Searching for the soul of football

This article was written by MIKE HODSON AND CHRIS ALLEN and first appeared in MATCHDAY MAGAZINE https://issuu.com/matchdaymagazine/docs/matchdaymag-03-2017

Liverpool and Bolton Wanderers; the clubs of Bill Shankly and Nat Lofthouse. These were the Football League teams that each of us grew up supporting in the late 1970s. On the Kop at Anfield and in the Burnden Terrace at Burnden Park. Liverpool were champions of England and Europe. Bolton were enjoying their own period of relative success, getting promotion to the top division of English football, where they did the double over Manchester United and had the top scorer in the First Division in 1978/79, Frank Worthington. Although football in the 1970s is often portrayed as reflecting dark times by the popular media, these were golden times.

Technically, the football was nowhere near as good as it is now but both the match and the match day experience were considerably more entertaining. There are many reasons why this was the case. We would suggest, though, that four reasons in particular help to explain this.

First, professional football at the highest levels in England was broadly resonant of the wider social and political context of the 1970s. It was much more socially equitable. That’s not to say that there weren’t powerful clubs. Just, that there were many more, beyond the powerful few, competing for honours. Nottingham Forest, for example, went from the Second Division, to being champions of England and of Europe in consecutive seasons. Derby and Leeds were English champions and clubs such as Ipswich, Queens Park Rangers and West Bromwich Albion were challengers. Powerful clubs, such as Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, were relegated.

Second, top-level professional football felt more accessible in the 1970s. It was possible, most weeks, to decide to go to a match in an instant, take your pocket money and hand it over to the person on the turnstile. Few matches required advance tickets and there was very little raising of matchday prices for big games. The terms of entry were simple. This was the case with away games too, where you could often just turn up at a match on the day. It also applied to games at many of the so called big clubs. On many occasions we turned up at Old Trafford, Maine Road, Anfield, Goodison Park and St James Park without a ticket and had no problem getting entry. Without being overly romantic, players were more accessible as well. Although they were generally paid above average salary it wasn’t at the stratospheric levels of today and many lived in or close to the towns of the teams for which they played.

Third, above all, professional football was a shared, communal experience. It was something you did, somewhere you went to, with your mates or your dad or other members of your family. It was an experience that bound people together, in joy, in despair, in anger, in boredom and in many other emotions. It also transformed the convenient superficialities of some school and work relationships into solidarities that were aligned to something we all truly believed in. It gave people a sense of belonging to a community in a world where other people really did matter. It brought people together.

Fourth, our sense is that, before clubs became the corporate colossuses that many of them now are, they were generally much more rooted in their local communities. That’s not to deny all the ‘in the community’ work that clubs and players continue to do. It is more to say that clubs used to feel in and of a place whereas now they can frequently feel almost alien to the places in which they play. In fact, links to community are now sometimes cynically exploited to promote the brand. ‘This is OUR City’ claim Manchester City as it seeks to fill its stadium with Chinese supporters whose wallets are only too happily opened at the first sight of the ‘club superstore’.

The game, in short, was more meaningful and professional football mattered to us deeply. It no longer does; at least not in the same way. This is not to say that all was rosy in the 1970s. Frequently, there was also violence and often we faced the concern about how we were going to navigate our way home safely after a match.

Top-level football, as we know it, started to break down and began to die in England in the 1980s. At first slowly, so it wasn’t really noticeable, until a couple of decades later the game had been crucified on the altar of corporate capitalism. Those four issues, above, that together configured the highest levels of English professional football in the 1970s, began to weaken individually and collectively unfold.

A series of rule changes and developments that began in the 1980s cumulatively reinforced the power of big clubs. Selectively, this included the switch in ownership rules in the 1980s where, beginning with Tottenham Hotspur in 1983, clubs were allowed to float on the Stock Exchange. This had the effects of separating the ownership of clubs from the places where they were based. Furthermore, one of the underpinnings of equity in the professional game had been the sharing of gate receipts between home and away sides. This institutionalised a redistribution of wealth. The breakdown of this arrangement in 1983 had material effects for those clubs keeping the money and those no longer receiving it. Arguably this signalled a breakdown of collective ties and the emergence of a more selfish competitiveness.

The single most important event that entrenched this selfish competitiveness was the establishment of the Premier League in 1992. The television monies that have progressively grown since the founding of the Premier League have been disproportionately swallowed by England’s most powerful clubs, strengthening their position. This created pressures for clubs just to remain in the Premier League and, in doing so, recalibrated both the ambitions of most and what they were capable of achieving.

The switch from the European Cup to the Champions League in 1992 was also to the benefit of England’s elite clubs over the good of the wider English professional game. With its seedings, formats of groups and thus more games, and television monies, this created further revenue streams for some of the most powerful clubs. More than this, it created a pressure for clubs to finish in the top four in the Premier League above other considerations, such as domestic cup success.

