Thursday, 29 September 2016 14:32

Taking our ball back: English football's culture wars

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Taking our ball back: English football's culture wars

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 some of the issues involved. 

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 history

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, 110,000 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?

Passionate and discontented fans

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. Even in the Premier League, supporters own 20% of Swansea City, and have been instrumental in returning Crystal Palace to the top flight.

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 organising a march on Premier League HQ last summer that drew together fans from over 20 clubs.

At Manchester United, the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association is a well-financed and astute organisation that was formed in 1995 as a direct response to a tannoy announcement that fans in the hard core K-Stand would be ejected if they continued to stand during matches. Since then, IMUSA has campaigned on ticket pricing, crowd atmosphere and club governance, and played a prominent role in blocking Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of the club. The success of these two organisations gives the lie to the assertion that organised fans can only make a difference further down the scale.

In the last few years, a fresh challenge to the modern game has emerged. It is grass-roots based, more fluid and organic than the established supporter opposition, in places more anarchic, autonomous and uncompromising, and generally less-concerned with questions of governance than immediate issues such as stadium atmosphere.

Ultras and the Holmesdale Fanatics

It would be inaccurate to describe this challenge as a movement, but there’s a common theme of drawing on the traditions of Europe’s Ultras – an interesting development if you bear in mind that many European Ultra groups drew on English fan culture for their inspiration. One of the most established and active of the new groups in England are the Holmesdale Fanatics at Crystal Palace – the Holmesdale end being the traditional gathering point for the club’s hard core support. Formed in 2005, HF regularly stages big displays at the club’s Selhurst Park ground, using flags, banners and cards together with loud vocal support to drive the atmosphere, and taking larger and louder away contingents to grounds across the country.

Interviewed by the European Football Weekends website, some of HF’s active members explained their approach. “We wanted to make a stand against the threats of modern football and fight back for the culture, and believed by creating a strong unit, based on the way hardcore would congregate on terraces, that visual and vocal dominance could naturally stem from this section.”

Asked if they thought the mindset of English fans was changing, they said: “Supporters are becoming bored and disillusioned with the way football has been pushed by Sky, and the authorities. There is little or no fun left. When you compare the old style of support and look at the demographics, it's completely different. Young people are in the minority now, either priced out or simply having better stuff to do, as stadia are generally over policed, over priced and soulless. I feel sorry for the average young fan growing up in this climate, never knowing how football crowds can inspire and stay with you for life.”

The HF approach is about fans playing a part, not simply waiting to be entertained. That feeds into efforts to promote a positive culture of support for players, particularly younger ones, rather than criticising when things begin to go wrong. One of the criticisms of the modern, commodified fan culture is that there is an expectation of success, rather than a commitment to support the team come what may. The new Ultra currents promote the idea of ‘supporting the shirt’, a strand embraced particularly strongly by the 1882 movement at Tottenham Hotspur.

At HF, there’s also a stronger political approach, manifested in regular efforts to expose and challenge repressive policing and stewarding, and in direct action, such as the forcing open of the gates and occupation of the ground when the club was threatened with liquidation. “We continue to fight against authority, modern footballing principles and look to restore the true spirit of fan culture,” the group said.

Ultra groups have often taken off at English lower league clubs too, York City’s Jorvik Reds have been particularly active and groups have sprung up at clubs elsewhere, including Accrington Stanley, Barrow and Burton Albion. At Newcastle United, Middlesbrough and Swindon, ultra groups have made their prescence felt, and the mass adoption of “the Poznan” by Manchester City fans is perhaps the most straightforward example of the embrace of a European Ultra-style activity.

But the use of the word “Ultra” makes many uncomfortable because of its association with violence. At Palace, HF played down the Ultras connection for years, and at Spurs, the name Tottenham Ultras was dropped in favour of 1882 – the year of the club’s formation. While some of the online Ultra sites don’t help themselves by blurring the line between tifosi groups and some of football’s more traditional hooligan firms, it’s also possible to identify efforts by sections of the football establishment, whether that be in the media or the administration of the game itself, to blur the lines too in order to undermine any potential challenge from a new, grass roots movement. And it is here that the front line of football’s culture wars is being fought.

With the new, autonomous groups beginning to make common cause with the more established supporter opposition over issues such as ticket prices, policing and standing in stadiums, and with discontent being recognised within the game as an issue that might affect the commercial value of the product, the battle has entered a new phase. For years, the game told us things were better than they had ever been. As fans, we knew there was truth in this, but we also harboured doubts. As journalist and Leeds United fan Nick Varley said in his 1999 book Parklife – still one of the most astutely-observed state-of-the-game books in the rich literature of English football – “No one who can remember the dilapidation and the fighting, the injuries and the death, could possibly suggest that today is not an improvement on yesterday. But I suspect many of us who were there will also remember yesterday so much more fondly.” Yet our vague sense of discontent constituted no threat, and those who ran the game could content themselves with keeping the minority of organised supporter activists at bay with the occasional concession.

Now, fan activism is spiralling in many directions. More fans are taking direct action, refusing to sit down in particular sections of the stadium, generally preserving a raucous, independent, anti-establishment tradition of British mass culture. A new wave of football fanzines and websites is spreading the message and articulating complaints about ticket prices, the lack of young fans in stadiums, the dominance of the TV companies over fixture lists. And the established supporter opposition is there to advise and direct when needed, drawing on its own experiences while never seeking control.

Just as the game had belatedly discovered the benefits of engagement – the new buzzword among progressive football administrators – the fans were questioning its value. As one said: “We don’t want to vote on the colour of the club shirt, we want to vote for the people who decide the colour of the club shirt.”

A fear of the masses

It would be wrong to say that a new, dare we call it more revolutionary, fan movement is emerging. But the game’s authorities are worried by what they see – a worry that taps into a fear of the mass that runs through English history, and the history of football in England.

In 1314, English King Edward II banned an early incarnation of football in which large groups of men from neighbouring villages rampaged across fields and through streets attempting to kick, throw or carry a ball. A proclamation stated: “For as much as there is great noise in the city, caused by hustling over large balls from which many evils might arise which God forbid, we command and forbid, on behalf of the king, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future.” Football was banned during the Hundred Years War because it was thought to distract the king’s subjects from practising archery; banned in Manchester in the early 1600s because of the frequency with which stray passes shattered windows, banned on Sundays by the Puritan Oliver Cromwell.

Football’s popularity among the great mass of people has always fuelled the suspicions of those in power, as has the collective action of the mass. The word “mob” (short for mobile vulgus – the excitable crowd) was first used in 1688 at the time of the Glorious Revolution and great political upheaval. The satirist Henry Fielding went so far as to dub the London mob “the fourth estate” long before the press claimed the title.

It is in this context that deliberate attempts by the football authorities to blur the line between focussed protest and random violence must be seen. These days it’s more complex than simply dismissing organised groups of fans as thugs. In recent months, for example, the Premier League , backed by the UK government, has launched a major campaign against the use of flares at matches. Cathy Long, head of supporter services at the Premier League, described the use of flares as “the biggest concern we’ve got among fans at the moment”. The BBC ran a story headlined “Fears someone will die due to rising use of flares in stadiums” and led on the claim that “Children as young as eight are being used as ‘mules’ to smuggle flares and smoke bombs into Premier League matches.”

Reading the story did reveal a sharp rise in the use of flares, but only because the number of incidents had previously been so low. The story claimed “a third of supporters have been directly affected by pyrotechnics” but the detail revealed that “more than half” of a survey of just 1,635 specially-selected fans had “witnessed” pyrotechnics. And as for the hordes of eight-year-old flare mules, the story could only report “claims” that one eight-year-old had been spotted passing pyro from his rucksack to adults inside a stadium.

Sensationalist nonsense it might have been, but the story did its job. Some supporter groups announced they would “crack down” on the use of pyro – without explaining how this fan group vigilantism would work – while the more militant elements reiterated the “No pyro, no party” stance. For them, use of pyro is a key part of rejecting modern football. That is still a minority attitude, but it’s a useful device with which to divide supporters and it raises the question faced by grass roots movements when they begin to have influence. When does acceptance turn into co-option?

I spoke to Phil Thornton, whose book Casuals, first published in 2003, remains one of the most authentic accounts of British working class terrace culture, about current developments, and asked him what he thought about English and Scottish fans drawing on European Ultra traditions. “It’s all play acting, really,” he said. “I'm not a fan of these massive flags and mosaics myself. I think they smack of the circus. ‘Safe standing’ and ‘singing areas’ seem almost laughable terms to those of us brought up in the rough and tumble of the 1970s and 1980s but the culture must change unless we want these soulless, sterile stadiums to continue pushing away vocal fans.”

Incompetents and corrupt egotists in the FA, UEFA, and FIFA

I asked if Thornton felt terrace culture had to be anti-establishment to be real. He said: “The Stand AMF movement has gone global or pan-European at least and there's definitely a growing resistance movement brewing as more and more fans become disillusioned with how the game is run but we're still dealing with the likes of the FA, UEFA and FIFA. These are administrative monoliths filled with incompetents and corrupt egotists.

“As a trade union activist for 20 years, I've seen how the bosses co-opt 'militants' by a combination of flattery and bribery. I was always against the likes of Man United's Shareholders United campaign as it fed into this myth that you could play the club and the big shareholders at their own game. You can't, it's a rigged game. There's too much money in the industry – and it is an industry not a game or a sport – for anyone to rock the boat. Now the Russians are involved and Gazprom sponsor the Champions League, the circle from old industrialists in 19th century England starting clubs through to spivs controlling the game in the post war years to the oligarchs running the show is complete. It's a gangster's game and always has been.”

It’s an uncompromising view, and one that Steve Redhead, professor of sports media at Charles Sturt University in New South Wales, Australia, recognises. He reckons what is happening now “fits into a new era of political hard times and that football fan culture is now entering into a new phase with all the radical uncertainty that brings. My concept of accelerated culture was meant to draw attention to how speeded up our culture has become and how difficult then it is to ‘create the space’ (to borrow from John Barnes and New Order) for new developments outside the mainstream media gaze. It just becomes harder to do it, but we can learn from the history of the past few decades what is useful to push things forward and what isn't.”

He sees evidence of a more European style of fan activity on Australian grounds too, citing the Red and Black Bloc at Western Sydney Wanderers as a prominent example, but also referencing Sydney FC’s Del Piero-influenced Italian style and Perth Glory fans’ move away from a ‘British’ style to something more European.

But Redhead does not see matters improving in the next 10 years, at least not in England. He thinks there will be “less space for independent fan culture making a difference, but the reproletarianisation of football culture – where a middle class lifestyle including season tickets, high ticket prices, travel etc becomes more and more difficult for most people to achieve – really taking effect. There’s a danger that the historical working class football culture will be gone forever, and only obvious in exhibits at the National Football Museum in Manchester, England.”

Tony Evans, the football editor of The Times, wrote recently: “Following a team is a labour of love, an assertion of culture. It is not a consumer choice. It is emotional attachment that only withstands the scrutiny of logic if the connection between club and community is considered.” That encapsulates why football means so much, and why the football business is so successful. A variety of fan currents are attempting to preserve the game’s meaning, to continue to assert a culture that has grown organically, created bottom-up by people doing something they love.

Looking to preserve grass-roots culture presents its own challenges. Terrace culture may have been about passion and community and belonging, about codes of behaviour and styles of dress – those factors that run deep through English working class youth culture. But there was also an edge to it. The establishment may have an interest in blurring the line between organised fans and violent fans, but the anti-modern football tendency can sometimes appear at best ambivalent about the violence that went along with the culture. This is partly because those who know football know the old line about the hooligans ‘not being real fans’ was always nonsense – those who literally fought for their colours were as knowledgeable and passionate about the game as everyone else.

A new community 

In Thornton’s book Casuals, one of the fans he interviews, Gareth Veck, says: “What you’ve got to remember about this casual culture is an entire sub-culture said ‘We’ll go about mob-handed and we can do whatever we fucking like: jib the trains, jib inside the ground,’ and eventually it went pear-shaped. Casual culture sounds great, the nice trainers and all that, but it had this very dark side to it that people want to forget about now.” Thornton sees attempts to commodify this in current developments. “There WAS violence, a lot of violence associated with casuals or their forebears in the 60s and 70s because that was absolutely central to working class male culture, especially in England which is tribal and concentrated in many towns and cities within a close proximity. But this became fetishised, it became almost a pos. You wear a Mille Miglia and a pair of Adidas Stockholms and an Aquascutum scarf wrapped round your face and you BECOME a hooly. You buy the t-shirt and try to live a lifestyle that was never like that in the first place. It wasn't nice, it was brutal and often terrifying going to games in those days and kids need to recognise that.”

Roots-up culture is messy, illogical, and wired to resist efforts to direct and control it. That’s why it’s feared by some and valued by others. If being against modern football becomes merely an attempt to recreate the past in a more palatable form, it is doomed to crumble under the weight of its own contradictions. There are already tensions emerging. Some see club-approved banners and tifo displays as totally synthetic, the antithesis of what genuine fan culture is about – just another attempt to paper over the cracks.

Football came from community, it symbolised community. But the modern football business, in the way capitalism does, seeks to replace community with commodity. It attempts to reduce community to a museum piece – itself another commodity, another attempt to sell the thing we created back to us. For many, the battle is already lost. For others, the fact that the discussion is happening means the fight is still on.

Simply wishing to regain some mythical golden days is doomed to failure. What comes next will be different to what went before. Power will continue to resist challenge, and then to convince us that any change we achieve would have happened anyway – all the while looking to co-opt us as the acceptable face of opposition. It’s how things work, not just in football but in wider life. Our challenge is to articulate what kind of different we want, to recognise it when it takes shape, and to resist efforts to control it. Community is key, and the current struggles of fans in football’s culture wars are creating a new community.

This is an extract from Martin Cloake's ebook Taking Our Ball Back: English Football's Culture Wars, available from Martin's latest book, written with Alan Fisher, is A People's History of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, available from

Read 3970 times Last modified on Tuesday, 15 November 2016 20:48