That break that last for a couple of days towards the end of a major football tournament can do strange things to you. I considered at great length whether I should go into enormous detail about the European Championship semi-finals (which, lest we forget, are being played tomorrow night and the night after), but I thought that a break would probably be good for all of us, and that it would have the advantage of allowing me to pontificate briefly on a subject that I’ve been playing about with in my mind quite a lot over the last few weeks. Over the last twenty-five years or so, football has become political.
Whether it was the National Front selling their repulsive magazine “Bulldog” outside grounds in the early 1980s, the fanzine movement or the growing movement against the creeping commercialisation of the modern game, being a football supporter has become more than just turning up to the matches, singing yourself hoarse and going home again. It has become more of a 24/7 lifestyle. Fifteen years ago, if I wanted to talk about football I would have needed to go to the pub, but now we have any number of message boards that we can discuss it upon, and with this vast expansion of the role of the game into the periphery of our lives has come a new role for it. The very act of being a football supporter has become, albeit in an indirect way, a political act, and most football supporters are conservative.
It’s important, at this point, to differentiate between conservative and Conservative. Very few of the people that I know will be voting for David Cameron’s mob at the next general election. If one stops capitalising the “C” in it, however, the definition shifts slightly, and many more of us fit the definition. Chambers English Dictionary has the following to say:
“conservative – adj: 1. Favouring that which is established or traditional, with an opposition to change. 2. Said of an estimate or calculation: deliberately low, for the sake of caution”.
How many us does that not fit? In some respects, there’s nothing wrong with it. We have managed to maintain and expand our system of professional football in England for a hundred and twenty years on the basis of this, and a healthy scepticism of change was behind the massive opposition to the Premier League’s insane Game 39 plan (although you haven’t heard the last of that yet). One could also add that anything “deliberately low, for the sake of caution” would be most welcome in the modern climate, in which continuing spiralling wage costs, price increases and transfer fees threaten the financial stability of the game in ways that we have never seen before. The flip side to it, however, is a fear of change, even if the change itself may be to the benefit of all of us.
This conservatism manifests itself within the game in many different ways. Take, for example, one of the most-stated “facts” of football in the 1990s – “Blackburn Rovers bought the 1995 Premier League championship”. Jack Walker, who funded Blackburn’s rise from Division Two to the top of the Premier League, is nearest thing that there has ever been to a genuine football philanthropist, and it’s true that he put a lot of money into Blackburn Rovers. However, by the standards of the football club owner, he was about as good as it gets, and his name is still the one produced in bar room debates when talk turns to how good it might be to have a sugar daddy owner. Blackburn did spend money that was over and above what their means might otherwise have paid for, but Walker also rebuilt Ewood Park into a stadium that would cope with the club’s needs for the forseeable future and created an infrastructure that sees them retain their Premier League place to this day, whilst other, bigger clubs have floundered their way down into the Football League, never to return.
Blackburn Rovers winning the 1995 Premier League championship pleased a lot of people, but it angered a lot of people, too. Who were these upstarts and how dare they compete with Manchester United and Liverpool as equals? The accusation of “buying the title” isn’t one that one sees being thrown at Manchester United, Arsenal or Liverpool very often (certainly never in the case of Liverpool – not in the last eighteen years, anyway), even when those clubs have spent very heavily indeed in the pursuit of honours, but it was thrown at Chelsea when Roman Abramovich took over. One doesn’t have to be a fan of Abramovich (or, indeed, of Chelsea) to appreciate that, had he brought Liverpool or Manchester United, the same arguments would not have been put forward. Chelsea were, in a diluted form, the new Blackburn. Now perceived as being little more than a plutocrat’s toy, their supporters have had “You’ve got no history” sung at them for the last five years or so by other Premier League clubs. Of course, their supporters don’t really care that much, especially while they’re still winning trophies, and the stark fact of the matter is that their place in the top four means only that the Premier League has a top four rather than a top three.
This conservatism also there in our dislike of the Premier League’s arrivistes – the likes of Reading and Wigan Athletic, who have supplanted clubs like Coventry City and Southampton as the make-weights of the division. The amount of bile cast forth in the direction of the JJB Stadium over the last two or three years has been out of all proportion of anything that they have done wrong, whilst even Fulham, who were once one of the neutral’s favourite clubs, have seen their popularity wane since the Al-Fayed money took them up from the Third Division to the Premier League and kept them there, even though they still have, in Craven Cottage, one of the most attractive grounds in the country at which one can watch football. The truth of the matter is that, were the story of Cinderella to be repeated today, the majority of people at the ball would be standing around whispering to each other, “Well, who the hell does she think that she is?”.
Most of the time, this is all so much harmless talk. After all, who amongst us wouldn’t have enjoyed Blackburn’s rise to the top of the Premier League had we been supporters of theirs, especially considering that they have maintained their place at the top table for almost all of the thirteen years since? Every once in a while, though, fear of the new seeps over into real life decisions and suddenly things become much more muddy. Take, for example, the ongoing crisis at Halifax Town. Halifax have been facing extinction for quite a while, now. They avoided relegation on the last day of last season, only for the drop to come when they were expelled from the league and relegated two divisions to Division One North of the Unibond League. In the middle of all this, the club’s Supporters Trust members were asked whether they would support a new club formed by consortium that has been paying the bills for the last few months or a club run by the fans themselves. They voted for the consortium.
Evidently, the challenge of running it for themselves is to much for a majority of HTST members, which does rather beg the question of why they were members of it in the first place. Never mind the stark fact that the “business” model of running a football club has failed them in the most devastating way that it possibly could or the success of ST owned clubs playing at exactly the same level that they will be playing (assuming that they will actually start next season) last season, they have decided to entrust the fate of their club to a group of people that now have to try and dig them out of the hole that they are in. With July just a week away it is still more likely than not that the club will be wound up, and there are no guarantees that any new club for Halifax will be starting next season.
Of course, no small part of the problem facing people that are opposed to Trust-run clubs is the perception of them somehow being politically left wing, and I guess that they are, in more than one sense. However, the ridiculous situation at Halifax is proof as if it were needed that our inner conservatism (with a small “c”) can do us at least as much damage as it does us good. It is too late now to make the argument for a Trust-run club to Halifax supporters – they have made their bed and they will have to lie in it – but I would suggest this much to them. Have a look at the message boards for FC United, AFC Wimbledon, AFC Telford United, Scarborough Athletic and all the rest of them and take a look at how harmonious they are. Now look at the Halifax message board, and look at the arguments, mud-flinging and recriminations taking place on there. The old way might yet work for Halifax Town in the short term. A new, debt-free club will very likely be a powerhouse if it starts below the Unibond League Premier Division. It strikes me, however, that this would have been just as likely had the Trust taken over running of the club, and that this would at least have secured the long term future in the club in a way that no business consortium can. If they end up back in this mess again in five years’ time, the supporters that voted “no” to a Supporters Trust owned club will only have themselves to blame.