Back in the 1990s, Professor Rogan Taylor – a Liverpudlian cultural commentator whose appearance as a talking head was once compulsory on documentaries about football – made a simple but telling point on the origins of the national sport. Around the time football was becoming fashionable again in the wake of Gazza’s tears and the birth of the glamorous Premier League, he reminded everyone that football clubs are not named after people, but places. So familiar are the names of clubs dotted around these islands via years of subliminal exposure to the football results, we can easily forget how such institutions were founded to represent their community, not some prominent individual within it. It’s West Bromwich Albion, not West Maurice Albion; West Ham United, not West Stan United; Peterborough United, not Peter United. The Industrial Revolution created the modern metropolis, but if industry turned little provincial hamlets into big, bolshie cities that quickly demanded parliamentary representation, the codification and formation of association football in the late 19th century gave those towns and cities something that would eventually outlast the industries that initially defined them.
The vital branding that a football club brought to so many corners of the country previously only known for what they manufactured was something that still lingers beyond the lush emerald carpets of the Premier League. This is why when a club such as Bury FC goes to the wall, as happened a couple of seasons ago, the town it belongs to suffers the kind of existential trauma that reflects how deeply engrained in its very DNA the club is. Take away Bury’s football club – no matter how under-achieving it might be – and what else does a small, one-time mill-town long ago swallowed up by Greater Manchester have going for it in terms of identity and sense of belonging? This is the very ‘grass-roots’ that football pundits and commentators are prone to uttering with the same token tone applied to buzzwords such as ‘global warming’ or ‘diversity’ when they emerge from the mouths of politicians.
As a term, grass-roots is often casually bandied about by wealthy clubs raking it in at the pinnacle of the precarious pyramid – as though the pennies that trickle down to the bottom are contractual charitable contributions for which the recipients should be grateful; but so cosseted are the global brand mega-clubs from everything outside of their own jet-setting bubble, they can no more relate to the realities of the clubs propping-up the rest at the foot of the old Fourth Division than the CEO of a billion-dollar corporation would recognise the goat he purchased for some distant African village as a means of signalling his virtue. Most of the men in whose ownership such clubs sit would struggle to recognise their own supporters, never mind those who congregate at Carlisle United on a dank November evening.
Once upon a time, the majority of clubs used to be in the hands of small-pond big fish who were the characteristic self-made men born of the Industrial Revolution; you might remember the guys I’m talking about. These civic dignitaries were fond of reminding their detractors how they once ran around without shoes on their feet, but now ran the local council, rode around town in a chauffeur-driven Rolls and were probably Master of their branch of the Freemasons; they were the regional money-men depicted in ‘kitchen sink’ novels of the 50s like ‘Room at the Top’. They may have been intolerably pompous, avaricious egotists full of their own self-importance, but they were inexorably bound to the locations they sprang from; being chairman of the town’s football club was the ultimate feather in their capitalist caps. It said they, and their town, amounted to something.
Foreign ownership of a football club changes that dynamic completely, and at its most seemingly superficial it can be seen both in the way an outsider makes his purchase and instantly decides to change the colours a club has always played in or rename the ground after a corporate sponsor – acts that instantly rouse the fury of the lifelong supporters who intrinsically understand how each separate, historical component of a club is crucial to what it really adds up to. These incidents have routinely been written off as little more than isolated storms in parochial teacups. What does it matter what colour strip the players are wearing? What does it matter if the home stadium is now named after a Japanese phone manufacturer? Well, down in the football basement, it matters quite a lot – and scratch beneath the surface of the glamour clubs who court the fair-weather fan with no geographical attachment to his chosen team and you’ll find a hardcore of supporters for whom it also matters.
When I think of some foreign owners of football clubs, I can’t help but recall those lines from ‘Money’ by Pink Floyd – ‘New car, caviar, four-star daydream/think I’ll buy me a football team’. To them, a football club is indistinguishable from a diamond ring or a Picasso original; they come to it with no knowledge of (or affinity with) the club’s back-story or the town it belongs to, so we shouldn’t be surprised when these bloodsuckers put their heads together and devise a fresh way to maximise their investment. In a sporting weekend that saw the cautious return of spectators to several high-profile events after a year of fixtures being played behind closed doors, the so-called ‘Big Six’ football clubs decided to announce something that detaches them even further from the actual fan-base that they’ve managed without during this strange knee-taking, crowd-free spell. A new European ‘super league’ comprising Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur from England, along with Italian giants AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus, as well as Spanish titans Atlético Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid, has been mooted as a way forward for these greedy, overblown corporations whose craving for the cake they can already claim sizeable chunks of is apparently insatiable.
Lest we forget, the global brands whose arrogant entitlement as founding members of a grotesque European elite implies they’re the cream of the crop aren’t all setting their respective leagues alight at the moment. As things stand, the two Manchester clubs may hold the leading spots in England, but as for the other contenders, Chelsea are fifth, Liverpool are sixth, Spurs are seventh (on the day they’ve sacked their manager) and Arsenal are ninth. On merit this season, Leicester, West Ham and Everton rank higher than some of those included in this breakaway proposal, so what are their rewards? Condemnation has been universal across Europe, with notable German clubs such as Bayern Munich rejecting the proposal, whereas the game’s birthplace has seen an impassioned evisceration of the idea, with divisive ex-player and current pundit Gary Neville earning overnight admiration for his diatribe against the entire concept. Even someone whose playing career was spent in the privileged cocoon of Old Trafford recognises the disastrous consequences of the game’s leading lights abandoning the ‘lesser teams’ to indulge in a soulless competition based solely on the prospect of financial gain, with the kind of annual giant-killing thrill thrown up by the FA Cup or the possibility of a shock championship snatch like Leicester managed five years ago being rendered redundant.
If a once-great club like Bolton Wanderers can be confronted by points deduction, relegation and possible expulsion from the league after simply struggling to make ends meet, I doubt few would dispute Gary Neville’s suggestion that the clubs seeking to line their fatted pockets further by throwing their lot in with this hideous idea deserve the same treatment. Let’s see how long they all last with their players barred from international football and their glorified Harlem Globetrotters brand of the beautiful game boring the pants off TV subscribers the world over. They might finally realise they didn’t come into existence in 1992, but have always been ultimately dependent on the faithful whose faces they have farted in with such cavalier contempt.
© The Editor
2 thoughts on “THE PEOPLE’S SHAME”
Unfortunately for its passionate followers, high-profile football is simply a form of professional entertainment, just like Formula One motor-racing, the ‘values’ of the game must now be compromised/sacrificed on the altar of commercial pressures and no amount of teeth-gnashing from the downtrodden masses may interfere with the march of pecuniary progress.
The masters of the operation know only too well how to play the right PR tunes to get/keep the devoted fans tapping their feet along to the melody, as well as willingly opening their wallets to buy products and services from the well-promoted sponsors which fund the whole cynical shebang.
Those few loyal Man Utd supporters who fill Old Trafford every game pale into insignificance when compared to the global ‘fans’ of the same team – it is reckoned that 96% of Man Utd ‘supporters’ have never even been to Old Trafford, but they’ve watched an awful lot of advertisement-enriched coverage on global TV channels and they’re the ones that matter now.
You may notice that I’ve not graced it with the name ‘sport’, because it’s no longer a sport, it’s merely a professional entertainment based around a game. Hemingway once claimed that there are only three sports – motor-racing, mountaineering and bull-fighting – because the participant was genuinely ‘sporting’ with his/her life, anything else is just a game. And all games with money-making potential are now mere entertainment – the only true games are the amateur level ones, where only the joy of winning, or just performing well, marks out the achievers. Leave top football for the money-men, the true game now only exists in your local parks on Sundays.
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The inevitable approach the salesmen for this enterprise will no doubt adopt to entice the average Sky Sports subscriber isn’t a million miles away from the way another desperate industry works – i.e. the music biz. The latter knows only too well there are plenty out there who will buy the latest remastered and remixed edition of a classic album they already own a dozen copies of, despite the fact it’ll sound indistinguishable from the previous such repackaging. The only true path of resistance open to the punter is to not invest.
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