Decline and Fall?: Football and “Failing” Towns

Posted by on Nov 8, 2013 in Uncategorized | 18 Comments
Decline and Fall?: Football and “Failing” Towns
Image available under Creative Commons (c) Rob Langham

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?

* * * * *

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. Stà¥le 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“.

Ben is a long-suffering Newcastle Utd supporter (is there any other kind?) who co-founded and co-wrote Black & White & Read All Over, a blog that, over the course of a decade, chronicled the ups, downs, chaos and calamity of the club he has the misfortune to follow. Since the blog hung up its boots in May 2014 (note: not as a mark of respect for Shola Ameobi leaving St James’ Park), he has contented himself with sporadic, splenetic Twitter outbursts and shamefully rare contributions to The Two Unfortunates. He is currently haunted by visions of Joe Kinnear returning to the club for a third spell and pondering whether he’ll live to see another victory over the Mackems, but at least has a cardboard coathanger with Robert Lee’s head on it for consolation.


  1. Lanterne Rouge
    November 8, 2013

    A brilliant article Ben and a strong candidate for any accolade of the finest we have ever published – superbly written and argued.

    I recall clearly the anti-Liverpool policies of the 1980s as well as a Panorama episode from around 1981 or 1982 which posited what the impact would be for the resident of a Glasgow street utterly bereft of jobs to move to Godalming in Surrey – in the wake of Norman Tebbit’s infamous, ‘get on your bike and look for work’ comment.- my own sharp turn to the left dates from around then.

    Good also to highlight that while The Economist is an impressive publication on many levels, it too often loses itself in the free market narrative – credit to the Financial Times (of all people) for putting them right. As for Hayek, how anyone post-2008 can still believe in the pure unhindered rightness of market forces is behind me.

    Steve Bruce’s spell at Sunderland does actually look respectable in hindsight though.

  2. Football and ‘failing’ towns - Hull City Online
    November 8, 2013

    […] Interesting article… […]

  3. Steve
    November 8, 2013

    An excellent read and full of wisdom that would benefit many a football club owner moving into territory they perhaps do not always understand.

  4. Kyle
    November 8, 2013

    Excellent article Ben – couldn’t agree more with your criticism of the Economist piece. One of the great things about football is how a team can project civic pride. Middlesbrough are an interesting case I think. The only (or at least most obvious to me) way the town gets positive press is through the actions of its football team, otherwise the narrative is exactly the one you’ve expertly filleted above. At its best a football club can provide a corrective to that and can project people’s pride in their town and team on a much wider scale (though that projection can be a double-edged sword when it comes to media portrayals of the fans of certain clubs). That makes it all the more of a shame when an area/town’s struggles are mirrored in their football club as has been the case of Middlesbrough recently.

  5. Neil - Row Z
    November 8, 2013

    Interesting article, particularly re: the link between clubs and communities. I think in the long run though the state of the local economy does have an impact on teams fortunes. There are of course always exceptions, but just witness the shift in power from the north to London, or the decline of Nottingham Forest and Notts County in the wake of colliery closures (as I’ve made a graph of here)

  6. Stanley
    November 10, 2013

    A fine critique of The Economist piece, Ben, and a fine piece of your own too. As advocates of unfettered markets are often prone to doing, The Economist forgets that the value of some things cannot be measured in pounds and pence. Civic pride is (or, at least, used to be) one of them.

    However, as you point out and this website regularly emphasizes, football is subject to economic trends, just as other industries. Historical factors mean that the effects have taken longer to become visible, but the case of Middlesbrough and the growth of clubs such as Reading show that those effects are being felt. Despite being a proud Londoner, I’m very aware that, in political and economic life as in football, the country’s affairs are becoming ever more centralized, to the detriment of once productive towns and cities. But what we need is not the callous, US-style abandonment of people unlucky enough not to live in the capital. Provincial towns and cities once nurtured institutions and people of vision and ambition. We need our political leaders to take inspiration from the likes of Joseph Chamberlain again, otherwise the current success of Burnley will become even more of an outlier than it seems now.

