Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Is football still the game of ordinary working people?

The old news reels 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 and no one blocked your 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.

It was not until the 1961 that the players union managed to get rid of the maximum wage. Up until that time the 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 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 footballers.

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 days pay for its members work.

Ofcourse 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.

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. (Though 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.)

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 mulita 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 an upset, a giant killing.

Another complaint is that clubs do not bring through their own local players anymore. West Ham were well known for developing home grown talent, a tendency that reached its nadir in 1966 when the club provided three home grown 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 home grown 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 and successfully over recent years have been 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. It has evolved very much in the way that the society of which it has been a part has done. The neo-liberal market economy that has dominated society resonates in football. The insecure contracts, particularly of those in non-playing roles in football clubs, the foreign players and 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 post war period but the game is more popular than ever. The sense of community remains, while the entertainment value is high. So certainly football is not what it used to be but who knows it maybe better.  

*published in culturematters - http://www.culturematters.org.uk/index.php/culture/sport/item/2544-football
published in Morning Star - 5/7/2017

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