Manchester United, the religious argument

ACADEMICS somewhere in the world are probably debating right now whether football has replaced religion as a defining element of society. To some people, football is the prominent feature of their life, the opium that drags them away from the mundane. The importance of the game, to those who have little else to lift their lives, was highlighted in the press a year or so ago, when it was revealed that Liverpool fans, for example, spend around 80% of their disposable income on football.

Manchester United fans have long considered that following their club is not merely about football, but a much more holy affair.

Back in 1990, I witnessed the Manchester United experience first-hand on one of those occasions that may now be a thing of the past. This was pre-Premier, pre-SKY, pre-big bucks and long before the likes of Russian oligarchs and oil shieks arrived to force feed England’s leading clubs with inflated investments. United were the biggest club in the country, but not the most successful. Three years later, it all started to change and the pendulum swung across Lancashire.

In 1989-90, United were still struggling to live with their past. Alex Ferguson had arrived in 1986 and despite huge transfers – Mike Phelan (£750,000), Neil Webb (£ 1.5m), Gary Pallister (£ 2.3m), Paul Ince (£ 2.4m) and Danny Wallace (£ 1.2m) – United were still punching below their weight. By Christmas, United fans were calling for Ferguson to be sacked – today, he would certainly be shown the door.

The 1989-90 season was something of a pivotal campaign for United. By the end of it, they had won silverware and laid the foundations for future success. But it was far from easy going.

United’s best hope of winning something was in the FA Cup. They won through four rounds by a single goal, all away from home – against Nottingham Forest (1-0), Hereford United (1-0), Newcastle United (3-2) and Sheffield United (1-0). The semi-final paired them with Oldham Athletic at Manchester City’s Maine Road.

Travelling among die-hard United fans is a challenging experience in whatever era you happen to be brought up in. United, it seems, gives them everything they need from football, the affairs of other clubs (apart from Liverpool and City) don’t concern them.

On April 8, 1990, I travelled up to Manchester with a car full of United veterans, fans who remembered Best, Law, Charlton, Buchan, Holton, Morgan, Stepney, McIlroy and Pearson. The talk was of games past, of punch-ups, “running” at Tottenham and hatred of Chelsea and Liverpool. I didn’t like to tell them I was a Chelsea fan and that I had always been more City than United – thanks to Colin Bell and Frannie Lee.

It also reminded me of when United were ever in London on a Saturday matchday and the “edge” that seemed to exist at mainline train stations and pubs around grounds. If United were at West Ham, you could bet your bottom dollar that if Chelsea were also at home, there would be some stray Blues fans who would make sure they were in the vicinity of United’s journey back to Euston. United had a dire reputation in the 1970s and they really were the forerunners of hooligan troupes. Thankfully, we [generally] live in gentler times when it comes to safety at football matches.

We arrived in Manchester and headed for the Piccadilly hotel, which was heaving with United fans, most of whom had southern accents. Everyone seemed to be on nodding terms, the odd handshake indicating old comradeships from the trenches. A short, stocky individual, known as “Pubby” was walking among his people, handing out tickets, negotiating, grabbing fistfuls of notes. He was chief ticket provider.

Both semi-finals were being played on the same Sunday. At Villa Park, Liverpool were up against Crystal Palace, who had lost 0-9 at Anfield in September. United, up against second division Oldham, and Liverpool were favourites to meet at Wembley in the final.

The United fans were watching the game avidly before heading off for opening time at the pubs. Our contingent was heading for the Grey Parrot in Hulme, and ugly estate pub in an area characterised by burned-out cars, similarly desolate telephone boxes and boarded-up windows. It felt a little uneasy and looked like the type of area that would make a decent “World in Action” documentary.

The pub completed the tableaux – barbed wire on the roof, behind which an over-enthusiastic and hungry-looking rottweiler barked at the gathering United fans. Pretty soon, the lager-swilling spilled out of the pub and the fans, who had taken up every available vantage point to see the TV, were pressing against the windows. All eyes were on the Liverpool-Palace game, which by now had gone to extra time. Then mayhem – Alan Pardew headed Palace’s fourth goal to win the game 4-3. The United fans went berserk, forcing the large front window of the pub to bow with the pressure. It looked like a nasty accident could happen at any moment.

The Grey Parrot emptied, sending the United hordes to Maine Road. When we reached the environs of the ground, its white plastic roof could be easily picked out among the red-brick “Coronation Street” houses. Maine Road was certainly no Old Trafford and I was surprised how ramshackle it appeared (to be fair to City, many grounds in the late 1980s and early 1990s looked shabby). United’s fans were in good voice – “Que Sera Sera” and all that – convinced that now Liverpool were out of the way, they could easily win the FA Cup. After all, Oldham were a second division team.

But Oldham had other ideas, taking the lead in the fifth minute and eventually drawing 3-3 after extra time. It had been a cracking tie, but a replay was needed to separate the sides. The two semi-finals had given football a day to remember.

And so, the journey home. This time, we had a new passenger, a “Cockney Red” with a taste for pushing boundaries. He explained that in the close season, he had travelled to Liverpool, equipped with United scarf, and sat in a pub frequented by Liverpool fans, “to see how long I would last”. He called it his own “market research”. A bizarre character who ended the trip smoking a joint – in the car.

It was a day like I had never experienced before, or since. While my curiosity never got the better of me to ask if my fellow passengers were actually football hooligans, they clearly had campaign medals of their own. It wasn’t quite “Football Factory”, you could tip your hat in that direction. Those that are still around remain United fans, but many of them, exiled by rising prices and rheumatic limbs, are no longer on the front line. When they do watch a game, you won’t see any of them taking photos with their smartphones when United earn a penalty…if United is a religion, they are strictly Old Testament…

United went on to beat Oldham 2-1 in replay and won the FA Cup, beating Crystal Palace 1-0 after a 3-3 draw. The following season, they won the European Cup Winners-Cup and in 1992-93, secured their first League title since 1967.

Dressing up in costumes, playing silly games: The football experience

WE ALL like to think that football is more than just 22-28 young men kicking an object around an oblong field – if only because it elevates our interest beyond obsession to something that is more deep and meaningful!

Journalists fantasise, marketing and advertising folk commercialise, romantics eulogise and academics intellectualise the importance of the game. Most of all, the people running, playing and promoting football (is it a sport or merely an industry?) monetise it on a grand scale.

Political?

Joe Kennedy’s fascinating slim volume, Games without Frontiers, published by Repeater last year, adds to the growing library of work that takes a cerebral look at the game’s reason for being.  It’s thought provoking, even if you don’t necessarily agree with some of the underlying sentiment. Football is many things, but “inherently political”? – I am not so sure.  The majority of football fans do not see the game as a political expression (more so in England), although politically-motivated people will see things that others do not.

I would certainly agree that football is rapidly becoming “a dystopian expression of late capitalist commodification” – a “free-for-all”.  Football, at the highest level, is no longer the Game of the People, but the game of aspiration, of style over substance and a world dominated by intermediators – the marketers, advertisers, TV broadcasters, agents and hangers-on that not only add superficiality to the game, but also the cost of watching it.

While there is strong evidence to suggest that football has been a form of controlled narcotic for the working man down the years, with clubs exerting a vice-like grip on people’s emotions and wallets, the game is a product of society rather than a change agent itself, regardless of the hopeful view held by some scholars.

Rarely, in Britain, has football been a vehicle for political or social change. Certainly, the government has never appeared to see the value in embracing the sport as a passport for public acceptance. There has never, for example, been a character like Victor Orban of Hungary who has tried to use football as a way to win votes. The nearest I can recall is the old GLC leader Tony Banks, who got behind a campaign to save Chelsea from financial ruin in 1976, and that was because he was a fan of the club. Generally speaking, it is right wing/extremist governments that have harnessed football for their own gains, although the old Soviet bloc used sport as a demonstration of socialist strength and vitality.

Football in Britain started out as clubby recreation (19th century) and entertainment for the working man (early 20th) in its formative years, evolving into collective “reins-off” relief in peacetime (Post-war boom), declining  like post-industrial Britain (1980s) only to be born again in the age of mass media (1992-onwards). Football has been a reflection of society’s fluctuation, driven by a number of influencing  factors – discretionary spending, togetherness and the desire to be taken out of the daily struggle. That’s not exclusive to England, either, for where would Spain have been in recent years without the pressure-absorbing exploits of Real Madrid and Barcelona? The Spanish government may have had more than mass unemployment and economic meltdown to deal with if it were not for its two flagship football institutions.

Britain’s own economic problems contributed to the decline of football and it is likely that without the 1990s transformation, spurred by Italia ’90, the Premier and SKY, the game would have declined even further than it did. The old working class cloth-cap nostalgia model, which had been tarnished by hooliganism and discouraged by abysmal facilities, not to mention a club-fan relationship that was not unlike the capital versus labour dynamic of mill owner and downtrodden worker, had sent English football plummeting. Just consider that in 1970, the average top tier gate was 32,070 and by 1984, this had fallen to 18,834. It was not until 1999 that the average topped 30,000 again. By the time the 2000s arrived, the football audience had – whether you liked it or not – changed to include corporate executives on a night out (“you coming to the ball game?”), middle-class professionals and the emerging knowledge economy sectors that decided football was, after all,  trendy and something to be attached to in some shape or form.

Audiences

The old audience – what Kennedy refers to as its “working class constituency” – dwindled, marginalised and alienated by extortionate ticket prices and the gentrification of the game. He points to the “decimation” of that body of people and its disenfranchisement to become economically excluded from watching professional football. There are exceptions to this rule, such as in Liverpool, where impoverished football fans of the old order spend huge portions of their income on football and football alone.

We have certainly seen, particularly at clubs like Arsenal or Chelsea, that season tickets are no longer a means to an end, but something material, perhaps a currency, suggesting wealth and confident self-indulgence. Hence, Arsenal fans, as widely reported, don’t necessarily go to games even though they own the tickets. Clubs don’t appear to care too much – they have a long waiting list for season tickets and people even prepared to pay for the privilege of queue jumping online to buy tickets – if they are lucky. Where’s the motivation to change the status quo?

But does this represent a crisis for football or merely changing demographics? There may well be a crisis emerging today in the actual quality of the game itself – the recent World Cup was a welcome return to an exciting competition. If  you believe everything you read and hear, the game is, regardless of some dire teams and tactics, “wonderful”, “spectacular” and “captivating”. It’s the cappuccino effect – all froth and nothing underneath!

With so much cash flooding the game, football has no excuse for being in a financial mess, even though some clubs have sub-optimal balance sheets and operating models. There is certainly no shortage of cash in football – crowds in England are close to all-time highs – but too much is disposed of so quickly and funneled towards a very transient workforce – the players.

That said, compared to the past, stadiums are better and supporters are probably more connected to their clubs than they have ever been, despite the plethora of detached Russian, Asian and Middle Eastern owners in the English game with their protective glass screens and layers of “people” between them and the media.

But those that yearn for football body that resembles the “People’s Republic of Walsall” will always be disappointed. Clubs are arguably more communicative, more responsive than they’ve ever been, but that’s not to say the world is perfect, because it is not – Charlton Athletic’s  Pravda-style approach to social media a year or two ago takes some beating and takes you back to the pre-When Saturday Comes era when the voice of the fan was first heard.

If there is democracy out there, it won’t ever be found in the Premier or Football League. Kennedy, in his book, focuses  on a club that has experienced a rise in popularity through a quasi-political/social movement, but this is from the non-league world – Dulwich Hamlet. Actually, Dulwich are one of a handful of clubs that strive to combine the passion and engagement of the European flare-wielding “ultra” while sporting some left-wing attitude. Not everyone is totally comfortable with this and it has not come without problems, but Dulwich seem to have got it more right than others. A few rungs down from the Football League, the Game of the People still prevails, after all – the question is, is this a passing phase or a genuine social statement that will become contagious? We will all watch with interest…and a little hope, perhaps.

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Joe Kennedy’s book, Game without Frontiers, is part travelogue, part political commentary and a sprinkling of a Hornbyesque fan’s diary. Those interested in football’s position in society, the past, present and future, will find it stimulating and enjoyable.

Background photo: Via Flickr Matthew Wilkinson CC BY-ND 2.0