Football in the Digital Age – Chapter 9

Part III The new commercialism and PLCs

9. The changing face of football: a case for national regulation?

John Williams

That was then . . .

The onset of the close season. When I was growing up in the 1960s on Merseyside, for the seasonal footballing last rites we used to end up, late at night, on BBC TV (always the Beeb) with flush-faced young men in the FA Cup-winners’ post-banquet booze-up courtesy of, if I’m not mistaken, Jimmy Hill. During the day, and as the years wore on, we had come to ‘know’ uncomfortably more and more about these football players in the Wembley pre-match build-up: who roomed with whom; the pranksters and the introverts; the breakfast and luncheon rituals; superstitions – usually, shorts on first, and who was the last one out, etc. Most of this TV fare was excruciating, embarrassing even. We got more out of the managers, too, some of them perceptibly freezing in the media headlights as the years wore on. In 1974, Liverpool’s Bill Shankly and the visibly shaking Newcastle United manager, Joe Harvey, were interviewed on a split screen on the morning of the tie between the keen northern rivals. At the end of the exchange and thinking himself off camera (perhaps!) Shanks made the telling aside that Cup-final rookie Harvey was, clearly, ‘a bag o’ nerves’. On the field, Liverpool crushed the jittery Geordies. The power of the media?

On national TV, after the annual big match and the feast which followed, these impossibly young football heroes were usually now quite spent, nerves and trauma far behind them – and they were also gently, but transgressively, pissed. Strangely, on these occasions drink and glory seemed to make otherwise monosyllabic young men, with brains in their feet, more, rather than less, articulate. Certainly more interesting. Nothing, it should be noted, seemed to have this effect on Jimmy Hill. All this was, above all, the signal for footy obsessives, that it had all ended, the beautiful game, for another year.

The FA Cup final was still pretty much the only live football anybody saw on TV in the 1960s; certainly the only club football of this type. So, there were important things to look out for here – the players’ once-a-year presentational tracksuit tops, for example, stylish but hated by some of the older pros as unnecessary and ‘too continental’. In the early 1970s Leeds United, breathtakingly, even had the players’ names on their Wembley tops. There was also the special edition FA Cup final shirts to admire, complete, for the only time in the season, with embroidered club badge, and even with the match date. Usually, certainly until substitutes were allowed in the early 1970s, only ten of these shirts were made, plus the goalie’s green (always green) top. They were produced then just for the combatants, not for fans, as the hundreds of thousands of replica shirts sold today are. Not to wear the ‘traditional’ club home colours at the final – to have to change on the coin toss to accommodate opponents – was regarded as rank bad luck.

Then there was the famous Wembley turf itself, proudly unblemished, and depthlessly green compared to the mud heaps or the dust bowls of the semi-finals only weeks before. But the turf was also notoriously cruel, lying in wait to cramp up those for whom the nervous tension proved simply too much. And, of course, there was the inevitable sunshine, the north London summer heat, which was surely made for foreigners, for the languid but explosive Brazilians, rather than the doughty, honest, British journeymen of the English game, now fully exposed in this last crucial act of an over-long season.

Very occasionally, even back then, FA Cup finals brought no clear way of connecting strongly to the match itself other than to the event as a national rite of passage which marked the gathering of the sporting clans and another season almost gone. Usually, the quality or glamour of at least one of the sides involved (the Tottenham side of ’61 and ’62; the emerging Man United of ’63), or the underdog status of others (Second Division Preston North End in ’64; Leicester City in ’69) or the sheer drama of the match (Everton against Sheffield Wednesday in ’66) was enough to get you gripped.

Howard Kendall, the youngest Cup finalist at 17 years of age, played for ‘brave’ Preston, who lost to West Ham in 1964, probably only partly because the hicksville hooped socks the Lancastrians wore for the day could never have been allowed to lift the Cup. David Nish, still the youngest FA Cup final captain, led Leicester City, a boyish Peter Shilton in goal, to a fourth Cup final appearance – and a fourth defeat for the East Midlands club – against Man City in 1969. These were proper Wembley stories.

