Taking Our Ball Back: Spurs Writer Martin Cloake On Football’s Culture Wars

In a down-at-heel corner of southeast London the Holmesdale Fanatics are not just getting behind their team, they’re taking giant steps towards reclaiming football for the fans. These Crystal Palace supporters stand, sing, wave banners and flags and generally have a good time. Known in the past for restrained loyalty, the atmosphere in this old fashioned ground lifts the team and intimidates opponents, bringing Liverpool’s seemingly irresistible sprint for the League Championship to a grinding halt at the end of last season. The ground was rocking and so were the Reds’ title hopes. The result was a draw but the experience unforgettable.

The Fanatics are amongst the most active and vocal participants in a movement loosely known as against modern football. High ticket Taking-Our-Ball-Back-coverprices, regimented stewarding inside and outside grounds, the fixture list the plaything of Sky TV, the dominance of the Premier League and the Champions League, all these and more have alienated large swathes of football’s core support and kept an entire generation of young fans firmly in their armchairs in front of the tele. Yesterday the results of the BBC Price of Football survey shows the stratospheric PL seat prices – Spurs have the third most expensive seat after Arsenal and Chelsea – and rises substantially outstripping inflation.

There’s a distance between us and the game we love. We call it the People’s Game – perhaps it never really was but for 90 minutes every fortnight, at least it felt that way. It’s been a recurring topic on Tottenham on My Mind, for example here and here because it’s changing the way we relate to our club. Spurs fans are amongst the most loyal there can be yet this resentment at being exploited by the club is at the root of the poor atmosphere at many home games. Average performances are a factor but we’re used to those by now. It’s the underlying alienation that makes it worse.

But hang on a minute. You’d think the groundswell of opinion would become a tidal wave of change, but you’d be mistaken because not every fan sees it the same way. Many are quite happy in front of their 42″ plasma screens – expensive but affordable, watch every match in the comfort of your own home.

Or how about this from the Manchester City Supporters Club. In a statement regarding Financial Fair Play they have joined a legal action against FFP because it discriminates against clubs, or more precisely against the rule that is “a prohibition to invest that prevents ambitious owners to develop their clubs, that therefore shields the established European elite from being challenged.”

In other words they’re complaining that their owners can’t spend even more money than the squillions already invested. Breaking even is bad. I get the established elite bit but surely FFP, however flawed the current rules may be, aims to encourage clubs to operate within their means and broaden the opportunities for clubs to reach the elite in ways other than finding a sugardaddy.

Their language is as interesting as their logic. They demand a hearing as “consumers of the football product”, not as supporters even though the club was established in 1949. They conclude by saying they are doing this in the interests of all supporters of non-elite clubs, apparently oblivious of the fact that to the rest of us, they are the elite. Seems a far cry from the Holmesdale End.

In this mixed-up mumbled-up shook-up world, reading Martin Cloake’s new book Taking Our Ball Back: English Football’s Culture Wars is an essential route map out of this quicksand. Part compilation of existing essays from the New Statesman, In Bed With Maradona and elsewhere, part new material, it’s the best single-volume coverage of football culture and support in the modern era. Long-time (and long-suffering) Spurs fan, Martin understands terrace culture and was actively protesting against the closure of the Shelf and other iniquitous developments at the club long before anybody coined the term ‘against modern football’. Combine that with his journalist’s eye for a story and the acumen of someone who has been writing about finance as well as football for many years and you have a sense of the depth and breadth of the book.


FSF 4There’s plenty of fascinating detail but Martin is not afraid to confront the big questions about the future of football. This is about a battle over the definition of what football is and what it means to be a supporter, timely given many are questioning their . Many of the examples are familiar to Spurs fans and readers of this blog. He piles into Stubhub and the ‘Y word’ debate is a perfect example of how the law has been used unfairly to target football fans. His incisive approach to the football authorities slices through the hypocrisy and flannel.  Throughout explicit links to history and culture provide perspective and solidity that’s absent from most debate around these fundamental issues. For example, the discussion on the ‘new ultras’, including our own 1882 movement, is situated in a broader context of oppositional culture and protest. The very different topics of business and football and the law in football, vital but often overlooked, are placed in context too.

Where Taking Our Ball Back really scores over other writing on the topic is that it manages a nuanced approach without losing any of the power of its argument. Many may be against modern football but It’s just not that simple. A variety of currents are attempting to preserve the game’s meaning, as I’ve indicated above, and this is one of the few books able to disentangle the various strands. The problem fans may have to deal with in the future is less about conflict with the clubs and more about conflict between groups of supporters, all claiming righteous salvation through their approach but in fact representing very different interests.

Taking Our Ball Back adroitly handles these topics in a readable, accessible manner. Times are changing. The sense of place  and belonging that surrounds clubs, the link between club and community, is less important as each year goes by because of the national and global consumption of the PL. There’s a real danger of these foundations shaking and with it our identity as supporters and therefore, because this bloody club means so much to so many, the foundations of how we see ourselves as individuals becoming shaky too. As Martin says, “modern football seeks to replace community with commodity.”


Unreservedly recommended, and continue the discussion on Tottenham On My Mind because these issues are coming to a head at Spurs. Prices remain high, morale low, the prospect of the lowest WHL crowd for years next week and waiting in the wings the new ground and a possible move to Milton Keynes. For £3.04 on Kindle and only £6.97 in paperback, you can’t go wrong.

Taking Our Ball Back: English Football’s Culture Wars by Martin Cloake  available from Amazon in Kindle and paperback

Pics from the FSF demo against the PL and ticket prices in August this year.

Coming soon on Tottenham On My Mind on this topic: an interview with the founders of the Spurs Small Shareholders Association



5 thoughts on “Taking Our Ball Back: Spurs Writer Martin Cloake On Football’s Culture Wars

  1. Football today is the best as its ever been,Never mind the sepia photos.Manchester City fans do have a point even though their target is less about football than their own need for success in an arena thats fit for their world class team. The fact is Real Madrid and Barca and a couple of other teams have owned Europe.They look and woner how a country such as Spain is finiancing such powerhouses.
    Eventually there will probably be a Super League if there isnt already where fans will never be able to see a live game and their will be a tribal second tier in more local leagues for the ‘real’ supporter.
    We will watch the TV screen and see amazing football from 16 teams and then go an cheer our pub favourites live.


  2. Only the mass boycotting of games will have any effect on ticket prices. The problem being is that some fans have more money than sense so don’t care and others, if they can afford a ticket, can’t afford to not use it.. How any sane person can keep handing over their hard earned to line the pockets of a squad of players who are the most wishy washy the club the has ever seen defies belief. Not only is the team made up of a rag-tag bunch of underachieving misfits (Hugo being the exception), but those in charge of the club can’t even be arsed to hide their contempt for whom they deem as riffraff cash cows. Doe anyone really enjoy the atmosphere inside the ground these days? The last time I went it was best described as a rancid apathy Just what will it take for the majority of fans to wise up?

    It will be interesting to see what happens once the new stadium is finally built and Levy and Co. can no longer scare current season ticket holders into renewing, using the over demand that they have not only failed to address, but have actively manipulated.

    As for the FSF demo against modern football, I don’t know about the last one, but if it was anything like the one before that which I went on, the turn out was pretty pathetic. Like most of the problems in this country at the moment, I don’t think the people affected have the gumption or backbone to really do anything about it other than moan.


    • Sorry I haven’t replied earlier.

      I am of course one of those who hand over his cash. I do so knowingly. The long-standing personal commitment takes precedence. That’s more important for me. I don’t see why those uncaring people who run the club should change my life in that way. Blind? No. Obsessive? Maybe, but it’s important.

      The FSF had a very low turnout. I understand that the discussions with the PL are the start of a long term campaign with some political clout. A boycott won’t be effective. Some people will still come and if I give up my seat someone else will buy it.

      At Spurs the new ground does provide an opportunity for a proper ‘end’ and lower ticket prices. Do I think it will happen? No. Is it worth fighting for? Yes.

      Regards, Alan


  3. I know it’s a bit cliche to mention the German model, but I have had the pleasure of travelling to Dortmund with friends to see a game against Mönchengladbach a few years ago. It’s great to see BBC publishing an article only this week explaining the lengths clubs go to in Germany to keep ticket prices down. Depending on the package you go for you’ll pay between 60 and £180 for flights, accommodation (in a pretty poor 3* hotel it has to be said), tickets for a match, as well as various extras such a pre-paid for card that gets you a beer and a hot-dog, money off in the club store and so on. The beer was less that 2 euros and cheaper than a nearby pub! While it would have to be a hefty change at the top to get supporters contributing to the big decisions you get in the Bundesliga, the “fan is king” mentality could be. If you keep ticket prices low, fans will always, always come.

    Liked by 1 person

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