The crowd at Old Trafford. Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
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Football is multicultural - but you wouldn’t know it looking at the crowd

"The fact that the majority of players in any Premiership game these days are foreign, and so many of them black, does not seem to have had an appreciable effect on the faces in the crowd."

One of the joys when watching Man United on the telly is looking out for the Sikhs. They sit just behind the dugout at Old Trafford, on the second row, unmistakable with their turbans and beards. Hard to tell their ages and work out whether they are brothers, cousins, fathers or sons. One beard does look a bit greyer than the others.

Normally, there are three, but now and again the camera edges sideways and it looks as though there could be more. Sometimes they are in Man United tops.

I have never seen them interviewed yet all TV footer fans are as familiar with their beards as we are with Wayne’s physog or Fergie’s red face. Fergie at one time used to shake their hands.

Last Saturday, I got invited to Arsenal-West Ham by a friend with several season tickets. In the party was Simon Schama, the historian, who is also a Spurs fan. In that situation you need to keep quiet, give nothing away, but remember to stand up when Arsenal score.

The seats were on the front row, which means you can’t see half the game but you can admire the bevel of the turf and enjoy close-up views of the players. Goodness, Theo Walcott has got a big bum. I never noticed that before. Aerial shots on telly flatten him out, make him appear thinner.

Last time I was at Arsenal, the crowd was shouting Thee-Oh, Thee-Oh, willing him to come on. Now he was on – and they were groaning. Funny game, football. Mark Noble of West Ham, so strong looking on the box, is all head, with his weedy body out of proportion.

At half-time I stood up and looked behind me, my eyes scanning the rows of faces rising up into the sky. I was looking for the Sikhs. No sign of any. Then I looked for Indian faces. None. Five or six Chinese people. Perhaps a dozen black faces. Quite a few women, with partners or families.

Traditionally, football fans have been male, white and working class, ever since the 19th century when professional football in the industrial heartlands first attracted mass audiences. But if you look at old postcards and photographs, you can always spot women, one or two in each row, waving and cheering. No black faces.

It’s hard to get reliable figures of the ethnic minority make-up of football crowds today – or establish what is meant by ethnic minority – but the latest surveys for the Premiership suggest the ethnic proportion is about 11 per cent. The proportion of women, so they say, is 23 per cent. I find both figures hard to believe. I suspect they are a lot less.

Next to me, at that Arsenal game, was a couple from Latvia. I don’t suppose white Europeans are being counted as ethnic. At top London and Manchester clubs, the foreign element must be fairly high. When I have been in the hospitality suites, I’d estimate that about 40 per cent of the guests are foreign.

Jewish refugees from Europe who first settled in the East End had no time or money to follow football. But the next generation, having moved to north London, picked either Spurs or Arsenal to follow, part of the process of assimilation. There are just as many at either club – ie, a small proportion – despite the image of Spurs as
a Jewish club.

Will the children of today’s immigrants follow football? Will they have the money? It costs a fortune, and you have to know the system, get your name down from birth for a season ticket, or have friends or family contacts to manage the odd game.

Will they want to? Will they feel excluded, that it is not for them? In towns and areas where there is a large proportion of immigrants you still don’t see them at games in any great numbers. It’s an inbuilt cultural thing, inheriting a team with your mother’s milk.

The fact that the majority of players in any Premiership game these days are foreign, and so many of them black, does not seem to have had an appreciable effect on the faces in the crowd. So when I watch Man United at home on the box, I always want to sing, “We three Sikhs of Old Trafford are. . .” Which is very silly.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.