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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder