What can be done to save Darlington, Manchester United and Portsmouth?
Our clubs are going down the pan.
Of all the famous quotes on football, few have been more overused than Bill Shankly’s quip about the game being more important than life and death. Taken as read, it’s a ridiculous statement, but it was intended as a joke. If Shankly was suggesting football has a disproportionate effect on fans’ lives that renders rational discourse almost impossible, then he’d be right. Football is not more important than life and death, but it does provide millions of people with a useful distraction from reality
If you want real issues, you watch the news – a perpetual doom machine that throws despair and tragedy in your face on a daily basis. We’ve become increasingly immune to the horrors on offer in the news – what the documentary maker, Adam Curtis, described as ‘oh dearism’. Only someone with a very loose grip on reality would consider football more significant than war or famine, but the culture of sport can reflect the national zeitgeist, and these days apathy is everywhere.
When Darlington were rumoured to be hours from disappearing, Twitter burst into life. Oh, won’t someone save Darlington, we cried, it’s so terrible. Of course, nobody wanted to do anything tangible, like hand over some cash, but, you know, someone should do something. In the end, the best our collective efforts managed to produce was the ‘LOL’ suggestion that Mario Balotelli should step in, because that’d be right up his crazy street.
But, Darlo was just the aperitif. For the main course we had a hearty combo of Rangers and Portsmouth, with both clubs in dire financial difficulty and facing the very real possibility of going under. The serious journalistic standards of this website require me to look at these situations objectively, leaving to one side the fact that neither club is particularly likeable.
That means forgetting that Rangers spent the late 1980’s and 1990’s as flash bastards, lauding it over the rest of Scotland and turning the SPL into a procession for a decade. Think of Dougray Scott’s character in Twin Town; that was Rangers. As for Portsmouth, the word ‘Pompey’ is irritating, it sounds like the name of a posh child’s favourite toy: ‘Mummy, can I bring Pompey?’ ‘Yes, alright Charles, but do hurry up.’ A trivial nuisance, granted, but coupled with the constant drone of ‘play up Pompey’, it quickly starts to irk.
But, we won’t dwell on that, because objectivity is important. Portsmouth fans should therefore excuse the rest of the world if news of their latest distress didn’t prompt much of a reaction. Be honest, when you heard the words ‘Portsmouth’ and ‘administration’, didn’t part of you just think, ‘what, again?’ Rangers was the bigger story, a giant from a previous era in its death throes. Still, it was common knowledge that the club had been in trouble for a while. Given the way professional football is going, it was hard to react with anything more sincere than a shrug of the shoulders.
Many of us who don’t follow the Premier League’s top clubs will have experienced the sight of collection buckets outside the stadium, asking fans for spare change to help keep the club going. These were the images outside Fratton Park recently. But, a bit of loose change isn’t going to fix things, and nor should it have to. You pay money to watch your team, you might buy a programme or something from the club shop. If you feel like living dangerously, you might even purchase a pie. Why should you have to throw money in a bucket too?
It’s not like they’re trying to raise funds to build a new children’s ward at a hospital, or buy sports equipment for the local school. The vast majority of all the money pumped into football clubs goes to players. All we ask is that we have people running the clubs who won’t promise those players what their clubs can’t realistically afford to pay them. Is that so unreasonable? We already pay the highest ticket prices in Europe. We pay more than the French and the Germans, but are we richer than them? Do we have a better standard of living? By all comparable indicators, no.
Yet, not only do we pay higher prices, we also turn up. Attendances in English football are phenomenal. Indeed attendances in Scotland are even more remarkable, given the size of the country and the derided quality of its league. We deserve better than to see our clubs exploited and left in ruin. But until it affects our club, what will we do about it?
This is the crux of the matter, and it’s what Curtis was talking about when he coined ‘oh dearism’, “Night after night we are shown pictures of terrible things which we feel we can do nothing about and to which the only response is, ‘oh dear’”
With Port Vale entering administration last week, Supporters Direct cited 92 insolvencies since 1992 in the top five divisions of English football. But, our senses our numb and we refuse to confront potential disaster because we’d rather think that the turning point is round the corner, and it could be our club’s turn for glory next.
This is isn’t an argument against individuals funding football clubs. There is no reason why someone with wealth shouldn’t be able to invest in a club that they love, but we must have stronger checks to balance ambition with pragmatism. No individual should be able to place the future of a football club at their mercy. Supporters Direct has published its key principles for football licensing which set out some practical steps to limit the opportunities for reckless behaviour and give fans a stronger voice. Their argument is simple: “If the substantive issues of sustainability are not addressed, the regrettable trend of insolvencies and financial strife affecting football clubs can be expected to continue.” Oh dear.
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