WHEN football hooliganism was at its peak, culminating in the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985, the game appeared to have played into the hands of the British government. Repeated incidents during the 1970s and 1980s meant football was already considered to be a pastime for louts, an outlet for working class yobbery. The government, led by Margaret Thatcher, had no interest in the value of the world’s most popular sport.

Consequenly, at the time, any reasonable football follower would be slightly embarrassed about being a fan or a regular visitor to matches as you were considered to be an undesirable species, capable of violence and foul language.

Reality

Not many celebrities, politicans or members of the royal family would admit to being vaguely interested. If they did, they were generally Labour MPs such as Harold Wilson (Huddersfield) and Michael Foot (Plymouth), although in the 1980s, it was well known that David Mellor, a Conservative MP, was a Chelsea season ticket holder.

This reluctance seems to be a peculiarly British thing, for football in other countries, Spain for example, had long been embraced by notable figures in society. Perhaps this is due to the class system in Britain, where Rugby had long been the sport of the middle and upper class. Notably, Rugby was also keenly adopted by the City of London rather than “Association” and was grouped with other elitist pursuits like golf club and lawn tennis club membership. Football, a game for simpletons and the ill-disciplined, was the property of the sweaty, horny-handed sons of the soil.

There were exceptions, of course, and London football clubs were always eager to demonstrate that their support base included celebrities such as actors, authors and entertainers – Chelsea and Fulham, perhaps because of their location among the wealthy and ambitious, often featured articles in their programmes.  Chelsea’s fans, according to a poll undertaken in 2018, earn double the income of the average Liverpool supporter.

This was far removed from the harsh reality of life on the terraces, on public transport and city centres when a squad of hooligans were visiting. TV was quick to highlight news stories around the “invasion” of Manchester United, Chelsea or Millwall or stage debates talking about social decay that made football a sporting leper.

Thatcher and her gang clearly disliked football and everything it stood for, the fact it was largely a working class pastime made it even more unpalatable. When, in 1989, the horror of Hillsborough underlined the lack of safety and control at games, football had reached its nadir and there was a risk of a complete breakdown.

The very structure had to undergo major surgery. Falling attendances said a lot about how football had become increasingly unattractive. From 1970 to 1988, the English first division had seen a 40% drop in gates, from an average of 32,113 to 19,273.

Catalyst

The creation of the Premier League in 1992 was the chief catalyst for change. Not only did the Football Association do a very comprehensive job of marketing the “new” league, which was as much about creating elitism and redirection of capital as it was concerned with reinvention and building something exciting, but it convinced the British public that this was a brand new product.

But this “product” drew a slightly different audience, one that had rejected it in the years leading up to Heysel and Hillsborough, mostly due to what many people felt was an unhealthy environment. TV broadcasters were pivotal in this transformation, providing live broadcasts with a new dynamic around analysis and punditry.

Football became a “must see” event once more and the exposure that an attachment to the sport became a valuable currency among prominent individuals. Hence, football was something that “important” people now considered to be a tool to underline their accessibility, user-friendliness and social connection. Furthermore, the involvement of big corporates also meant that football entered the boardrooms of FTSE 100 companies, financial services institutions and even local authorities. Politicians in the UK, like those in continental Europe and Latin America, declared their lifelong allegiance to their local football clubs. Being a fans was one step towards acquiring an “everyman” image.

Tony Blair, who became Prime Minister in 1997, was quick to show his support of Newcastle United just as the Premier League was really taking off. He wasn’t the last PM to court football – David Cameron, the most unfootball person imaginable, claimed to be an Aston Villa supporter – rather like Prince William. It is probable that Cameron and his sparring partner Boris Johnson (“I support all the London clubs”) have invariably referred to the game as “Soccer”.

Certainly, Cameron is no dyed-in-the-wool Villa fan, he once referred to West Ham as his club, implying that it was claret and blue that had caught his eye and not the famous old club from Birmingham. In any case, picking a team like Villa was a good way to swerve any issues around partisanship among the bigger clubs. Nicola Sturgeon did likewise in Scotland, avoiding the “old firm” and plumping for Ayr United.

Now, almost everyone has a favourite team even if they’ve never been near a football stadium. It has become part of the curriculum vitae – people now list football among their “other interests”, whereas 30 years earlier, it would almost certainly have been a black mark.

However, it is unlikely that celebrities would enter a ground unless they had been gifted VIP treatment. The sound of American investment bankers referring to a match at Stamford Bridge as a “ball game” or “soccer” grates with most purists. But these are the owners of the contemporary hard currency of football fandom, the executive boxes, which at a place like the Emirates, can cost you almost £ 3,500 a time.

Wistful

Football had to move on from its old, Lowryesque image. Fans no longer trudge to a match, it is a whole new entertainment industry. The disposable income of supporters has altered dramatically and varies greatly. Chelsea’s fans, according to a poll undertaken in 2018, earn double the income of the average Liverpool supporter.

Hipsters and socially-minded fan groups may yearn for the “authentic” days of crumbling terraces, urine soaked feet and horse shit-covered exits. That snarling, desolate model was broken (the whole fanzine culture sprung up around an industry in chaos and characterised by supporter dissatisfaction) and the game was dying. We look wistfully of pictures of packed grounds, floodlight pylons and old Dutch barn-style grandstands, but they were scarcely havens of comfort.

The game, then, moved away from its working class roots, partly because in the post-Thatcher era, nobody wanted to be working class and partly because in the age of shiny things, delapidated football stadiums were not very appealing. While traditionalists despise the cookie-cutter stadiums that have replaced the old kops and enclosures, the new audience is drawn to modern, functional and comfortable grounds. Football is still of the people, but “the people” now includes folk from all corners of society, although there exists a certain degree of inverted snobbery about the genuinity of middle and upper class supporters.

Let’s not forget that in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as a predominantly working class audience, you rarely saw a black football supporter in stadiums and women were in very small numbers. The game is arguably more inclusive today than it ever was in the past and that includes socio-economic groups. Football may still belong to us in a roundabout way, but it is no longer the sole property of the working class.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA