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Wednesday 5th
posted by Morning Star in Sport

PAUL DONOVAN looks at how the beautiful game has changed in the last 50 years

OLD news reels of football show men standing, often in flat caps, wearing scarves and enthusiastically waving rattles.

What a contrast to today, with a mixture of men, women and children. All are all seated, some in luxury boxes, often wearing the latest club shirt emblazoned with their favourite player’s name and number.

So how much has the game changed over the past 50 years? Can it still be called the people’s game? If it has changed, is that for the better?

I began attending football matches in the mid-1970s, mainly at Upton Park, home of West Ham United. The game was certainly different in those days. Most people were standing, the majority men, often fathers and sons.

There was a good camaraderie but these were also the days of football violence. There could be disruption on the terraces but more often outside.

The violence was generally over-hyped by the media. One of the most dangerous situations I got caught up in was at the 1975 FA Cup final at Wembley. West Ham beat Fulham 2-0 but in the crowd there was a surge. We nearly got crushed in the rush and, but for a couple of men shouting out that there were kids there, we could easily have been trampled.

These were great days for football — the spirit and the excitement of the pitch-side experience and the almost religious devotion of fans to their teams.

The writing though was also on the wall for the various tragedies that occurred over the next decade or so, such as Hillsborough, Heysel and Bradford.

The owners of football clubs really did not care about fans. Those that go misty-eyed over the good old days, as though football clubs were owned by representatives of the people who were at one with the fans, really are deluded.

If the owners couldn’t make money out of fans they weren’t interested. Compared to today, the football grounds were prehistoric.

The lack of concern for the fan was well-illustrated in the period that ran up to the Hillsborough disaster. The football was far more important than the supporters.

Authorities reacted to pitch invasions by erecting fences — caging supporters into terraces and unable to escape onto the pitch if there was trouble.

The tragic events that unfolded at Hillsborough were partly the product of this approach.

The big change in football came about in the early 1990s. The pressure for all-seater stadiums and better conditions for supporters were at least partly fuelled by the perceived hooligan problem and then the tragedies that occurred.

However, the game was also changing big time for the players.

In 1961, the players’ union managed to get rid of the maximum wage. Until then players really had not been paid that well at all. Some look back with nostalgia to the days when the players went to matches on the same buses as the fans. These were the days when football was just a game. But a pretty badly paid game all the same.

The abolition of the maximum wage saw footballers’ wages increase. Fulham’s Johnny Haynes became the first £100 a week player. The stars of the 1970s were well-paid for their work.

The glamour and commercial opportunities started to become available, certainly for the big players like George Best and Bobby Moore. However, what these players earned in the ’70s was small beer compared to the rewards on offer for the likes of David Beckham in the ’90s and the stars of today.

The cry sometimes goes up that football is not what it was because of the money. That the influx of cash has spoilt the game. There is no doubt some truth in this view.

But from another angle, it is possible to argue that a decent share of the increased money has gone to those who directly produce the product, namely the footballers.

The man or woman in the stadium might gasp at the hundreds of thousands a week that a player earns but at least it is those who play the football who are getting the rewards.

The Professional Footballers Association has played a major role in obtaining these increased wages, as it did in organising the strike that got the maximum wage abolished back in 1961. Arguably the PFA is the most successful trade union in the land, when it comes to getting a fair day’s pay for its members’ work.

Of course, the rising levels of footballers’ pay is not totally due to the union, the rise of agents has also contributed. The clubs can no longer dictate terms to the player. Some would argue that the agents have too much power, being able to unsettle players by fanning interest from other clubs. Equally, they will make demands on clubs to get a better deal for their player.

Perhaps the agents do have too much power but at least players are seeing a good reward for their endeavour.

The big jump in wages for footballers really came with the introduction of the Premier League in 1992, with accompanying TV money.

The television had played a large role in football over many years, with Match of the Day a staple of Saturday night viewing. However, the arrival of Sky as a major TV football promoter totally changed the dynamic.

TV money has been flooding into football for the best part of the past quarter century. The boost offered by the most recent TV deal saw the bottom club in the Premier League last season getting as much as the previous year’s champions Leicester.

The advent of the Premier League has certainly seen the position of football in the national psyche rise. Football is big business.

It is the big business element that troubles those who say it’s not what it was. Clubs owned by foreign billionaires, some of whom seem to be more interested in piling up debt against assets than pursuing the football ethos of the local area.

It can also be argued that the role of the fan has diminished. Television is the dominant force in football because it is putting so much money into it. So it is TV companies who effectively decide when games are played. The fans will have to accommodate.

The fan tends to be another exploitable commodity. The old tribal loyalty of the supporter remains but in this day and age it is milked by the clubs with the branding exercises, constant kit changes and price rises.

Despite all the billions put into football by TV, it’s still very expensive to go to a game. I often wonder how ordinary working people of the type who attended football in the ’60s and ’70s can attend the game today.

Admission prices have risen well beyond the cost of living over the past three decades. It is a strange irony that many of those playing the game for £30,000-plus a week come from the same backgrounds of those on the terraces, who would be lucky to earn such an amount in a year. Yet still the fans keep coming.

Take West Ham. Back in the days when I used to stand on the terraces, the average gate was about 27,000, with the capacity at 39,000. The last season at all-seater Upton Park, the ground was at full capacity of 35,000 for most of the season. The move to the new London Stadium saw the capacity go up to 57,000 — season tickets quickly sold out, with all but 5,000 already renewed for next season.

Working people still make up the hard core of those attending football matches. Football though has become a fashionable thing among all the classes.

There are more families at football matches these days. Girls are as keen as boys, with women’s football now really taking off across the world.

Football though has come to reflect the business world. The clubs with the most money employ the best managers and win the trophies. It was all becoming a bit predictable but then along came Leicester City.

Leicester famously won the Premiership in the 2015/16 season, with a relatively inexpensive team. There were no huge wages or transfer fees but the players became imbibed with a team ethic and will to win that saw them brush aside all of those multi-billion-pound clubs.

The Leicester victory and those giant-killing efforts staged by lower league teams in the FA Cup each year prove that football retains its magic. While most years it is the big-money clubs that win everything there remains that possibility of an upset, a giant killing.

It also has to be said that the standard of football today is much better than in past years. The game is much quicker and the skill content higher. Foreign players have helped raise those standards.

In a funny way the arrival of so many foreign players in football again mirrors what has been happening in the wider society. Just as employers in other businesses often can’t find the skills they require in the domestic market or that those skills cost too much, so too with football.

Clubs have found they can get higher skilled players for less from abroad. It has been a marked development in football over the past quarter century that has seen the supply of players from the lower and non-leagues to Premiership clubs dry up. The top clubs go abroad for talent.

So overall, football has changed over the past 50 years. It has evolved very much in the way that the society of which it has been a part has done.

The neoliberal market economy that has dominated society resonates in football — the insecure contracts, particularly of those in non-playing roles in football clubs, the foreign players and commodification.

Notably, though, the players have done better than many other workers when it comes to securing the fruits of their labours. Football does remain the people’s game, some of the people may be a bit different from those of the post-war period but the game is more popular than ever.

The sense of community remains, while the entertainment value is high. So certainly football is not what it used to be but who knows it may be better.

  • Paul Donovan covers West Ham United for the Morning Star. This is a version of an article that first appeared on the Culture Matters website