A young fan, not watching the European Super League (Photo by Hugh Hastings/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

April 21, 2021   7 mins

“Football matters. It is part of the fabric of English life in many different ways. It affects the hopes, dreams and the sense of personal identity of the millions who follow it and gamble on it and the hundreds of thousands who play it or watch it ‘live’.”

It is forty years since the academic and essayist Lincoln Allison wrote those words. Published in his collection Condition of England (1981), his chapter on football begins with a lyrical description of watching a typical autumn game at Turf Moor, then as now the home of Burnley Football Club. In Allison’s account, it is a crumbling, half-deserted world, haunted by the fear of hooligan violence. The November air, he writes, resounds to a “huge, joyous, rhythmic bark of ‘You’re-gonna-get-your-fuckin’-’eads kicked-in’”. Ah, the 1980s: a kinder, gentler age.

And yet, Allison admits, “scarcely a day has passed in my life when my mind does not entertain some thought, image, memory or hope about Association Football.” For him, as for so many of us, it is not merely a diverting hobby; it is something more. “Football is part of me and Turf Moor is a sort of spiritual home.”

At the end of his essay, he thinks back to “the most moving experience” he’s ever had at a football ground — Burnley’s encounter with Manchester United, the team of Bobby Charlton, George Best and Denis Law, in September 1968. As the reigning European champions, United were heavily favoured. For eighty-seven minutes, however, the home side held out.

Then, almost incredibly, Burnley scored. The old man standing beside Allison on the terrace, who did not know him at all, could barely believe it. “Bloody ‘ell!” he shouted, again and again. The two men hugged. When the final whistle blew the old man said “Bloody ‘ell!” again, and then left. They never saw each other again.

“In the year 2050, if there is a recognisable world,” Allison writes, “I want my great-grandsons, if there are any, to experience something like that three minutes, or, at least, to know what it was like. It all seems unlikely. But it’s possible.”

That story perfectly captures why millions of people reacted with such outrage to the utterly discredited plan for a European Super League, spearheaded by England’s so-called Big Six clubs. It was not just that the project would have destroyed the fragile competitive balance that, even now, allows a well-managed smaller team like Burnley to dream of beating an incompetently run colossus like Manchester United. It was more serious than that.

Football does matter. Allison was right in 1981, when English football, scarred by years of neglect, hooliganism and plummeting attendances, was at its lowest ebb. He is still right today. Football matters in the same way any faith or enthusiasm matters, because of the meaning people find in it, the sense of community and history, tradition and belonging.

You don’t even have to like it to recognise that it matters. You can hate the game itself, find the coverage overblown and regard the fans as ludicrous and objectionable, while still recognising that it means something. If a man tells you that he has loved Leicester City since he was a boy, that he sits in the same stand that his father and grandfather frequented every second Saturday, that nothing matters more than taking his daughter to see her heroes, that he cried when, as 5,000-1 outsiders, his team won the Premier League in 2016 — who are you to tell him that his faith means nothing?

When Boris Johnson spoke out against the Super League proposals, I scrolled idly through the comments on the Guardian website. As usual, they met all my expectations. How could he waste his time on such a trivial issue, when there were vaccines to arrange, and when so many people had died during the pandemic? Typical Johnson, trying to distract people’s attention from his own Tory sleaze! And who cares, anyway? Football has always been a business; it lost its soul years ago. It’s all Margaret Thatcher’s fault, anyway.

But it is precisely because football matters that Johnson, with a striker’s instinct for an open goal, was quite right to lead the chorus against the Super League. To millions of English fans, as to their counterparts across Europe, football allegiance means more than party politics. It’s pointless to tell them they are wrong; if they think it matters, it matters. To them — to us, I should say — it’s one of the precious threads that link us, not merely to friends, neighbours and fellow fans we will never know, but to generations gone by, to the men and women who walked this little patch of earth before us.

Indeed, even though we usually think of English football as a social democratic game, rooted in the industrial Victorian world that gave us the trade unions and the Labour Party, it’s also a perfect example of conservatism in action. Edmund Burke wrote that society was a “partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born”. That is precisely how millions of English fans think of their football clubs, too.

To some extent, I suppose, the forces that produced the seemingly abortive Super League have been there since the beginning. Left-wing writers often love to picture a prelapsarian footballing Eden, when nobody cared about money and greed had yet to invade the game. But that is rubbish. Right from the start, as football histories show, the game was defined by new money and new technology, from mass-market papers like the Daily Mail to newsreels and radios. Indeed, European football itself was created by precisely those forces: money, technology and the mass media.

