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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit