Is football still the game of ordinary working people?
Wednesday, 23 August 2017 00:28

Is football still the game of ordinary working people?

Published in Sport

Paul Donovan discusses the double-sided character of football in modern capitalist society, and Ben Banyard contributes a poem to accompany his article.

The old newsreels of football show mainly men, standing often in flat caps, with scarves and sometimes waving rattles. What a contrast to today, when the football supporters are a mixture of men, women and children, All are all seated, some in luxury boxes, often wearing the latest club shirt, with players’ names on display. So how much has the game changed over the past 50 years, can it still be called the working man's game? If it has changed, is that for the better?

I began attending football matches in the mid-1970s, mainly at West Ham United's home ground of Upton Park. The game was certainly different in those days. Most people were standing, the majority males, often fathers and sons. In the early days, as a kid I used to get to the ground a couple of hours before kick-off in order to get down the front, where you were right next to the pitch, so no one blocked the view.

There was a good camaraderie but these were also the days of football violence. There could be disruption on the terraces but more often outside. Away fans would run the gauntlet between Upton Park station and the ground – about a half mile stretch. A favourite chant from the home fans was: "You'll never make the station." Most did, with the side roads sealed off with police vans and mounted police everywhere.

The violence in my view was over hyped in the media. Some of the scenes I witnessed also made me wonder, such as when a police officer on duty came over and struck up a conversation with an off duty colleague standing nearby. The gist was there had been a great fight and he had missed out. One of the most dangerous situations I got caught up in was at the 1975 FA Cup final at Wembley. West Ham beat ~Fulham 2-0 but in the crowd there was a surge. We nearly got crushed in the rush and but for a couple of men shouting out that there were kids, we could easily have been trampled.

These were great days for football, the spirit, and the excitement of the pitch side experience and the almost religious devotion of fans to their teams. The writing though was also on the wall for the various tragedies that occurred over the next decade or so such as Hillsborough, Heysel and Bradford.

The owners of football clubs really did not give a damn about fans. Those that go misty-eyed over the good old days, as though football clubs were owned by representatives of the people who were at one with the fans, really are deluded. If the owners couldn't make money out of fans they weren't interested. Compared to today, the football grounds were prehistoric.

The lack of concern for the fan was well illustrated in the period that ran up to the Hillsborough tragedy. The football was far more important than the supporters. So when there started to be pitch invasions, the authorities reacted by erecting fences. This put the fans in an almost cage like situation, unable to escape onto the pitch, when there was a trouble. The tragic events that unfolded at Hillsborough were partly the product of this approach.

The big change in football came about in the early 1990s. The pressure for all seater stadium and better conditions for supporters were at least partly fuelled by the perceived hooligan problem and then the tragedies that occurred. However, the game was also changing big time for the players. Up until the 1960s, players really had not been paid that well at all. Some look back with nostalgia to the days when the players went to matches on the same buses as the fans. These were the days, when football was just a game. But a pretty badly paid game all the same.

The abolition of the maximum wage in 1961 saw footballer's wages increase. Fulham's Johnny Haynes became the first £100 a week player. The stars of the 1970s were well paid for their work. The glamour and commercial opportunities started to become available, certainly for the big players like George Best and Bobby Moore. However, what these players earned in the 1970s was small beer compared to the rewards on offer for the likes of David Beckham in the 1990s and the stars of today.

The cry sometimes goes up that football is not what it was because of the money. Money has spoilt the game. There is no doubt some truth in this view. But from another angle, it is possible to argue that a decent share of the increased money has gone to those who directly produce the product, namely the players. The man or woman in the stadium might gasp at the hundreds of thousands a week that a player may earn but at least it is those who play the football who are getting the rewards. The Professional Footballers Association has played a major role in obtaining these increased wages, as it did in organising the strike that got the maximum wage abolished back in 1961. Arguably the PFA is the most successful trade union in the land, when it comes to getting a fair day’s pay for its member's work.
Of course the rising levels of footballers pay is not totally due to the union, the rise of agents has also contributed. The clubs can no longer dictate terms to the player.

