Preserving Football's Heritage: A Modest Proposal
Today, we welcome Susan Gardiner to The Two Unfortunates. Ipswich fan Susan took part in a conversational assessment of the fortunes of Ipswich Town FC back in May. Here, she turns her attention to matters of more general interest and crucial they are indeed given recent events. Susan is on twitter at @susan1878 and blogs at Those Who Will Not Be Drowned.
What’s the difference between Ipswich Town Football Club and Abbey Road studios, or between Hull City AFC and Harrods? Tempting as it might be to answer these questions facetiously, I’m asking them in order to make a serious point.
Reading articles in the media about the latest developments at Hull, Cardiff and Coventry, made me wonder whether it might be possible for the government to legislate so that football clubs can be “listed” like historic buildings. This might seem a little bit silly at first, but after visiting the English Heritage website, it seems to me that it isn’t such a crackpot idea after all. The English Heritage explanation of the concept begins:
Listing helps us acknowledge and understand our shared history. It marks and celebrates the building’s special architectural and historic interest, and also brings it under the consideration of the planning system so that some thought will be taken about its future.
So, why not apply this to something like a football club, as well as to a building? Of course, a football club is a more amorphous thing. It’s hard to pin down which bits are part of a multi-million pound business and which are intrinsic to a club’s history and culture, something that should never be bought or sold by billionaires in need of a hobby or hedge funds with a barely comprehensible agenda like SISU at Coventry City.
As someone who was involved in the designation of my football ground as an Asset of Community Value (ACV), through Ipswich Town 1st, the independent supporters’ trust, I’m aware that – although it’s a very valuable and worthwhile thing to do – it has limitations and cannot, for example, prevent a ground from being sold. Besides which, recent events have shown that it isn’t only stadia that can be affected by the machinations and ambitions of corporate owners. Things that are the very essence of a football club are at risk: club colours, the badge (both, in the case of Cardiff City), or the location of the ground (Coventry City playing in Northampton). Even the club’s name can be changed if the owner is determined to turn a historic club into a brand, as Hull City’s Assem Allam appears to be.
Listing historic buildings has developed over time so that it isn’t just aristocratic Theatres of Dreams that are being protected by English Heritage, but also the architectural equivalents of Gay Meadow or Layer Road – both of which have now gone, of course. Abbey Road studios, Harrods department store, Glasgow School of Art, Battersea Power Station are all listed buildings. Charles Rennie’s Mackintosh beautiful Art Nouveau designs in Glasgow are clearly worth preserving from an architectural point of view, but this doesn’t necessarily apply to recording studios, defunct power stations, old cotton mills or the houses where members of the Beatles grew up. They’ve been listed because of something less tangible, because they’re part of our culture, the culture of everyone who lives in this country, not just that of a privileged few.
Given the importance of sport, and football in particular, to the history and cultural life of this country, it doesn’t seem ridiculous to offer aspects of it some legal protection other than that of “intellectual property.”
What I’m proposing is not using the current law, which would not be able to protect things like club names, colours or badges, but a new system where supporters or other interested parties could designate what is of value to their club and have them protected. Of course, there will be arguments about what those things are. My own club’s badge only dates back to a fans’ competition in the 1970s and Brighton & Hove Albion have only been the “Seagulls” since 1977, following a brief period of being called the Dolphins. On the other hand, Ipswich Town’s colours have been blue and white since 1878, when it was an amateur set-up and known as Ipswich AFC.
The current system, where names are registered with the FA, does not offer enough protection or recognition of their historic and cultural value. Now Hull City’s owner has requested that the FA allow him to change the club’s name officially to Hull Tigers, and fans of that club – who, in the main, oppose it – desperately hope that they’ll be listened to. We’ll see how much importance the football authorities place on such matters. I hope that they’ll come down on the side of the supporters and tradition. Experience and MK Dons suggest that I may be disappointed.
It might be difficult to disentangle what is part of a football club’s heritage and what has become part of its marketing. Clubs don’t employ “Brand Protection Managers” for nothing. There’s a great deal at stake for clubs financially. In an 1997 interview, Ronald Crawford, Brand Protection Manager for Arsenal, explained how he had misunderstood what tradition meant to the fans: “Not growing up in the UK, I didn’t appreciate quite how passionate football fans are about what we as management do with the Arsenal assets. … Many fans have long-standing loyalties to the club that have been passed down from generation to generation. They feel as if it belongs to them, as indeed it does. That means they can also be sensitive about what we do — and how we go about it…. I didn’t appreciate the history of the name or its importance to our fans. … From an IP perspective, it made absolute sense to register it as a trademark, so that the club could protect it. But the fans felt differently. … If the club chooses to change the colour of its shirt or the style of its team kit, then it will be discussed and debated on the fans’ forums… so we need to keep in mind the different stakeholders.”
So even some people on the legal and financial side of the game can appreciate how meaningful these things are. And just as listed buildings can be protected from demolition at the whim of a new proprietor, there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be some recognition in law that the owners of football clubs can’t do the equivalent of knocking down a Georgian portico to accommodate a hideously inappropriate snooker room.
So what I’m proposing is that government enacts a law instituting a body that has the purpose of protecting the cultural heritage of football clubs and perhaps those of other sports too. Otherwise, it’s highly likely that Hull City supporters won’t be the only ones to have their return to the Premier League blighted by an attack on their traditions from an owner who appears to have little interest in – or understanding of – how they feel. We should recognise – and the owners of clubs, corporate and individual, should be made to recognise – that they are the stewards of those clubs and cannot do exactly what they wish without consultation or against the wishes of supporters.
There are undoubtedly many owners of football clubs who are keeping an eye on how things work out for Allam and Vincent Tan at Cardiff City. Franchises, name-changes, games played in other countries, are not so very far away, I fear, although they are a world away from the game that most British football fans know and love. The history and traditions of football clubs need protection and it would be better if that protection were enshrined in law as soon as possible, before the game changes beyond recognition.