Why football is broken – and how we can fix it

Two new books show how the Premier League and Hillsborough helped make the beautiful game ugly.

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Football is broken. This would appear an odd thing to assert at the end of such a thrilling Premier League season. Weren’t the big-money, big-city teams given a bloody nose by little old Leicester? The surprise champions displayed, as their likeable manager proudly boasted, heart and soul. For the past three decades, however, these virtues have been in short supply in a global entertainment industry dominated by rapacious mega-brands – or football clubs, as they were once known.

According to the co-authors of the excellent Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, “doing a Leicester” can only happen once every 20-plus years. Even the new football order’s biggest cheerleaders can’t deny that, since the Hillsborough tragedy, there has been a shift in the demographics of the game’s support. Ticket prices have soared. Regular attendance is something only a certain stratum of society can now afford. The working classes have, by and large, been disenfranchised from the moneyed modern game.

There is, as Adrian Tempany argues in his searing polemic And the Sun Shines Now, hope. Tempany has been to Germany, where he visited supporter-owned clubs, and has seen the future. At Liverpool, Hull, Blackpool, Wimbledon, Leeds and elsewhere, defiant supporters are fighting back. Football fans are revolting – which, Tempany reminds us, was the Conservative Party’s view of the “yob class” (the charming description was the Tory peer Lord Onslow’s) at the time of the 1989 disaster. Hillsborough came at the end of a low, dishonest decade: an era when football began to be wrenched away from its traditional communities.

The inquest into the tragedy exonerated not only Liverpool fans but an entire class. “We have been cleared of all charges levelled against us,” declares Tempany. “Now, can we have our ball back, please?” But history belongs to the “victors”. By the time the Warrington jury ruled, 27 years after British sport’s darkest day, that 96 supporters had been unlawfully killed, the police version had become lodged in the public consciousness, as had a triumphalist account of the People’s Game’s rebirth: Italia 90, Gazza’s tears, all-seater stadiums, Nick Hornby, the Premier League, Abramovich, Sheikh Mansour, shiny happy people watching Sky.

And the Sun Shines Now is not the first book to offer a counter-narrative to this lazy, Whig interpretation of post-Hillsborough history. Nor is it the first to observe that several babies – affordable tickets, loyalty, atmosphere, tradition, history, communal solidarity – were thrown out with the bathwater. But it is certainly the most thought-provoking. As it is written by a Hillsborough survivor – the book opens with a devastating first-hand account of the crush – it carries enormous resonance.

“Much of the modern game,” writes Tempany, “was built upon a falsehood.” For more than a quarter of a century, the new football order’s ideology commanded not only the economy but the narrative as well. As his timely intervention points out, many clubs are no longer the heartbeat of their communities; their players, an ever-decreasing number of whom are recruited locally, exist in a completely different financial orbit.

The communal to and fro of the old standing terraces belongs to a disappearing world of well-paid skilled jobs and crowded pubs. The game, he concedes, “has never been safer, better televised or more entertaining”. And yet: “It has never been less about the culture of the people who shaped our football clubs.”

People such as Herbert Chapman. When it came to communal solidarity, as Patrick Barclay relates in his biography, this working-class Yorkshireman was well ahead of his time. His on-the-pitch innovations include floodlights, rubber studs and numbered shirts. Off it, he was equally pioneering. He renamed Arsenal’s local Tube station after the club and built a stand to protect supporters, displaying a social responsibility that the oligarchs, sheikhs and Bond villains of today’s corporate game wouldn’t recognise if it hit them over the head with a prawn sandwich. “The clubs are making so much money from television,” writes Tempany, “they no longer need the community that built them into world-class brands.”

Chapman would have been aghast at the way the money men have priced working-class supporters out of the market. Professional football was the product of a social bargain between employers and workers – the latter enduring appalling conditions and, in return, expecting the former to subsidise their teams. It was the breakdown of this paternalistic consensus that, indirectly, launched Chapman’s career.

In 1919, Huddersfield Town’s hated owner, the wealthy businessman John Hilton Crowther, proposed a merger with the neighbouring Leeds. The natives manned the barricades, Crowther upped sticks and the new owners recruited Chapman, who proceeded to build the first English team to win three successive league titles. He then moved to Arsenal and did the same thing
all over again.

Barclay’s homage will not – unlike, say, Alex Ferguson’s latest bestselling book – smash sales records; and yet, without the object of his justified adoration, there would have been no Ferguson and certainly no Arsène Wenger. Arsenal’s reinvention as a mighty cosmopolitan force began not with the erudite Frenchman but with a south Yorkshire autodidact from a mining family who was allowed, by 21st-century standards, a luxurious amount of time to make his mark.

In giving Chapman a full five years to get into his stride, Arsenal’s old-school owners manifested a generosity of spirit far too rare in today’s frenzied and frequently ruinous hire-and-fire culture. Chapman’s transfer dealings challenged the insularity of a myopic establishment. His tactics were feted in European coffee houses. He was big in Brazil.

Ah, tactics. Hard though it is to believe in our data-obsessed age, such Johnny Foreigner-type abstractions were frowned on in Herbert’s day. It was left to Parisian soccer intellectuals to discuss his innovations – which included the stopper centre-half, the swift, lethal counter-attack and weekly team meetings – with the kind of fervour that film intellectuals would later reserve for American auteurs.

In a sense, Herbert Chapman was English football’s first auteur, leaving his signature on an astonishing body of work. A control freak who ruled by both fear and kindness, he created the great 1930s Arsenal side in his image: quick, clever, charismatic, dominant and elusive. He helped to mould, sculpt and create a mindset, a way of playing the game, that was an attitude not just to football but to life.

Without Chapman, football would have followed an entirely different trajectory: a reason, perhaps, for the disenfranchised fans so eloquently championed by Adrian Tempany (and who believe, on the whole, that modern football is rubbish) to give Barclay’s book a swerve. That would be a big mistake. To understand how it all went wrong, we need to understand how it all went right in a more egalitarian era, when northern, working-class heroes could transform small, unfashionable, provincial teams into all-conquering powerhouses.

Indeed, one of the most damning indictments of the game’s post-Hillsborough dysfunctionality, alongside the asset-stripping, the rebranding of clubs and leagues and the exorbitant ticket prices, is the certainty that we shall not see Chapman’s like again.

Anthony Clavane is a Sunday Mirror sportswriter. His new book, “A Yorkshire Tragedy” (RiverRun), will be published in September

And the Sun Shines Now: How Hillsborough and the Premier League Changed Britain by Adrian Tempany is published by Faber & Faber (488pp, £14.99)

The Life and Times of Herbert Chapman: the Story of One of Football's Most Influential Figures by Patrick Barclay is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (320pp, £8.99)

This article appears in the 02 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind