Brighton deputy chairman Paul Barber has been featured on a great deal of sport media coverage this week after he came out against the use of neutral venues in order to complete the current Premier League season, because as he said it may damage the “integrity” of the competition.
He is reportedly in opposition to most of the League’s clubs, including the big six and arch rivals Crystal Palace. Whose chairman wrote an article in support of the move in the Times, saying that: “Premier League football with its physical science, medical infrastructures and resources for looking after its people, can begin to define how the ‘new normal’ might look for a lot of working environments.”
Whatever your personal viewpoint is of these two men, both their arguments were clearly thought through and well made. And it’s a testament to the fact that whilst many club’s struggle with untrustworthy boards of directors, our club’s do not and we can trust them to do what they think is right for their respective club’s.
The UK government have played down their involvement in these talks, but have been in contact with many national sports authorities in their response to the crisis throughout the lockdown. Including giving out a £16m loan to England’s Rugby League in order to safeguard its future.
Moreover, given the Premier League was voted in a Populus poll in 2019 as the top UK global brand, it will be in the Government’s interest to ensure the Premier League returns as soon as is possible, so to present the UK as back to business to the rest of the world.
It has also been reported that Prime Minister Boris Johnson sees the return of live sport in general as providing an important moral boost to the country. Whilst Culture, Media and Sport minister Oliver Dowden has encouraged the Premier League to return by highlighting its importance to ensure the financial viability of the industry as a whole. When he said recently: “I think the financial reality for most clubs is their biggest source of income is the direct transfers they get from the Premier League. So if we got that running in some way behind closed doors then that would relieve the pressure on all other clubs”
All this provides us with a reminder that politics plays a huge part in our national game both implicitly and explicitly. Since the burgeoning days of professionalism in football in the 19th century, football has become an increasingly important part of the countries culture. And as such our politicians want to utilise it for their own gain.
The most unsuccessful to do that is probably Margaret Thatcher’s governments in the 1980’s, through their various unpopular attempts to clamp down on football hooliganism as well as the public safety issues of football stadia. Issues highlighted by the Bradford fire in 1985 and later the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. Most prominently they intervened with the 1989 football supporters act which was so unpopular it was never properly implemented.
In subsequent years various politicians have attempted to piggy back on the success of the Premier League to provide them with a useful bit of publicity and a boost to their electoral chances, largely to little success. Brighton’s own supporters launched the Seagulls Party for a 2006 by-election, as part of the campaign in favour of a Sussex community stadium, which is of course now in place and better known to you and me as “The AMEX”.
So for me, whilst the phrase “I don’t usually do politics, but…” is one you often see on social media from sports journalists or other sports related users prefixing a political expression of any kind. You can’t avoid its impact on the game and our experiences as supporters.
But it’s a practice that’s become common in football circles and one that comes from how divisive and taboo the subject of politics has become in the UK. Given the amount of vitriol that it can bring your way in some social situations, especially online, it’s no wonder. And it predates social media too, with the phenomenon of the ‘Shy Tory’ skewing the polling for both the 1992 as well as the more recent 2015 General Election.
Football is traditionally a more commonplace for ‘Shy Tory’s’, with the more uncommonly conservative working class ultimately gaining control of football as the 21st century progressed. Over the years many prominent figures within the game have expressed openly their support for the Labour Party and its principals.
Jimmy Hill’s legacy on football is there for all to see, the biggest of which is probably as a trade union leader, successfully campaigning for the scrapping of the Football League’s maximum wage in 1961. And whilst his views became increasingly conservative in nature as his life went on, this was a piece of legislation that has the trade union labour heartland at its centre.
Indeed whilst politician was one of the few jobs Jimmy didn’t actually do, he clearly fancied it. Once saying: “Wasn’t it Queen Mary Tudor who had ‘Calais 1558’ written on her heart? Well, when they finally open me up, they’ll find ‘Ministry of Labour, January 18, 1961’ carved on mine”, in reference to that famous legislation.
Some were far more explicit in their political party support. Like Brian Clough, who as Spence Vignes described in his book “Bloody Southerners” about Clough’s time managing Brighton, helped campaign for Labour’s Derby’s North candidate at the 1974 General Election. Clough was a self-confessed socialist and was even approached to stand as a labour MP twice, but declined to continue his football management career.
Football in those days was full of self-confessed socialist, such as Bill Shankly the famous Liverpool manager. He regularly talked of his ideology of a “collective effort” and used his political ideology to build a bond with the Liverpool fans that stands to this day many years after his death.
Take a short trip from there to Manchester and you’ll find another story of a legendary manager whose political views shaped his football career. Former United manager Alex Ferguson admitted in his recent autobiography that his trade union activism and socialist background was important in shaping his approach to management. Yet again, he was another public supporter of the Labour Party.
In the modern day of millionaires professional footballers and the move away from the sports’ working class routes, this has changed of course. You’re now more likely to hear footballers express support for a Conservative political view.
Some of the most prominent include former England defender Sol Campbell who ran to be conservative candidate as London Mayor, Frank Lampard who was once rumoured to have been approached to stand as a conservative MP, and the politically outspoken ex-Wolves player Karl Henry.
But these were all subsequent to them being involved in football. In fact the days of managers, players and clubs giving outwardly political affiliation are mostly gone so to keep everyone onside. Today clubs have a team responsible for Public relations and everyone at the club with any media involvement is well media trained, something I for one can’t imagine the likes of Brian Clough partaking in willingly.
So to see Brighton and Crystal Palace’s senior representatives discuss opposing views on subjects of great public interest in such an open and thoughtful way is an encouraging change to a culture within football of avoiding expressing an opinion of any kind.
Whatever your political persuasions, it’s clear politics has a place in football and it’s here to stay. So, aren’t we better if we have open discussions about it?
This is especially true since the outbreak of Covid-19, which has highlighted our clubs’ importance to their local communities and its national culture. With many clubs stadium’s now a focal point of by the local communities response to the virus, like at Brighton’s AMEX stadium or Stoke’s Bet 365 stadium which are being used as testing centres.
Whilst clubs continue to discuss the return of the Premier League, it’s impossible to ignore the potential political implications and impact their actions could have. We may have moved away from the overtly political days in football and the likes of Clough and Shankly. But whilst many of us try to claim to “not do politics”, what this crisis has shown as much as anything is that the football industry is having more of a political impact than ever before.