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.

Photo: Getty
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.