A further set of incremental rule changes saw the number of substitutes allowed on the bench in Premier League matches increase over time and stabilise at up to seven by 2008. Again, these changes favoured bigger clubs with their new found money being used to create squads that would allow them to take advantage of these new rules.

Professional football, at the top level, by the late 1990s was becoming more unequal. It represented the greedy, bloated society of which it was part. Superficially, it looked good, with the updated stadiums and the top international players but the concentration of money in the top clubs was becoming stark.

This was fuelled not only by television money but by extortionately rising ticket prices. Alongside an increasing inability to just turn up and put your money on the turnstile, without a ticket bought in advance, this was making the accessibility of the game a problem. Not just accessibility to the grounds, where the bar was rising, but a more subtle set of barriers were growing between hideously wealthy footballers and ordinary fans.

The development of many all seater grounds, often on out of town retail parks, meant that the culture of standing together on terraces, forged over many years, and the routines and rituals in getting to grounds were often disrupted at best and shattered at worst. The chemistry of communal experience had been upset. Increasingly clubs felt like they were in but not of their communities; a big hulking presence in their community but where they were often owned by global corporate interests.

These changes and others meant that by the late 1990s many of the reasons we went to football, and the reasons why we were entranced by the game, had changed beyond recognition. We kept going along to games, unwilling to accept what our eyes and emotions were repeatedly telling us; like a partner staying in a relationship that they know is finished; or a drinker who no longer enjoys drinking but can’t seem to stop.

We’ve both spent the time since the early 2000s searching for the soul that football began to lose from the 1980s. To do that, we’ve each spent a lot of time at non-league football grounds; searching for the access, the equity, trying to find again the experiences, the allegiance, the culture that we found and lost in top-level professional football. We’ve found different routes to do that. One of us (Mike) has long been a non-league fan and has turned to non-league groundhopping as part of this search. The other of us (Chris) has found a new non-league club – AFC Liverpool – which has resurrected in a modern form many of the things that mattered to us in the game.

Groundhopping involves going to different non-league grounds and matches on a regular basis. By definition this is accessible. At the lower end of the non-league game it is possible to watch a match for £5, take your children with you, all be able to eat or drink from a club’s refreshment hut and still have change from what it would cost often for a single adult Premier League ticket. The players are accessible too, frequently turning up for a drink and a chat in the club after a match. Non-league football is not without its financial problems and its wealthy owners, as the practices of the Premier League seep down and the non-league wrestles to keep its soul. But, particularly in the lower reaches of the non-league game it feels a more competitive and equitable game. The commonality of purpose that fans of non-league clubs often seem to have is resonant of the culture of football we experienced in the 1970s. Groundhopping involves most weeks trying to find a fix of that without having an allegiance to a particular club.

Chorley04

As fans of Premier League clubs have been priced out of grounds, many have become groundhoppers. But, for some, football is about going to watch their own team on a Saturday. This led to the establishment of AFC Liverpool in 2008. In the words of one AFC fan that had been priced out of Anfield, ‘it was my last chance to be a real fan of a Liverpool team’. AFC Liverpool stands for ‘Affordable Football Club’ of Liverpool. It describes itself as the ‘little brother’ of LIverpool Football Club; a place where Liverpool fans can come and watch a Liverpool team emerge from the tunnel to the sound of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and then play football.  It is also an idea that has not been without its detractors.

affordable football AFC poster

One of our early concerns was that the emergence of FC United of Manchester and AFC Liverpool might encourage a trend in which fans of Premier League clubs would start their own non-league clubs. The flaw in this would be that it discouraged fans from supporting existing non-league clubs with proud non-league histories in their local areas. If you had a problem with your local Premier League club, why not just support your local non-league club? However, these fears have not materialised. In fact, the opposite has been the case.

Whereas non-league clubs such as Salford City have been taken over and built into big time Charlies by former Premier league stars, such as Manchester United’s self-styled ‘class of 92’, clubs like AFC Liverpool have acted as a bulwark against such developments. As fan-owned democratic institutions, they are protecting the game from the corporate vultures that would turn them into an extension of their egos.  Clubs like AFC Liverpool exist solely to provide football at 3pm on a Saturday at a current cost of £5. Winning and progressing is important. After all, that is what involvement in competition is about. But it is not more important than the fans who literally are the club: A match day at AFC is a truly communal experience. The enjoyment is all about watching the game with each other – win or lose. It is about a community that is accessible to anyone that loves Liverpool or just football.

So the point is this: For us, top-level football slowly and heartbreakingly lost its soul from the 1980s. We spent a lot of time and personal struggle trying to understand and accept this. We’ve also spent considerable time and fun trying to recover those things, lost to professional football, that still remain as fundamental to the non-league game. It wasn’t always obvious how we should do that. Indeed, as we pointed out, we’ve each found slightly different ways of doing that. Searching for football’s lost soul will not be found amidst the consumerism of the Premier League; finding it requires immersing yourself in the non-league community and the many facets of the non-league game.

 

 

 

 

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