Decline and Fall?: Football and "Failing" Towns
Last month The Economist hit the headlines for publishing a distinctly unflattering portrait of several British towns including Wolverhampton, Hull, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough. As the stats – for unemployment in particular, but also educational standards, welfare cuts and numbers of empty retail units – made clear, the towns and cities in question are undeniably enduring tough times. But the emotive choice of title for the article (“Rustbelt Britain“) and such sentences as “In Hull, teenagers in baseball caps and tracksuits wander aimlessly” betrayed a sneering, superior attitude encountered most frequently in the pages of the Daily Mail. A graph showing the unemployment figures was almost inevitably captioned “Grim up north, and in the Midlands“.
Even more controversial, however, was the editorial leader that the article prompted. While the original piece at least maintained the pretence of being an objective description of a depressing reality, the leader – which added Burnley to the mix – was nakedly and unequivocally prescriptive. Its core message to policy makers? “Governments should not try to rescue failing towns. Instead, they should support the people who live in them. That means helping them to commute or move to places where there are jobs – and giving them the skills to get those jobs.”
This was a breathtaking recommendation – though not without precedent. It recently emerged that in the mid 1980s, in the wake of the Toxteth riots, Chancellor Geoffrey Howe encouraged Margaret Thatcher to adopt a policy of “managed decline” with regard to Liverpool. His argument was that attempting to fund the regeneration of the city was not only a vain pursuit but was also diverting valuable resources away from other parts of the country in which they could be put to more profitable use. Liverpool, run by a strong left-wing Labour council, was a persistent thorn in the Tories’ side, and so Howe’s proposal could be seen as transparently vindictive. (The Establishment’s attitude towards the city in particular, and its similarly antagonistic attitude towards football supporters in general, was to manifest itself most clearly in the institutional demonisation of Liverpool fans at Hillsborough in April 1989 – something covered up by politicians, the police and the media for two decades but finally revealed last year.)
As was the case with Liverpool in the 1980s, few would deny that the likes of Middlesbrough, Wolverhampton, Hull, Hartlepool and Burnley face very real challenges, having been disproportionately affected by the recession. Similarly, it’s hardly contentious to suggest that cash isn’t necessarily a panacea and that simply throwing money at problems without any kind of coherent strategy is only likely to bring about short-term fixes rather than long-term change. However, managed decline and its corollary, the uprooting of people from “failing” towns and cities to places of more plentiful employment, are proposed solutions that could only have been formulated by bean-counting wonks in Whitehall, or by a journalist writing for a publication that enthusiastically championed the callous economic policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and the neoliberal theories of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek that underpinned them.
What such politicians and commentators fail to understand is that people are not statistics and that the availability of work is just one factor in why people choose to live (or to stay) in a particular place. Much more is at stake here – things that can’t be quantified, entered into a spreadsheet or neatly illustrated with a graph or pie chart, such as familial ties, civic pride and regional identity. “Place and community are important“, noted the author of The Economist‘s editorial leader, before proceeding to ignore them because they didn’t fit within the reductive logic of the piece. (It’s tempting to explain these omissions by suggesting that community spirit, civic pride and regional identity are all stronger in the north than in the south, but let’s leave the regional stereotyping and cliches to The Economist.)
In short, there are several critical factors that make it staggeringly naive to suppose that people could or indeed should be uprooted en masse and transplanted elsewhere. When a place’s residents feel at least partially dependent on that place for their sense of identity, it’s obvious that you can’t give up on the place without also giving up on its people. And if all that sounds too woolly and insuffiently hard-headed (I’m an arts graduate rather than an economist, after all), then it’s worth noting that the Financial Times‘ Brian Groom fundamentally disagreed with the Economist‘s proposal too.
While the maligned towns’ responses to both the Economist‘s original article and its accompanying editorial commentary weren’t framed in quite these terms, they were (needless to say) indignant. Many attacked what they felt was unfair defamation and victimisation. Hartlepool MP Iain Wright, for instance, blasted what he referred to as “really lazy, prejudiced, ignorant journalism“, and Hull council leader Steve Brady branded it “absolutely disgusting“. Councillors and MPs in Middlesbrough and Wolverhampton were also up in arms. One Middlesbrough resident was moved to pay tribute to the town in song, while in Burnley, MP Gordon Birtwhistle showed a Russian TV crew around the town and offered to do likewise for the author of the Economist article: “Unsurprisingly, he said he was too busy to come to Burnley right at this moment in time“.