  7. Rob
    November 10, 2013

    This is not going to go down well at all here but I feel I have to respond. A couple of notable facts that probably explain my reaction, and potential bias, before we begin: first, I’m a southerner; second, I am ruthlessly unsentimental about football and about clubs in particular.

    Furthermore, I do not wish the below to be taken as a critique of or slant on this site, which is genuinely very good and enjoyable to read. Even this piece, which I will respond to below, was well-written and fun to get through even if I disagreed with almost every word on the page.

    Okay, so here goes:

    I fundamentally disagree with almost everything written above. I don’t have any sense of regional pride and I strongly believe that if you’re attached to where you were born simply because you were born there and your family was too, you’re an idiot. If your attachment is so strong and fundamental to your personal identity that you won’t move away even if it means never getting a job or having a life, you’re an even bigger idiot.

    It is never the government’s job to make sure places with no natural economic sustenance flourish. Some places – like Middlesbrough, Wolverhampton, Hull, Hartlepool and Burnley – are always going to be relatively impoverished s**tholes and if you choose to stay there because you’re delusionally attached to your surroundings then that’s your personal choice to live in a relatively impoverished s**thole.

    I find it extremely offensive, theoretically speaking, that people apparently won’t move from Middlesbrough to somewhere else in the UK to find work. In a globalised economy of widespread mass migration, particularly from LEDCs to MEDCs, British people refusing to move in order to survive is not local pride, it’s bone-headed preciousness and utter c**tery.

    “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” could well be the most northern sentence ever written. People *are* statistics and the availability of work is almost entirely why people choose to live (or to stay) in a particular place.

    As an aside, the Bobby Robson quote: bulls**t. Unrefined romanticised, mythologised and deluded bulls**t. In fact, the entire football section in general: bulls**t. It has nothing to do with what came before.

    So that’s my two cents.

    This sign-off may come across as sarcastic but I genuinely mean this: keep up the good work, guys.

    • Ben
      November 12, 2013

      First of all, Rob, to echo the spirit of your comment, I’d like to thank you for making clear you’re shooting the message (and then tweeting about it!) rather than the messenger.

      It’s clear that we hold fundamentally different opinions and that no amount of argument or dialogue is going to sway us from our entrenched positions. However, I do think it’ might be productive to respond to some of your comments, if only to get a better understanding of where you’re coming from. While you’re of course entitled to your opinion on the football section, for instance, it would nevertheless be helpful to have more constructive criticism than simply branding it ‘bullshit’ – presumably you have good reason for that strength of feeling.

      I should make clear that I myself am an ‘exile’, a Geordie by birth but living in Oxfordshire – and yes, I currently choose to live here for economic reasons (because of my line of work). Yet, as a new father whose own parents aren’t getting any younger, a move back north holds increasing attraction – for childcare reasons as well as familial ties. These may well end up overruling the economic imperative – and I’m sure this is the case for many, many others like me.. In the south, it seems to me, things are more fluid and the acceptance of moving for work (or for any reason) is much more tolerated. (As an aside, both my parents are southerners by birth but have become honorary northerners, with all the pride in the region that that involves, and wouldn’t contemplate for an instant the possibility of ever moving back south.)

      Ultimately, I think having the choice is important. The Economist’s proposal would essentially involve coercing people into moving away from their home towns – I don’t see how that can be defensible.

      As someone who feels no regional pride, it’s little wonder really that you can’t understand the concept or what significance it might hold for people. I’d be interested to know if you do think this lack of regional pride is genuinely a southern phenomenon – if so, then both of our outlooks are the result of accidents of birth, not just mine.

      Moreover, I’d be intrigued to know how you came across this post. If you’re a reader of The Economist who sympathises with the magazine’s stereotyping, then this was never likely to win you around. Indeed, I’d also be interested to know who you support and why – and if you take pride in supporting the English national team. Are you even a football fan at all? You refer to yourself as being ‘ruthlessly unsentimental’ about the sport. Yet it strikes me that, wiithout a degree of sentimentality, football simply wouldn’t hold the same appeal – after all, when you look at it soberly it’s a world of frequently despicable characters, corruption, nefarious acts, dodgy dealings, unethical and unprincipled practices and vicious inegalitarianism. Such things are regularly the subjects of posts on this site, and yet all of us retain an unswerving passion for the sport – testament to the power of sentimentality. Isn’t a degree of sentimentality essential to the sense of attachment that is what actually makes you a fan rather than a passive neutral observer? If so, then you’re effectively branding all football supporters as deluded idiots – in which case you’re right that you won’t find much sympathy here!

      • Rob
        November 13, 2013


        Thank you for a considered and understanding reply. You make several valid points and ask pertinent questions that I will do my best to answer.

        Firstly, your experience and as an economic exile is interesting and enlightening, as is that of your family. While I appreciate the veracity and relevance of your example, I cannot empathise or express similar thoughts. Perhaps it is because I am still relatively young in the grand scheme of things (24) and have never lived further than a two hour drive from my hometown until now.

        I am currently in Argentina and the only thing I can imagine making me wish I was back in the UK is if I develop serious health problems. I have never, ever valued my hometown or home region in any way, shape or form and I never envisage yearning to return.

        The idea that my hometown and its communities and traditions (whatever they are) intrinsically form part of my identity is utterly abhorrent to me. While undoubtedly products of our respective environments, we are defined by our choices, beliefs and deeds, not by our places of origin and their supposedly entrenched cultures.

        Do I think this belief is representative of a southern phenomenon? I don’t know. That is a question that needs to be posed to a wiser man. What I do believe is that the stereotypes of friendly, community-minded northerners and cold-hearted, individualist southerners continue to endure and irritate me greatly.

        The article above drew my ire because, far from seeking to address and confront said stereotyping, it simply reversed it, actively seeking to propagate reductive ideas by portraying the Economist article as illustrative of southern avarice and snobbery.

        Its retort was that the quantities valued in “failing towns” in the north — surprise, surprise: community, conviviality, custom — are not appreciated by us hard-nosed bean-counters in the south. To that I once again say: bulls**t. These values are appreciated uniformly, not just in the UK but all over the world. To write as though only a single region on Earth possesses those qualities is farcical.

        I found this quote from your reply particularly interesting: “Ultimately, I think having the choice [to stay at home or to leave] is important. The Economist’s proposal would essentially involve coercing people into moving away from their home towns — I don’t see how that can be defensible.”

        People have been coerced into leaving their hometowns in order to survive since the time of Neanderthals. For all global capitalism’s failings, this is not one of them. It is unfortunate — genuinely sad, even — but there’s nothing you or I can do about it. Defensible or not, them’s the rules and if you are not going to play by them, you are on your own. It is not up to the government to make sure you survive. Indeed, you have recognised this truth by moving south, as you said, so I do not see why you are arguing so passionately against it.

        To explain my reaction to the football section: it so irritated me primarily because, as I said, it had nothing to do with what came before. There is no connection, for example, between Sean Dyche’s recent success in his job and the relationship between regions in the north and in the south of England.

        The Economist is hardly likely to revise its forecasts and opinions on the attractiveness of its regions because of something as evidently irrelevant — regardless of your argument — as football teams. They deal in global realities, not regional distractions, although I accept that in their offending article they reprehensibly used prejudiced and inflammatory language.

        How did I come across this post? A friend posted it on Facebook and I clicked through to read it.

        Am I interested in football? No: I am obsessed with it.

        Who do I support? And why? I am a neutral. I grew up holding a Cambridge United season ticket but eventually realised that I was most interested in observing football objectively and analysing it as a technical exercise. I believe that supporting a single club is an irrational decision that lessens one’s enjoyment of the sport and only leads to negative emotion as clubs inevitably seek to exploit their blindly loyal consumer base.

        The things about football that I care most about are observable technical skill, intelligence, financial sustainability and youth development. Do I support England? No. Do I care about English players and their development? Yes. Why? Because I want everyone to have the same chance to reach their maximum potential and English players do not have that due to their education.

        I firmly believe that football does not exist primarily to serve the fans, despite the ideas of egotistical supporters the world over. We are, quite correctly, a long way below the game’s players, its officials, its media and its sponsors. The fact that English football culture has placed paramount importance in both fans and the autonomy of small clubs that should have been dissolved years ago is one of the reasons for our repeated qualitative failure. I would like to repeat that this is my subjective view and I am not stating it as fact.

