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
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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era