Why Stand Against Modern Football?

Maybe fans should be standing <em>for</em> future football. Mobilising for something is more productive, if more difficult, than simply opposing.

You hear people say they are “against modern football” quite a lot these days. But what does it mean? There is, without doubt, a general sense of dissatisfaction with a whole range of issues, players who are perceived as mercenary and overpaid, high ticket prices, sterile stadiums, traditional fans being pushed aside in favour of what are contemptuously described as “tourists”, a general trashing of tradition and a commodification of a collective culture…

Against modern football is perhaps better understood less as a movement, more a howl of anger, a Twitter hashtag to encompass a whole squad full of gripes. There are two distinct strands.

The first, and easiest to get to grips with, addresses issues related to economics and governance – anger about high ticket prices, about clubs being allowed to change name, move stadium or, most recently in the case of Coventry City, move to another town entirely.

The second strand encompasses a more cultural set of issues – the sterilisation of atmosphere at top-level stadiums, the commodification of fan culture, the apparent rejection of traditional supporters in favour of what are contemptuously referred to as “tourists”.

There is, of course, quite a bit of crossover between hard economic and softer cultural issues. But identifying these strands can perhaps help to work out where to go next, and how to get there – and particularly to counter any criticism.

Reading some of what’s said under the general heading of ‘against modern football’, it’s possible to detect a yearning for a more blokey, anarchic past that rejects any modernising characteristics. It’s a past that perhaps owes more to an image built up by the wealth of hooligan porn that vicariously thrilled a generation of middle class geezers than reality and, with the game’s authorities always quick to label opposition to their moneymaking schemes as reactionary and dangerous, any perceived yearning for it risks playing into their hands.

But this doesn’t mean taking a stand against modern football should concentrate solely on the economic issues. The folk culture built up and valued by fans is a key part of the game and anger at the attempts of the football businesses to repackage and sell the culture we created back to us can be, as John Lydon would have it, a positive energy.

Where we need to be careful is when using concepts such as “real” or “proper” fans. Group subcultures tend towards exclusionary definitions of membership, and committed football fans have a whole list of criteria that are used to label fans ‘real’, ‘gloryhunters’, ‘tourists’ or – worst of all, ‘plastics’. In the end, a fan is someone who wants to watch a game. Adopting an exclusivist approach leads up a dead end.

Clubs are inevitably going to look to expand their appeal, and this means attracting new fans and new demographics. Where the conflict comes is with the perception, or often the reality, that newer fans needs’ are being prioritised at the same time as the loyalty of existing fans is exploited.

Clubs could and should do more to recognise fan bases are made of up different groups with different interests, and seek to balance those interests more transparently. But this could also fuel a backlash against the attempts to control, usually in order to commodify, every aspect of the fan experience. Some of what makes up the ‘against modern football’ meme is a rejection of the idea that everything we do should be controlled and regulated.

Stand Against Modern Football, with initial caps, is a fanzine and website that is developing a coherent set of objectives as well as serving to reflect the wider mood. It brought together fans, supporter activists and journalists including Brian Reade and Tony Evans for a conference and social earlier this year in Liverpool, and is currently encouraging readers to mail MPs urging support for three key ideas – a more robust system of governance, constitutional reform of the FA, and improved supporter engagement.

That approach is, encouragingly, gaining support and, along with the march on Premier League headquarters earlier this summer, indicates that, at last, English supporters are putting common interests before club rivalry. But there’s a school of thought that questions this. You can hear it articulated on the This Is Deep Play podcast – a self-consciously non-mainstream “football podcast that’s not about football” produced by two south east London-based fans of non-league Dulwich Hamlet.

In the first episode, they question the practice of protesting about ticket prices from inside the stadium you’ve only got into because you’ve paid the high price for a ticket and express the hope that ‘against modern football’ means more than just campaigning for cheaper tickets. They encourage a wider perspective, and float the idea that perhaps modern football at the top level is unreformable, that it should be rejected and left to die so that something more real, more properly sporting could emerge.

This Is Deep Play is not setting itself up as the revolutionary vanguard opposed to the more reform-minded efforts of Stand AMF and bodies such as Supporters Direct and the Football Supporters Federation. Instead it is a valuable forum for airing ideas, for rethinking the game, and an illustration of the ways supporters can engage and widen horizons.

Their preference is that fans reach For Future Football rather than Against Modern Football. They may have a point. Mobilising for something is more productive, if more difficult, than simply opposing. What’s encouraging at the moment is that the quality and breadth of the discussion is bringing a clear set of objectives closer.

Cyrus Christie and Franck Mousssa playing for Coventry City. Photo: Getty

Martin Cloake is a writer and editor based in London. You can follow him on Twitter at @MartinCloake.

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Why hasn’t British Asian entertainment built on the Goodness Gracious Me golden age?

It is 20 years since the original radio series of Goodness Gracious Me aired. Over two decades, the UK media portrayal of Asians hasn’t used its success to evolve.

Save for a handful of special one-off episodes, Goodness Gracious Me hasn’t occupied a primetime TV slot for nearly two decades. Yet still it remains the measuring stick for British Asian comedy.

The sketch show, which transitioned seamlessly from radio to screen (it started as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1996), has stood the test of time and is as much a staple of modern British Asian culture as Tupperware or turning up an hour late.

What Goodness Gracious Me did so expertly was to take a set of serious issues facing first, second and now, I suppose, third generation migrants, and turn them on their heads. 

In making light of the pressures of academic expectation or family drama, Goodness Gracious Me wasn’t playing down the poignancy of such concerns; it was raising awareness and combatting their uglier side with humour.

It offered resonance and reassurance in equal measure; it was ok to have an embarrassing uncle who insisted he could get you anything much cheaper, including a new kidney, because other people like you did too.

That Goodness Gracious Me was broadcast on a mainstream channel was also a victory for minorities; it made us feel integrated and, perhaps more importantly, accepted. Against the backdrop of Brexit, what wouldn’t we give for that treatment now?

Really, though, the jewel in Goodness Gracious Me’s crown was its willingness to recognise diversity within diversity. It is a relic of a departed era when discourse on TV around Asians was different, when the broad church of that term was truly represented, rather than reduced to one catchall perception of British Muslims.

Goodness Gracious Me offered insight into the experiences and idiosyncrasies – religious or otherwise – of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and even English people. It’s what made it so accessible and, in answering why subsequent programmes have failed to reach similar heights, this is a good starting point.

Without the flexible sketch format, the modern Asian sitcom Citizen Khan has struggled to cover multiple topics, and, by being specifically about a Muslim family, it leaves many non-Muslim Asians wondering: where’s ours?

I hasten to add that I feel plenty of sympathy for the British Muslim community, hounded by tabloid headlines that attack their faith, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that non-Muslim Asians are sitting pretty in 2016 and don’t need a similar level of support in terms of positive public perception.

The current volume of British Asian media products is fairly good. The BBC has its dedicated network, The Good Immigrant essay collection was one of the outstanding reads of the year, and we still have champions of comedy in Romesh Ranganathan and Nish Kumar.

But I think ultimately it comes down to the broadness of appeal, rather than the quantity of products. Goodness Gracious Me was not only able to engage the full spectrum of British Asia; it transcended its target audience and was on terrestrial TV.

The British Asian media on offer now is up against it, released as the country’s attitude towards foreigners completes a full circle back to the same suspicion my grandfather encountered in the Sixties.

Fewer outlets are willing to explore the stretch of what it means to be Asian, either by denying it due consideration in mainstream shows or by peddling their own monolithic observations. The BBC Asian Network, for example, is laudable in its existence, but does little to engage the young Asians who aren’t into techno spliced with Bhangra.

The mainstream representations of Asians in Western film and television that are commissioned, meanwhile, are irritatingly limited and sometimes inaccurate. In an article for the Guardian last year, Sara Abassi lamented the disproportionate appetite for “gritty post-9/11 films about conservative Pakistani families”, and that the researchers of American series Homeland failed to realise that the national language of Pakistan isn’t Arabic.

When I interviewed the actor Himesh Patel for the No Country for Brown Men podcast, he suggested that the answer to re-establishing Asians in mainstream media, both here and in America, was three-fold. The first challenge to overcome was for outlets to acknowledge that not all Asians fit the same religious or cultural profile; the second was to be open to placing Asians in non-Asian specific products to better reflect their presence in society.

Patel, who is best known for his portrayal of Tamwar Masood in the soap opera EastEnders, made his third recommendation based on this role. He felt that characters should be written with only their personality in mind, making the ethnicity of the actor who plays them incidental. Tamwar’s awkwardness but underlying kindness, Patel said, was what defined him – not his skin colour.

Goodness Gracious Me, though a primarily Asian show and a comedy at that, actually taught some salient lessons about representation. It succeeded in providing a window into a multiplicity of cultures, but at the same time wasn’t a total slave to the politics of identity – several of the 100-plus characters needn’t have been Asian at all. It was reflexive to the times we lived in and a perfect advertisement for empathy. That is why we still talk about it today.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.