English football fans: Lamenting a lost world


She’ll be sorry. One day Charmain will see a front-page splash in the Daily Bounder about how the blokes have done the place proud by winning the UltraSuperCelestial League. A bit of that glory could have rubbed off on her. – Amour Impropre, 2000

At the turn of the millennium, I published a short story in an academic journal. It was a fictional first-person account of the life of a British association football (soccer) fan dumped by his girlfriend because of his obsessive love for the fictional Manglers club which played at the imaginary Mausoleum Park.

The football world at the time was undergoing one of its periodic convulsions. Vast sums of money were being poured into the game by television, sponsors and fans. Manchester United had narrowly avoided being taken over by the Murdochs, blocked by Tony Blair’s government.

Clubs were being seized by deep-pocketed individuals, leveraged buyout merchants and ruling state-backed corporations from North America, Russia and the Middle East, with China and South East Asia coming into view. There were rumours of major football teams breaking away to form a European Super League (ESL).

In 2021 it all looks disturbingly familiar. After the latest failed attempt to establish an ESL, some Manchester United fans stormed their Old Trafford Stadium and forced a match with fellow ESL conspirator Liverpool to be postponed. They demanded that American owners, the Glazer Brothers, either sell out or give them 50+1 of shares and votes along the lines of the so-called German model.

Much has been written about how globalised and capitalist football has become. But rather less about the re-shaping of football fandom. The issue is most acute in Britain because the English Premier League (EPL), formed in 1992, turned a select group of traditional clubs into global sport brands.

The EPL took over the commanding heights of English football and then capitalised on club history and world renown by making broadcast and merchandising deals everywhere it could. The Australian market was targeted, hosting off-season tours and competitions, and academies and offshoots of big clubs, including Manchester City, who wanted to spread their resource-based capital around.

The marketing was hyper-modern, but the narrative demanded tradition. It offered people with proletarian accents, masculine demeanour and intergenerational fan history to evoke the era of works teams that became professional clubs, and times when people walked through terraced streets for their unpretentious, working-class entertainment.

But football had become progressively bourgeois and placeless. Ticket prices rose with the number of private boxes, players’ salaries were increasingly described as ‘obscene’, and foreign managers (now called coaches) and players transformed the football labour market. The European Court of Justice’s 1995 Bosman Ruling meant no quotas could keep the English leagues English (with a little Welsh input), even if they wanted to be.

Taking back control

So, a certain shared ‘take back control’ rhetoric between Brexit and football fans is not surprising. Despite the fact that none of the cities of the Big Six clubs who signed up to the European Super League – London, Manchester and Liverpool – actually voted to leave Europe.

Although fans of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchesters City and United, and Tottenham generally don’t want to join a league of unearned plenty, they are the lucky ones. Most of the other 14 EPL teams, the 72 in the English Football League, the many more below them in semi-professional football, and all women’s football teams (including those of the same Big Six) have to get by with much less.

Sometimes clubs are saved by Supporters’ Trusts. Or they break away from the old club and build a new one from scratch. The best known example is FC United, established by dissident Manchester United fans in 2005 after the Glazer takeover, and currently playing in the unglamorous Northern Premier League.

My personal favourite is the audacious MyFootballClub experiment, which involved fans from around the world buying a minor English football club, Ebbsfleet United, and running it on a ‘wisdom of crowds’ principle according to the motto ‘Own the Club, Pick the Team’.

It didn’t work out, partly because those who lived around the club in north Kent were, literally, better placed to run the show. And many web-based fans with short attention spans lost interest. Perhaps the USA’s Fan Controlled Football, a new 4-team gridiron league, offers a more viable arrangement.

Executive fandom

Just running a small, fan-owned football club means a lot of work producing much less adrenalin than stomping to a big stadium to demonstrate. This ‘executive fandom’ means some difficult compromises over sponsorships and commercial relations that erode the purity of just being a fan.

There are some big clubs run by members, like ESL aspirants Barcelona and Real Madrid, but that is no guarantee of good governance and financial stability. Even those that are models of financial probity, like Bayern Munich, lean heavily on commercial corporations, especially the 3 A’s – adidas, Audi and Alliance.

It is a difficult balancing act to appeal to football tradition while being successful on the pitch, not going broke and going global. Escalating costs and lagging revenues mean that national scale is too small but so, ultimately, is the continental and regional.

The apparently hubristic ESL may, in fact, be a post-pandemic defensive play to counter President Xi Jinping’s ambition to wrest control of football from Europe and relocate it to China. If you are, say, a Plymouth Argyle fan (an affliction not unknown to the author) that is not exactly front of mind, which is more likely to be which of the local pasty bakers will appear on the shirt.

This is the dilemma of the ‘authentic’ football fan in appealing to the localised world we have lost while recognising – and in some respects benefitting from – global connectivity. Loudly asserting football tradition makes for good media headlines while masking some troubling undertones. Like the notion that being distant and foreign makes for an inferior football fan. Or that modernising a male-dominated game is a sign of creeping, emasculating feminisation.

Sorting the wheat from the chaff is tricky for any contemporary football fan who gestures to the old-school culture of the terraces, represses memories of its territorial violence, and forgets that football clubs were often run by local entrepreneur muppet dynasties.

But still they watch the big matches by subscription on screens that get ever larger even as the competitive balance of football shrinks. No wonder Charmain walked.

Originally published on openforum.com.au, May 6, 2021.
Copyright © David Rowe 2021
Email: d.rowe@westernsydney.edu.au
Twitter: @rowe_david
Website: https://westernsydney.edu.au/ics/people/researchers/david_rowe

Previous articleEnd of Ethiopian running
Next articleDet tog 35 år
David Rowe, FAHA, FASSA, is Emeritus Professor of Cultural Research, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University; Honorary Professor, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Bath; and Research Associate, Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS University of London. His latest book is Making Culture: Commercialisation, Transnationalism, and the State of ‘Nationing’ in Contemporary Australia (co-edited, Routledge, 2018). David’s work has been translated into Chinese, French, Turkish, Spanish, Italian, Korean and Arabic.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here