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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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition