In the face of the Premier League’s conspicuous consumption Mark Perryman wonders where the fans’ fury might end up?
BBC Radio Five was once famously dubbed by critics as ‘Radio Bloke’, more recently on the station's phone-ins its been more like ‘Radio Mr Angry’. Tales of on-the-pitch disappointment, underperforming and overpaid first team squads, managers who haven’t got a clue, and owners who couldn’t give a flying wotsit for the fans.
Its been a tidal wave of anger pretty much since the Premiership TV deal of such astronomical sums was first announced. Robbie and Wrighty put in the awkward position of standing up for the fans phoning in, while not biting too harshly the fat cat hands that pay their wages, the Premier League, aka, ‘the best league in the world’. Or more prosaically with English clubs doing so poorly in European competitions, the richest at any rate.
This anger took an interesting direction in recent weeks with first Crystal Palace fans holding up a huge Tifiosi style banner display attacking Premiership greed, And then even more imaginatively at Anfield Liverpool and Man City fans holding up a banner uniting both sets of fans ‘ Enough is Enough’. Sparks of resistance that represent in the stands that anger on the airwaves.
All of this is worth doing. ‘Brand awareness’ is part and parcel of the language of modern football. The Premiership trades verity profitably no thankyou very much on an idealised image of English football in which fans in the stadium form a not inconsiderable part. Coca Cola once advertised that fizzy brown liquid that makes you fat, rots your teeth and does zero for your ability to play good sport with the slogan ‘ If they paid transfer fees for fans what would you be worth’. All of these sponsors flog their wares draped in the imagery of our loyalty , authenticity and passion.
Turn all of that against everything they have done to our game in the name of progress and their brand doesn’t look quite so attractive does it? Thats what those banners begin to threaten. And in the era of social media where tens of thousands in any stadium will have a phone in their pockets not only to take a photo of those banners but also send it to all their mates within seconds of it appearing then if the TV cameras care to ignore the protests we can get the word out ourselves.
The Premier League has declared they have no interest in ensuring all employees of clubs that will receive £5.5 billion from the start of the 2016-17 season for the UK rights alone be paid a living wage. Turning the name of modern football into mud by any means or media necessary can’t come quick enough in my book.
A few seasons back Manchester United fans transformed Old Trafford into a sea of green and gold in protest at their club’s ownership by the Glazers. It was a hugely popular and meaningful fan-led venture, to use the original Newton Heath colours the club had played in, to connect to their past to campaign for a better present and future. But as this campaign proved so long as we fill the seats football can more or less live with our discontent. And being fans, there for the football not the campaigning, eventually the game takes over and the activism in most instances gets left behind. There’s good reasons for that too, most of us go to football at least in part to escape everyday life, of course we don't hand in our consciences at the turnstiles but in all honesty too much rational thought is more than enough to ruin most afternoons following your team, win, lose or draw.
It is no surprise therefore that there is only one recent example of fans using the most effective tactic available to us to resist what football has become, to stop going. West Ham fans in the late 1990s were threatened with a bond scheme which would have vastly increased ticket prices and reduced access to season tickets. A decent percentage of fans pledged to follow the club only to away games, to boycott home games. They brought down attendance at Upton Park by around 10 per cent, and helped secure the defeat of this hated bonds scheme.
Despite all the best efforts of the new wave of football activism, STAND fanzine and the Football Action Network in particular there is at present no sign of any such boycott movement emerging today. Just imagine the cultural and political impact for a moment if each Premiership club's first televised game of the new TV deal was played in front of half-empty or more stands. The sacrifice asked for by those fans minimal, the impact significant. The financial impact however today compared to the late 1990s would be considerably lessened, the clubs make far more now from non-ticket streams of income than they did a decade or so ago. Thats assuming they couldn’t fill the militants' seats with those fans less bothered.
To some degree this is in part what has been happening over the past few years. Fans setting up their own alternative clubs, FC United of Manchester being the most well-known example. Or refounding the club themselves, AFC Wimbledon. Rescuing their club from financial oblivion, Aldershot Town FC. Others have formed alliances to take over the running of a club from those who mismanaged into administration, Portsmouth FC. And then there are those of us who simply turned our backs on the richest league in the world to get back to the kind of football that attracted us in the first place, the people’s game. Local, cheap to watch, fan-owned, in the lower divisions or non-league.
This is football’s minority movement. FC United fans are outnumbered ten to one by those who’ve stuck it out at Old Trafford. AFC Wimbledon attendances dwarfed by MK Dons’. Those who turn out at my club Lewes FC surrounded in our small East Sussex town by those who prefer a club down the road who name their bitterly-campaigned for ‘community’ stadium after a credit card company. Not to mention the familiar sight of the home counties support for so-called London clubs that fill the platform every Saturday at our local station.
There is a danger of becoming a tad self-righteous, for change to happen after all there is no point being in the minority we have to become the majority. From Lewes FC’s community owned Dripping Pan ground and the anti-fascist fans of Clapton FC who model themselves on Germany club St Pauli's 'punk football' to FC United and the fan-owned League Two (or in old money as I prefer Fourth Division) Portsmouth FC and an increasing number of other examples there is a patchwork of values in common, different ways of being a fan that we share, an appreciation of football framed by a traditions we aren’t wiling to flog off to the highest bidder.
These are powerful sentiments, an argument worth having, and one I remain confident in the face of the ignominy of Modern Football we can win with hundreds of thousands who think just like or thereabouts. Because another football is not only possible, its better.
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Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is The Corbyn Effect and is published by Lawrence & Wishart in September, available to pre-order here.