Talking shop

A summer of unprecedented World Cup hype has done nothing to slow down the football juggernaut. We invited three critics, Simon Inglis, Alyson Rudd and John Williams, to ruminate on the shape of things to come

The onset of the football boom in Britain is usually dated from the 1990 World Cup. Two tournaments on from there it still appears to be racing ahead at ever greater speed. Are there any indications that the boom is nearing its end?

John Williams It seems a strange question to ask. Here we are in the immediate aftermath of a World Cup which most people seem to think was successful. England did reasonably well, a whole new tranche of foreign players has been recruited into the English game, and there’s a script at the top of football that you couldn’t really write if it was fiction, with the revival of London. So it’s hard to get the impression that the boom is over.

WSC But it seems to be heating up to such an extent that you think it can’t go on indefinitely.

Alyson Rudd Many economists predict that we’re about to enter a recession, or at least a period of unemployment that we haven’t seen for some time, and you have to wonder how football will cope with that. But it depends what you think of as a boom really. In England we still spend more on going to the theatre than we do on going to football matches. I don’t know that we’re in quite such a boom as people think.

Simon Inglis The game has always gone in cycles, and it happens to be on the up at the moment. But most people who understand football and economics know that it can’t last. I think it will implode fairly spectacularly if there is a recession. Once we can no longer afford those foreign players, they’ll just go somewhere else. But that doesn’t necessarily matter, because football’s greatest asset is its elasticity, its ability to contract and expand as the years go by. And I think in many ways a lot of us would welcome an end to this boom, because we know it’s unrealistic and we know that in the end it is unhealthy. It only takes one of the major companies pumping money into football at the moment to say “look, the kids aren’t buying this stuff any more, let’s move on”. I think it’s inevitable, but it’s not to be feared.

JW When you talk about a boom coming to its end, the word that immediately comes to mind is “bust”. And I don’t think the game is going to deflate in the way that Simon suggests. Certainly it’s overheating, and I don’t know if it can continue at this kind of intensity. But football is locked into new kinds of consumption patterns now, away from the narrow confines of the Seventies and Eighties. And when you talk about a major producer leaving the game, or television deciding to move on to something else, the question that always raises for me is: what is this other thing?

SI It’s not as if the market is going to collapse, it’s just that cyclically you cannot keep producing the best players and paying the top wages, because the show moves on.

AR There are three reasons why it might change. One is what the economy will do. The second is pay-per-view. I think we should take quite seriously the opinion that that could kill the game. Because why would you want to watch a game where there’s no atmosphere, and why would you go when you can watch it for £10 in your front room? I think that’s a very dangerous concept, and I hope when the clubs delayed it they were not just thinking they would make more money doing it for themselves. The third thing is the England team. If they don’t start doing well – and despite the heroics of the Argentina game they actually did very poorly this time – combined with a poor economic situation and pay-per-view, that’s when football will change its character I think.

JW I’m not sure that the performance of the England team is central to this. It seems to me that there is a struggle, as there always has been, between national leagues and national teams. We saw that starkly in the case of Italy in the World Cup. Italy have had dominant club sides in European competition, and in many ways a very healthy domestic game, but it’s been rooted in signing players in key positions. So when they came to the World Cup, Italy found they had no creative midfield players. But I’m not sure that’s a crisis for the game there, because the league is still extremely powerful and seductive. I don’t know how many Manchester United or Liverpool supporters are desperate that England didn’t do very well, but they are desperate that their own teams can compete in Europe.

AR Newspaper editors that I’ve worked with always say that they take their cue from the national team. When you’re talking about a publication that has to cater for all sorts of other areas as well, that editor needs to know that the nation cares about football. And if you look back to the way football was reported just ten years ago, it was tiny. It wasn’t hyped at all. Yet during this World Cup so many millions gathered around the box, and not because they were into Man Utd or any of the big clubs, but because they felt that football as a whole had gone over another boundary.

WSC Without rehearsing the arguments for or against a European Super League, what are the likely impacts of the new financial muscle of the top clubs?

SI Paris St Germain are going to be playing their European games in the Stade de France next season. Arsenal will be playing at Wembley. And Arsenal no longer see themselves as competing with Coventry, they see themselves competing with Juventus and Bayern Munich. I think international football will be increasingly dominated by the clubs.They’re becoming like multinational corporations, they will go for the maximum audience, and we will become more like the Europeans in that we will all support our local club, but we will also support Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, whatever. We all resent Manchester United because of their universal appeal – not just across England but also Wales, Ireland, Scandinavia. But Barcelona and Juventus have been like that for years. In Italy you will see Milan supporters’ clubs from Verona, in the same way that you see “Birmingham Reds”. It’s awful, but I think we’re catching up with the Italian and Spanish models in that respect.

WSC What would that process mean for the future of the World Cup?

SI There is an edge about Man Utd-Juventus, that I don’t think turns on the general viewer in the same way that the World Cup does. I wonder whether the World Cup in the 21st century will become, not less important, but it will have a festival quality, whereas the Champions League will have that edge.

JW The great attraction of the World Cup, it seems to me, is that sense of bringing the nation together. It involves lots of people who are not normally connected with football. But also it is the only remaining event now that supporters identify, wrongly, as one beyond commerce. That’s why it’s important, and why it will continue to be relevant. But I think the importance of the national team per se is much more debatable.

SI I believe the World Cup is a competition for people who don’t like football. It’s accessible to all, and it is very heartwarming to the general public to see images of, say, Japanese and Scottish fans celebrating together. The only other occasion which gives the impression of this kind of international community is the Eurovision Song Contest.

JW And in a way the World Cup is the same kind of event, it’s a sort of cultural muzak for a lot of people.

It has often been said about the postwar boom that clubs then didn’t make the most of the relatively vast income they received. How are they coping this time around?

AR The vast majority of clubs are still appallingly run. If you add up the amount of money each of the Premiership clubs thinks they are going to earn from TV deals in the future, it would come to around 50 times the amount that could possibly be available. Most are vastly over-estimating what TV means to them, yet they are somehow convincing the board, the shareholders and the financiers that this money will come in. I’ve spoken to some accountants who have gone into clubs’ finances, and they come out bashing their palms against their foreheads in disbelief. If they lose a particular manager or player, then they run the risk of collapse, because they haven’t sorted out their merchandising and so on. Clubs should have a structure in place which means it doesn’t matter too much whether, for example, they win the Cup or get knocked out in the third round. They should have a philosophy of what the club is about, but instead they just go for short-termism.

SI You see that as a weakness, but I see that as an asset. The whole nature of sport, not just football, is that it’s an enormous gamble. You can sign Cantona for £1 million, or you can sign Collymore for £7 million. I remember being involved in discussions like this 20 years ago, and everyone would say “why can’t football run itself more like a business?” And now that football does run itself more like a business we’re all saying “why is football thinking of itself as a business?” Because the fact remains that even the guys who run the clubs, who may be aware that they’re not running the club along conventional business lines, cannot help themselves. It has to be short-termism. They’re like politicians, they don’t have long to prove themselves. And if it goes horribly wrong, then they’re going to be out. It’s the nature of the game. It is a game.

AR But many of the board members aren’t there for the short term, many of them are there for decades.

SI Yet they are still prey to the same kind of smash-and-grab mentality.

JW You do see things at football clubs that you would never have seen ten years ago. You actually see clubs divided up with parallel executive hierarchies – one side dealing with the non-football side, which is designed to shore up anything which may go wrong on the other side.

SI Last season was a poor one for Aston Villa, but they still made record profits, around £11 million, largely through the addition of banqueting suites and things like that. But what is that profit for? It is still to gamble it on players. I find it ironic when football fans clamour for the board to spend their money, yet when the directors say seat prices are going up by ten per cent they get accused of ripping people off. There’s this constant conflict. And that’s why I return to my original point: it’s a game, it’s a circus. Once you regularize it, once every club is running at a profit, buying all the right players and having perfect youth systems, that’s the day the game dies.

JW The key difference, compared to any other type of business, is the proportion of income that’s spent on wages. As Simon says, that’s what football clubs are for, to sign players. The big question is, how many very ordinary players are earning unbelievable salaries. Which goes back to the point about short-termism. Managers now, like players, no longer expect to stay at a club for four or five seasons. It’s becoming like basketball, where you expect to see a completely new roster every season. Ravanelli arrives at Middlesbrough, because they feel they have got to make a big signing. Nobody cares then, really, whether Ravanelli stays for only six months or a year, everybody knows he’s going to go. And it’s much more difficult to develop an identification with a club by growing up with players.

SI Also, because agents are able to get these fantastic deals now, we as purists perhaps have this slight revulsion. Yes, we want Steve Staunton to stay, but is he really worth £30-40,000 a week? And you start to feel, instead of affection, a sort of revulsion. I think the players, rather as in baseball in America, are working their way into a situation in which most people will not give a toss about them any more. And that breaks the sense of loyalty to the club.

AR It may be fun, this constant gamble with the players, but it would be even more fun, wouldn’t it, if they could see a great youth squad coming through, and you got back the feeling that it’s actually your team. Yet clubs go around paying whatever the hell they want and not caring about what it looks like on the next month’s balance sheet, because all that matters is the next three games, or even the next game.

SI I would love to see a Villa team with 11 Brummies in it. But put that to the Holte End, and frankly if that meant relegation…

JW The problem is that both things are seductive. Take Derby County. They have gone around the world recruiting players, something that is terrifically exciting, I think, for Derby supporters, as well as troubling. Because they’re also wondering if this is going to cut down the opportunities for young people from the area to play in the team. Clubs have always been symbolic representatives of locality, rather than real representatives – even the earliest successful league teams were all made up of Scots. But we’re coming to an interesting moment now, when supporters at Chelsea, at Derby, at Newcastle, are going to be faced, probably this season, with a team in which no player is British.

WSC Given that trend, and the large price rises at many grounds, is it likely that fans will become increasingly less loyal?

JW We tend to get lulled into the idea that in the old days supporters were loyal, and that these days they are just consumers who will leave as soon as everything goes wrong. In fact, in order to find the kind of loyalty we’re talking about, you have to go back to the Sixties and Fifties. If you look at Everton’s crowds in the early 1980s, they were down to 14-16,000. Now though, Everton can be locked at the bottom of the Premier League, and still get crowds which are absolutely enormous by comparison. Somehow people are connecting with the league itself, rather than with how their particular club is performing.

AR It is hard to visualize exactly who these people are who can afford to pay the prices at clubs like Chelsea. I know anecdotally of people who are Chelsea fans who have simply said, we can’t afford it, let’s go and watch Brentford, or whoever. And I think the smaller clubs are actually going to benefit from the ridiculous inflation of prices in this way.

SI If the bottom falls out of the market, then clubs with large capacities will be forced to sell tickets on the day, and then they will have to start being competitive in the way the Nationwide League clubs are. I wonder how much their crowds are boosted by kids for a quid, and other concessions. They’re really having to pull people in, and that’s healthy. But what worries me is how many of the kids actually want to see Brentford. How many of them will know the players of their local team? Kids might simply say, if it’s not Man Utd, they don’t want to watch it.

AR It is an increas-ingly common phenomenon to see them being dragged along some-where, all wearing their Arsenal shirts. It does look slightly incongruous.

JW I’m slightly less pessimistic. I know kids are seduced by the large clubs, but at the same time as Man Utd and Liverpool are being made more available to be supported by kids, they’re also becoming more and more distant. It’s much harder to get in to watch those clubs. And with this development of regional and pan- national clubs, there is also an intensification of local connections. In the game more generally, there is a revival of spectators lauding the local links of their clubs, excavating the histories of smaller clubs, almost as a response to these great globalizing effects.

Yet again the contribution of England fans to the World Cup was largely a negative one. Is this just something we have to live with?

JW There are signs that things are actually going in the right direction. There were a few hundred people out for trouble, but there was also a large, new constituency of people watching England abroad, who didn’t want to have anything to do with that. Now in other circumstances, fans’ pressure groups would be very hostile to those kinds of people, because these are the new fans, with the painted faces and so on, but in this context they’re actually quite useful. There’s a struggle going on between different constituencies of support. The fans’ organizations want to include the new England in accounts of the World Cup, and I think they’re right to do that. But the problem is really about how men from England think about themselves when they go abroad and go into public spaces. Again it seems to me there’s a real ambivalence here. For example, you can read the refusal of supporters to take part in the Mexican Wave in an admirable sense – this is an utterly inappropriate thing to do at a football match, especially while the game is going on. But on the other hand it also stands for an unwillingness to just be a part of whatever’s going on. The sense you get from a lot of young English men is that they just don’t want to have contact with anyone. And it’s the general incivility as much as the hardcore problem that you feel when you’re with England.

SI Which is reflected in the higher echelons of the game. For example, “football coming home” is a very insulting catchphrase for a lot of people around the world. Brazilians, for example. Even the fact that we turned our backs on Johansson in the FIFA election adds to the impression of England as a whinging, unco-operative and very narrow-minded country. I think it’s very damaging, but an accurate reflection of the guys who are travelling with the team.

AR It’s scary the difference with fans from other countries, because you’re talking about the whole nation’s culture, not just a football thing. And it could take centuries before we evolve as far as, say, the Danes. I was “attacked” by Danish fans at Euro 92. For a moment I wondered what was going to happen, but they simply wanted to discuss why I was carrying the Independent. They were completely plastered, but still had the presence of mind to want to discuss the newspaper. Was it really independent? Which political party did it back? I almost fainted. And this was on the way to one of the biggest games in their history.

WSC What can the FA do to try to encourage a more tolerant and diverse following for England?

JW One indication of the FA’s view was the video they produced for Euro 96, which was an extraordinary account of what England is supposed to be, a kind of pastoral, arcadian view of England, warm beer, white cliffs of Dover, market towns and so on. There is no sense that the nation has changed and we’re no longer living in the 1950s. In the 1990s none of this imagery accords with many people’s experience. Why not have an up-to-date view of Englishness in the way in which the French, latterly, came to feel that the success of the national team set an agenda for a new France?

AR England would never ever do that. French people knew the political and historical roots of all the players in their team. Whereas if you play for England, you’re supposed to bury your origins. If you’re from the Caribbean, for example, you’re supposed to dampen that down and proclaim that you’re a true Brit and adopt a Cockney accent. In England we don’t celebrate the fact that the people who play for the national team are so diverse in economic background, class background and colour.

JW That’s the answer to this question, that we need to unpack Englishness. If we could get away from this rigid sense that the FA has of who the English are, then that may help fans to begin to look at what following England abroad is supposed to be about. There was a study done recently with groups of Asian and white kids in Leicester, and collectively they identified Ian Wright with a new kind of England. Whereas Alan Shearer, they argued, was “old-style, doesn’t speak to us, not the kind of person you’d expect to meet on the street, not like my friends”. It just emphasizes the fact that there is a whole range of images of Englishness around which the FA needs to recruit.

SI This is one reason why the clubs are in a much stronger position. Not because they are great philanthropists or believers in a multicultural society, but because they see it as a marketing tool.

WSC But isn’t it difficult for clubs to attract more diverse crowds when so many of the seats are so expensive and often restricted to season-ticket holders?

JW It’s different in different places. Tottenham in the mid-1980s had a lot of black people going to games drawn from the area around the club. Now, with prices in the £20-22 range and up, the number of black supporters you see is very small indeed. There’s a real change in the relationship between the club and the local community. Whereas at Liverpool, I now see Asians in the Kop, which you would never have seen ten years ago. There are still no black people from Toxteth, but you see Asian supporters, who are a bit more affluent and don’t necessarily live in Liverpool. So football grounds are opening up to particular sections of ethnic minority communities and at the same time closing down to people from other sections.

SI I think it’s too simplistic to see it purely in economic terms. There are simply some grounds that are welcoming and some that are not. Where there is a large immigrant community around a ground like Leicester or Villa Park, why are they not going? I think it is simply that they don’t feel the clubs or the FA are batting on their behalf.

WSC What about the players? Has the influx of foreigners made any lasting difference to Britain’s football culture?

JW I remember someone asked David Platt when he came back from Italy what the biggest contrast was with England. And he said, in England you come into training and you have to watch where the practical jokes are, who's put a bucket of water on the door. In Italy you actually have conversations about the players' families, or even about politics. In England, if you start talking about anything serious in the changing room you're just the complete butt. You become someone with ideas above their station. So Graeme Le Saux is gay because he reads the Guardian.

AR Yet now at least under Arsène Wenger, Tony Adams can talk about reading poetry and playing the piano, and nobody laughs.

JW Perhaps we don’t have to evolve for centuries. If Wenger can come in and make these hardened professionals at Arsenal think about themselves in a different kind of way, then maybe there’s hope.

SI And because that has been shown to work, there is more incentive for the English player to train properly, to do these things the way the foreign coaches are encouraging. Whereas when Venglos tried to introduce them at Villa, the players basically worked against him.

JW The other thing about Wenger is, he actually talks about players as men. He says, “yes he’s a good player, but he’s also a good man”. English coaches never talk in that way. And the contrast is striking between George Graham, when he behaved like a headmaster and yet still won the championship and Wenger, who says you’ve got to treat these people like adults. Because he understands, as all the top coaches do, that when you play at the highest level now, your players have got to be good decision-makers.

WSC There has been an explosion in all forms of football publishing in the past ten years. Is there now too much written about the game?

SI I think most moderately intelligent people continue to get most of their comment from the nationals. I will buy FourFourTwo and the other magazines and flick through them, but I don’t see anything there of any great insight. Although that’s possibly because I’m 43 and not 23. The explosion of football writing has nothing to do with an explosion of writing talent. I’m probably going to get lambasted for saying this, but football is a finite subject, there is a limit to how much you can say. How many interesting things can be known about Michael Owen? Very few.

JW FourFourTwo feels like a great lump of stuff to me and it’s just intimidating. I often feel I can’t trudge through it.

AR Maybe we have reached saturation point. A lot of the space given to football in the broadsheets is over-written, there is far too much poetry in the first three paragraphs. And we do need people who are going to be more critical. There is still this conspiracy to agree that a certain game went a certain way for a certain reason.

JW That’s partly because a lot of coverage is on the basis of new markets. Which means that part of Sky’s role is not just to report the Premier League, it’s to advertise it. And it’s the same for Radio 5, who also get too close to the product. Then you get terrible pressures not to be too critical. Even the broadsheet newspapers are moving in this direction now, because so much of their circulation is built around sport.

SI But that’s nothing new. The football press at the turn of the century was totally in the hands of the FA and the Football League. Think of the BBC in the Forties and Fifties – not a critical word. What disappoints me more is that the only people deemed worthy of discussing football, especially on television, are ex-players or people within the game. I would have loved to have seen someone like Will Self or Martin Amis on the World Cup panels. Instead of which we had David Ginola. When people come at it from a slightly different angle, it colours and increases the richness of the debate. For example, football writing has benefited enormously from the involvement of more women in it. But sadly we see very little of that in the mainstream coverage.

WSC Is it true that women necessarily come at it from a different angle?

AR This is difficult. From a personal point of view I don’t really want to bring anything different specifically because I’m a woman. Whereas writers like Lynne Truss will claim to see it all completely differently because they are women. I think that’s taking women back a step or two. There are a lot of women, like Janine Self in the Sun, who work no differently from men and who are very good at it. And I think that’s the way ahead.

SI But we’ve just been talking about how great the influence of people like Wenger is, because they bring a different perspective to the English game. What is wrong with a woman or anyone else doing the same?

AR It may be in fact that I have a different perspective because I come from a different part of England from you, or my father was a different sort of father, or my education was different, or I play football with both men and women, or whatever. Surely there are other things about me apart from the fact that I’m a woman that are also relevant to what I can contribute.

WSC Finally, which is the single off-field issue that you believe will dominate this coming season?

AR I think pay-per-view, and I’m very pessimistic about it. If the clubs go for it, it won’t kill the game off because we all know the game’s bigger than that, but it could kill a lot of what we love about it.

JW Pay-per-view is definitely going to come, because there is a lot of money in it, and it’s one of the ways the Premier League think they can keep the big clubs on board. Those clubs will also keep the European league on the agenda. A smaller issue is that of technological assistance for referees, which I think will reach a kind of pitch, and we may see some changes there.

SI There is one issue close to my heart, which is that Wembley is going to be demolished a year from now. I’m very anxious about the financial and political constraints of the new ground. I would like to think this would be an event which the whole nation could look forward to and see as a rebirth, a symbol of a new England if you like. But I fear it’ll be anything but, it’ll just be another hodge-podge compromise, and we’ll all say, oh there goes another missed opportunity.

From WSC 139 September 1998. What was happening this month