2012-13: An Elegy
Having seen our original brief cast asunder when one of our teams was promoted to the Premier League a year ago, equilibrium has been restored and it’s with a mood of keen anticipation that we look forward to blogging about the Football League and other topics in the new season. For now, however, we have decided to sign off for a month’s rest – but not before Steve Wright of the Nottingham Forest blog Mist Rolling in from the Trent supplies us with a few final words as well as a note of hope for the future.
Sometimes I think that we have lost sight of what a sport and a sporting club is meant to be and like many aspects of life, the whole principle has become blurred.
I believe that regional sporting teams should primarily be vehicles for local people to participate in the sport with the First Team acting as their representative in major national competition.
The focus of the club, therefore, is to facilitate teams across a range of ages and provide coaching to develop the skills of those sides while allowing a route to the representative side which plays for the pride of the local area against similar clubs from other parts of the country. Thus we have participation and representation and fun. This is the core purpose.
Watching the unfolding of events this past few months in the women’s game highlighted how this focus has slipped somewhat as money took the front seat in a revamping of the league structure and clubs with proud histories for running matches, developing local players and delivering strong representative first teams were cut adrift, such that no matter how well they perform on the pitch they can never progress.
In the men’s game, clubs have been reduced to little more than vessels for whatever an incumbent owner wishes to fill them with and the more money they bring with them, the more freedom they can have to do as they please. This year Cardiff City have been the obvious example of how everything is for sale and their promotion at the end of the season will be seen by many as vindication of that approach, but for other’s they have become Faustus FC making a pact with the Devil.
I find myself returning constantly to the sentiment that whilst everything in sport is focused on getting the result, it is not actually the result itself that matters. The result is a motivator, it is what we do everything else for, but it is a transient thing whereas the club is supposed to be solid and firmly rooted. As a recent t-shirt from The Blizzard and GoalSoul puts it “Goals are over-rated, the beauty is in the struggle”, the club exists for the struggle and the ebb and flow of results simply adds some drama.
It feels like in the minds of many the result has been elevated to become everything. If we win we are triumphant, even if the circumstances and events around the victory fly in the face of our personal and collegiate values, and if we lose we rile and rage at everyone and everything that we can possibly blame. Even if defeat is derived from a good, competitive game, somewhere a price must be paid.
The Premier League has been imbued with a spiritual value supported by its own liturgy and litany. The Championship playoff final has been described as the most important game in football, because it lifts you out of the forsaken Football League into the promised land of Premier League milk and honey.
The role of the football authorities should be to ensure that the clubs and competitions remain honest, to encourage as wide a participation in the game as possible by supporting infrastructure and to be a guardian of the rules. The authorities should be standing against the tide that insists that football is a business; but they are as captivated by it as everyone else and cannot see beyond their own income streams and the lifestyle they afford.
In England the transformation of football by “top” clubs into a business, through the creation of the Premier League, has caused a competitive environment that supercedes the sporting competition. The Premier League is often congratulated on the way it shares television revenues across its teams, whereas Spain for example allows Real and Barcelona to go alone and take the lion’s share, but because it is separated from the Football League, that sharing is self-limiting and poisons the wider national sporting environment.
The Football League, through a combination of fear and self-loathing, acquiesces to any hint of a threat from its all-conquering masters in the top flight. Those at the higher end of the League are focused on nothing but getting out of it and have no concern for the vast pyramid that sits beneath them whilst everyone else fears the loss of the few scraps that still fall from the top table and potential financial oblivion.
It seems that no one is prepared to take a moral stand against this ruination of the game either. Fans of Cardiff City watch their club’s history dismantled but are kept silent by a promotion that might be a mere fleeting memory in a few years, Leeds United and Nottingham Forest fans mock each other as they vie for the attentions of billionaires from the other side of the world, managers are turned over before they have even had time to introduce themselves to all of their new players and staff and a dysfunctional suicide system rolls on.
Yet, football is still inherently good. We have seen magic at the top of the game this season whether the infectious Borussia Dortmund in the Champions’ League or the heart stopping drama of the final moments of games between Watford and Leicester City in the Championship Playoffs or Doncaster and Brentford on the closing day of League One. Whilst away from the bright lights, Gwendoline Oxenham reminds us, in Issue 9 of The Blizzard and in her book Finding the Game, of the pure joy and transforming power of a simple kickabout game.
It isn’t too late to change the path and the important thing is to reconnect the impromptu game between friends on the street with the professional game. We need to learn the concept of enough when it comes to income streams and balance sheets and acknowledge the people in the stands as fans, not customers. We need to learn from the best of German football when it comes to ownership structures and ticket prices, rather than trying to knock them down as a threat; whilst celebrating a passionate history of our own which has sustained football clubs in every town and village for generations.
Football begins with a small child receiving a first ball and practising skills against a wall or a parent and from there leads an unbroken road to the final of the World Cup. We need to protect that road rather than building walls and laying traps for the sake of protecting share prices and that means making sure the child can go to games, can be inspired locally, has opportunities on their doorstep to learn and develop, will be encouraged to express themselves rather than abused into fearful play and can progress through their club and through a pyramid of fair competition.
Ultimately football is about hope and joy. Hope that you can rise to the top and joy at the struggle to get there. It shouldn’t be a disaster if your team is relegated or fails to qualify for the Champions’ League and it only becomes that if we make it so. Let’s start turning the tide.