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.