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 Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.