The next 125 years of the Football League

As the Football Legue celebrates its 125th anniversary this weekend the game must look to both embrace, and simultaniously reject modernity.

This weekend, the Football League marks its 125th anniversary with a series of celebratory fixtures. My beloved Bolton travelled to Burnley’s Turf Moor to repeat a fixture from 1888, while other clubs across the country celebrate the momentous occasion with similar commemorative fixtures.

One cannot help but look back on the last 125 years of Football League competition without feeling nostalgic. Most coverage this weekend will be looking back at the key figures, the best matches, best stadiums and best players. So instead why not look forward? No matter how much we romanticise its history, the Football League still isn’t perfect. In an ideal world, what would the League look like in another 125 years?

Hopefully, it will be more diverse. Remarkably, there was a black player in the late 19th century Football League. Arthur Wharton, a Jamaican-born goalkeeper, winger and all-round natural sportsman who played for Preston North End among others. But you only need to ask the likes of John Barnes, Cyril Regis or Paul Canoville to realise that well into the 1980s, minorities in the Football League faced huge discrimination.

And the problems persist. As of 2008, less than 1/100 academy recruits were Asian. There are currently only four black and ethnic minority managers, and not one openly gay player. Nor is there a well supported, well paid and well publicised female equivalent to the Football League. The recent formation of the Women’s Super League has boosted awareness of women’s football but even England’s best women are only paid £20,000 a year, a fraction of what male footballers earn in a week, and crowds so rarely match the men’s support.

Whether it’s through affirmative action (with measures such as "the Rooney rule"), or educating the fans, the Football League must adapt. So many of us unfortunately remember the excruciating experience of sitting next to a racist, homophobic or sexist supporter at a match, the toe-curling unpleasantness it induces, followed by an intrepid (and all too rare) plea for them to shut up. Recent Premier League examples, and decades of fan abuse aside, football does has the capability to change attitudes and cultural perceptions. The Football League must reflect modern day values. If it doesn’t, a younger, more liberal, more diverse audience may abandon the League, left to despair at its archaic and bigoted tendencies.

Yet the League should be hugely cautious regarding other forms of modernity. It must eschew cold, calculating, homogenising technological advancements, whether they aid refereeing, flatten the pitch, or enhance stadia. Where is the excitement in the referee getting every decision right? What will I be able to complain about when we lose? Human error must remain an integral part of the game.

One of my best football memories was Bolton’s 2-2 draw against Leicester in 2001. OK, it wasn’t the Champions League Final, but it encapsulated perfectly the pantomime of football, the theatre of the game, its often bewildering sense of unpredictability. Bolton have been reduced to nine (thanks to two howlers from the comically inept referee Mike Riley). They are 2-0 down. Armed with chips on their shoulders, a melodramatic sense of injustice and a home crowd baying for blood while singing “we only need 9 men”, a 94th minute equaliser saw the Wanderers secure a 2-2 draw. Cue the exhilarating feeling of justice being done against all odds: a modern day Battle of Thermopylae, played out on a wintry field in Horwich to an audience of 27,000. What’s football without a bit of controversy, without the travesty of incorrect decisions, without perceived injustices and farcical mistakes?

Or, what is football without overpaid, indulgent, arrogant performers making fools of themselves on pitches that look more like Blackpool beach than a bowling green. If science continues to be used to improve our pitches how will long ball, uncultured teams like Bolton (as a fan I'm allowed to say it), Wigan and Stoke, ever reach the Premiership. Again, there's nothing more exciting than an unpredictable bobble at the worst moment, nothing more entertaining than a comical slip by a star striker.

Football must retain its imperfections. The same is true for stadia. Gone are nearly all of the Turf Moors. Here to stay are the Pride Parks, the Riversides, the Reeboks, soulless arenas where technological advancements in stadia construction have only served to sanitise the match day experience. It has been sterilised with plastic roofs, padded seats, and rubber hot dogs.

After a remarkable 125 years the Football League in the future must both take on modernity, and simultaneously reject it. It must look to enhance both the diversity of demographics, and retain the diversity of primitive imperfections. Demograhic and technological homoegeneity is what we must avoid, preserving the variety and spontaneity that makes the game so beautiful.

 

Burnley's Turf Moor: a symbol of the game's authenticity and imperfection. Images: Getty Images.
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In her first interview of 2017, I pressed the Prime Minister for Brexit clarity

My week, including running out of cat food, reading Madeleine Thien – oh, and interviewing Theresa May on my show.

As the countdown to going live begins in your ear, there’s always a little rush of adrenalin. Especially when you’re about to launch a new Sunday morning political programme. And especially when you’re about to conduct the Prime Minister’s first interview of 2017. When you hear the words, “Cue Sophy,” there’s a split-second intake of breath – a fleeting moment of anticipation – before you start speaking. Once the show is under way, there’s no time to step back and think; you’re focused on what’s happening right now. But for that brief flicker of time before the camera trained on you goes live, you feel the enormity of what’s happening. 

My new show, Sophy Ridge on Sunday, launched on Sky News this month. After five years as a political correspondent for the channel, I have made the leap into presenting. Having the opportunity to present my own political programme is the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s a bit like having your own train set – you can influence what stories you should be following and which people you should be talking to. As with everything in television, however, it’s all about the team, and with Toby Sculthorp, Tom Larkin and Matthew Lavender, I’m lucky enough to have a great one.

 

Mayday, mayday

The show gets off to a fantastic start with an opportunity to interview the Prime Minister. With Theresa May, there are no loose comments – she is a cautious premier who weighs up every word. She doesn’t have the breezy public school confidence of David Cameron and, unlike other politicians I’ve met, you don’t get the sense that she is looking over her shoulder to see if there is someone more important that she should be talking to.

In the interview, she spells out her vision for a “shared society” and talks about her desire to end the stigma around mental health. Despite repeated pressing, she refuses to confirm whether the UK will leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. However, when you consider her commitment to regaining control of immigration and UK borders, it’s very difficult – almost impossible – to see how Britain could remain a member. “Often people talk in terms as if somehow we are leaving the EU but we still want to kind of keep bits of membership of the EU,” she said. “We are leaving. We are coming out. We are not going to be a member of the EU any longer.” Draw your own conclusions.

 

Women on top

This is probably the kind of thing that I should remain demurely quiet about and allow other people to point out on my behalf. Well, screw that. I think it’s fantastic to see the second female prime minister deciding to give her first interview of the New Year to the first woman to front a Sunday morning political show on television. There, I said it.

 

Escaping the bubble

In my view, every journalist should make a New Year’s resolution to get out of London more. The powerful forces that led to the political earthquake of 2016 came from outside the M25. Every week, I’ll be travelling to a different part of the country to listen to people’s concerns so that I can directly put them to the politicians that I interview. This week, it was Boston in Lincolnshire, where the highest proportion of people voted to leave the European Union.

Initially, it was tricky to get people to speak on camera, but in a particularly friendly pub the Bostonians were suddenly much more forthcoming. Remain supporters (a minority, I know) who arrogantly dismiss Leave voters as a bunch of racists should listen to the concerns I heard about a race to the bottom in terms of workers’ rights. Politicians are often blamed for spending too much time in the “Westminster bubble”, but in my experience journalists are often even worse. Unless we escape the London echo chamber, we’ll have no chance of understanding what happened in 2016 – and what the consequences will be in 2017.

 

A room of one’s own

Last December, I signed a book deal to write the story of women in politics. It’s something I’m passionate about, but I’ll admit that when I pitched the idea to Hachette I had no idea that 2016 would turn out to be quite so busy. Fitting in interviews with leading female politicians and finding the time to write the damn thing hasn’t been easy. Panic-stricken after working flat out during the EU campaign and the historic weeks after, I booked myself into a cottage in Hythe, a lovely little market town on the Kent coast. Holed up for two weeks on my own, feeling a million miles away from the tumultuous Westminster, the words (finally) started pouring on to the page. Right now, I’m enjoying that blissful period between sending in the edited draft and waiting for the first proofs to arrive. It’s nice not to have that nagging guilty feeling that there’s something I ought to be doing . . .

 

It’s all over Mao

I read books to switch off and am no literary snob – I have a particular weakness for trashy crime fiction. This week, I’ve been reading a book that I’m not embarrassed to recommend. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by the Canadian author Madeleine Thien, tells the haunting story of musicians who suffered during the Cultural Revolution in China. It’s also a chilling warning of what happens when anger towards the elite is pushed too far.

 

Political animals

However busy and exhilarating things are at work, my cat, Ned, will always give me a reality check. In the excitement of the first Sophy Ridge on Sunday, I forgot to get him any food. His disappointed look as he sits by his empty bowl brings me crashing back down to earth. A panicked dash to Sainsbury’s follows, the fuel warning light on all the way as I pray I don’t run out of petrol. Suddenly, everything is back to normal.

“Sophy Ridge on Sunday” is on Sky News on Sundays at 10am

Sophy Ridge is a political correspondent for Sky News.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge