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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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.