The Sweeper: Fan Ownership and Community

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Yesterday, we looked at an attack on the idea of fan ownership from the right of the political spectrum, by Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail. Samuel’s condemnation of the idea was confused, and woefully misinformed (or deliberately misleading).

Interestingly, from the other end of the political spectrum, the Guardian published a piece by Andrew Martin last Friday that also raised concern about the movement for fans to become more involved in running their football clubs, recently encouraged by reports of the Labour Government’s plans to give supporters a share in their clubs.

Martin opened his piece:

That Gordon Brown is drawing up proposals to give fans a share in football clubs should come as no surprise. With the connections formed by trade unionism, church or social club having fallen away, support for a football club is one of the few ways left of showing communitarian endeavour and a willingness to belong.

communal

Yet curiously, it’s this very effort by supporters to ensure they are involved in running clubs and can work to embed them in a positive way in their community that is bothering Andrew Martin. Because, of course, there are more important things people should be doing.

When James Alexander Gordon reads the results at 5 o’clock on Saturday, the former identity of the town or city flares briefly in my mind. When he says “Nottingham”, I think lace; “Stoke”, potteries, and so on. But then I’m 47 and with a retrospective frame of mind. Before long, the names of many of our provincial cities will evoke nothing but the team, and this is the problem, not the solution. I urge all those energetic, engaged people who want to take charge of their clubs to look beyond the touchline and take charge of their towns: stand for the council, fight the corporations, campaign for co-operation in the workplace, blog about how the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism has all but killed provincial Britain, and become an active member of the party you think most likely to reverse the trend.

I’m never quite clear why it’s thought that an active interest in football kills the possibility to do anything else with one’s life, or why culture itself should be ignored as a valuable way to develop community — and yes, football is a small but significant part of British culture and society.

Football has become an important cultural touchstone of modern Britain, and can’t simply be wished away for folks to focus on other things. Millions of people attend football matches, and making that an active, participatory experience — including through ownership of clubs — has important implications not just for football itself, but for football as a part of society. If a key part of a society’s culture is purely passive, if it’s just about watching on TV and letting your club rot away at the ends of a private individual out to enrich himself at the expense of your and your friends hardearned money spent at the turnstile or on your Sky subscription, well, I fail to see how that’s a good thing (of course, we now need a 5,000 word debate on the Culture Industry, but I’m siding with Walter Benjamin, suckers).

For a long-time, supporters were too passive and ill-organised, and at the same time regulation of football by those who ran it became too lax, as they little cared for the experiences of supporters; in the 1980s, the laissez-faire approach saw too little attention paid to stadium safety and directly contributed to the deaths of over one hundred fans in the Bradford Fire and the Hillsborough Disaster. Supporters standing up together after that played a crucial role in making the experience of watching football safe. Not simply accepting being treated like cattle means something beyond the confines of the touchline that Martin limits his understanding of supporter activism to.

People watch football either apathetically or with some say in what happens with the experiences, and this is where Martin misses an important point. Getting fans actively involved in their clubs is likely to change football and its role in the community in a positive fashion. Maybe this isn’t very important; but it’s also better than not doing anything, which is the alternative.  We’re not going to stop going to games, or wasting our time watching them on the television either way. We’re just going to be able to have a say in what’s going on and look out for our collective interests as fans of our clubs. A few thousand people doing this as elected representatives at supporters’ trusts is not going to make or break the progress of community activism in the rest of society, surely.

David Conn wrote the following in “The Beautiful Game?” a full six years ago:

“There are signs of enlightenment, hope, everywhere: more fans who understand the fabric and culture of the game and believe it does not have to be this way. Trusts have formed at nearly every club — admittedly some in better shape than others — and there are more supporters asking plain questions and not being satisfied when the answers don’t come. Recognition does seem to be slowly evolving that football clubs must do more than cash in on the loyalty of their fans, and even the Premiership clubs do seem to want to do more in their communities, if only to claim they have ‘corporate social responsibility’. There is increasing alarm about the junk we eat, and how little we exercise, so it can surely not be too long before that discussion gets round to wondering whether our national sport and its clubs could be doing more to get people playing football, rather than hooking them into consuming it on television or in the £50 seats.”

How that’s a bad thing from Martin’s perspective is a little baffling to me.

Quick Hits

  • We’ve mentioned this on Twitter a couple of times, but I can’t quite get over how beautiful the new Run of Play is (click on “about”). And then there’s the writing, which is even better.
  • Jonathon Wilson on pressing football: “This is the unspoken strength of Barcelona: they aren’t just majestic in possession themselves; they also make other sides tentative in possession. Think not just of Arsenal, but of Michael Carrick and Anderson haplessly misplacing passes in Rome last May. Partly that is because Barça are so quick to close space; but it is also psychological. Barça are so good in possession, so unlikely to give the ball back, that every moment when their opponents have the ball becomes unbearably precious; even simple passes become loaded with pressure because the consequences of misplacing them are so great.”

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

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