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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.

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

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.