Admittedly, some of those in Middlesbrough, Hull and Wolverhampton who commented on the articles in their local press agreed with the way their towns had been represented in the Economist‘s piece, pinning the blame for decline on the incumbent Labour councils. However, this was petty political point-scoring by dwelling on (or even accentuating) the negatives. Others flagged up the fundamental lack of investment by central government; indeed, it could be argued that cutting off the likes of Middlesbrough, Hull and Wolverhampton in order to divert funds to larger cities such as Newcastle, Leeds and Birmingham, as The Economist recommended, would hardly constitute a significant change of policy. A failure to invest results in a “failing” town – it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Nevertheless, as justifiable as complaining about under-investment is, businessman and former Newcastle chairman Sir John Hall has argued of the north-east, at least, that it’s vital to celebrate the positives if progress is to be made and the stigma of “failure” is to be consigned to the dustbin. This was something Steve Brady, for instance, instinctively acknowledged when he pointed out that Hull is “leading the green revolution” and has submitted “an exceptional bid for the City of Culture“. Writing in the Burnley Express, Chris Daggett offered a similar rebuttal: “Hasn’t Burnley just been named Most Enterprising Area in Britain 2013 and which team is top of the Championship?”
It’s on Daggett’s invocation of success on the football pitch that I want to now dwell. What connection or relation does a town’s football club have to the town itself and to its people? What function or role does it perform?
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Sir Bobby Robson posed an even more fundamental question: “What is a club in any case?” His answer was stirring stuff: “Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city.” This quote appeared on the front cover of Newcastle’s Evening Chronicle when the paper – recently banned from all of the club’s media facilities, along with its sister publications the Journal and the Sunday Sun – asked supporters to say what Newcastle Utd means to them in order to send a strong message to owner Mike Ashley. The fans duly responded in their droves and, perusing those replies, some interesting and interconnected common threads started to emerge.
Firstly, there was the feeling of community that supporting the club engenders: “a sense of togetherness“, “a sense of belonging“, “solidarity“. Secondly, there was the intimate relationship between the city and the club; the latter was described as “a major aspect of our proud regional culture” and “the heartbeat of an amazingly proud city. When Newcastle Utd does well, the whole city has a feelgood factor.” Thirdly, there was the issue of personal identity, which hinges on the aforementioned intimate relationship between city and club; one respondent exiled from the north-east referred to the club as “the glue that has given me a lifelong sense of connection to the region of my birth and my extended family“. And fourthly, there was the fact that the club can potentially embody and give expression to hopes, aspirations and dreams, and can be a crutch to cling to for reassurance in times of adversity: “a beacon of absolution from the daily mire“, as one respondent rather poetically put it.
We Geordies are sometimes guilty of romanticising and mythologising Newcastle Utd – the reality is that these four factors are almost certainly also relevant (if to varying degrees) to other clubs, including those of the five so-called “failing” towns upon which The Economist focused. It’s also true that football clubs perform other more obviously practical functions within their geographical context. Middlesbrough, Hull, Hartlepool, Wolves and Burnley all recognise their social responsibilities and the need to invest in the local communities, just as the communities invest in them, and pride themselves on involvement in a variety of education, health and social inclusion programmes aimed at a range of ages. And that’s not to mention the obvious boost they provide to their local economies.
The fact that football clubs are so tightly woven into the fabric of their immediate environment means that attempting to rip them out and transplant them elsewhere is as wrong-headed as the Economist‘s suggestion that people can be transplanted in a similar fashion. This is why there was (and remains) such ferocious opposition to Wimbledon’s move from south London to Milton Keynes following what could be called a period of managed decline, at the end of which Pete Winkelman and his consortium presented a move as the only possible option for salvation. The rebranding of the newly relocated club as MK Dons and the return of trophies to Merton Council were important, as it made clear the club no longer represented Wimbledon, though the retention of “Dons” still rankles with supporters of “phoenix club” AFC Wimbledon. As my fellow Two Unfortunates contributor John McGee noted, at least Winkelman has had the decency to acknowledge the damage done and has set out to make amends as best possible: “I can’t replay what happened in the past. What we are going to do is make a difference in our local environment.” And he’s been true to his word, with the club named as the Community Club of the Year for the south-east region in 2012.
As Lanterne Rouge detailed in a post on this site last year, club relocations are a relatively common phenomenon in both basketball and American football in the US, a consequence of the culture of franchising. However, the frequency of relocations across the Atlantic shouldn’t be mistaken for evidence that they’re universally accepted and tolerated by fans. On the contrary, protests were widespread and vociferous when owner Art Modell took the Cleveland Browns NFL side from Cleveland to Baltimore. Like the more infamous Detroit, Cleveland is a “failing” city suffering a hangover from the US’s industrial and manufacturing past, with a declining population of whom, at the time of the 2000 Census, more than 25% were living below the poverty line. Baltimore has faced a similar process of deindustrialisation but has shifted more successfully to a service economy and offered Modell the attraction of a population that is both wealthier and significantly larger. If (heaven forbid) the Wimbledon/MK Dons saga were to play out again in the UK, the case of the Cleveland Browns suggests that it might well be a club currently situated within a “failing” town that would be targeted. There would, I’m sure, be considerable resistance from fans, but it remains to be seen whether that would be enough.