        So, yes, I am “effectively branding all football supporters as deluded idiots.” Self-important, over-sentimental, thunderingly stupid consumers they most certainly are. But if you’re happy being that manner of deluded idiot, why not carry on? It is your life, not mine, and you can do whatever you want.

        “it strikes me that, wiithout a degree of sentimentality, football simply wouldn’t hold the same appeal — after all, when you look at it soberly it’s a world of frequently despicable characters, corruption, nefarious acts, dodgy dealings, unethical and unprincipled practices and vicious inegalitarianism.”

        Those things are true of almost every organised phenomenon in the world, when viewed soberly. Whether or not that matters is another thing altogether. For me, football is a pretty game played by some extremely skilled individuals. It is a lot of fun to watch them and to play myself. Football is not genuinely important, nor should it be considered so. It is disposable fun and a distraction from the genuine issues we as a species should probably be dealing with instead.

        I guess that is about everything I have to say. I hope you are satisfied by my explanations and I apologise if, as I suspect they probably have, they have infuriated you. And if all of the above makes me a pretentious, southern, Economist-propaganda-swallowing w**ker, so be it.

        • Ben
          November 21, 2013

          Thanks for your lengthy reply, Rob – this gives much more substance to your original comment. To pick up on a few points, and set a few things straight:

          1. If you read the post carefully, you’ll notice that I was cautious not to endorse north/south stereotypes. At one point, I explicitly said: ‘(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.)’ At no stage did I claim that community etc are things only to be found in the north of England and nowhere else in the world, and neither did I make the point that the seat of government and the offices of The Economist are in the south, as if that’s a reflection of southern attitudes to the north – you’ve read that into it. My point was specifically about the perspectives of government and the magazine, rather than a region. Of course, the north/south divide was naturally going to feature to an extent, given that all of the places identified as “failing” towns are north of the Watford Gap, but I was careful not to play that card.

          2. I also never said that location/region determines identity (its influence can be transcended), but it’s certainly a hugely significant factor for a large number of people, even if it isn’t for you. The problem I have here, and with your argument generally, is your tendency to express a completely valid personal view but then state (or imply) that anyone who thinks differently must by their very nature be an idiot. The smug assumptions that “observing football objectively and analysing it as a technical exercise” and being able to see through clubs’ corporate exploitation of their fans makes you somehow superior to your average stupid sheep-like supporter, for instance. Pointing out that supporting a club is an “irrational decision” is hardly revelatory – it’s stating the obvious. Rationality depends on choice, and, to paraphrase the signs at Goodison Park, most of us do not choose, we are chosen. If it was a rational decision, we’d all be Barcelona fans. But it isn’t, so the vast majority of us aren’t – and are proud not to be.

          3. You don’t seem to understand the meaning of the word “coerced”. I haven’t been coerced into leaving my hometown for work – I’ve been induced to do so. In other words, I chose to move, attracted by somewhere else rather than being actively forced out of the place I grew up in. If government was to give up on “failing” towns, as The Economist recommended, then it would be effectively coercing people to leave them. (As an aside, a follow-up post about establishing new towns – the places to which people from “failing” towns might be attracted – may appear at some point in the future.)

          4. The football section is there because ultimately this is a football website (albeit one that takes in the broader picture). The “failing” towns story gave us a good angle to look at certain clubs and a range of related issues. Admittedly the relative health and success of individual football clubs is of little note to government economic policy, but describing football clubs as “regional distractions” is patronising and belittling. Neither is football merely “disposable fun” – it’s a hugely influential economic and cultural force in the global terms you’re keen to talk in, and one that therefore needs to be taken seriously (as this site does). Of course football is also entertainment, but to effectively shrug your shoulders and say you don’t care about all the unethical things done in football’s name as long as what you watch is “pretty” is ridiculous.

  8. billmapguy
    November 12, 2013

    Great work Ben!. I stopped reading the Economist years ago when I realized that their unfettered-free-markets-ideology got in the way of their reporting. That commenter Rob proved his troll-hood by his put-downs and swear-words and all I have to say about someone who says that ‘people are statistics’ is shut up, troll.

    • Ben
      November 13, 2013

      Thanks Bill! I have no problem with the swearing, though would have liked it to have been backed up with some substantive arguments…

      • Rob
        November 13, 2013

        billmapguy: if I were trolling I wouldn’t have written several long paragraphs and made a concerted effort to lessen the potentially combustive nature of my criticisms. FWIW, when I said ‘people are statistics’ I did not argue that ‘people are *only* statistics’: only a c**t Tory would do so.

        Perhaps it would be more accurate to say ‘people are *also* statistics’. Indeed, it is undeniably true that most of the world’s population, forever unknowable even if a lifetime is spent travelling from place to place, exists in our minds as nothing more than an abstract notion: a statistic.

        That was my point and I defy you to disprove it. Or, you can just say “shut up, troll” and feel very superior. Your call.

  9. billmapguy
    November 14, 2013

    People are not statistics. People are living things, hopefully living things with manners. Manners involve treating people with respect. That is the basis of society, and statistics have nothing to do with that. Use of foul language and name-calling in public forums is the opposite of that. If one has a strong argument, such carrying-on only serves to undermine one’s position. And little asterisks don’t lessen the words – we all know what you are saying (more like what you are yelling). Calling people who won’t move out of places like Burnley ‘idiots’ is not my idea of a good debate position, and it certainly is not a socially acceptable way of discussing economic problems in society. Oh, but I forgot, the goddess of the Right, Mrs. Thatcher, once said ‘there is no such thing as society’. Ha! The failed Tory policy of austerity is the problem, not people stuck in economically stagnant areas. Have a nice life and don’t forget wash your mouth out with soap.

    • Rob
      November 14, 2013

      Okay, Bill, here’s how it is.

      1. I did not treat anyone with disrespect at any point. Disagreeing, even forcefully, is not inherently disrespectful. Swearing, even strongly, is not inherently disrespectful. Ben even said in his reply to you that the swearing had not upset him. Any disrespect in my words was literally imagined by you.

      2. I just explained how people *are* statistics. I do not deny that they are living things as well, and nor did I at any point, but you cannot base global economic policy on the emotional and sentimental ties of a minority population in one region and prosper – especially not in a globalised economy involving 7bn people. It’s just not possible. As I said to Ben earlier, that’s not how it would be if I were making the rules but I’m not making the rules, I’m trying to play by them, as we all are. Anyway, I kindly ask you to please read the words on the screen as they are given and not as your frothing mouth wants them to be. I hope that will minimise misunderstandings in future.

      3. “Calling people who won’t move out of places like Burnley ‘idiots’ is not my idea of a good debate position” – I suggest you try reading some of the 1,500+ less flippant words I have put forward in this discussion then. At least some of those contained what I’d hope most objective observers would describe as acceptable points, conducive to healthy debate. As an aside, if I told you that I was from a southern equivalent of Burnley and additionally had family from Burnley, would that change your position? I am not some Old Etonian in waiting. I’m just trying to be realistic and fair.

      4. This is the most important one: never, ever, ever compare me to Thatcher again, please. In fact, pretty please with a cherry on top. I would sooner lower myself into a vat of hydrochloric acid at a speed of 1cm per hour than vote Tory. You don’t know me or anything about my political views, and I wouldn’t base my guesses on anything I’ve written in this thread. That said, there are actually a few giveaways in my last post to B

      • Rob
        November 14, 2013

        Somehow leaned on the mouse and clicked submit early. Fail. Last sentence should read:

        “That said, there are actually a few giveaways in my last post to Ben.”

  10. Hull City: Mes que un Club, Mes que un Juego? | The Two Unfortunates
    December 3, 2013

    […] an outstanding article for this website last month, Ben Woolhead took to task The Economist’s assertion that it may be time to let the North of […]

  11. Book Review: Sport in Capitalist Society: A Short History | The Two Unfortunates
    February 19, 2014

    […] way for working-class communities to express a sense of belonging, or identity” – a powerful and intimate geographical, social and emotional connection that persists today and that is the reason clubs are collective rather than singular […]


Leave a Reply