It is hardly surprising that Jurgen Klopp should have expressed his surprise at the sight of Liverpool supporters exiting Anfield with getting on for ten minutes of last Sunday’s match against Crystal Palace. In the run up to his arrival at the club, much had been made of the “special” nature of the home support at Liverpool matches, and of the storied nature of the club, as well as English football in a broader sense. To see a proportion of those in attendance starting to consider that other things in life – avoiding the traffic, getting a seat on the bus, whatever – may be important than the closing stages must set the cognitive dissonance sirens blaring in a coach who has come from a very different football environment. Perhaps, he might well be forgiven for thinking, this “Premier League passion,” about which he had heard so much, wasn’t quite all it was cracked up to be.
As supporters, however, we should perhaps be grateful for him pushing this subject into the spotlight, even if it won’t make any difference, in anything like the long term. The gentrification of top class football has occurred at such a glacial pace that we might not even noticed the full extent to which it has taken place. It has often felt as if there has been an unwritten subtext to this gentrification, that cheaper ticket prices priced the great unwashed out of the game and that the great unwashed were the reason for the serious issues that it faced during the 1980s. In a society as class ridden as it has ever been – and, moreover, a society that continues to seem to remain in thrall to those who are somehow “born to rule” – it is perhaps unsurprising that this version of history should have become the dominant one, even it has seldom been talked of aloud because it is both gratuitously offensive and doesn’t particularly stand up to scrutiny.
There is no argument over the fact that professional football in England in the middle of the 1980s required structural change. Attendance figures bottomed out during the 1985/86 season following a quarter of a century of growing competition for leisure time and hooliganism that was very much a by-product of societal changes that occurred very much beyond the closeted world of professional football. As much as anything else, the reaction of both clubs and the game’s authorities fuelled an increasingly toxic atmosphere in which containment was the only goal and, as a supporter, it was difficult not to feel like a troublemaker even if you’d never laid a finger on anybody in your life, so constant were the reminders in the media.
Something, evidently, had to give, but the reaction to the Bradford fire of May 1985 overlooked broader safety issues within the game, whilst the Heysel stadium tragedy of three weeks later meant that safety concerns within stadia were never likely to address the potential safety ramifications of caging supporters into pens with high fences at the front of them. That particular issue reached a hideous denouement at Hillsborough stadium in April 1989, but even then a coordinated campaign to blame ordinary supporters – up to and including those killed that day – for what happened swung onto gear. This benefited a lot of powerful people. It benefited South Yorkshire Police, whose negligence took many years to fully uncover. It benefited the politicians of the time, who similarly escaped scrutiny for a failure to legislate a broader swathe of safety measures in the years building up to it. It benefited the tabloid press, who could pile in upon one of their favoured bogeymen du jour to such an extent that they could tell outright lies about what happened that day. They had plenty of willing accomplices in their smear campaign against Liverpool supporters and therefore by extension us.
The aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster also, albeit in a backhanded way, suited the biggest clubs. FA rules which tried to rein in the power of the biggest clubs had been on the statute books since the Edwardian era, but the arrival of a new breed of capitalists into the game on the early 1980s had already started to erode the culture of the game as a sport first and a business second. Restrictions on shirt sponsorship were lifted, the live television broadcasting of matches became commonplace and rules ensuring the sharing of gate receipts were quietly erased. Talk of a breakaway – then usually described as a ‘Super League” – became more persistent. Professional football in England was at its lowest ebb, but retained a place in people’s hearts. It was ripe for monetisation, and in the fulcrum of soul searching that followed Hillsborough, the sense that this was a tipping point at which something had to change was a fertile environment for those seeking to redraw the culture of the game for their own ends.
Just three short years after Hillsborough, the Premier League was born. With all-seater stadia now enshrined in law following the Taylor Report, the rush towards gentrification as “a whole new ball game” took hold began apace. The marketing worked. The Premier League held onto enough of the tradition of the old game to marginalise the voices of those who voiced concerns over this new world order, whilst beginning a drip, drip, drip of change. There have been outliers of protest against the wholesale repackaging of football, but the globalisation of media that came with the arrival of the internet has changed the demographics of football supporters forever and these days the majority often seem cynical of those who have stood against these changes, and a mass media largely in thrall to the shininess of the new has seldom stood in the way of it all.
A part of this conflation of changing times and changing priorities has been the gentrification of the game and the arrival of the “day trip” supporter. For those amongst us that don’t attend Premier League matches, these changes have had a significant effect upon the match day experience for all, but media coverage of the game – particularly on the television, where there is a clear, vested interest in maintaining the idea of the passionate supporter – can make these changes feel invisible. Jurgen Klopp arrived at Anfield, quite possibly with a series of preconceptions about what it would mean to coach an English football club, and also the concerning the specific club at which he was arriving. To see people leaving Anfield at with time still to play on Sunday may well have jarred with everything that he believed he could expect from an English football club. Small wonder, if this is indeed the case, that he expressed his surprise so vocally after the match to the extent to which he did.
Rival clubs may well be pointing and laughing at all of this, but to do so misses the point that this is a fundamental change to the entire culture of top class football in England. The glossiness of the Premier League doesn’t begin, middle and end at the Shankly Gates. But this tribalism allows these changes to float through unchecked, as carried along by their own inevitability. That football would change with the internet and with broader changes within society, perhaps, was inevitable, but what is significant is not this but the sort of changes that we have seen. It’s impossible to say whether the game will continue to change at the same dizzying rate that it has over the last quarter of a century or so indefinitely, but it does seem entirely plausible that future generations priced out of attending matches or even watching them on the television will ask the question of why we, who were present at the time of this change, didn’t do more to temper it. It’s difficult to avoid the temptation to answer this question with little more than an apology for not having done more, and sooner.
There are bulwarks of protest against this change of culture, but these remain minority pursuits and are too readily dismissed as Luddism, even though this is only very seldom the case. If it is not too late to wrest a little control of the future of English football from those who will continue to seek to run it in their own corporate interests, we need to clearly lay out what an alternative vision of that future might be and how it can be won, if it can at all. Those day-trippers and the television contracts switched to suit a television audience regardless of impact upon supporters, however, are highly lucrative and are unlikely to be ceded upon without a fight. But just as the modern game as it hurls itself towards us had come about as the result of a drop, drip, drip, so might the might the case for another way. And if the scales falling from Jurgen Klopp’s eyes cause scales to fall from those of some others as well, then all power to his elbow.
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