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 prices, 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.
There’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