Spurs were founded by Jack Ripsher, the Bible studies teacher at All Hallows Church. Arthur Connell, the rector of St Mark’s Church in Gorton established Manchester City. Liverpool were a cosmic spin off from Everton who were founded in St Domingo’s Methodist Church. Manchester United emerged from the Lancashire and Yorkshire Carriage and Wagon dept in Newton Heath. Arsenal were founded from the Woolwich munitions factory. Among the sullied six, Chelsea were alone in emerging from a pub. Football was a working-class game and its association of clubs were formed by the combination of industrialisation and the Church.
Through it the nameless suburbs found form and attachment, the beautiful game rooted in every working-class community. Much has been made of its religious form; the real physical presence, the holy grail, the communal singing but for the churches in slum areas their interests were more prosaic. It was a form for resisting the demonic temptations of the new order; drink, avarice and sloth, praising instead fitness, teamwork and skill. It was a form of virtue to take on vice.
In Glasgow, Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester and Liverpool, football was also an expression of the sectarian divisions that characterised those cities, expressing, in England at least, an almost forgotten part of our Christian heritage. In Newcastle, Sunderland and Leeds the cities found an expression of civic loyalty and pride through a club that expressed their character. It was a distinctive addition to the civic ecology, an institution rooted in place and carrying its name.
Football allowed all that was denied by the routinisation of life and work. It allowed for love and hate, for a wordless beauty, the longing for glory, the shared witness of a momentary miracle, communal celebration and shared grief. When I was growing up, the contempt for people who left early, when we were losing was striking. And through that, my grasp of the English language expanded. A single shot could slay Goliath. Swindon could beat Arsenal. Don Rodgers, frozen in eternity. Once established, the football club became a permanent part of the urban firmament. Its status was always threatened by competition but supported by association. Love and hate.
In a deindustrialised and desecrated society, football clubs recognised that the bonds of affection and attachment that lurked around in the lives of their supporters could be easily financialised. For those exiled from their homes, with loyalty passed down through families, the sense of attachment became even more intense.
And this is a capitalist story of commodification: the transformation of something that wasn’t produced for sale — human beings, nature, or, it turned out a football club — into something available for sale on the open market. The European Super League was a logical development of that. The clubs who signed up to it are no longer owned by their members but by hedge funds, oligarchs and despots, the relationship with community and place replaced by television rights and branded shirt sales. And the move was logical because the logic of capital is that of both commodification and of oligarchy, towards the elimination of competition and the securing of permanent revenue streams in order to reduce risk. Towards concentration not competition, which explains the oligarchs.
The maximisation of returns and the minimisation of risk is the core strategy of any established corporation. By freezing a hierarchy at a particular moment, by banning relegation, the Super League took the classic form of cartelisation.
In many ways, it is a consolidation of a long-term trend towards a disembedded and disembodied spectacle, mediated by television. The terrible reality of lockdown is that it dispelled the idea that the presence of fans was required in order to secure viewers. The script has been developed for a while. The Champions League need not be won by champions, but those who finish in the top four. Blowing the group phase need not eliminate the cash flow of European competition, just entry into the Europa League.
The thrill of games between European teams with their own traditions and styles was homogenised into clashes between large corporations drawing from the same managerial and player pool. Commodification is the process from virtue to the virtual. VAR was part of this trend, as the power was no longer in the ground, but removed to somewhere else. The crowd was silenced in two ways. The joy of scoring was tempered by the arbitrary judgement of Stockley Park, a secluded judgement from afar decides your fate. From within the ground came the verdict, “It’s not football any more”. And then the fans were gone.
I’ve been Spurs since before I can remember, it is a covenantal commitment. It links me to the dead, players and fans, Danny Blanchflower, my Uncle Sid and Peter Cook, as well as to those yet to be born in a community of fate, bound by shared memory and the eternal desire for glory. Like all clubs, we have our saints, Steve Perryman and Bill Nicholson, and our sinners, Sol Campbell and Terry Neil.
By signing up to a cartel, we did not even deserve to be part of, Spurs broke a covenantal promise. Our objection to Arsenal is not only that they are from Woolwich but that they cheated us of a deserved promotion by rigging the composition of the new First Division in 1918. And now Spurs wanted to be part of a rigged system that abolished relegation. “we’re not Tottenham any more”.
I was born in the year that Spurs reached its perfect platonic form, the double winning team of 1960-61. A team born of the epiphany that Bill Nicholson experienced when watching the Hungarian national team beat England 6-3 in 1953. It was a full religious experience, he couldn’t sleep for three days and nights while he pondered over what he had seen and over the next eight years he worked on building that at Spurs. I never saw that team, but its memory permeated my childhood. The sacking of Jose Mourinho does not diminish his hostility to that tradition, his desecration of it. For all its history, Spurs were a distinctive member of the football family. Vulnerable, flaky, yet capable of glory. Blanchflower, Hoddle, Ardiles, Gascoigne, Dembele, Ndombele. Whatever the number they wore, the number 8 was the distinction, the midfield maestro. And Harry Winks can’t carry that cross. We have betrayed others, but also ourselves.
Love is a sublime faithful relationship with another person. It is a strange emotion to feel towards an institution that is committed to securitised income. I have tried to subject my love for Spurs to some kind of critical scrutiny; when we floated on the stock exchange, when the Premier League was founded. But I could not break the bond, and still it remains. What does astonish me is that I am not alone in this, that despite Marx’s teaching that under capitalism “all that is solid melts into air and everything holy is profaned”, the sense of association, of tradition, of belonging still endures.
Ten years ago, I worked with Jon Cruddas and Clive Efford in developing a Labour policy for supporter representation on the boards of clubs. There was a strong sense of dispossession felt by football fans, particularly intense in the Premier League among supporters of Manchester United, Liverpool and Newcastle. From shirt and ticket prices, to the selling off of training grounds, to the emergence of foreign oligarchs who skewed the market. In the lower leagues, the feeling was more intense, that their civic inheritance was being plundered by a very dirty capitalism. The story of Wigan Athletic is a case study in the pathologies of globalisation and the Pharaonic nature of the pyramid. We developed this along with supporters groups and adopted the German model so that they would have a veto on pricing in terms of merchandising and kit, as well as the first option to buy if the club was sold. It was an attempt to re-embed the clubs in their place and with their support. It was also an attempt to limit the domination of money in the decisions of an institution that was not simply a commodity.
If globalisation is understood as the process through which finance capital escapes the bonds of domestic constraints in order to maximise returns, then the establishment of the Premier League created globalisation in one country. The response of the Premier League to our proposals was hostile and aggressive. They were proud of the model they had developed in which minimal regulation led to increasing global market share. By attracting foreign investment, the brand and the revenue grew. To have fans on the board was seen as nostalgic and an impediment to growth. We were accused of killing the goose that laid the golden egg, and they were offended by the suggestion that they were fouling their own nest.
Andrea Agnelli who, along with Florentino Perez, was the chief instigator of the Super League, was sure it was compliant with EU Law — but hadn’t noticed that the political era had changed from the heady days of uncontested globalisation. The Premier League had grown its market share with a new kind of owner in Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour, who had secured their income streams through oil or gas, and were more interested in their reputation and power. PSG are also in that mode.
Agnelli and Perez knew that unless they securitised their income stream, the domination of their national leagues and European competition would be jeopardised by investors who were not concerned with money, but with power. One of the most widely quoted sayings in Italy is from Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard in which Tancredi says that “for things to stay the same everything must change”. Without the eternal backing that only states can bring, and with lockdown strangling match day revenue and sales, they made their move. But it relied on the English clubs to buy into it, and it is significant that Manchester City and Chelsea, the clubs least dependent on market share, were the first to withdraw. They recognised that the political consensus had shifted.
Boris Johnson hadn’t led a referendum on the basis of take back control and transformed the class basis of the Conservative Party in order to bow to the inevitable logic of globalisation. The new consensus is based on a greater economic role for the nation state, an increased importance of working-class voters and the places where they live. He immediately threatened to drop a “legislative bomb”, the call went through to the UAE to back off the proposal.
The threat of expulsion from the Premiership, withdrawal of police support on match days and the refusal to approve work permits were brought into play. By last Tuesday night all six English clubs had withdrawn their support leaving Agnelli and Perez stranded in the breach with nothing but their debts for company. It’s no wonder they blame Brexit.
There was no political response from the governments of Italy and Spain, no sustained opposition from their fans. But here it was different. It seems that the owners of the clubs only spoke to each other and shared nothing of their plans with the management or players, let alone the fans. There is now a consensus that this was a travesty that could repeat again unless changes are made.
The European Super League expressed the ultimate consequence of the domination of the financial interest alone, towards oligarchy and commodification and the elimination of competition and association. It is only through the transformation of governance through the equal representation on fans on boards that the broken covenant can be salvaged. Central to that is the notion that a football club is not simply a commodity, but an inheritance that cannot be trusted to the owners. They have acted in bad faith and are in breach of trust.
Without constraints, capitalism will eat itself, it will steal what it did not create and then destroy it. It is the fans who carry the tradition and must be trusted to save football from its owners by being given a golden share on strategic issues. In order to stay the same everything must change. La lotta continua.