Football's Unholy Trinity


After the recent ticket price protests Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football makes the case for rebuilding the fabled ‘people’s game’ from below

Holy Trinity...My favourite ever quote about politics is from Marx, "All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”  Spookily for a professed agnostic I find the word ‘holy’ also features in another favurite quote, this time from another 'red', Bill Shankly, that made a reappearance during the Liverpool fan ticket price protests. “At a football club, there's a holy trinity - the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don't come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques." Apply Marx’s dictum to modern football, Liverpool, virtually any other Premier League club and a decent chunk of the Championship and below too, the scale of the profanity is off the satanic scale. As for Shankly’s trinity not much of it's holiness remains either.

Recently the Premier League made a big deal of their rebranding. Call me old skool if you like but I date the start of the profanity to when the First Division became the ‘Premiership’, complete with super Saturdays and Sundays. Swiftly followed by the farce of a Division Two becoming ‘The Championship’ and the ludicrous renaming of Divisions Three and Four as Leagues One and Two. When marketing tramples on language to this scale something is seriously amiss. Language is power, it’s rewriting for the most spurious of ends will only end in something rotten.

So you’ll forgive me if I didn’t celebrate the Liverpool fans’ ‘victory’ over the £77 top price tickets in Anfield’s new stand with quite the gusto of some. This is nothing to do with club rivalry, well done to those Liverpool fans. But for all the their agitation the result is simply the preservation of the status quo - an over-priced game. The only substantial difference achieved was a favourable public relations gloss for the owners replacing the hitherto unfavourable one. Just a moment or two on a calculator reveals the scale of the hoodwinking going on. 1,000 tickets free to local school kids over the course of a season amounts to some 0.2% of all tickets that will be sold. 10,000 tickets at £9 total 2%, another 20,000 tickets at reduced prices for 17-21 year olds another 4%. It’s a tiny minority of those sold at higher prices, one that becomes even smaller when Cup and European games are factored in. A sop. Meanwhile those fans who walked out on the totemic 77th minute were barely a quarter of those at Anfield.

As fans there’s a collective indulgence in a different version of the misuse of language. ‘We had a decent result against XYZ Utd.’ There is no trinity anymore of the kind Shankly was describing, and thus no such ‘we’. The fans represent a community of interest of course. But players move on at will, managers too, taking their entire backroom staff with them, club strips change every season complete with shirt masker and sponsor dwarfing the club badge, which, ignoring any sense of history, frequently changes too. Historic grounds move, changing their name as well with the sale of stadium naming rights. Owners buy and sell clubs at will to the highest bidder. So who’s this ‘we’?

The ‘we’ is the constance of our support, meanwhile as Marx predicted everything else solid melts away. No, fans are not customers, nor are we consumers in the traditional sense. But that has hardly served our interests any better as a result. We won’t switch our loyalty and support to the other lot down the road because their tickets are cheaper, the sightlines in their stadium better, they play a more attractive or successful type of football. So ‘our’ club can do almost anything they want and nothing very much changes. For all the huff and puff on 5 Live’s 6.06 radio phone-in, there is no meaningful debate to effect any change to a steadily worsening situation. At the same time the leverage fans might have is steadily reduced as the percentage of our club’s income from the tickets they sell us gets smaller and smaller.

Despite all this there are plenty of instances that continue to make me proud of our football and provide me with a pride to call myself a fan. But they exist almost entirely outside the mainstream game. Just a few examples from the past few weeks that barely got a mention alongside all the media coverage of those Liverpool fan protests. Dulwich Hamlet anounce the hosting of a friendly match vs FC Assyria to raise funds for refugee charities. Football Unites Racism Divides in Sheffield are organising a festival to celebrate the women’s game. The ongoing militant anti-homophobia of the Clapton and Whitehawk Ultras. The growth of  fan internationalism via the Glasgow, Yorkshire, London and other St Pauli Supporter Groups. The contunuing growth of the community ownership model of my club Lewes FC and plenty of others in non-league including, most famously FC United.  The wildly ambitious efforts of Hackney Wick FC to create a club from scratch rooted in community action. The work around diversity of the much-maligned FA, most recently their Disability Talent ID day organised by County FA’s across England. The latest Kick it Out Raise your Game event to extend the diversity of football’s workforce. The superlative practical contribution via coaching and mentoring of Football Beyond Borders.

This is football from beyond Shankly’s now broken holy trinity. It goes on mainly unheralded enjoying a relative autonomy from the business culture that dominates the modern game. None of it would exist without the broader platform football provides yet not much of it is shaped by what the mainstream game has become either. Hence the ‘relative autonomy’ of my lexicon of Marxist analysis. It is a relationship shaped by class relations. In Shankly’s era his holy trinity was founded on an essentially common experience – fans, players and managers -  framed by a working-class game. The money men, the local business elites of the butcher, baker and candlestick makers always had the ambition to divorce football from its origins. But the localism of football culture set limits to the scale of the disconnect they could effect. This is in essence what those Liverpool fans were seeking to defend. Not a ‘people’s club’ as such but at least a local club. It is the replacement of local business elites as owners by the global business elites of speculators, oligarchs and sheikhs that has massively accelerated the process of disconnection, it’s what turbo-capitalism does.

These various efforts outside the mainstream of football project an entirely different vision of what football might become. They are rooted in the values of the ‘people’s game’ yet are sensitive to the changes in class relations as much as patterns of ownership. Hence the centrality of issues of race, gender, sexuality and disability. There is a popular internationalism characterised by an affinity with the inter-cultural influence of resistant fan cultures wherever and whenever. And above all punk do-it-yourself ambition, if the owners of our clubs are going to make such a spectacular mess of running our clubs why not just run them ourselves.

There is of course a danger in over-stating the achievement of this other football. It remains a minority movement. But this is how almost all radical change has started.  Initiatives that exist at the margins of the mainstream. Power relations after all seek to marginalise women, black, lesbian and gay, refugee, disabled and working-class communities for a reason. Key to these various responses are their challenge to this marginalisation as part of remaining loyal to Shankly’s ‘holy trinity’. In this sense they are as much about reinvention as reclamation. Football from below. It’s an idea whose time has come.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction, aka Philosophy Football. His new book 1966 and Not All That is published in late April by Repeater Books