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
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Show Hide image

The hidden joy of charity shops

Mary saw her colleagues at the charity shop every day, but she didn't tell them she was sleeping on the 31 bus.

Camden is a bric-a-brac kind of place – market stalls, blaring music, occasional offers of weed. But the back room of the Sue Ryder charity shop on Parkway is immaculate, with hooped petticoats waiting to be steamed and crockery stacked neatly on the shelves. I’ve come to talk to the shop’s manager, Oya, and one of her volunteers, Mary*, and they are waiting for me with milky tea and chocolate-chip cookies.

Mary is nervous. She is afraid of having her real name printed. “It’s shaming to tell you my story but I believe if I tell people at the right time, good things will happen,” she says. Now in her fifties, she arrived in Britain four years ago from Italy, without friends or savings, having left her husband. The jobcentre gave her an Oyster card and told her to volunteer at a charity shop to improve her English. “So we put her on the tills,” says Oya. “That’s what we do with anyone who gets sent to us to learn English.”

But Mary had a secret. She couldn’t find anywhere to live, so every afternoon, when she finished her shift at the shop, she would go to the jobcentre and laugh and joke with the staff there to cover up the reality that she didn’t have anywhere else to go. When the jobcentre closed, she would ride the 31 bus through the night, from White City to Camden and back again. It was the best way to stay warm. Then, every morning, she would arrive at the shop early, brush her teeth in the staff bathroom and change into fresh clothes – washed in a friend’s hostel room. No one else knew.

The charity Crisis calls people such as Mary “the hidden homeless” and says that it is almost impossible to estimate how many of them there are in Britain today. Most homeless people don’t qualify for accommodation in shelters but eke out their time shuttling between friends’ sofas, insecure rented accommodation, bed and breakfasts or sleeping rough on the streets.

Eventually, the shop manager – Oya’s predecessor – asked Mary what was wrong and her story tumbled out. Between them, with help from the jobcentre staff, Mary found a studio flat and moved from volunteering on the tills to working at a nearby convenience store, where she is now a supervisor. Both she and Oya have to stop to reach for tissues while telling me this story. “Sue Ryder is my family,” says Mary. “Sometimes I want to cry but there are no tears left. And Allah would be angry if I dared to cry now, with all that I have.”

Despite having a paid job, Mary still volunteers at the charity shop on Friday mornings. She leaves at 3pm to work the evening shift at the convenience store. She and Oya are firm friends outside work. Mary brings in home-cooked lasagne for Oya and her daughter – “She says, ‘Eat some tonight, freeze the rest for Ella’” – and Oya invites her round and cooks her Turkish food on Friday nights. “She’ll say working here saved her life,” says Oya. “I’ll say I made a friend for life.”

The reason I’m here is a selfish one. Volunteering for a charity is the perfect antidote to a culture that can often feel mercenary, cynical and ruthlessly individualistic. I wish more people did it. I’m also here because in December, I wrote a piece defending charities from accusations that many do not turn every penny of donations into outlay on their projects. But running charity shops requires upfront investment – on electricity, rent and wages – so it’s too simplistic to demand that all the money they receive should go straight back out of the door.

That article prompted the management of Sue Ryder, which operates 457 shops with 12,000 volunteers, to get in touch and invite me in. Some of their volunteers, like Mary, need to learn English and other skills before they can get a paying job; some are serving prison sentences; others are youngsters sent unwillingly by their schools for work experience. (Jackie, who now manages one of the charity’s shops in Aberdeen, had previously been imprisoned three times.)

Not that everything is rosy in the charity shop back room. Oya says that some people use them as a “dumping ground”. I tell her that I once read a story about a donation of tights that had a used sanitary towel still stuck to the crotch and they nod: “We had that.” Oya is very proud, however, that the store “doesn’t smell like a charity shop”.

As well as providing jobs and raising money, stores such as this one provide a useful social barometer. There are around 9,000 charity shops in the UK and their number rose 30 per cent in the five years following the financial crash of 2007. Since then, the economic downturn has increased trade significantly. Last year at the shop in Camden, the number of donation bags increased by 52 per cent and takings went up by 8 per cent, yielding a net profit of £65,000.

In Camden, close to chichi Mornington Crescent and Primrose Hill, the donations can be eyewateringly expensive (recent finds include a £1,200 clarinet and a £980 Prada handbag), while the cheapest brands stocked are Marks & Spencer and Next. “More people are charity shopping,” says Oya. “And not the people you’d expect. They’re suited and booted. Sometimes they’re famous.” Mention is made of an EastEnders actress spotted in the store.

Because of her work, Oya has been invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace on 12 June and naturally she is taking Mary. A trip to buy hats is coming up and their enthusiasm is infectious. Here in the back room of a north London charity shop, as the three of us – a Turkish-British Muslim, an Eritrean-Italian Muslim and plain old white agnostic me – drink milky tea, I feel the most British I have all year. These guys really love the Queen. And they love being friends. Stepping out into the sunshine, my overwhelming feeling is: maybe we’re all going to be OK.

*Her name has been changed

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster