Chris LedgerComment

The Slow Death of English Football

Chris LedgerComment

Chris Ledger looks through the history of our game and asks whether this was waiting to happen. 

It is easy to be disillusioned with modern football. In a game where clubs are willing to trade their heritage for a new flat-pack stadium and some supporters burn replica shirts when their star striker moves to another Premier League club, football has departed from its origins and core roots. It is only when you analyse how the game has evolved since the 1800’s, though, that you realise that it has been inevitable for several decades.

When the Football Association was formed in 1863, according to the sports historian William Baker, working-class culture in England was a self-conscious and aggressive force that recognised shared interests, common foes and mutual goals due to their exploitation in the market place. This was before anti-German nationalism and England was a battleground of class, as different classes played out their aggressions with each other. The slow growth of cities during the 1800’s also made intra-city football possible, due to the need of new amusements amongst an increasingly congregated population.

It was teams formed by former public school and university students, though, who dominated football in its earliest years. The Wanderers won five FA Cups between 1872 and 1878, whilst Old Etonians and Oxford University AFC were also successful during this period. Football clubs, particularly in the North, were starting to grow in numbers, as the game was becoming popular amongst the working-classes.

Many clubs also had working-class roots as Stoke City, Manchester United, Arsenal and West Ham United were formed by workmen and labour organisers. Blackburn Rovers, Sunderland and Leicester City were formed by new state schools and older grammar schools; whilst Bolton Wanderers, Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Southampton, Manchester City and Everton were formed by religious organisations such as Sunday schools and non-conformist chapels.

Football appealed to the working-classes, as it could be played by anyone and could also be completed in a brief span of time. Whilst football was seen by football historians as popular amongst all classes during this time, the working-classes were able to work off their aggressive and criminal instincts in an acceptable manner. In cities, where the working-classes felt alienated in the impersonality of urban life, football transported them from a life of “exhausting and monotonous labour” to a sense of belonging and “a ritualistic involvement of larger groups symbolised by colourful scarves, team songs, and folk heroes”.

It was also more than just a job for working-class footballers, who were often poorly paid, as playing the game was a chance to compete on equal terms through “triumph or demonstration of his own excellence". Although winning trophies would be seen as a huge civic honour in Lancashire and Yorkshire towns, football was more about escapism and building self-esteem for both working-class footballers and supporters.

Entrepreneurs quickly jumped on the bandwagon, as they saw the opportunity to sell athletic skills and the potential to pay players as production operatives. They invested in salaries, equipment, uniforms and stadiums as the game grew in popularity over the years. The steady expansion of England cities also meant that football was becoming more accessible to the working-classes.

The first major change in football was in the North West, during the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, as discussed by the football researcher Gavin Mellor. Geographical mobility had developed further, with affordable train services making travelling to different football grounds easier.

This was also the first time when the idea of out-of-town football fans, regarding those who supported a team outside their hometown, was conceived. Preston North End, for example, had supporters from Kendal, Barrow, Lancaster and Morecambe whilst some of Burnley’s support come from places like Skipton, Manchester and Liverpool. The increased exposure of football in the media, the surge in coach trips to football grounds and the decreasing importance of local identification also played a part in the beginnings of “proto-super clubs”.

It was not Preston North End or Burnley that become England’s first ‘national’ club, though, where the support extended beyond national borders. That accolade belongs to Manchester United, according to De Montford University’s Matthew Taylor. Despite being a successful first division outfit in the early 1950’s, their attendances were close to the first division average – according to Taylor - and were lower than the ones seen at successful clubs in the North East, Merseyside and London.

This changed, however, when they became the first English side to compete in the European Cup and their profile surged, as they attracted supporters from Malta, Dublin and various parts of England. Defeating Benfica 4-1 in the 1968 European Cup final also secured them an aura, status and reputation that no other team in England could match.

It was at this point when football teams started to depart from their original roots, as they could become a brand in the future by repackaging their history as a unique selling point. England’s first taste of success in European football, alongside the country’s World Cup victory in 1966, would create a constant demand for success that may not be sustainable.

The 1960’s also saw the rise of a new type of football star. Although the strength, courage and humility of players like Bobby Charlton continued the original image of the football hero – which was pioneered by the likes of Stephen Bloomer, Harold Fleming and Stanley Matthews – it was the legacy of George Best and Denis Law that was more influential. Although they did not abandon their working-class roots, the youth and rebellion of the two players was reminiscent of the 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll culture.

Best became a media personality associated with flamboyancy, as he struggled to control his romantic liaisons and addiction to alcohol. It started a trend of footballers becoming a brand themselves, which could attract out-of-town supporters to one particular club. This brand was developed over time by the likes of Kevin Keegan, Paul Gascoigne, Eric Cantona and David Beckham as locality became less important. Football was slowly becoming more about attracting the best players and being successful than anything else.

A small number of clubs, by the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, started to dominate English football and the support of smaller teams was dwindling. In 1951, for example, 50% of the 7m people who followed football in the North West watched either Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City or Manchester United. This figure increased to 66% of 5.5m supporters by 1971. It also took ten years to implement the 1968 Chester Report, which recommended that smaller clubs should develop as a community club for the district, and it ended up failing because of poor support from the Sports Council.

Money was also becoming more important in football, as the BBC and ITV paid £5.2m in 1983 to show live football for two years and ITV later signed an exclusive four-year £44m package in 1988. Larger clubs, such as Liverpool and Arsenal, inevitably got these slots as they managed to attract better players and more out-of-town supporters. Glory hunting was becoming more prominent, but the whole landscape of English football changed when Sky bought the rights to show live Premier League matches in a five-year £214m deal in 1992.

This deal also meant that facility fees for live appearances and merit payments for top-flight finishes accounted for 50% of television revenue, which only served to increase the financial divide between the larger and smaller clubs.

During the 1993-1994 season, for example, Manchester United was the only club to earn more than £1m in facility fees and they received over £2.6m in television revenue overall, compared to Swindon Town and Sheffield United receiving a total of just over £1m each. This divide increased even further during the 2007-2008 season, as there was a £20.2m difference between Manchester United and Derby County’s television revenue. The demand for instant success also increased due to the sharp rise in television revenue, which led to the contemporary ruthless attitude of major football clubs.

The 1993-1994 season also saw transfer fees rapidly increasing by 32% to a total of £66.8m, with foreign imports and wages also escalating. Football attendances on Monday evenings also fell by 15.2% when live football was shown, showing that more out-of-town supporters were watching matches from the comfort of their own homes. As the distribution of money and the best players were skewed to larger clubs - according to a 1996 study by Mark Baimbridge, Samuel Cameron and Peter Dawson – the outcome of Premier League matches went below the optimal level of certainty, which would increase supporters’ expectations even more.

Celebratory and reactive support is now the norm in 2011 - as well as weaker support identities and increased aggression, if supporters’ expectations are not met - at the expense of traditionalism. The Premier League, which is reported to be worth over £1bn, has created a culture where rejecting the sport’s original principles in order to buy success is now considered as acceptable. Considering how much English football has changed since Baimbridge, Cameron and Dawson’s study, it is impossible to imagine the state of the beautiful game in another 15 years.

Chris runs the superb Obscure Music and Football blog. You can follow him on Twitter @obscurefootball.