Ugliness that mars the beautiful game

January 5, 2007

In the wake of the Stevens inquiry into Premiership probity, five football-loving academics tackle the state of play of the national game at professional and community levels

Meat-and-potato pie or prawn sandwich? It is a choice many Manchester United fans are forced to make these days. The gentrification of football has advanced further and faster at United than anywhere else.

Match day at Old Trafford is not what it used to be. For many, it is just an alternative to paintballing or the opera - something to impress the boys at the office. Having paid top dollar for the ticket, entertainment is demanded. If the match is a bit dull, stay in the bar at halftime and leave early. If the players have an off-day, boo.

The Stevens report notwithstanding, I would rather see a return to terracing and poor amenities if that meant that some of those who treat my club with such disdain would stay away. I really miss the days when the sense of shared purpose crackled in the air as I walked up Warwick Road, when I jumped around on the Stretford End, hugging total strangers in relief after a late equaliser.

This is not simply nostalgia. Those who use football for corporate schmoozing will soon move on when the entertainment palls. So this is urgent. We have to find a way to make going to a match affordable for local kids who can then develop the lifelong loyalty that I did in the early 1970s. Otherwise, football will be dead in this country within 25 years.

FC United of Manchester have the right idea. Started up, owned and run by fans sickened by the Glazer takeover of Old Trafford, it is part of a growing grassroots revival in football. The FC team regularly gets crowds of 2,500-plus, including many families showing their kids what it really means to be a Red. All sorts of people cheering, singing and enjoying the banter, often with the players and the manager. The facilities are usually rubbish, but who cares? There is not a prawn sandwich in sight.

FC is many leagues below the Barclaycard Premiership, but rising fast. Who knows, in a few years many more diehard Reds may have to make yet another choice. Do I cling to an ideal at Old Trafford or do I go to FCUM?

Dianne Parker
Professor of applied social psychology at Manchester University

Despite having the worst ground, lowest attendance and smallest budget in Coca-Cola League One, Colchester United FC won promotion to the Coca-Cola Championship last May. This season, we have continued to confound predictions, winning our last 11 home games. And at a time when many other clubs are millions of pounds in debt, Colchester has consistently balanced its books. It is a remarkable achievement and one founded on some remarkable principles.

The club operates in an ethical way, it has supporter-oriented strategies and works within a tight fiscal structure. Colchester's community-based philosophy enables supporters to contribute to its running at all levels, a degree of co-operation that has undoubtedly helped the club progress. We rarely pay for a player. Instead, we rely on an excellent youth set-up to nurture "home-grown" talent while an extensive scouting network hunts for lower and non-league talent.

Furthermore, we have steadfastly refused to pay agent fees, leaving players to make their own arrangements. Hence, we have largely avoided agent tactics such as unsettling players and then touting them elsewhere. Were we in the Premiership, it would be very unlikely that we would have featured in the Stevens report.

Colchester has a lot to teach football's biggest clubs. Some might question whether it would be possible to sustain success while operating in this way. Well, some fans believe we might find out. Colchester is close to the play-off zone, and we consider that our principles would continue to serve us well. We believe that effective coaching, team spirit and vociferous support would allow us to compete.

We do, however, have one concern - another promotion might result in an invasion of Wags (wives and girlfriends). Still, they would find the comforts rather basic at Colchester's "Layerdome" - not only are there no hospitality boxes, most toilets are located in huts.

Steve Wood
Head of mental health and learning disability at Anglia Ruskin University

Why does the majority of the football-loving public know more about what Wayne Rooney's girlfriend bought him for Christmas than they do about the crisis of governance gripping the game? I put this question to a class of sports journalism students. The answer is one reason why I helped to set up the programme in the first place: what passes for sports journalism in this county is at best uncritical and at worst a trivial public relations exercise for the rich and powerful.

Together, the Stevens inquiry, Lord Burns's review of the Football Association and the Independent European Sport Review suggest a weighty agenda that barely gets a mention in our newspapers. Yes, a Sunday tabloid might pull a "fake sheikh" stunt to expose a feeble ex-England manager, but where is the serious investigative journalism into the abuses of power at the heart of the game? And don't be fooled by the diet of kiss-and-tell stories about the sorry, sordid private lives of B-list sports stars. These may interest certain sections of the public, but they are not in the public interest and they are definitely not hard-won hard news.

Too often, sports journalists live in fear of losing their membership of the cosy and collusive club that characterises their beat. The PR machine, now a major feature of professional sport, means that it has never been easier to be a sports journalist. But it has never been harder to be a good one. Media directors and their slick-suited lieutenants spoon-feed stories about the organisations and stars they protect while threatening to expel those who refuse to swallow this gruel and ask too many tough questions.

A free and critical press is a fundamental prerequisite of democracy and a vital weapon in the fight against institutionalised corruption throughout society, including sport. If we are to get serious about reforming and protecting the national game, the press must behave like a watchdog, not like a lapdog. For this to happen, the power of football to restrict access to critical journalism must be removed. And the sport journalists need to rediscover an appetite for hard news.

John Sugden
Professor in the sociology of sport and a lecturer in sport journalism at Brighton University

The malign influence of certain Premiership stars on the public has been much commented upon. When a top player ironically applauds a referee's decision, it gets mimicked in local parks. When another is repeatedly accused of being a cheat, "diving" arguably becomes a feature of grassroots football. When professional players assault each other verbally and physically, such behaviour has an echo on Britain's playing fields.

As a practising amateur league referee and an active executive committee member of one of the largest youth leagues in the country, I have seen referees being pursued by a posse of players, and mass confrontations of players and spectators. Some matches now have to be scheduled to accommodate a police presence. Recently, a player was jailed for 18 months for assaulting a referee after a game.

No doubt there is a link between the behaviour of some players in the Premiership and the amateur game. But both footballing communities mirror a postmodern society where any status quo is justifiably open to challenge.

There is a win-at-all-costs approach that could be viewed as part of a wider societal shift, where the construction of self-identity includes a belief that authority, laws and regulations are to be challenged, manipulated or abused according to individual or collective need.

I have seen a growing tendency to physically and verbally abuse other parties when a match is not going as expected. Players assault opponents, team-mates and match officials; club representatives and spectators can do likewise.

It is with regret that I recall the centenary celebrations of a local youth football league being marred by local newspaper reports of one spectator attacking another, apparently on the grounds that the latter was cheating in his role as assistant referee.

The amateur game is already losing referees as a direct result of ill discipline and antisocial behaviour. Local councils are threatening to ban amateur matches from certain pitches as nearby residents complain about obscene and offensive language from members of the football community.

County football associations must take action against serial offenders. If they do not, without qualified referees and pitches to play on, the amateur game is in danger of entering a downward spiral of quality and respect.

Philip Hart
Programme leader for quality improvement at the Peninsula Postgraduate Health Institute, Plymouth University

Football is my religion. The 3pm kick-off has replaced matins, the stadium is the focal point for an increasingly fractured society. The game binds together urban environments such as London and Manchester.

Communal singing unites a community like no other modern activity. Spotting a poster of, say, Thierry Henry pinned up in a shop immediately provides a bridge between people who may have no reason for a connection. In far-flung corners of the globe, I've spent hours swapping football names like prayers, the only shared language I had with my hosts.

Marx was right about religion being an opiate for the masses.

When I troop off to my temple (Arsenal's Emirates Stadium), the worries of the week are left at the turnstile and I lose myself in the crowd and the beautiful game. From 3pm to 4:45pm, I want to disengage and cheer madly at another perfectly executed through ball by Cesc Fabregas, a blistering Robin van Persie free kick or a lunging tackle from Kolo Toure.

I am particularly blessed with my choice of temple. But I get as much of a thrill watching Leyton Orient battle it out in Coca-Cola League One or my son playing for Clissold FC in the Walthamstow Under-11 league. The game has a magic and drama that shines through the miserable weather that showers down on the Hackney Marshes.

But now The Times Higher wants me to engage my analytical and moral mind with the state of the game. Am I worried about the Stevens report, bunged-up managers, the malaise in the game? I'm happy to shout my complaints at Graham Poll's refereeing or moan at Jens Lehmann's mad antics in goal. But do I really want to engage with the machinations in the boardroom? Not really. What I care about is the football on the pitch.

I know that ultimately bungs and corruption are paid for by me and my fellow season ticket-holders. But football is my religion, and religion is ultimately about escapism. So provided there's a match that makes me lose my voice, be it Arsenal or Clissold, that's all I want out of the game.

Marcus du Sautoy
Professor of mathematics at Wadham College, Oxford. He plays for Recreativo Hackney in the Super Sunday League Division 2

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments