Football as Culture (in 1992)

Football as Culture

By John Mandeville

David Mellor is regarded as a man of culture. He appreciates the arts. He has been made Secretary of State for Heritage. English Heritage is an odd thing. Posh houses and artefacts largely looted from some poor sods elsewhere and, I suppose, the ‘English’ Royal Family.

There is no end of institutions looking after English Heritage. English culture is another matter. English culture is football. Mr Mellor knows this. Indeed, football is his own real passion. If Mr Mellor is going to do any good in his term of office he’d better do something about the core of English culture. Because it won’t be very long before the Thatcherites who currently run the game destroy it and deprive a nation of its culture. (He doesn’t have to worry about the Scots, the Welsh or the Ulster people. They have culture – both tangible and intangible – in sackfulls.)

When one listens to people’s reminiscences from the local pub to Desert Island Discs, from Chat Shows to tea-break chats at work, people’s emotions go up a gear as they describe their father taking them to their first League match. There is no generation gap. There are fond memories. There is enthusiasm. There is encyclopaedic knowledge. There is passion. That’s culture.

All boys (and many girls) are football fanatics. I can afford to take my lot to White Hart Lane at most twice a season now. And at least Tottenham have slightly reduced their prices. Manchester United have this year raised theirs by 60%, Crystal Palace by 50%, Chelsea by 30%. It costs £10 to go to Middlesbrough and £10.50 to get into Arsenal (though given my preference I don’t understand people who go there anyway!)

And now there is the deal with Sky and the BBC. It means some more money for the smaller clubs in the new Premier Division. But bugger all for the others.

BBC Match of the Day used to show long highlights of games from all Divisions. Then ITV outbid them and rarely showed games when the big five, Liverpool, Everton, Spurs, Arsenal and Manchester United, weren’t playing. (They had to take some notice of Leeds last season.)

The new deal has frozen out ITV whose posing as champions of the people’s right to view fools nobody. It’s about selling satellite dishes. The man who bought / ‘saved’ Tottenham Hotspur last year is Alan Sugar. Alan Sugar owns Amstrad. Amstrad makes satellite dishes!

Sky has exclusive sports channels. These are free to owners of Sky dishes at the moment. But the company has said that it will make an extra charge eventually – as with the film – £5 or £6 a month to begin with.

But then it must fill a greater part of its week with matches. So it is arranging with the football authorities to switch games from Saturday to early and mid-week. That is the beginning of the end of the English Saturday afternoon. A bloke may as well go to work.

Football supporters are being treated like dirt. This can happen precisely because football is the culture. People need water, so the spivs in the water companies milk them dry. People need football and another lot of spivs and ignoramuses do the same thing.

Arsenal and West Ham dreamt up the Bond Scheme. With this people fork out a lot of money to the club for the right to attend over the season. On top of this they still have to pay for their tickets. I have nothing against West Ham. But it was a good thing for football that they went down last season.

And, of course, we had the Taylor report after the Hillsborough tragedy. Lord Justice Taylor, now promoted to the top post, got to know somehow that other countries or other sports (especially American Football) have all-seater stadiums.

Ah! That’s the solution. We’ll get the English to sit down. Never mind that football in England is largely about standing up.

We can look forward to thousands of fans standing on seats and doing themselves and others untold damage. But it’s official that seats are good. So the fans must be bad. So we will be forced to sit. And so on. But we can trust Judge Taylor. Look what a good job he did as prosecuting Counsel when Judith Ward was convicted!

What can Mr Mellor do about all of this? He is probably still enough of a Thatcherite to immediately think that the government must not intervene. Market forces, etc. But market forces go out the window when it comes to the theatre or the opera.

The government intervenes. Just as it finances galleries to keep ‘English’ paintings in the country. It doesn’t just give money. It gives it for a purpose and with conditions. Mellor will have money available to him from the National Lottery.

Mr Mellor is also responsible for broadcasting. His attitude to the BBC has so far been commendable. He has refused to bow to the demands from the paranoid wing of the Conservative Party for a “radical reorganisation” of the Corporation. He has adopted a leave-well-alone policy.

But he can intervene where all is not well. The broadcasters in alliance with the senior football officials are seriously attacking England’s national culture for the sake of short-term profit. He can use all his present powers and ask for more if necessary. He doesn’t even have to worry about the Treasury. Regulation costs little or no money.

He could go even farther, and propose legislation enabling a fans’ charter – after all, his footballing chum, John Major, is quite partial to charters. Essentially, it should give club members a say in running the club in return for the increasingly large amounts of money they hand over every year. At present they have no rights whatsoever.

Already several clubs in Europe have to submit the Chairmanship to election by the fans. Seats on the board should be allocated to the supporters’ club. The national supporters association should have representation on the FA and the Football League.

The self-appointed rulers of the game have clearly lost all sense of responsibility. Only power in the hands of the fans plus government intervention can prevent the total destruction of England’s national culture

This article appeared in July 1992, in Issue 30 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at