Updated: Sep 26
Football: the people’s game. Small boys in the park. Muddy pitches. Jumpers for goal-posts. Next goal wins. One’s gone home for his tea. Sideburns and bald spots. Those were the days.
(This article first appeared in issue 3 of The View Magazine. Reproduced with permission @ViewFootballMag).
Somewhere between Michael Thomas’s league winning last minute smash and grab at Anfield in May ’89 and FC Seoul plying their trade to an audience of half and half scarf wearing sex dolls in pandemic ravaged 2020, the football that saved us all took a career ending set of studs to the groin and was reborn as an avatar for government appeasel of civil unrest. The goal-posts have been dug up and placed on a billionaire’s yacht, the pitches are part plastic and sponsored by BetFair and the kid that went home for his tea is exhibiting symptoms of the dreaded cronizzle and is being forced to self-isolate in a pit of sweat and despair. Don’t worry, there are plenty more where he came from.
Be quiet, shut up. Look at the football.
Society used to be governed by the faithful old duopoly of state and church. You knew where you were with these two bastions of morality: heaven or hell, depending on who decided to place you and when. Don’t like work down t’mill? Be sure to tell God on Sunday, if he bothers to turn up.
The only light relief for the men of the steel works, mills, mines, tanneries, tram lines and chimneys was getting arseholed of a Saturday evening, followed by some recreational domestic violence in order to dull out the drone of existential dread and testosterone.
Until, suddenly, football came and saved them all.
Here, then, was something to believe in. To share. To take part in, either physically or vicariously. Early Association Football was the great leveller. Skill was inherent, not passed down by the crown, or worse, learnt at an expensive prep school. The rules were simple, the equipment minimal. Price of admission low. Footy was accessible to all, as long as you smoked furiously and insisted on wearing a cap and moustache disguise once a week.
Yes, Association Football derived from a small group of elites from Eton, Charterhouse and, urgh, Rugby. Yes, the first pro-team was adapted rom members of a Cricket club in Sheffield, but these non-medieval primitive early versions of the people’s game were rowdy, roughshod affairs. Bereft of rules and gentlemanly conduct, it took a Dickensian sounding visionary from Hull, Ebenezer Cobb Morley, to come home from a night on the lash in 1863 (probably) to find his wife out pioneering topless darts (doubtful) and so unable to meter out some low level violence (libel) and instead sit down in one sitting and draft the first laws of the game that some people still incorrectly call soccer (true). These are still the laws that the global mega-game is based upon. I usually just eat a kebab and put on Gladiator.
Passion for the game spread. Fast. It was geographical and essentially classless. The sport was at once inclusive and exclusive. No matter your station in life, your domestic position, your qualification for anything other than the most menial of tasks, or even if you weren’t an MP, you could still be involved. And if your team so happened to meter out a barbaric spanking to that lot of toads from down the road, their achievement was all yours. Pride by proxy. Who couldn’t get involved with that?
And so it went on for some decades. Father and son. Beer. Unity. Mates, pals and pies. Until, in late August 1964, some pernicious ghoul broke into Anfield and under some ‘people’s game’ pretence opted to televise the highlights of a precursor to the greatest match ever played (see: Michael Thomas, ’89) to a terrace based soundtrack of ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah’. You let them in, it’s on you. And now it’s all this…
Television became the noose that hoisted the game up for us all to see, only for us all to ultimately have to watch it die, jiggling, jolting and eventually soiling itself live on Sky Sports. A modern day Tyburn Tree.
As with all social movements, football has long held a mirror up to us all and we don’t always like what we see. During the 1980’s, society was at a low ebb. Thatcherism had divided the nation into have and have nots, and the have nots rebelled into extreme alcohol fuelled tribalism. Football became the arena to vent frustration and exhibit the end result of a generational lack of opportunity. The mills and mines were now sold and shut, and the people had to revert to numbing out the dread. Why they all happened to support Millwall is a phenomena that no one has put any substantial research into. Nor should they.
Then something unexpected happened: Homer Simpson.
At some point during the late 1980’s, another mirror was held up from beyond the pond. Satellite dishes went up on every single council house to catch a glimpse of the jaundice soothsayer. (Privately owned houses were only allowed to subscribe to BSkyB, but everyone knows that). So much money did Rupert Murdoch make from gluing dustbin lids to porches that he had to find something else to glue the millions of eyeballs to once the 21 minute episodes were done. Christ knows that there was only so many reruns of Please, Sir! one could take. So he sold football out by buying it for himself and taking it home so no one else could play with it. Greedy Antipodean bugger.
Now the people’s game was for the few, not the many. Clubs were still allotted TV money as before, but now the allowance was based on a dividend of hefty paid for monthly subscriptions and not subsidiaries of the BBC licence fee or advertisers selling cat food. Like Thatcherite Britain, football was now split in two. So much had changed, so unrecognisable was the format that no one noticed at first that Richard Keys had jumped into a bigoted monkey costume. By the time they did, Blackburn Rovers had won the last ever 1st Division trophy.
In order to whitewash this travesty, and to ensure Alan Shearer never won anything ever again, football was rebranded as a Betting Dependency platform and separated from the rest of the Football League. Those clubs left stranded would just have to fend for themselves, much like the fans that originally helped shape the game and now found themselves voting for better things with New Labour and luxurious, exotic wars against faceless Arabs.
This was the new status quo, and the three chords were Money Money Money.
At the start of 2020, before *holds hands up at the World*, it was cheaper to buy a season ticket to most premier league clubs than it was to watch all televised games. This is an inherently untenable situation. I thumb my teeth at it. Football, and in turn, football clubs at the top level, have priced themselves out of support. My team, the mighty Arsenal, with all its proud tradition and marble halls, now resides at a soulless concrete bowl with an Arab name (who won eh, Tony?) that has a globally vast online following (virtual fandom is a dreadful place) and a transient physical support of tourists and corporate entertainment droids. Half and half scarf wearing sex dolls? That’s up to you. All for money, not for advancement of the sport. Wenger, in all his wisdom, thought it would help Arsenal FC transcend their position as a sleeping giant, when in truth, it has relegated the club into a corporate entity that has long fallen into a coma from which no one knows when it’ll wake. I am only thankful that T*ttenham appear to be following the same path, as ever, a few years later.
As society and football again holds up its withering mirror, fans at the club have been irreparably divided. First at Arsene, then at Unai Emery, then finally, the board. What it is really railing against is its detachment from its roots. The people. The founding fathers. The fans. We can’t afford to go in, the club can’t afford us not to. What to do?
With the unfortunate hiatus that the global pandemic, with all its tragedy and heartbreak, forced upon the game, we have had a chance to put down our replica shirts and get on with whatever it was we did before. Dispassionately, we are now able to look at it anew. When Mikel Arteta tested positive and went home for his tea, he probably saved many hundreds of lives. Lives of supporters, players, staff, media employees. It was shocking, and the catalyst that brought the halt. Football DID care after all. Look, the Government are giving out free money! Wait…
Football’s decision to come back at a time when infection rates are still the worst in Europe, hundreds of people are still dying every week, the economy is on a knife edge and the population is on the brink of civil war tells us all that this decision is one not born of sporting intention or of personal safety, but one leaned on by Government in the hope it’ll distract the have nots from what they…have not. Peace. Leadership. Competent governance. That it’ll play out in front of plastic seats and a soundtrack nicked from the ghost crowds of old is a timely reminder that the game itself is in crisis, haunted by what it once was. Let’s hope the money made from putting so many and so much at risk for so little is worth it to someone. And let’s all hope that someone is not Rupert Murdoch, that greedy little Antipodean.