English football – from commodification and consumer culture to democratic forms of governance

Arve Hjelseth
Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Chris Porter
Supporter Ownership in English Football: Class, Culture and Politics
313 pages, inb.
London: Palgrave Macmillan 2019 (Football Research in an Enlarged Europe)
ISBN 978-3-030-05437-3

This study is part of the Palgrave book series “Football Research in an Enlarged Europe”. In the last 25 years, a great deal has been written about how the fans in many clubs in different ways have worked to involve themselves in the running of football clubs. This is both theoretically and empirically interesting, as it challenges the notion of the entertainment industry of our time as solely a consumer culture. On the other hand, such initiatives will easily be romanticized in a country like England, where an increasing number of top clubs are owned by some of the world’s richest men.

Porter’s study, Supporter Ownership in English Football: Class, Culture and Politics, is done against a very broad background, which the subtitle also indicates. The question of the possible influence of supporters has been linked to extensive research literature since the mid-1990s, which has revolved around social inclusion and exclusion, football cultural practices and the commodification of English football. Additionally, Thatcherism and, later, New Labour form a considerable part of the context of the English case. Porter’s point is that it is against this backdrop that we must understand the attempts to establish more “democratic” forms of governance in English football.

The book is divided into three main sections and nine chapters. After an introductory chapter, chapters 2-4 constitute the aforementioned backdrop, with chapters firstly on the transformation of English football in the 80s and 90s, with the establishment of the FA Premier League in 1992 as the central event; secondly how and to what degree this transformation led to new audiences; and thirdly, the emergence of an independent supporter culture, linked to fanzines and the self-reflective awareness that spectator cultures itself was an important part of the product that English football sold. These three chapters cover roughly a third of the book, which may seem a bit too much, since the question of supporter-ownership is hardly mentioned so far, though some things point to these types of issues. For those of us who have read a lot about this before, it’s a walk through fairly familiar terrain, but Porter should be credited for also problematizing and giving nuances to some of the usual conclusions when it comes to the transformation of English football. For example, in Chapter 3, he has a nuanced discussion of the “civilization” of football audiences, which is less obvious than conventional knowledge often would have us believe.

Towards the end of Chapter 4, however, the text more clearly addresses some of the issues that supporter-owned clubs face when they want to bring football back to the local community: Do different groups and players have common interests in how the club should look? Should they be based on particular values or appear as “catch all”? One of the key issues is how social class should be weighed against other factors, such as gender and ethnic minorities. The supporter culture of the 1970s and 1980s, romanticized by many as things changed dramatically in the 1990s, was in many ways an imagined community of male working-class youth. The story in the 90s was that the glamorisation of the Premier League excluded this category by means of exorbitantly priced tickets and restrictions on forms of expression and practice (for example, seats rather than stands). But the traditional masculinity that characterized the terraces practices of the 70s and 80s was, of course, in its idea also exclusive and excluding. It was not inviting to women, nor to ethnic or sexual minorities.

But the traditional masculinity that characterized the terraces practices of the 70s and 80s was, of course, in its idea also exclusive and excluding.

When supporters own the club, the goal is often to avoid the exclusion of any group: “… under democratic fan ownership, nobody should feel excluded. Of course, this does not always run smoothly” (p. 94).

The second part consists mainly of case studies of clubs in which supporter groups and communities in various ways have taken control of clubs. Chapter 5 deals with clubs that, in the wake of financial crises or bankruptcies, have become wholly or partly supporter-owned. Chapter 6 deals with “breakaway” clubs, new start-ups resulting from powerlessness against the owners of the original club, with AFC Wimbledon and FC United as the main cases. The first case in Chapter 5 is Northampton Town, where now deceased Brian Lomax was a key figure in establishing a supporter trust. This became an important model for several other clubs in crisis over the years that followed.

The case descriptions, especially in Chapter 5, rest heavily on the work of the important Guardian journalist David Conn, which Porter also emphasizes (p. 100). Conn analysed several of these processes in detail already in his 1997 book The Football Business.

Part 2 concludes in an interesting theoretical discussion based on Raymond Williams’ distinction between “dominant”, “residual” and “emergent” formations. Supporter-owned clubs represent something new compared to commercial football, but culturally, they still rest on memories of the past. Not least, this is evident in FC United, which was started in protest of the Glazer family’s takeover of Manchester United. The relationship with the club and with the history is characterized by ambivalence, and the new clubs are also characterized by tensions as to whether supporters should be on the owner side or whether it is legitimate to be a supporter only.

Part 3 is entitled “The Enemy Within” and is a critical analysis of the structures created by supporter ownership. Chapter 7 analyses these structures, including Supporters Direct, and not least the political discourses that legitimize them. Concepts such as community, third sector and inclusion have been actively used, while it is ambiguous as to what extent such concepts are adequate for the kind of supporter culture that a democratic ownership intends to foster. In this chapter, Porter also shows how political-ideological tensions quickly arise in supporter-controlled clubs.

Chapter 8 deals more specifically with FC United and the tensions surrounding this club. The first years, as is often the case in such organizations, created a significant sense of community where the main impression was that everyone pulled in the same direction. Early on, however, it became clear that there was disagreement among members – and supporters – about to what degree FC United should also function as a political club. The question was whether and to what extent the club should actively formulate statutes and resolutions that took (football-) political position on current issues. Quite a few people believed that the new club was in the hands of forces that regarded it as a political tool more than an unpolitical football club (p. 246). The people most involved in the board and management, for their part, felt that it should be clear already from the outset that FC United was based on leftist attitudes (p. 239).

Porter draws on a number of theoretical traditions, but without a part that clarifies his own position.

The dilemma here is that the supporters’ opposition to commodified football can, in principle, be easily linked to a politically leftist orientation. After all, it is easy to see that much of the criticism of “modern football” has much in common with leftist cultural criticism of commercialism in general. At the same time, clarifying this can alienate parts of the members and supporters. It can divide more than it unifies. FC United has been careful not to link up with  political parties, but the project itself was in many ways political already at the outset.

A particularly interesting example, showing how ambiguous this is for such a club, was a suggestion to members in 2012 that the club’s funds should not be used to pay for Sky TV or other subscription channels. Initially, of course, this was understandable; some of the opposition to modern football was, after all, rooted precisely in how the media has made top football a market for TV consumers more than for stadium audiences. On the other hand, it was quite common for FC United fans to watch top football on TV screens in stadiums or pubs, especially when Manchester United played. This could happen before, after, or even during FC United’s own matches. So, the Manchester United boycott was about watching matches at the Old Trafford, not about quitting the club. The proposal was adopted, but it did create conflict between those who viewed it as an extension of the club’s principled values and those who saw it as unnecessary politicization.

The chapter follows the tensions further into 2016, where the entire elected board withdrew as a result of conflicts with both members and supporters. I haven’t read this story in the past, and it adds valuable and thought-provoking knowledge.

Chapter 9 then draws on more general and theoretically informed threads, and Porter returns to, among other things, Williams’ cultural theory concepts. One of the points is how even newly started clubs are based on handed-down traditions, which are valuable in the face of an uncertain environment. For example, Wimbledon legend Vinny Jones donated his FA Cup medal to AFC Wimbledon in 2010. Such a symbolic act creates a historical continuity that confirms that it is this club, and not MK Dons, who carry on the club’s historical legacy.

Part of the tension in supporter-owned clubs is that they experience pressure from above – from the capitalist organized football that the clubs must necessarily operate within, as well as from below – in the form of a number of sometimes contradictory expectations from members and other supporters. Porter takes the project safely ashore in this more synthesizing chapter.

I learned a lot from this book, even though the first section, as mentioned, is a bit on the long side. Sometimes a clearer theoretical approach is also missing. Porter draws on a number of theoretical traditions, but without a part that clarifies his own position. On page 24, for example, he recognizes Anthony King’s book The End of the Terraces as very important, and also refers to it in a number of places in the first part. At the same time, he emphasizes that “I don’t necessarily go along with all of King’s cultural readings or analytical emphases…”. Here it would be natural to clarify what sets Porter’s perspective apart from King’s, but we will never know that explicitly. Instead he goes on to write that “a key argument throughout the book is that the ways in which football in England has been governed and shaped did not emerge in a vacuum of the football industry”. But I rather think that both King and most others who have written about this can agree to that. Perhaps the book would have benefited from having a separate theory chapter.

In any case, there is much to learn here, and not least much material that encourages further research in this very interesting field, which is constantly evolving.

Copyright © Arve Hjelseth 2020

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