Why have we allowed this unmitigated football gluttony?

The lesson of the "they've paid 62 quid a ticket" linesman: there will be no dissent in sport's plutocratic playground.

After witnessing Arsenal once again succumb to one of the Premier League's many sporting mafias, this time Man City - whose trademark is a uniquely tacky blend of conspicuous consumption with the sprinkling of a Middle Eastern business despot's Midas touch, and whose team resembles a crudely assembled professional footballer human centipede, stuck together with molten bullion and the harvested tears extracted from the children of less financially well endowed clubs, clubs unable to compete within a financial nuclear arms race that seeks to accumulate the best footballer human capital on the planet…but I digress - a symbolic media event occurred.

A post match video soon emerged of a blasphemous linesman, John Brooks, angering the plutocratic gatekeepers of football's money cult. His crime? Merely bearing witness to an empirical reality: that away fans had paid 62 quid for the privilege of the ball-centred spectacle, and that players would be better off spending time celebrating with them than with himself, a humble linesman.

This is hard to deny. A 2011 study by Dave Boyle for the High Pay Centre found that the cheapest ticket to watch Manchester United in 1989 cost £3.50 – with a Liverpool ticket costing £4 and Arsenal £5. Adjusted for inflation, those tickets would still have been under £10 in 2011. Instead they went up between 700 per cent and 1,025 per cent, or as one senior Premier League club executive morally pronounced, "we maximise every seat for the highest amount we can get". So there! Yet as soon as the media latched on to the linesman video, the evident implication even as they silently relayed the footage without commentary was clear; the linesman's words were an underhanded attack on money in football. The response to this "transgression" by football's financial demigods was depressingly predictable.

After seeing the video I tweeted:

"This linesman is a hero, although I can't help but think he might take a figurative bullet for this comment..."

And sure enough, the next day or so, with horrible inevitability, the Sun's headline read:

"62 pound lino axed - The Professional Game Match Officials Limited removed the assistant from the third round clash at the Hawthorns and replaced him..."

So first of all praise be to Funnell, I am Nostradamus reincarnate. But secondly, how marvellous that the lino John Brooks, a man actually employed to uphold fairness and competition in the game, is effectively sacked for merely alluding to a commonly recognised injustice - obscene ticket prices - within the un-mucked-out zoo that football has become. In the aftermath to the incident it was widely reported by Sky Sports, the Sun and the Guardian that John Brook had been stood down for his next fixture as “punishment” for his remarks. Yet in the days that followed the organisation Professional Game Match Officials (PGMO) claimed it wasn’t a “punishment” but was to remove him from the limelight because he's young. This excuse is dubious at best. Why is it necessary to remove a linesman from the limelight who has expressed a popular sentiment? Fear of abusive praise from cash strapped fans? Does a linesman who possesses a disinclination for high ticket prices pose a threat to impartiality in his adjudicating? More over, if this linesman can’t handle the limelight, then why is he employed by the Premier League to work in some of most toxic pressure cooker situations on the planet?

So naturally, who were the finders of this biggest scoop since the Pentagon Papers and Watergate? Of course, none other than Sky Sports, who dutifully picked up on the story in their vintage shit stirrer style, jabbing their cameras and microphones in to the private post match formalities like an unauthorised colonoscopy and discovering the offending utterances. After all, this is Sky's self-ordained role in football. They've funded the games inglorious decline in to financial obscenity, pumping it full of coinage like a foie gras goose with all the predictable undesirable consequences: arsehole egomaniacal footballers, terrible ostentatious hair styles, diving and of course, most fundamentally, the cleansing of historically working class communities which originally gave football a soul and sense of meaning. Such folk are now priced out of stadiums, or bankrupted for the pleasure, due to a combination of the Premiers League's documented End Game: to open football to the middle classes, coupled with exponential rises in players wages that demand increased ticket revenues. This trend was set in motion by the authorisation of unrelenting competition in the player market (no wage caps) and endless increases in TV rights payments, which allows players to plead "please sir, I want some more" year after year. The Premier League has essentially, insidiously, presided over football shape shifting in to an unregulated wild west to fill the troths of the rich and, as is custom, human solidarity and general decency are the first victims to fall. After all, the premier league themselves have stated that they are "an association of interests" (financial) who have allegiance to "shareholders". So thanks SKY and the Premier League - two thumbs up.

