Football? Bloody Hell.
It was some weekend for football. The collapse of Fab Muamba, the joy of Killie’s League Cup win so quickly followed by the sadness of Liam Kelly’s bereavement, the continuing Rangers saga and another disappointing Derby result when Hibs visited Tynecastle. These events showed us all sides of football and its fans and it’s hard not to reflect on what we’ve learned, or had confirmed, over the past few days.
There were, of course, many positives – the displays of support and prayers for the young Bolton player – from players and supporters of a whole range of teams worldwide, including the Real Madrid squad, who also sported messages of concern for Barcelona’s Abidal who’s soon to have a liver transplant – no small gesture given the rivalry between the Bernabeu and Camp Nou. The reaction of the Spurs support at White Hart Lane after Muamba’s collapse did even more than Harry Redknapp’s recent efforts to rebuild the aura of ‘greatness’ about Tottenham Hotspur, and it was heartening to read many messages of support for Liam Craig, especially from Celtic supporters, many of whom also had the grace to congratulate Killie on a well deserved victory.
These were the positives out of an unsettling weekend, and, having been there myself with Hibs, I know that those who lined the streets of Kilmarnock, or pitched up at Rugby Park to see the Cup come home, will remember the scenes for the rest of their lives, and share the happiness, though tinged with sadness, with their loved ones for generations. It’s what football is about – or should be.
However, and almost inevitably, there was also the negative side. Unbelievably, a youth was arrested after making racist comments about Muamba on the internet after his collapse. That very collapse raised questions, despite the brilliance of the paramedic and medical teams, about how carefully we monitor our sport stars’ fitness, and the fatal price some pay for performing at the top level.
At Tynecastle, I was, again, much bewildered by the level of what appears to be manufactured bile between the fans. I’ve no idea where it comes from, as, for years, Edinburgh folk would often visit Tynecastle and Easter Rd week and week about; sure , you were a Hibee or a Jambo – but hatred was something that existed between the Glasgow clubs and was based on more than just football; in Edinburgh there was friendly rivalry. It’s always been my contention that I have more in common with a fellow football fan, no matter who he supports, than I have with someone who has no interest in the game. Yet there they were again on Sunday, with their ugly gestures, fluent swearing and arcane references, trying to prove their support for their team by the level of bile they evinced towards the opposition. It asks some questions about football, but perhaps many more about a society that produces so many with so much baseless anger. Are they really content to define themselves by the level of hatred they can muster against supporters of a different football team. Are the Hibs fans who continually chanted references to paedophilia at the Hearts support so completely unaware, that they have no understanding of the reality of what they are doing or singing?
Society has its problems, but football doesn’t help, if we’re honest. I’m old enough to remember football in the age of the minimum wage. This era is popularly referred to as a time when players were ‘slaves to the clubs’, and when Johnny Haynes became the first £100 a week footballer, there was general celebration all round. I’m not saying this was the start of the slippery slope. Rightly or wrongly, I believe that those who entertain us – in the field of sport or the Arts – will probably always be ‘overpaid’ to an extent. You could take it as a token of our admiration and enjoyment of their skills. As Dickens had the circus master Sleary lisp in ‘Hard Times’: “You mutht have us, Thquire. People mutht be amuthed!” However, players like Haynes and his contemporaries, like Jimmy Greaves, were not earning so much more than the average man that they completely lost contact with the world around them. Players used to live in the same communities that their fans inhabited; they remained to an extent reachable and recognisable.
The influx of television money, especially in Europe’s biggest leagues, has actually perverted football in the truest sense. For a fan, being a supporter originally meant having a team that you went to watch regularly. You supported them through thick and thin, and hoped for the odd Cup or championship, or, if your team was a poor team, maybe you just luxuriated in the occasional win. Your loyalty and excitement came from the familiar routine of ‘going to the match’ and, to an extent, the growing bond with the players, many of whom would spend the better part of their careers with one club. Going to the match was part of the warp and weft of family life, shared between generations, building connections, making a history. It wasn’t idyllic – fans paid over a lot of money that was never re-invested in the club, spectating conditions could be primitive and if you couldn’t get to a live match, there was precious little to be seen on television.
In these days, television pays the wages, decides the timings of matches, creates an illusion and changes the perspective. Youngsters who have grown up in the last two decades have been fed a diet of fancy camerawork, access to the best footballers in the world on a weekly basis and the glorification of winning. It is small wonder that they don’t fancy the local football ground – the product there doesn’t, can’t, and was never intended, to match the entertainment confectionery provided by the satellite broadcasters. Anything less than brilliance, winning, and success is anathema to young fans. In parallel, the obscene amounts of money are making idiots out of many professional players, whose career paths are dictated by the needs of professional agents to move them around regularly as a source of income.
The media, too, see these youngsters as cash cows, the one way left of selling newsprint, so they are subsumed into the celebrity gossip news cycle where being famous for being famous overtakes respect or admiration for any talent or skills. It is an absolute scandal that we give young men in their early twenties unfathomable amounts of money and then leave them to get on with it, providing little structure or depth to their lives and encouraging them to believe that, because they are hugely wealthy, the world is at their feet, and they are untouchable. What does it say about our values?
Football is reduced to an advertising hording for television and global corporations and all that is important is winning – which means that 95% of fans, if that is their expectation, are going to be disappointed most of the time. It means cup and league games are often seen as ‘unimportant’ if they don’t seem to be relevant to a ‘place in Europe’ with its attendant cash windfall, which means in turn that fewer and fewer teams are seen by their fans as being in with a chance of winning. In the much vaunted EPL, if you are not in the top 6 or bottom 6, what is the point? You aren’t facing relegation and you’re not getting into Europe – so the competition is meaningless. The media, of course, encourage this type of thinking, as they miss no chance to build up the glamour teams and their crucial fixtures.
You could, of course, dismiss this as the rantings of a grumpy old man. You’d be right, but that doesn’t take away the point of my contention. Football, once a community based industry that burnished local pride and helped folk bond together with sports stars and neighbours, has lost its way. It is now a highly commercial arm of the entertainment and media industry. This might be the inevitable way of the 21st Century, but it also means that for most supporters of most clubs, the objectives of winning and success will never be attained, and, ultimately, this means the end of the game as we know it. Spectators will stop going to football because they have been educated to believe that, if your team is not winning things, playing in Europe and mega rich, it is a failure – so why would you go to watch? We are stuck in a country of five million with the expectations of a country ten times our size. So – whilst more Scots per head of population go to live football than in any other country, we are told our game is useless and not saveable. We suffer, too, because the authorities have chosen to pursue ‘the dream’ by fixing things in favour of the Old Firm, in the belief that they could compete in Europe and there would be trickle down benefits for the game in Scotland as a whole. This is patently unworkable, a fact that becomes more obvious every year, and is illustrated perfectly by the mess that Rangers are in. It’s all a matter of perspective.
A wages cap; stringent financial controls; a pyramid system to allow clubs to find their level; SFA money for clubs who strengthen community links; and an agreement that promising players will play for their local club till they are 20. Bigger clubs may have a precontract interest in them and may support them, but supporters all over Scotland would know that, at their local ground, they will be able to see the best of young talent, boys they know, – which currently plays in ‘secret’ U19 fixtures across the country and has to be loaned out to gain experience. Think of the attraction if football supporters in, say, Arbroath, knew that the best of young talent would be turning out at Gayfield every other week. Think of the motivation for clubs to work with their local community and for the bigger clubs to support the grassroots. Think of the boost for the game, if the local football club was a premier provider of youth activities and health and fitness facilities; think of how centrally provided funds could ensure that was the case – in much the way that the GAA in Ireland ensure a good standard of stadia and training facilities in every town through grants and inducements. Think, finally, of the encouragement for local business to become involved with their local team.
It’s a win- win, it’s sensible, it’s to the benefit of players, fans and the community; and you can bet it will never happen.
Meanwhile, daft laddies with no hope will continue hurling abuse at similar daft laddies in different coloured scarves, and we will call it sport. Media tycoons will decide when we can watch a game and young lives will be ruined because they are told that money equals success.
And, eventually, nobody will be watching.