For northerners, at least, the 1967 final was much harder work. A new (but not improved) Tottenham overcame flashy Chelsea; no one in our Bootle street got overexcited about this one. Down in ‘the smoke’ they probably said the same thing (in spades) about the 1968 bore when West Brom wore down an inspirationless Everton. Howard Kendall, four years older than in his Preston days but apparently no wiser, picked up more losers’ tat here. Half of Liverpool – my half – both enjoyed this torture and ‘felt’ for family members and friends who had, inexplicably, taken up the blue sash. Not too deep down we probably felt they also got what they deserved.

On Merseyside, as elsewhere in those days, local finalists brought a new intensity to Cup final day. Special souvenir editions of the local newspapers emerged. The Road to Wembley, plus pullout team photos for display in the front window. People ‘dressed’ their houses then to advertise Cup final footballing allegiance, though my mother would never allow my brother’s Evertonian blue to go up in case neighbours or passersby mistook us for Catholics. Some people in Liverpool still do this now, put up their football pictures, though the gusto and some of the collective spirit has inevitably gone out of Cup final fever. In triumphs in 1965 (Liverpool, for the first time) and in ’66 (Everton, the ‘bluenoses’) the city of Liverpool boasted back-to-back FA Cup winners. We had no real sense then, I think, that people from outside the city – unless they were actually from Merseyside, doing missionary work elsewhere – might also be closely following our cause.

In those days, each side in the FA Cup final received around 12,000 tickets each, 24,000 in total, for a ground which then held the magical 100,000 fans. As far as I can remember, we never knew anyone who actually got a ticket for the match – for the FA Cup final. These people, it seems, were privileged season-ticket-holders, or liggers, or club secretaries or local football officials living down in the home counties and elsewhere who fancied a big football day-out in Brent. We knew none of these. Going to home games was affordable, but for the Cup final we drew the curtains and watched the drama unfold on telly. This, to my young eyes, was England; the FA Cup final and all that went with it defined what it meant in sporting terms to be English.

In the 1960s, after all the FA Cup hype and the TV drama was over, there was – well, nothing. Unless, of course, as in 1966, the World Cup finals came to town. Or, your club had actually won the Cup, in which case it was a few days more, hanging onto lampposts, and draping bunting on the town hall for the obligatory double-decker parade with the trophy in the city centre. Even following a Cup final triumph, and Shankly’s mad and inspired speeches about how we, the fans of the ‘Pool, were stronger and more passionate even than Mao’s Red Army (which division were they in?), fans, players and football staff, well, they soon just melted away, they disappeared into pubs and local neighbourhoods. Goodbye to all that: then it was cricket, Ken Barrington, Cowdrey and John Edrich, at least until late August. (One or two footballers even played professional cricket in those days.)

Few top footballers left in the close season unless, of course, the club wanted rid of them. No one could leave. Few new players, if any, arrived. Managers were generally secure and resolutely in charge. Largely anonymous chairmen wrote gnomic match-programme notes and made sure the pies were hot. We expected the same guys to return, reassuringly, to do battle again in the following campaign. This was football.

. . . and this is now

Recalling all this 1960s material is not simply an exercise in pleasurable nostalgia – though I have enjoyed it, and it is nostalgia. And there is, clearly, a burgeoning market for this sort of fans’ exploration of the game’s allegedly ‘warmer’ past.1 My recalling the 1960s is more a marker for talking about what is different about 1990s football – and about England, itself – and to warn against the kind of ‘back to the future’ theorising which idealises and reifies the past (when, exactly, was the game more ‘democratic’ and transparent?) and which often accompanies ‘serious’ debate about what is wrong with the game today and how we should try to solve its various ‘problems’.

I have also, purposely, used the 1960s here because those who enjoy remembering the so-called ‘pre-commercial’ variant of the sport, and who seem to yearn for its return, tend conveniently to bypass aspects of the game’s real difficulties of the 1970s and 1980s and retreat to an earlier, happier, period. Or else, as Ian Taylor has pointed out, they tend to idealise terrace culture of that time, draining it of its often racist and violent excess.2 The message here seems to be about a preferred return to the more innocent pre-teens of the sport rather than to its troubled adolescence. Here, though, some of the real problems begin. Little of this kind of thinking has any useful purchase, I would argue, on producing realistic policies for football in the 1990s.

So, what is different about football today? Too many things to cover in a short chapter. Let us mention just a few here. For one thing, increasingly, the sun seldom sets on the sport in the national consciousness these days. Rather than disappear, and give way, reasonably, to other seasonal sporting interests after the Cup final, top football players now seem to move into even sharper media focus at the season’s end. TV coverage of post-season competitions (new tournaments, exhibition games, friendlies) and media excitement about, and appetite for, football and ‘news’ about football proliferates – especially as the fortunes of satellite operators, such as BSkyB, have become increasingly indistinguishable from the success of its football coverage, and as other marginalised TV outlets scramble for any available ‘live’ football opportunities. FIFA and UEFA summer events have multiplied. Football has become a 12-month sport, both in terms of extended playing periods, and in terms of its non-stop media promotion.

This 12-month football cycle is partly due, too, however, to the new commercial imperatives and the increasingly ‘global’ reach of top English clubs (Manchester United play matches for sponsors in Australia, China and Hong Kong; they open up new merchandise outlets in South-East Asia, etc). But it is also connected to the inexorable movement of top players into the sort of media-orchestrated realms of the culture of celebrity, unmatched even by George Best in the 1960s: the summer ‘royal’ wedding of Victoria Adams and David Beckham; Michael Owen’s Boyzone-like international fanclubs; Ian Wright’s dreadful TV shows, etc. Football ‘personalities’ exert an extraordinary sporting and cultural hegemony these days, colouring front and back pages, and offering hours of speculation and ad-hoc coverage on TV and radio, both in and out of season.

And this all-year-round cycle is connected, too, to struggles over the effective commercial control and the intellectual property rights of the sport and its players – the so-called new global ‘economies of signs and space’.3 Today, these intense struggles, over the ownership of sporting images and brands, involve agents, clubs, national associations, international confederations, transnational corporations, sponsors and, increasingly, international media moguls. Players and their advisors are also increasingly aware of the growing value of their own commodification. The latest expression of this has come in the so-called ‘player power’ transfer cases in England in 1999, involving Nicolas Anelka, Jimmy Hasselbaink and even, briefly, 18-year-old Francis Jeffers of Everton, as clubs attune to the full impact of the Bosman ruling and to a world in which players and their advisors are much more self-reflexive about shaping their careers, about the expanding global marketplace for footballers, and about their alarmingly escalating earning potential. In this sort of ‘winner-takes-all’4 jungle of the international free market for scarce sporting talent, clubs are culpable too, paying, as they do, wildly inflated contracts, and also busily destabilising contracted players elsewhere while wailing as their own local stars try to rubbish their contractual commitments. Top players now come and go pretty much as they like.

This model has all the markings of the ‘hyperreal’, a world in which many quite moderate players grow rich as the dubious ‘democratisation’ offered by wall-to-wall radio and TV supporter phone-ins, and the desperate media appetite for ‘football copy’, accelerates managers and coaches into job-threatening ‘crises’ following even a couple of early defeats. Media talk of possible titles and trophies follows, correspondingly, at the first small signs of any real cohesion and success.5 Far from expecting the same players to return next season for the sake of continuity and team building, new (increasingly from abroad) signings must be procured by top clubs in the close season, it is argued, in order to boost season-ticket sales and to stimulate jaded fan palates and to puff up expectations. Match-ticket prices, accordingly, escalate. For all the talk about fans’ reflexive awareness of the real nature of this media circus or of their anxieties about the ‘business’ of football, nothing succeeds, it seems, in quelling spectator discontent quite like a multi-million-pound spending spree. If club chairmen were largely anonymous patricians in the 1960s, they and their colleagues have an increasingly high profile and are measured by fans by the depth of their pockets in the much more cut-throat, media-hyped and ambitious 1990s.