In the late summer of 1953, Wolverhampton Wanderers installed a new set of floodlights enabling them to play a series of lucrative and immensely popular evening fixtures against some of the world’s top sides, such as the USSR’s Spartak Moscow and Argentina’s Racing Club. In December 1954 Wolves hosted the Hungarian champions, Honved, widely seen as the best club side in the world, and beat them 3-2. The British press went berserk, the Mail crowning Wolves the “Champions of the World”. The French paper L’Equipe objected, and suggested an annual competition to find out. And so the European Cup, the ancestor of today’s Champions League, was born.

That story has long since passed from history into myth, but I’ve always liked it for my own reasons. For me, and for many others, football has become a kind of personal mythology. My grandparents came from the Black Country; my mother was born in Wolverhampton. My grandfather went to see Wolves as a boy, but didn’t really enjoy it. When I was growing up nearby in the early 1980s, Wolves were terrible. At one point they slid from the top flight to the Fourth Division in successive seasons. The glories of the 1950s were long forgotten; instead, they now embodied what had happened to Britain since the Second World War, an industrial landscape ripped apart by mismanagement and decline.

But I did go, eventually. Having largely ignored Wolves when I was at school, I started going only after I had moved away to university in the 1990s. It was something to do when I came to see my parents, but what I liked about it most was the history. I liked the fact that Wolves had once been great — Champions of the World, no less! — and were now desperately trying to rebuild. I liked the fact that the club’s great modern hero, Steve Bull, was a local lad from Tipton, a trier with a Black Country accent thicker than gravy. I liked the fact that Edward Elgar, another Wolves fan, had cycled to Molineux from his Malvern home, and had even written the world’s first football anthem, with the catchy title: “He banged the leather for goal”.

Above all, I liked the fact that going to the games gave me a rootedness, a sense of connection, that I would otherwise have completely lost. A sceptic would say it was all in my head; that it was a vast exercise in expensive self-delusion; that all I was doing was wasting every second Saturday on the train to Wolverhampton, paying out good money to a succession of plutocratic owners in order to watch eleven immensely well-paid millionaires — most of whom, these days, are Portuguese.

But couldn’t the sceptic have said much the same to Elgar, too? And so what? You might as well tell a practising Catholic that the bread and wine are just that, that God isn’t listening, that he’s wasting his Sunday morning when he would be better off mowing the lawn. Like any other association — religious faith, or patriotism, or love — a sense of connection is all in the head, or perhaps the heart. That’s the point. Once again: if people think it matters, it matters.

For me, as for millions of others, the proposed Super League would have torn the heart out of the game. By creating a European closed shop, limited only to the oligarchs’s playthings, it would have destroyed the spirit of competition, severed the link between past and present, shattered the relationship between clubs and their fans and made a total mockery of football’s claim to embody the lived history of dozens of English towns and cities.

I can already hear the obvious rejoinders. English football sold its soul long ago — before I even started going to games — and fans have been living in denial for years. The rootedness is a myth, the traditions a relic. Football clubs are businesses, and their owners can do what they like. And if that means ditching the “legacy fans”, as they dismissively call us, so be it. It appears it may have failed this time, but the American owners, in particular, will try again. One day, surely, they will succeed.

But you don’t even have to like football to see the black hole at the heart of those arguments. Saying that football clubs are just businesses is like saying that the medieval church was just a landowner. It might sound clever, but it completely misses the point. If clubs are just businesses and the game just a product, why do so many people bother supporting clubs in League One or League Two? Why do Newcastle and Sunderland attract a combined 100,000 people, when the product is invariably so bad? Why do grown men cry when their teams win?

“Well, so what?” say the sceptics. So what if, one day, the major clubs do manage to break away? So what if they end up as the ultimate citizens of nowhere, global franchises appealing to fans from Tanzania to Texas? Why not let them go? Who cares?

But there is surely an obvious answer. People in Liverpool care. People in Manchester care. To them, though not to their clubs’ owners, their teams are more than global franchises; they are expressions of identity. And since those identities form part of a wider web of associations, every other English fan should care, too.

In his great book This Sporting Life, the historian Robert Colls argues that sport and Englishness are inseparable. At the heart of both, he argues, is “an historical sense of liberty mixed with an everyday sense of belonging”. It may seem trivial, but “it is woven into almost everything else we do”. A game like football is not just a question of kicking a ball: it is about “playing the game, enjoying the land, sensing the liberty, respecting contestation, valuing home, showing a bit of heart, recognising it in others, knowing that not everyone is political, or has to be, that not everyone knows what they think or (whichever comes first) how to say it, and understanding above all that sport is an enduring part of our liberty”.

Heart, home, liberty, belonging — words that should strike a chord with every reader. Do some things matter more than money, or don’t they? Even if you’ve never watched a game in your life, the answer is surely obvious.

Dominic Sandbrook is an author, historian and UnHerd columnist. His latest book is: Who Dares Wins: Britain, 1979-1982