So, what then of the football clubs of the Economist‘s five “failing” towns? Are they currently rich sources of civic pride and “beacons of absolution from the daily mire“? Or have their fortunes waned in tandem with those of their respective towns? Are they heartbeats in danger of cardiac arrest?
The fact that since 2009 all five clubs have suffered relegation would strongly suggest the latter; in fact, with the exception of Hartlepool, all have been demoted from the top flight in that time – significant because, as a recent Cardiff University study into Swansea concluded, the Premier League status of a club has a huge impact on the local economy. However, on closer examination the picture is considerably more complicated than that.
Middlesbrough have cultivated a particularly close relationship with the region through a productive youth system that has seen a succession of local lads promoted to the first team. This system is probably the envy of many a club; Mike Ashley, for instance, would love a steady stream of new players who don’t weigh heavily on either the transfer budget or the wage bill. However, that’s to overlook the fact that the youngsters have arguably often been pressed into service too early out of necessity and desperation. What’s more, few of the academy’s recent “golden generation“ could be described as having genuinely made the grade, and those who have – Stewart Downing, Adam Johnson, James Morrison, Danny Graham (at Swansea, at least) – are currently plying their trade elsewhere. Rather like Newcastle with Alan Shearer, Boro have sought to right the wrong of having missed out on local boy Jonathan Woodgate, but the once elegant and imperious central defender’s best days are clearly well behind him.
Middlesbrough were relegated together with Newcastle in 2009, but since then the trajectories of the two north-east rivals have been markedly different. While Newcastle escaped the Championship at the first time of asking, Boro have remained there ever since. Chairman Steve Gibson had widely drawn praise for retaining faith in his studious young manager Gareth Southgate following relegation, only to then give him the boot in October of the following season, with the club in a promising fourth position. His successor Gordon Strachan lasted less than a year in the job, jumping before he was pushed as the side languished in 20th.
In came club legend Tony Mowbray, and while he staved off relegation fears in his first season, he never made much headway towards a return to the Premier League, often cutting an uninspiring and charisma-free figure in post-match interviews. The expanse of empty red seats at the Riverside had increased by the time he was dismissed last month, after only two league wins all season and a League Cup exit to lowly Accrington Stanley. While Gibson strongly disagrees, Mowbray would no doubt attribute most of the current failings to a lack of investment relative to their rivals – a situation exemplified by the fact that their primary goalscorer Scott McDonald had his contract torn up in the summer because he was too expensive to keep, only for him to then be snapped up by a “smaller” club in the form of Millwall. Caretaker manager Mark Venus got his reign off to a flyer with a 4-0 Friday night thumping of Doncaster, but that was followed by a disappointing reversion to form at Blackburn. With respect to Middlesbrough, then, there do seem to be parallels between the plights of town and football club, and you suspect that things may get worse before they get better.
One of the names in the frame for the managerial vacancy at the Riverside is Colin Cooper, like Mowbray a former central defender and club stalwart. Cooper only left Middlesbrough in the summer, to take up his first manager’s job at Hartlepool. Relegated to League Two in May, Pools seemed to be suffering a serious hangover, winless in their first six league games and indeed goalless for the first five. Then suddenly something clicked, with five successive victories in October (including a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy win at Bramall Lane). Three points against Dagenham & Redbridge in their last outing took them to an unspectacular-sounding 13th, but so tight are the margins in the division that they’re only seven points adrift of current leaders Fleetwood. Things are finally looking up for the club, the fans and indeed the town, then – and, at the risk of overburdening young shoulders with the weight of expectation, 18-year-old Northumberland-born Luke James, who already has six goals to his name this season, might prove to be the embodiment of a brighter future.
If any club is likely to keep its feet firmly planted on the ground, though, it’s Hartlepool; after all, how many other clubs have over the last few years witnessed the spectacular demise of their traditional derby rivals? Darlington’s downfall had everything: greed, incompetence, idiocy, criminality and perhaps above all astonishing hubris (a 25,000 seater stadium named after the chairman, bids for Gazza and Tino Asprilla). In 2012, after a succession of administrations, the old club was dissolved and renamed as Darlington 1883, resurrected by the local community to whom it mattered so much, and re-entered the league structure in the ninth tier. While the Quakers are clearly a special case (though not dissimilar to Portsmouth), great care needs to be taken to ensure that in attempting to revive a failing football club you don’t accidentally end up with a failed football club. As with “failing” towns, investment is needed – but so is strategy and risk management.
Strategy and risk management were two things in short supply at Wolves, whose current predicament can be traced back to February 2012 and the rash dismissal of Mick McCarthy without having a replacement lined up. Regardless of chairman Steve Morgan’s laughable attempts to disguise the reality of the situation, McCarthy’s assistant Terry Connor inherited the role by default after several established names turned the job down, and proceeded to reward the board’s desperation-dressed-up-as-blind-faith with no wins from 13 games and relegation from the Premier League. Ståle Solbakken and Dean Saunders were equally disastrous appointments by a board who will have envisaged an immediate exit from the Championship, albeit in the opposite direction.
And yet this term Wolves’ notoriously grumbly supporters are actually wearing smiles, thanks to the club’s best start to a season for 64 years (and indeed their second best ever). Admittedly, the context is important – they’re slumming it in League One, and the fact that the visitors to Molineux are now Gillingham and Crawley rather than Man Utd and Chelsea has had a negative impact on the local economy and the buzz about town on matchdays. But the board finally look to have exercised sound judgement in their choice of the man to clear up the mess. Kenny Jackett quit Millwall in pursuit of “a new challenge“ and found one within a week. Charged with arresting Wolves’ sharp decline, he quickly set about shipping out the wantaway Big-Time Charlies and helping to rebuild the fractured relationship between the club and its fanbase. Perhaps the trauma of successive relegations was a necessary evil; perhaps, in stooping to conquer, they’ll come back much stronger than before.
Steve Bruce’s Hull are testament to that. Less than a decade after narrowly escaping the drop out of the Football League and surviving the very real threat of liquidation, the club found themselves in the top tier in 2008. Relegation back to the Championship after two seasons, a £7m pre-tax loss in that second Premier League year and another winding-up order could potentially have been the catalysts for another downward spiral, but sobriety prevailed, stability was restored and then, three years later, automatic promotion won ahead of several much-fancied sides. Hull are the only one of my five featured clubs to currently play in the Premier League and, on the evidence of their visit to St James’ Park, that status should be safe for at least another season.
Foreign investment appears to be key for the future of the town, with a proposed Siemens wind turbine factory expected to create 700 new jobs, just as it has been for the present of the town’s football club. Egyptian-born Assem Allam was the club’s knight in shining armour in 2010, loaning substantial sums to stave off the threat of administration and then funding the modest but astute player purchases that propelled the club to promotion. A hard-nosed businessman, he gave sentimentality short shrift by unceremoniously sacking local lad and fans’ favourite Nick Barmby for critical comments in the press, but appointing Bruce – a flop at Sunderland – appears to have been a masterstroke.
More controversial, however, has been his rubbishing of the “City” suffix as “irrelevant, redundant” and stated intention to rebrand the club as “Hull City Tigers”. When a supporters’ group opposed to the proposal met him, they cited the protection of heritage and history. To that, we can add identity; after all, if fans derive a sense of identity from their football club, as I’ve argued, then the club itself having a shifting identity is problematic and unsettling. Unlike Cardiff’s lunatic owner Vincent Tan, Allam hasn’t yet proposed changing the colour of the home strip, but he needs to be careful not to assume that his short-term financial investment entitles him to disregard the long-term emotional investment of thousands of supporters.
Finally, we come to Burnley FC – lest we forget, cited by Chris Daggett in the Burnley Express as a major positive for the town. And with very good reason. 33 points from the first 14 league matches, including a seven-game winning sequence, is a superb start to the season by anyone’s standards, let alone for a side widely considered among the Championship also-rans before the campaign kicked off. It was immensely satisfying to see ‘Arry Redknapp and his obscenely expensive QPR squad defeated by a table-topping Turf Moor outfit assembled for a fraction of the cost.
The result will have particularly smarted for Hoops’ striker Charlie Austin, a freescoring Claret until this summer who failed to get on the scoresheet while his former understudy Danny Ings did so twice. His injury problems finally behind him, Ings has seized the opportunity to fill Austin’s boots, with nine goals (and an England U21 call-up) to his name already. Ably assisting him up front with seven goals of his own has been Sam Vokes, a flop and terminal loanee at Wolves but now very much a permanent fixture in the side.
Much credit has to go to Sean Dyche, and to an enlightened Burnley board who recognised he was unjustly cast aside when new Watford owner Gino Pozzo swept into Vicarage Road. However, while the Clarets are clearly far from being a failing club – on the contrary, they’re inspirational overachievers – both Dyche and the board now face a difficult period and some tough decisions. Having manoeuvred themselves into pole position, do they invest in January in a bid to ensure promotion? Is it better to add reinforcements and risk upsetting the balance of the side and the attitude and atmosphere in the dressing room, or to leave the squad as it is and risk all the excellent foundation work being undermined by an injury crisis once the transfer window has closed? For the time being, though, Burnley fans needn’t worry; while I’m hesitant to refer to the “daily mire” of living in their town, it’s safe to say that their football club is indeed currently a “beacon of absolution“.