As well as these important developments, certainly, the central role of the FA Cup final and of the BBC itself in uniting and defining the national audience for sport – and, indeed, the nation – has diminished markedly since the 1960s.6 In the new competitive markets for TV sports coverage, the BBC can apparently no longer even afford to purchase live coverage of the FA Cup final, which has now gone to ITV and to satellite TV, the latter being the new power brokers of top sport. There are few fans now who, truth be told, would probably actually prefer BBC football coverage to that offered by Sky Sports today, which, notwithstanding the ‘flattening’ hype about all its televised sporting contests,7 has both the necessary cash and the almost endless air-time to lavish on its prize possessions. Ironically, Sky also offers young male fans, at least, the prospects of collective and participatory pub TV coverage, the ‘new terraces’, in an age of what are for them ‘sanitised’ and allegedly atmosphere-free all-seater grounds.8 The age of interactive sports coverage on digital systems, which now allows viewers to control and switch camera angles on live events and to ‘shop’ for additional information about clubs and players, will further individualise the experience of the TV watching of sport as well as add to claims about the ‘empowering’ and ‘skilling’ of the armchair viewer in important ways even relative to the ‘live’ attender.

The future of the BBC and of its public-service remit are also under deep scrutiny today as TV and radio channels, lifestyles and choices proliferate in response to pick-and-mix post-national entertainment and sporting cultural preferences. Recent polls suggest there is little support, especially among the young, for a non-commercial public-service channel in the traditional sense.9 This public opposition to the role of the BBC threatens the extent to which the existence of national public broadcasting contributed to a sense of a society ‘under control’: of national public institutions being accountable to a larger public and being influenced by it.10 Top football clubs also depend, increasingly, of course, on their own TV markets for finance as the age of independent TV deals and the ‘electronic turnstile’, or pay-per-view match coverage, looms into view. New partnerships and new ways of exploiting the football/television relationship seem likely to emerge directly at clubs as the larger ‘European’ clubs seek competitive advantage and as ‘domestic’ clubs simply try to hold on.

Also, far from being unique these days as it was in the 1960s, live coverage of the FA Cup final now takes place alongside literally hundreds of ‘live’ football matches covered each season by terrestrial, cable, satellite and now digital TV outlets. Live football on TV is now available – for those who can pay – pretty much round-the-clock and from all parts of the world. This part-inversion of the mantra from the 1960s – that the world was watching our Cup final, and who cares how they play the game – also reflects how Britain has slowly been opened up to the new sporting global flows and to foreign influences on how the sport should be staged and played. In the 1960s, the exotic exceptionality of foreign players in the FA Cup final – South Africa’s Albert Johanneson, for Leeds United in 1965, for example – was enough to trigger media profiles and ‘special’ (often racist) news features. These days, following a dramatic influx of foreign talent to these shores, it is not too fanciful to say that English players in FA Cup final teams can excite media activity for some of the same reasons. Some committed football viewers in England, newly versed in the nuances of foreign leagues and in the international trade in top players, can also now get almost as excited by live TV coverage of, say, Barcelona v. Real Madrid as they do by any big club clash in England. Some also travel abroad to watch these international club confrontations, as global football tourists.

Finally, this more ‘globalised’ meshing of previously diverse interests in football, and the complexities of the struggles for control and influence in the international game, also challenge the very integrity of historic national football competitions. Back in the 1960s this idea – the abuse of a treasured national sporting ritual – would have seemed incredible. But, in 1999–2000, the FA Cup, the world’s oldest and most revered knock-out football competition – now in an era when the knock-out format is not only unloved abroad but is also regarded as ‘bad business’ – is taking place without the FA Cup-holders, Manchester United. Extraordinarily, United have apparently been urged by the competition’s own originators, the Football Association, to play instead in a FIFA-organised international club tournament in Brazil.

The FA Cup has already been changing slowly in the new football world. Such recent developments mark not just the increasing power of top clubs in Europe – a fact already signalled by the threatened ‘privatisation’, and the subsequent forced reorganisation, of UEFA club competitions for 1999–2000 – but also the changing role and priorities of FIFA and of the FA itself. The FA’s sights here are set squarely – in blinkers, some might say – on attracting the World Cup finals to England in 2006, hence the ‘sacrifice’ of the Cup-holders in the 2000 FA Cup. FIFA, strategic and increasingly compromised ‘guardians’ of national team football,11 but itself alarmed by the growing influence of the ‘G14’ top clubs in Europe, harnesses, by way of an England ‘sweetener’, the richest and most popular club in the world for a prominent FIFA event in Brazil. And United? Well, they can claim the altruistic defence of the wider public good, while their sponsors and shareholders rub their hands at the promised TV exposure in the important new markets in South America, Australasia and the Asian regions. Fans, being fans, want United to be World Club champions, sure; but, hey, why can’t we do it all, they also ask.

Regulation and other matters

This sort of jockeying and horse trading – the bargaining of local priorities against international ambitions; the tensions between club and national team interests; and the new, highly commercial, global interests of the Football Association – makes it hard, it seems to me, to argue, as some now do, that Lancaster Gate itself should be promoted as a serious candidate for some sort of independent football regulator for football in England in the 1990s. (I will return to the general question of regulation in football in a moment.) Remember, also, that it is the FA which can apparently guarantee lowest ticket prices at the World Cup finals in England in 2006 of £15 for adults and £9 for children, while in 1999 some clubs in the FA’s own Premier League insist, unhindered, on a minimum ticket price of £25 or more. Early FA Premier League gate returns in 1999, and the dramatic fall-off in season-ticket-holder renewals at ‘middle-range’ clubs such as Leicester City, Derby County and Aston Villa, suggest that consumer limits might already have been reached – and passed – on price, at least at some clubs at the top level. This does seem to be a matter largely of price rather than of the ‘unpredictability of outcome’ arguments which have warned against the dangers of allowing a small number of rich clubs to dominate domestic competition. The latter is something which pretty much happens in football around the world, certainly in Europe. In team sports, its control seems even only partially effective in countries, such as the USA, which have ‘closed’ sporting competition, mobile franchises, no competing international markets for players, and with ceilings to any sort of progressive, ‘European’ system of promotion and relegation.12

Arguments, generally, for stringent financial regulation in English football of a kind which is independent of European markets for sport are, in any case, rather difficult to sustain, not least because of the various market ‘seepages’ which are likely to occur – players, income, and so on – but also because of the real and complex ambivalences which many supporters at top clubs, understandably, hold towards their own club’s and the game’s future both here and abroad. These are difficult matters, often expressed in the nature of the divergences between public issues and private interests. There are not too many accounts of the ‘new era’ for football which deal with them at all adequately. Let me say a little more on this.

Arguably, much of the critical and often sophisticated writing on the ‘new business’ of football proceeds, for example, with apparently little reference to, or understanding of, the social, political, economic and global shifts which have underpinned and helped to sustain such developments.13 Such accounts are often impressive and heartfelt, but they tend to isolate the sport from wider changes, to be strongly national-based, to begin with unexplained assumptions or assertions about the ‘rights’ of football fans, and also to have a powerful masculinist emphasis. They also tend to be quite static and sometimes fixed in their ideas about late-modern sports fandom. They often threaten simply to set up, as binary oppositions, for example, ‘fans’ against ‘consumers’, ‘live’ attenders against TV fans, and ‘traditional’ supporters (good) against ‘new’ fans (obviously, bad). They sometimes seem to conflate judgements on claims for fan ‘authenticity’ largely with assessments of their sex and social class background – and this in a period when actually analysing and ‘reading’ class is, itself, no simple task. They seem premised, finally, on what I would contend are rather overly simplistic and economistic arguments about a new, largely domestic ‘business class’ which has, allegedly, strategically ransacked the sport for profit in the face of concerted and apparently homogeneous opposition from ‘the fans’ who, themselves, have fully worked through and agreed upon social democratic (or better) solutions to the sport’s now rather entrenched inequalities.