Yet this is completely consistent within our paradigm of "the market is inherently good" in which any squalid outcome, no matter how much it self evidently offends our better judgements as sentient beings, is not only correct, but holy and inevitable. The market has spoken, Allah, Rand, Thatcher, Reagan, Greenspan be praised! Now, as the grotesque spectacle unfolds in front of us all - with Harry Redknapp only this week describing football agents parasitic behaviour as reminiscent of "gang warfare" - Sky skip around gleefully like Willy Wonka directing his own big budget porno. Sky document the decadent carnage they've helped to unleash on a handheld camera, then audaciously sell a self created scandal involving a linesman acknowledging high ticket prices (therefore their enemy) like fish food to the dribbling (and once again paying) masses via their sister news outlets. Thus Sky is the ultimate self-sustaining profit shit machine and make no mistake, despite the economic apologists protestations, football is worse for it, just ask John Brooks.

My nostalgia for football's good old 'the grass was greener before Sky' aside, what does this case illustrate about sport and football today? For me it's simple; football's foundations are rotten from the saturation of the corrupting capital it's hooked to like a crack addict; it's incredibly undemocratic and its authorities are shockingly unaccountable and unrepresentative (The FA Council has only one female member for example). The whole purpose of the game now is unfettered subservience to profit making mechanisms and its self proclaimed right to endless growth by extracting from fans, one overpriced hotdog at a time. As such, dissent, even from an obscure linesman (who didn't strike me as a part time Socialist Worker seller) is unacceptable.  Yet his nonchalant ticket price reference was a symbolic affront to the financial monopolists and cronies that dictate and own the now ugly game. Too much is at stake for this kind of '62 quid a ticket' insubordination to stand and when real power structures in our society are challenged, however subtly  (in football or elsewhere) the consequences are swift and brutal. Because sympathetic sentiments lamenting the plundering of sports fans' wallets could feasibly lead to sustained protests, reform, revolution! Sparks have to be extinguished before they blow up the fireworks, and so the linesman got whacked JFK style; Sky's camera may as well have been a sniper rifle.

And yet none of this is at all surprising. A few weeks ago the respected American Sports hack, Dave Zirin, said on Democracy Now "sport is like a weather vane for the wider political and economic culture". He's right, and so sport serves as an early warning system for the rapid decay of our communities, who continue their unstoppable free fall in to the cold grasp of an unholy alliance between profiteers and their unaccountable apparatchiks they both breed and depend upon. We need to reclaim football and subject it to a little idea called 'direct democracy' (a little bit like the Germans) and stop privatised tyrannies holding the reigns to something that should belong to us all and rightly or not elicits so much emotion.

Even today as I finish this article I notice Britain's most radical revolutionary body, the UK Parliament, has released a document calling for measures in the spirit of what I’ve described. When parliament acknowledges there's a problem with something, you know it be must rotten and its reform probably should have occurred decades ago; the UK Parliament, the eternal sea anchor to any meaningful progressive change in anything.

But for allowing this unmitigated football gluttony we must look at ourselves. As an executive of Supporters Direct put it: "Clubs have continued to exploit this reservoir of goodwill, but we have to ask ourselves whether we're prepared to continue to allow that to happen." If we don't take ownership of our democracy in sport, the economy, or civil society, we tend to become owned by others. So we must ask ourselves, why do we collectively express false outrage at drug doping cheats, and yet wilfully turn a blind eye to the greatest sports enhancing drug of all, money? John Brooks speaks for us all and he should be defended as such.

Editor's note: this article originally included a quote from a former executive of Supporters Direct; it has been updated to include a more current perspective.

A young Manchester City supporter sits among the flags at The Etihad stadium in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images
Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses