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Non League – Not always friendly.

1 Apr

In recent years there’s been a widespread view that non-league football provides the perfect antidote to the big business of Premier league, a refuge for those either thoroughly disillusioned, priced out of grounds, or both. Countless books and articles have been published detailing the author’s quest for the ‘soul of football’ at various one-man-and-is-dog venues.

In these accounts the non-league game tends to be characterised as friendly and as warm as a toasted teacake; It is there that we can find lifelong fans sporting scarves not purchased from a club superstore but knitted by their mums, turnstile operators who regale you with stories of the glory days of the past, chatty tea ladies who call everyone ‘love’ or ‘duck’ and where, win or lose, everyone gathers in the bar afterwards for a nice pint.

The events at FC United of Manchester bring into focus how the myth of non-league as a warm and friendly world and the more messy reality collide. To sketch out the story FC United was formed in 2005 by Manchester United fans disillusioned by the Glazier takeover. Broadly, its aim was to be the very antithesis of the corporate behemoth Manchester United had become; FC United would be fan run, democratic and above all focused on serving the community. The enterprise has, in many ways been a success and the club has found itself in the Conference North with a brand new £6.3 million ground. A recent article by Daniel Taylor in The Guardian however, suggests that there is now an element of disharmony at the club which is “part of a story featuring legal action, resignations, protests, gagging orders and the overall feeling that FC are locked in an identity crisis.”

Following non-league over a few years I’ve noticed there is another side to the non-league game which is rarely, if ever, remarked upon. Visit some online message boards connected to a club and an underbelly of trolling, bullying and bickering can come into view. At one local non-league club I’ve seen a manager in a state of despair following a campaign from an individual launching a series of personal attacks – in the managers words “throwing hand-grenades” – via the clubs message board, behind the cover of a pseudonym. The manager himself only read posts, but the Director of Football was an active forum member and made a habit of becoming involved in online altercations with fans. Elsewhere at another local side any stories about them on the website of the local paper are almost always accompanied by a sniping comment from someone who appears to be nursing some kind of vendetta against the clubs management. Journalist Ian Ridley’s Floodlit Dreams, a memoir of his brief reign as Chairman of Weymouth, also describes how the atmosphere around a club can turn toxic.

In part such acrimony can arise because people care, they want their club to be successful and they have opinions about how best to achieve that – which in some cases may be more realistic than others. Another factor is that the distance between fans and the players and management is much smaller at non-league; The manager of a Premier League team is unlikely to heed one voice from the stand, or to spend much time sifting through message boards, but at non-league fans opinions are more likely to be heard and to have an impact. On one hand this is good, but on another it can mean that those running, or helping out at clubs  doing so as a labour of love question why they bothered in the first place when those offering criticism do so in a less than constructive manner. Equally in the non-league game you will find plenty of egos who don’t always take even well meant criticism particularly well and who seek to run clubs as mini fiefdoms.

This is not to say that the non-league game is a state of perpetual strife and continual Game of Thrones style power struggles; It is not, but neither is it always the warm, friendly place it is made out to be. As FC United shows even high ideals and a democratic structure do not prevent conflict, although the ideals of community and participation may yet provide a pathway out of it.

 

Saint or Sinner: Is it time to re-appraise Rupert Lowe?

13 Dec

For Saints fans Rupert Lowe is one name which is guaranteed to generate controversy – in fact it’s so controversial I’ve thought hard about hard whether to post this at all. But is Rupert’s reputation as the man who took the club to the brink deserved, or is it now time to reappraise Rupert?

For Southampton fans it’s something of an unusual situation to find their club winning plaudits, the clubs last decent run of league success being back in the early 1980s. The reason for this new-found success according to many is the success of the academy in producing home-grown talent, but for saints fans this means an uncomfortable truth, crediting the man who many still hold to be the clubs greatest villain, a man who they feel took the club the brink of extinction.

Rupert Lowe was almost from the very start a bogeyman for Saints fans. No sooner than he arrived than popular manager Graeme Souness and club stalwart Lawrie McMenemy made for the exit; Souness muttering ‘You tell me if there is anyone else in football by the name of Rupert? ‘. The accusation that someone named ‘Rupert’, a hockey playing rugby-loving public-school boy had no place in football was devastating in sewing the seeds of mistrust and denying the new chairman anything approaching a honeymoon period.

The inauspicious start must have seemed far away as during long-serving full-back Jason Dodd’s testimonial Lowe prepared to take a penalty kick in front of a packed Dell crowd. Souness’s would surely be choking on his words too as the ball, kicked by the rugby loving Rupert, embarked on a goalkeeper evading trajectory.

Appearing in full-kit alongside Dean Gaffney and Michael Greco – better known as Robbie and Beppe from Eastenders – was Lowe’s finest hour. Saints biggest priority – aside from a voiding relegation – was a new stadium. Following conversion to all-seater the Dell was left with a capacity of just over 15 000, a figure which was, in the midst of a stadia construction boom, becoming more inadequate by the day. To keep their seat at the top table a new ground was needed and fast, particularly as time had already been wasted with an aborted attempt to build a ground on green-field site to the north of the city.

The ‘keeper beaten Lowe’s penalty clipped the post, however the spectre of the moustacioed Souness was still banished the crowd still cheered, drunk on anticipation; The testimonial would be the penultimate game at the ground before a move to the new 36 000 seater home that Lowe had secured funding for and delivered.

Lowe basked in the adulation, however it was to be short-lived. Just a few years on Lowe would be one of the most vilified figures in the history of the club. There was still an FA Cup final to come, but a widely remarked upon high-turnover of managers – partly as the result of a number of poor-appointments – the relegation of the club from the Premier League and failing to secure a swift return ensured frustration with Lowe’s tenure grew to breaking-point among fans and insiders alike. Things came to a head when a boardroom battle left Lowe with little option but to resign his position in June 2006.

A remarkable set of circumstances saw Lowe return to the club, which had in his absence been beset by boardroom disharmony following a failure to secure required investment, in May 2008, but despite claiming to have returned for the love of the club few viewed Lowe as a saviour. In one indignity a handful of coins representing thirty pieces of silver were thrown at Lowe during a stormy AGM, whilst other fans took vocal protests into the town centre.

Far from saving the club, within less than a year the club were in serious trouble. On the pitch manager Jan Poortvliet had watched his young team struggle, sinking towards the bottom of the Championship resulting in the Dutchman – who had no prior experience of English football prior to his appointment by Lowe – offering his resignation. Attendances also slumped and by the start of April the club finally succumbed; the parent company entering administration with debts in the region of £30 million. Lowe pointed the finger at the previous regime who had he had earlier accused of allowing the wage bill to rise to 81% of turnover, though other factors included the ending of parachute payments and the financing for St. Marys itself . In any case many fans looked no further than the man at the helm of the ship at the time when it went down.

This is how Lowe finds himself remembered. But a few years on one aspect of his spell in charge has risen to prominence; The academy. If bigger clubs can only envy Southampton’s academy – hailed as the best in the league – then it’s in no small part thanks to the vision and enthusiasm of Lowe. It was Lowe who was responsible for many of the key appointments, for setting it’s continental philosophy with the appointment of Frenchman Georges Prost and for directing investment towards it’s facilities, including the satellite site in Bath which was initially attended by Gareth Bale. The aim of the academy Lowe later remarked was to produce players who were not just technically good, but decent people too. Uniquely too players were recruited based not on footballing ability, but intelligence and athleticism. The output, in many ways, speaks for itself, players like; Bale, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Lallana. It may be difficult for many to acknowledge but at least some of the clubs current success is thanks to Rupert Lowe.

Hollowing out: The shifting geography of the top-flight

7 Dec

How much has the distribution of teams in the top-flight changed in thirty years? I decided to take this season and compare it to 1983/83 marking each team as a red point on the map. The most striking feature is the hollowing-out effect which has taken place around the mid-part of the country. It could, of course, just be all about football, but to me there’s far more to the pattern.  The Early 1980s were a time when some major changes to the very fabric of the country were just beginning to gather pace.  Over the intervening thirty years the Midlands have been hit hard by the de-industrialisation process, particularly the car industry in the West Midlands along with the mining industry in Nottinghamshire and the steel industry in Sheffield. By contrast London’s globally-connected finance-driven economy has boomed.

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Turks, Tigers, Hornets and Sunflowers: The real question behind Hull City’s name change

3 Dec

For many Hull City’s re branding as Hull Tigers is just one symptom of everything that’s wrong with modern football, just the word re-branding is enough to ring alarm-bells, along with the reason given that it will stretch the clubs appeal in global markets – ‘Tigers’ being a name essentially free of being tied to one place

But, looking back the change not a move without precedent. A glance, for instance, at the 1894-95 Division Two table reveals several clubs have, to a greater or lesser degree, undergone name changes, among them: Leiscester Fosse, Woolwich Arsenal and Newton Heath

And if the objection is that ‘Tigers’ sounds too, well, too American then there is precedent for this too. The Victorians were particularly fond of imaginative monikers like Fordingbridge Turks, Ringwood Hornets or Portsmouth Sunflowers. The fashion for such names has however, passed leaving us with City and United.

The issue though  isn’t so much the name change, but one of democracy and control. When a new regime at Leicester City, fronted by Chairman Jon Holmes, decided back in 2003 that it would be a good idea for the club to embrace tradition by returning to it’s previous name of Leicester Fosse the fans were invited to express their opinion by holding up a card with either a ‘C’, or ‘F’ printed on it at half-time. As anyone involved in elections will point out holding up cards in front of everyone else isn’t necessarily the most representative method of canvassing opinion but,  it still allows fans to have some kind of say.

To their credit, the club listened, but it was under no formal obligation to do so. While we live in a democracy, football clubs are not, and have never been, democracies. They are dictatorships. Sometimes – often even – this works quite well, other times it doesn’t, but in either case power is located in the hands of a few, or even one individual – and there is anyone to answer to its other shareholders, investors and financiers – definitely not fans.

Our dilemma is, do we accept this model which has proved, on the whole successful. Hull and Cardiff are both enjoying successful periods and the Premier League as a whole is the biggest revenue generating league in the world, or do we demand the change which would make football better align with our democratic principles?

Parallel Dreams: European Political Union and European Footballing Union

10 Nov

EU flag

The 1950s were an extraordinary decade in the history of Europe. Following on from yet another experience of modern industrialized warfare that had wrought havoc, destroying industry and devastating lives, there was a fierce determination that this time things would be different.

Jean Monnet was one such person who possessed this determination. Along with others he felt that creating over-arching institutions to bind the separate nation states of the continent together in cooperation was key to securing a new future of peace. To this end Monnet was instrumental in the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community. Consisting of six states at it’s founding in 1951; France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg its core aims to bring economic growth and improvements to the standard of living across all its members.

Such visions of a new, closer Europe were not however, merely restricted to the political sphere. It was the same unifying spirit which, in 1954, led to the founding of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), a cross-border body formed with the mission to create ‘unity and solidarity’ among the separate national associations responsible for governing football across Europe.

And soon after the new body had held its first conference, in Vienna, it became involved with the launch of a continent-wide cup competition, the European Cup. The brainchild of a Frenchman L’Equipe editor Gabriel Hanot and Jacques Ferran the tournament, though not the first to bring European clubs together with regularized competition, was the first to take a genuinely pan-European outlook drawing participants from sixteen separate states. Other tournaments followed as European silverware underwent its own baby boom; 1954 also saw the Inter City Fairs Cup (later UEFA Cup), while1960 added both the European Cup Winners Cup and the inaugural European Championships. The idea for the latter had in fact existed for some time, first proposed by Henri Delaunay back 1927, but until the new era had fallen on barren ground.

Not to be outdone the in 1957 the six members of the ECSC signed the Treaty of Rome which saw the creation of an array of new bodies, as impressive as the proliferation of pan-continental silverware. The European Economic Community charged with establishing among other things a common market, sweeping away restrictions on the movement of goods and labour, the European Commision, the European Parliament and greater powers for the European Court of Justice. Another treaty, the Euratom treaty, sought to bring about cooperation among the ECSC members in the field of atomic energy.

In both projects the British – or more specifically the English – were intent on remaining on the sidelines. With its politicians choosing to remain outside of the fledgling EEC the football establishment were similarly hostile to early European football competition. Pressure from the Football League – fearful of the affect of European Football on the domestic game – dissuaded Chelsea, the reigning English Champions, from entering the first European Cup tournament and it was only the determination of Sir Matt Busby that saw Manchester United compete in the 1956/57 season and though his side would ultimately meet with tragedy in the Munich air crash the way had nevertheless been cleared for English clubs to take part in Europe and by the time Great Britain joined the EEC, in 1973 European football was a firmly established feature of each nations footballing calender.

The parallel projects found themselves in step once again during the 1990s, both taking huge strides forward as the 1992 Maastricht treaty transformed the what was still largely an Economic Community into the European Union with provisions for a single-currency, a common foreign and security policy, and perhaps most importantly of all the concept of European citizenship with attendant rights of movement and residency. That same year, after a trial the previous season – in what arguably is the greatest hint yet of what a European Super league would look like – UEFA’s flagship competition, the European Cup, became the Champions League with the insertion of a group-stage into the knockout tournament. The new logo which accompanied the changes, the ball made of eight stars, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the EU flag was, as David Goldblatt suggests, “drawn from the same lexicon of abstract universalism that informed the EU’s twelve-star ring.” The success of the changes was transformative for both the continents top clubs who reaped the rewards of broadcasting and sponsorship revenue and for UEFA who grew from a small administrative body into a major player negotiating deals worth many millions.

It was just a few years later, in 1995, that one seismic – and now well known -event would bring the worlds of political union and football into collision, leaving the two entwined. Jean-Marc Bosman was an out-of-contract Belgian footballer who had been prevented from moving from his Belgian club to a Fench club. Under EU legislation Bosman brought a challenge before the European Court of Justice. The court ruled in his favour and the resulting fall out was arguably footballs biggest turning points. Players not only gained more bargaining power but thanks to the judgment restrictive limits about the number of non-nationals clubs could field were swept away – at least where it came to players from EU member states.

With money pouring in for the new Champions League format, the top clubs were not slow to take advantage of the increased pool of top talent available. Moreover thanks to the cooperation driven by the EU it had never been easier to live and work in another European state. Football soon became a single European labour market par-excellance – the very epitome of the political dream.

But where next? For Monnet and other early visionaries of political union the end game may appear to have been the creation of a seamless continent, or at least a Europe which was as Monnet stated one, not of a collection of states, but a “union among people. Others in football shared this dream whether it was Ernst Thommen and Karl Rappan whose idea for a European league ended up as the Intertoto Cup or Berlusconi with visions of a super league dripping in broadcasting revenue. But while the political dream, for now at least, founders among economic crisis, in football’s booming economy it is one dream which may soon come true.

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