Seeing the ‘Big Picture’: a historical view of football, society and ‘fair competition’


The leaking of Liverpool and Manchester United’s ‘Project Big Picture’ to, amongst other things, shrink the Premier League (PL) to 18 clubs has, despite an offer to the English Football League to share 25% of future television revenue, angered many – including the PL itself.

With 14 of the PL’s 20 clubs unaware of the scheme, the PL has stated the plan could have a “damaging impact on the whole game” and their concerns were shared by supporters’ groups and, even, the government, which suggested this “backroom deal” would ”create a closed shop at the very top of the game”.

Not known for the promotion of equality, the government – in the form of the Department for Culture Media and Sport – stated: ”Sustainability, integrity and fair competition are absolutely paramount and anything that may undermine them is deeply troubling. Fans must be front of all our minds, and this shows why our fan led review of football governance will be so critical”.

The finer details of the plan, and the ironic call for ‘fair competition’, notwithstanding it was the proposed abolition of the League Cup (currently sponsored by Carabao), and the Community Shield that most clearly demonstrates football’s disconnect with its own history, and the integral role that such competitions played in establishing the game’s status as the ‘national game’ (at the expense of cricket).

Without getting into the minutiae of each game’s historical development, both sports had relied on irregular, and unrelated, ‘challenge’ matches until the Football Association (FA) introduced the FA Challenge Cup in 1871. Although this competition was based upon this age-old concept, its elongation towards a cup final gained massive popular support because it created more meaningful matches.

Central to this enhanced meaning was the fact this competition brought together different communities in competition. Cities such as Manchester and Liverpool had long been economic rivals, but improving death-rates and all aspects of cultural life – that now included sport – became important elements of civic pride. This was especially so once the dominance of public-school clubs (most famously the Corinthians and the Wanderers, who won the FA Cup five out of the first seven competitions held) was challenged by what the famous amateur and all-round sportsman, C. B. Fry, described as ‘provincial’ clubs.

Essentially working men’s teams, the success of Blackburn Olympic over Old Etonians in 1883 marked a watershed in the game’s development. And yet, the likes of Fry reacted badly. As he bemoaned in The Strand Magazine in 1902, not only had Olympic abandoned the ‘old arrangement’ of six forwards in order to introduce a ‘centre half-back’ the Blackburn Olympic team had, he complained, trained in preparation for the match – something ‘never contemplated by those who instituted the Cup competition’.

However, upper-class objections such as this could do little to halt the game’s professionalisation in 1885. Nevertheless, the FA Cup had its limitations as any club knocked-out then had to revert to individual challenge matches that were often one-sided affairs or, worse, frequently cancelled. Indeed, it was the all too frequent cancellation of fixtures that prompted the director of Aston Villa FC, a Scotsman named William McGregor, to propose the formation of a league in which all member clubs would be guaranteed a minimum number of fixtures.

The creation of a structure that not only guaranteed a full season of fixtures, but revealed – in unambiguous terms – which team was best represented the final piece in a jigsaw that now depicted an entirely modern form of sporting competition. As such, leagues were rapidly established across a range of sports, including cricket, but the public-school elites who controlled British sport reacted so strongly to their meritocratic outcomes, many strived to subvert or hinder sports role as the ‘great social leveller’.

For the most part this took the form of strictly enforced ’amateurism’ that banished working class participants from competing in sports such as athletics or cycling and led, most famously, to the split in rugby in 1895. At lower levels of sport – specifically recreational cricket in London and the southeast of England – where amateurism was more difficult to apply, cups and leagues were essentially outlawed after the First World War. But, if village cricket became divided on class-based cultural lines in Surrey between the wars, league cricket in Lancashire embodied an egalitarian, and altruistic, community spirit. This was exemplified by all Lancashire League’s clubs banding together to keep the popular West Indian professional Learie Constantine at Nelson CC after an approach from the rival Central Lancashire League.

League competition for most of the twentieth century was the best example of the ‘level playing field’ that sport is supposed to represent, but it has been (despite the re-introduction of cricket leagues to the South from 1968) undermined since the social-economic landscape was transformed by Thatcherism, which completed the abandonment of the post-war consensus.

Like various public services and industries, football (and cricket) has been steadily parcelled up and sold off into private hands (the Indian Premier League being the most glaring example), whereas market-based economics and the classic doctrine of economic neoliberalism – internal competition and / or the introduction of league tables – have been imposed upon the education sector where the self-selected ‘Russell Group’ of universities appear to have their own ‘Big Picture’ agenda.

Whether or not universities do, indeed, compete against each other (for students and / or funding or ’reputation’) is open to debate, and yet avaricious capitalism, by its very nature, encourages consumption and exponential growth. But is everything ‘bigger and better’ for it? It would appear that this neo-liberal approach has reached a point – across all sectors of society – where it may only consume itself. Accordingly, this regrettable attempt by two of the game’s most famous and wealthiest clubs to grab an even larger slice of the economic pie is entirely predictable because there is, under such an ideological regime, nowhere else to go.

Those in government, like those with influence over British sport, need to realise that the economic trajectory of the last 40 years has not only abandoned any pretence of a level playing field, it is – as the Covid crisis has ably demonstrated – no longer sustainable. If football’s pyramid or, dare I say it, civil society at large, is to thrive the people of Britain, and the institutions that shape it, need to re-discover the altruism demonstrated by the members of the Lancashire Cricket League during the 1930s because, ultimately, we rise and fall together.

Copyright © Duncan Stone 2020



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