word ‘meaning’.
Football is successful commercially because it means something. The trouble is, we’re not sure what any more. For many fans at many English clubs, it seems increasingly as if we support an idea that ceased to exist some time ago, a name that once meant something but is now just a badge sitting atop a global corporation or, most recently, a foreign government’s public relations spin. Those who own and administrate are also confused. The money is rolling in, facilities are better… hell, there are even toilets for men AND women at grounds, so modern and customer-orientated has the game become. And yet there is still discontent. Why, they wonder, can the fans not be happy?
One important element of what made English football so marketable was the passion of its supporters. That passion was rooted deep in the meaning supporters gave to the clubs that now project themselves as brands. And those brands have something that is the Holy Grail in marketing – absolute customer loyalty. Changing your team… it’s just not done. It’s all to do with those deep-rooted ideas of identity and place. So the owners and the administrators thought they were on to a dead cert. They could do what they wanted and the mug punters would keep coming back. But as English football continues to wrestle with its contradictions, the owners and administrators – at least, that minority blessed with some awareness of the real world – have begun to worry.
At the start of the 2013/14 season, English Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore said that fans were a vital part of what he termed the “show”. He said: “Unless the show is a good show, with the best talent and played in decent stadia with full crowds, it isn’t a game you can sell.” Writing in The Guardian some months later, journalist Owen Gibson identified “a groundswell of opinion, now recognised by many clubs and managers, that… one of the factors that defined English football – its vocal, passionate crowds – is at risk of ebbing away if no action is taken.”
Discontent among football fans is nothing new. In the 1960s there were protest marches about ticket allocations for FA Cup finals, for example. But now the discontent is more widespread and a number of factors have come together to create a situation pregnant with possibility, but also fraught with danger.
A generation of fans who cut their teeth in the independent fan currents of the 1980s are now experienced and battle hardened enough to create a narrative to challenge the PR spin of The World’s Most Successful League. Organisations such as Supporters Direct, set up “to promote sustainable spectator sports clubs based on supporters’ involvement and community ownership”, and the Football Supporters Federation are putting the fans perspective in an increasingly sophisticated manner. Even more importantly, the fans, who it was said for years would make a mess of running their clubs, began to prove they could do it, There are now 180 supporters trusts across the whole of the UK, with over 400,000 members. And 32 clubs, some professional, some not, are owned by their fans.
Supporter organisation is becoming more sophisticated, in places more overtly political. At Liverpool FC, the Spirit of Shankly group calls itself “the country’s first football supporter’s union” and states as its ultimate aim the achievement of “supporter ownership of Liverpool Football Club”. In its campaigning work, it targets areas such as ticket pricing, away travel and policing, and was instrumental in instigating the campaign that secured a £30 away ticket price cap across the Premier League.
At some of the biggest names in the Premier League – Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Chelsea – Supporters’ Trusts have established themselves as organisations with knowledge and ability that can achieve practical successes, giving the lie to the assertion that organised fans can only make a difference further down the scale.
This article is based on Martin Cloake's ebook Taking Our Ball Back: English Football's Culture Wars, available from http://www.martincloake.com/Bookstore.html. Martin's latest book, written with Alan Fisher, is A People's History of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, available from http://www.pitchpublishing.co.uk/shop/peoples-history-tottenham-hotspur-football-club.
Martin Cloake is a journalist, award-winning author, editor, trainer and project manager.