Despite the important and impressively critical edge of much of this work and, not least, its conclusions on the real corrosive effects of the ‘free market’ on football (high ticket prices, crisis clubs, and so on), I would like to argue we also need other, much more broadly based, analyses of ‘new’ football in order to tease out the real significance of recent changes in the game. Fortunately, other responses to recent developments are also available. Richard Giulianotti’s complex, sociological and anthropological, account of football’s international transformation from a ‘traditional’ sport to its ‘modern’ and, now, ‘postmodern’ forms, for example, has much more to recommend it.14 But it is also restricted in its usefulness, in my view, by its own ‘masculinist’ frame and, ironically, by the fact that it actually lacks a really convincing political economy of the changes which have occurred, admittedly in a global context, at different rates and in different ways at particular moments in a range of footballing cultures and economies.

John Sugden and Alan Tomlinson’s work on FIFA has no such problem.15 Instead, it is a sophisticated, invaluable and properly sociological analysis of transnational political and economic change in the history, structure and dynamics of one of sport’s, and the world’s, most powerful and influential non-governmental organisations. As we have seen, FIFA is now a key actor in the new socio-economic international relations of football, including club football. Theorising FIFA’s role in the new future for football will, surely, have to be a key part of any real understanding of the reshaping of domestic and international football markets.

Ian Taylor’s extremely perceptive and subtly critical analysis of the emergence of the FA Premier League, and of what he calls ‘market football’,16 is singled out in its importance by his unusual determination to move beyond conventional conceptions of ‘fandom’ and to look at how supporters connect with the sport at what he calls ‘the level of the imagination’. This is especially persuasive in this context because, as Taylor argues:

If, with the editors of fanzines and the organisers of the Football Supporters Association, we spend too much time bemoaning the loss of the ‘true’ terrace football follower we may be missing the significance of the emergence, rather closer to home, of new ways of being a fan, for example, and new ways of proclaiming, in an increasingly globalised world, one’s local origin and identity.17

Accounts of this kind are premised, at least in part, on associated psycho-social shifts in late-modern identity formation, including what the sociologist Ulrich Beck has called the rise of ‘individualisation’.18 One does not have to accept the dubious premise of the ‘inevitability’ of ‘free markets’,19 or the quite ridiculous claims about ‘classlessness’ in Britain, or even cling to the impossibilism of a return to a reworking of the post-war Keynesian settlement to see, as Will Hutton argued recently,20 that we are, indeed, living in an age when some of the old parameters of identity construction, through gender relations and the family, work, social class and local community networks are, certainly, eroding or changing. As these old sources change, we are pressed more to become the creators of our own identities, primarily through diversifying patterns of leisure and consumption. Hutton and Martin Jacques21 argue that these shifts can be used to account for the recent huge rise in the popularity of sport and of personal fitness and even for the recent growth of individual (over team) sports.

The uncertainty and ‘risk’ involved in the construction of late-modern identities may also account, of course, for some of the important new ways that fans now connect with their favoured football clubs. This is especially the case in relation to the ways emerging club/fan links might now contradict more normative gender and class identities, and also the changes in the specifically modernist ties of family and place which have traditionally connected especially male football fans with their local clubs. It will not deal, however, with the very real cleavages which have clearly opened up between less affluent, local male followers and football clubs at the highest levels of the sport in England in recent years, and at a time when inequality in Britain has generally been rising.22

The extent to which such barriers, of price and ticket access, act alone against live football match attendance, and can now be said to constitute a key form of ‘social exclusion’ in the 1990s is a moot point.23 This is especially so in the light of the wide range of other, mediated, relations with football clubs which are available and which are increasingly mobilised today, and the arguably much more pressing and more fundamental sources of social exclusion which have become more solidified in the last 20 years, for example: the relative lack for the urban poor of reliable forms of employment and decent pay; of good social housing and health care; of reasonable educational and training opportunities; of public safety at home and on the street, and so on.24 Certainly, however, it is undeniable that previously well-established ways of passing on important traditions of ‘live’ working-class male football support, specifically from father to son, have indeed been seriously disrupted in many major English footballing cities in the recent period and have probably added to the very real sense of social and psychic isolation of white urban working-class males in Britain in the 1990s.25

Anthony King’s recent work on ‘masculinist’ Manchester United fans takes up some of these important themes,26 but it is also significant for the ways it tries to locate the ‘new consumption’ of football within this wider discourse on the post-Fordist transformation of social and economic relations in Britain, and also of the new importance of cities and regions – rather than nations – in emerging new global cultural and economic networks. Again, aspects of King’s approach are, arguably, overly economistic and, like almost all accounts of contemporary fan culture, he focuses too much on a relatively small part of the football audience: young, working-class, white males who follow a very large club. But he is successful in identifying both forms of resistance and compliance, for example, among ‘the lads’ in Manchester to new forms of football consumption. Young United fans such as these are strongly opposed to aspects of the new consumption of football – for example, the so-called new ‘consumer’ fans, the excessive merchandising, the seats – but they are also very proud of the business acumen and success of the club’s administrators, and even of its stadium and products. They see the club in a very new cultural and market position vis-à-vis other large European clubs. In this sense, even ‘masculinist’ fandom in the 1990s both resists and, paradoxically, contributes to the new consumer trends in the sport and, indeed, to its ‘globalisation’.

King also highlights, importantly, the new preferred guise, for these fans, of United as a post-national, regional but fully European club, a club which now increasingly strains at its identification by the British media as a signifier for England, or a ‘representative’, for example in European club competitions, of the FA Premier League itself. Instead, the club signifies for these supporters, specifically, new and important aspects of the search for ways of expressing a properly European cultural identity which both has strong regional resonances with United’s north-west Manchester location but which also profoundly bypasses the national. Talk here, therefore, in any simple terms at least about the regulation of football in a national context is to lose sight not only of the new global economics of top football but also of the extent to which the new traditions of articulating and expressing attachments to major football clubs – and also what such clubs now mean to their followers – already extend some way beyond the domain of nation states and of their own signifiers.


In this chapter I have tried to look at recent changes in global, ‘market’ football by comparing it with the national, ‘Keynesian’ model of football in England in the 1960s. I have used a case study of the FA Cup because of recent indications that the new conditions of ‘market’ football require that the current holders of the cup, Manchester United, will play elsewhere during the 1999–2000 competition. The role of the FA itself in United’s absence from its own prized national competition reveals, I have argued, both the complexities of new post-national football tensions, and reasons why the FA may not be the most appropriate choice for a new and effective regulatory role in English football.

I have also argued that journalistic and some academic accounts of recent changes in the game, impressive as they often are, are much too narrowly focused and too economistic, and that they miss, for example, important aspects of the effects in sport of ‘de-traditionalisation’, as a social and economic process which creates the conditions, not only for increasing personal insecurity, but also for the ‘reflexive’ renegotiation of personal identity – perhaps through sport and sports spectatorship.27 The obvious need for some form of regulation in football, of a kind which limits some of the recent damaging effects of the free market – and of increasing general inequality in Britain in the 1990s – must be assessed against this wider canvas of recent social and economic changes. It must, if it is to be effective and relevant, I have argued, take into account, above all, the changing nature and context of football ‘fandom’ in the 1990s and the new post-national interpenetrations of football cultures.

At lower levels of the league structure in England, where finances are especially tight, there is a good reason to argue that the old ‘commercial’ models for smaller football clubs are now simply outmoded, and that imaginative new forms of club control and financing – which centrally involve supporters and other local stakeholders – are likely to be much more desirable and more successful in the longer term than any simple reintroduction of traditional forms of economic cross-subsidisation between professional clubs.28 Any economic support system linking larger clubs with smaller clubs must deal, it seems clear, with issues of club structure and control as well as with simple finance. Fans, it should also be noted, can be strikingly conservative, too, even when potentially ‘progressive’ changes to club structures are in the offing.

Finally, it should be clear that – even if Merseysiders and others who have suffered in the 1990s might want it – there can be no return to the English footballing ‘island state’ of the 1960s. This is not to accede, limply, to the view that ‘nothing can be done’. Far from it. It is simply to recognise that the new millennium holds the sorts of new challenges for the game at national and ‘global’ levels which will have to be very differently addressed from those faced when Hunt, St John, Yeats and their colleagues at Shankly’s inspirational Liverpool were in their pomp.

Author’s note: I would like to thank Stephen Hopkins for his comments on an earlier draft of this chapter.