Football in decline?

Recent events surrounding Portsmouth Football Club have reminded me of a unit I studied while at University – Football and Society.

I think it would take a brave person indeed to argue that Football has not declined in recent years. In the 1950′s Football was a boom sport – enjoyed by thousands, affordable, the players were ordinary people like the fans themselves. Clubs were run as a club. Yet now we have the spectre of bloated, commercialised clubs paying players millions, and fans paying through the nose to sit and watch matches. Rich owners treat clubs like toys, often leading to misery for fans.

But when did this decline start? and why?

For me, the crisis in Football was brought about by the Hooliganism problem, particularly in the 1980′s. Although crowd disorder has a longer history than we would believe – the word Hooligan has Victorian origins, after all – it came to a head in the mid 1980′s, with incidents such as the Millwall-Luton pitch invasion and the Heysel distaster. This was the prism through which wider society viewed football. And it led to some heavy-handed, skewed and apocalyptic developments.

The Government of the time, the Thatcher-led Conservative administration, took a dim view on Football. Despite the fact that Hooliganism was largely caused by disaffected young working class people – the kind of people alienated by the Thatcher Government – the authorities developed the blinkered view that the fans were to blame for all of Football’s problems.

Events such as the Bradford Fire in 1985, and the Hillsborough Disaster in 1989, were NOT caused by Hooliganism. The Popplewell report into the Bradford fire at least makes this clear. They were caused by poor facilities, poor crowd management and a lack of investment by clubs. But somehow the Government managed to take the view that Hooliganism was to blame, and that Football had to be ‘cleaned up’. It did, but not in the way that transpired.

Introducing seating in Football Stadia did not clean up Football itself. Standing, if managed properly, is safe – as seen in Germany. But all seater-stadia led to a gentrified sport – more comfortable, more commercial, and more lucrative. The advent of Sky TV, and the huge profits that came with it, acted with a multiplying effect.

This sat very well with Thatcherism. A disregard for normal, working people was shown by the handling of the Miners strike and the Poll Tax. Privatisation and the sale of council housing gave numerous opportunities for a few people to become rich while everyone else struggled. The Yuppy culture was alive and well, and it had sunk its teeth into Football.

This has filtered through to supporters. Now, sat in nice cosy stands, with plenty of leg room, it more akin to going to the theatre. People find nothing wrong with supporting whatever team they like, rather than their local team. Like the yuppy culture, football is about money and success. A true supporter does not care about winning or losing. I maintain that for anyone to be able to afford a season ticket and all the associated costs, they must either be wealthy, or foolish. You’re a customer like any other – but you don’t realise it.

There is something rather sad about thousands of people paying millions of pounds to sit and watch 22 bloated, overpaid players. Intelligent and humble individuals like Linvoy Primus are by far the exception. Instead of watching, why not do something active yourself? That footballers are held up as heros and role models beggars belief.

Like any commercialised situation, the bubble has to burst. There have been numerous tiny pin pricks – the ITV digital collapse, for example – but the future may well see more clubs in dire straits like Pompey are currently. Football is in the process of eating itself.

Football is not the sport I recall, even from when I first went to Fratton Park in the late 1980′s. Not only have the grounds and the players changed, the whole culture has changed too. And sadly, I feel, not for the better.

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