Some would argue the agents have too much power, being able to unsettle players by fanning interest from other clubs. Equally, they will make demands on clubs to get a better deal for their player. Perhaps the agents do have too much power but at least players are seeing a good reward for their endeavour. The big jump in wages for footballers really came with the introduction of the Premier League, with accompanying TV money. TV had played a large role in football over many years, with Match of the Day a staple of Saturday night viewing. However, the arrival of Sky as a major TV football promoter totally changed the dynamic. TV money has been flooding into football for the best part of the past quarter century. The boost offered by the most recent TV deal saw the bottom club in the Premiership last season getting as much as the previous year's Champions, Leicester.

The advent of the Premier League has certainly seen the position of football in the national psyche rise. Football is now often headline news across the media. In the 1960s and 70s, no matter how important the game, football stories always remained on the back pages and at the end of news bulletins. Today, football can dominate front middle and back pages of newspapers and whole news bulletins. Football is big business, and it is the big business element that troubles those who say it's not what it was. Clubs owned by foreign billionaires, some of whom seem to be more interested in piling up debt against assets, than pursuing the football ethos of the local area.

It can also be argued that the role of the fan has diminished. Television is the dominant force in football because it is putting so much money into it. So it is TV companies who effectively decide when games are played. The fans will accommodate.

The fan tends to be another exploitable commodity. The old tribal loyalty of the supporter remains but in this day and age it is milked by the clubs with the branding exercises, constant kit changes and price rises. Despite all the billions put into football by TV, the price to go to a game is at a very high level. I often wonder how ordinary working people of the type who attended football in the 1960s and 70s can attend the game today. Admission prices have risen well beyond the cost of living over the past three decades. It is a strange irony that many of those playing the game for £30k plus a week come from the same backgrounds of those on the terraces, who would be lucky to earn such an amount in a year. Yet still the fans keep coming.

Take West Ham. Back in the days when I used to stand on the terraces, the average gate was about 27,000, with the capacity at 39,000. Last season at all seater Upton Park, the ground was at full capacity of 35,000 for most of the season. The move to the new London Stadium saw the capacity go up to 57,000 – season tickets quickly sold out, with all but 5,000 already renewed for next season.

Working people still make up the hard core of those attending football matches. Football though has become a fashionable thing among all the classes. From Princes William and Harry to former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron, everyone has a football team. Although in the case of Cameron the devotion appeared superficial, given his propensity to forget which team he supported.

There are more families at football matches these days. Girls are as keen as boys, with female football now really taking off across the world. The TV companies have seen the potential for another exploitable source in the women's game.

                                                                                                  **************

This is Not Your Beautiful Game

by Ben Banyard

This is not Lionel Messi, balletic, mercurial.
We have a journeyman striker with a broken nose
no pace, poor finishing, very right-footed.

This is not Wembley or the Emirates.
We’re broken cement terraces, rusting corrugated sheds,
remnants of barbed wire, crackling tannoy.

Here, the captain winning the toss
chooses to kick uphill or down
considers which half his keeper will stand in mud.

We have pies described only as ‘meat’,
cups of Bovril, instant coffee, stewed tea.

Our shirts feature the logo of a local scaffolding firm,
can’t be found in JD Sports.

Don’t tell us about football’s grass roots.
We don’t worry that all of this must seem small-fry,
that our team comprises keen kids and sore old pros.

Little boys who support our club learn early
how to handle defeat and disappointment,
won’t ever see us on Match of the Day.

We are the English dream, the proud underdog
twitching hind legs in its sleep,
tapping in a last-minute equaliser as the rain
knifes down on tonight’s attendance: 1,026 souls.

                                                                                                       ******************

Football though has come to reflect the business world. The clubs with the most money, employ the best managers and win the trophies. It was all becoming a bit predictable but then along came Leicester City. Leicester famously won the Premiership in the 2015/16 season, with a relatively cheaply assembled team. There were no huge wages or transfer fees but the players became imbibed with a team ethic and will to win that saw them brush aside all of those multi billion clubs.

Leicester's victory was similar to that of Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest in the late 1970s. Another team of also rans, galvanised to become an unbeatable force. The Leicester victory and those giant-killing efforts staged by lower league teams in the FA Cup each year prove that football retains its magic. Whilst most years it is the big money clubs that win everything, there remains that possibility of a major upset.

Another complaint is that clubs do not bring through their own local players anymore. West Ham were well known for developing homegrown talent, a tendency that reached its apogee in 1966 when the club provided three homegrown players for England's World Cup winning team. West Ham were the last club to field an all English team in an FA Cup final back in 1975. Today, though, West Ham have just one homegrown player in the side, captain Mark Noble, with vice chairman David Gold recently warning that it would be difficult for youngsters to break into the side in the future. However, other clubs do it, most notably Tottenham Hotpsur with the likes of Harry Kane, Deli Ali and Kieran Trippier. So where there is a will, home grown players can still break through.

It also has to be said that the standard of football today is much better than in past years. The game is much quicker and the skill content higher. Foreign players have helped raise those standards. In a funny way the arrival of so many foreign players in football again mirrors what has been happening in the wider society. Just as employers in other businesses often can't find the skills they require in the domestic market or that those skills cost too much, so too with football. Clubs have found they can get higher skilled players for less from abroad. It has been a marked development in football over the past quarter century that has seen the supply of players from the lower and non-leagues to Premiership clubs dry up. The top clubs go abroad for talent.

So overall, football has changed over the past 50 years. As Tony Collins points out in his article, it has evolved very much in the way that the society of which it has been a part has done. The neoliberal market economy that has dominated society resonates in football, with insecure contracts, particularly of those in non-playing roles in football clubs, a lot of foreign players, and overall commodification. Notably, though, the players have done better than many other workers when it comes to securing the fruit of their labours. Football does remain the people's game, some of the people may be a bit different from those of the postwar period but the game is more popular than ever. The sense of community remains to some extent, while the entertainment value is high. Like many other cultural activities in modern capitalist society, football shows a double-sided character.

See:paulfdonovan.blogspot.com

'This Is Not Your Beautiful Game' by Ben Banyard is republished wirh permission from Proletarian Poetry.

 

 

Social Class and the Invention of Modern Football
Wednesday, 23 August 2017 00:28

Social Class and the Invention of Modern Football

Published in Sport

John Storey outlines the relations between football's history and social class.

In the About Us section of this website, cultural activities are described as sites of domination and acceptance, struggle and resistance. And in my featured article, What do we mean by culture and why does it matter, I described culture as a terrain of shared and contested meanings. To illustrate these claims, let's look briefly at the relationship between social class and the history of football.

Traditional histories of football present the development of the game as passing through four stages. In its first stage, from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century, it existed as a wild and unruly game played by all social classes. The term football referred to ball games that involved both kicking and handling and may have even been used to distinguish ball games played on foot rather than on horseback.

What these games had in common was a ball and the idea of getting the ball to a ‘goal’. But the rules were oral and various. Teams could be any size from 2 up to 2,000, and the playing area could be the whole village, or the space between two villages. A game could last all day and was often played during village celebrations (Shrove Tuesday, village fairs and feasts, etc.).

In the second stage, from about 1750 to 1840, under the pressures of the industrial revolution the game disappeared as a popular sport. That is to say, the Enclosure Movement and urbanisation removed areas where the game might be played, industrialisation introduced a stricter work discipline, and the new policing system enforced the law more efficiently. What remained of the popular game survived only in the universities and public schools. But even here the game was discouraged because like the game that had once existed outside these institutions it was violent and unruly.

In the third stage, from about 1840 to 1860, the status of sport began to change, it was now seen as good for the sons of the ruling class. Team sports, especially football, were character building, increased physical health, discipline, and moral responsibility. The Clarendon Commission of 1864, established to investigate the public schools, was very clear on the benefits of sport, ‘The cricket and football fields ……..are not merely places of amusement; they help to form some of the most valuable social qualities and manly virtues, and they hold, like the classroom and the boarding house, a distinct and important place in public school education’. During this period the game is supposedly civilised and codified by the public schools.

In the final stage, from about 1850 to 1890, ex-public schoolboys establish the Football Association in 1863 and the FA Cup in 1871 and then, working like colonial missionaries, gradually introduced the new civilised and codified game to the working class. In an account of the development of the game, published in 1906, the author is quite clear of the role played by, in particular, Eton, Harrow, Westminster and Charterhouse, ‘football, in its modern form, is entirely the product . . . of the various public school games’.

The Wanderers were the first winners of the FA Cup. The social make-up of their team tells us a great deal about the game as played in the early days of the FA. The team included four Harrow graduates, three old Etonians, and one each from Westminister, Charterhouse, Oxford and Cambridge. Football, it seemed, was a game intended for the ruling class, but despite this it very quickly grew to become the ‘people’s game’.

The initial challenge to the public school hegemony came from Blackburn, Lancashire. In 1882 Blackburn Rovers got to the FA Cup final, losing 1-0 to Old Etonians. However, the following year Blackburn Olympic not only reached the final, they actually won the cup, beating Old Etonians 2-1. The Blackburn Times (1883) understood very well how Blackburn Olympic’s victory was entangled with social class. 

'The meeting and vanquishing, in a most severe trial of athletic skill, of a club composed of sons of some of the families of the upper class in the Kingdom . . . as the Old Etonian Club is, by a Provincial Club composed of entirely, we believe, of Lancashire Lads of the manual working-class, sons of small tradesmen, artisans, and operatives.'

Blackburn Olympic’s team consisted of three weavers, a dental assistant, a gilder, a plumber, a clerk, a loomer, a licensed victualler, and two iron-foundry workers. A team of ex-public schoolboys would never again win the FA Cup.

From the 1870s football as a socially organised sport developed rapidly amongst the working class of the Midlands and North. Football clubs were established in different ways: through existing sports clubs (for example, Burnley, Sheffield Wednesday, Preston North End, Derby County, Notts County); promoted by religious organisations (for example, Aston Villa, Barnsley, Blackpool, Bolton Wanderers, Everton, Manchester City, Birmingham City); representing workplaces (for example, Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion, Manchester United, Coventry City, Crewe Alexandra); and by teachers and ex-pupils (for example, Blackburn Rovers, Leicester City, Sunderland).

The establishment of the Football League in 1888 was an inevitable consequence of professionalism. In order to pay wages clubs needed reliable and regular fixtures. In 1884 Preston North End were expelled from the FA Cup because it was claimed they had used professional players. An inquiry was inconclusive, but it did discover that they had arranged jobs for players (i.e. sinecures that allowed them to be in effect full-time players). Preston got support from forty clubs from the North and Midlands. Together they threatened to form a British FA. In January 1885 professionalism was legalized. The Football League was founded three years later in 1888. Of the eleven founding teams, six were from Lancashire (Preston North End, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Accrington, Everton, Burnley) and five from the Midlands (Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Derby County, Notts County, Stoke City).

Why did the game develop so quickly in the industrial North and Midlands? One compelling answer is that it had never really gone away. As we noted earlier, according to conventional accounts there was pre-industrial football, which disappeared as a popular game under the pressures of the industrial revolution. However, the public schools held on to the game, codified and civilised it and introduced it to the world with the establishment of the FA and the FA Cup. But there is another possibility: it did not disappear but, as in the public schools, it continued to evolve in the new industrial towns and cities.

In other words, the public school version was just one version, but a version with the power to impose itself on the formal organisation of the game and on the writing of the game’s history. But alongside this version there existed another, which we might call working-class football. The existence of this second version would also help explain how what is presented as the public school game was able to develop so rapidly in the industrial North and the Midlands.

An article published in 1838 in Bell’s Life in London, at a time when the game had supposedly disappeared as a popular sport, offers evidence for the existence of a working-class version of the game, ‘A match at football will be played at the cricket ground, Leicester, on Good Friday next, between eleven (principally printers) from Derby and the same number of Leicester. The winners to challenge an equal number from any town in England, for a purse not exceeding £25’. In 1842 a witness at a Parliamentary inquiry into the conditions of working-class children in the mining areas of the North of England wrote:

'Although Christmas Day and Good Friday were the only fixed holidays in the mining region of Yorkshire, children had at least one day off a week and a fair portion of time in the evening. This they could use to play sport on the considerable areas of wasteland in the neighbourhood. Their games included cricket, nur and spell [a bat and ball game] and football.'

Of course children working long hours in the mining industry and then playing on wasteland offers little to celebrate, but it does present evidence that football had continued to exist outside the universities and public schools. Therefore, although the middle class established the FA and the FA Cup, the game’s rapid development from the 1870s onwards in the industrial North and Midlands suggests that the popular game had not disappeared. Rather, it had simply changed in ways quite similar to what had happened to it in the public schools. Put simply, it is impossible to fully understand the complex history of the development of the game, and how this history has been written, without including as part of the explanation the important role played by social class.