How did English football get so ugly?

In a review of David Goldblatt’s The Game of Our Lives, television sponsorship, pampered star players and the vanity of oligarchs are blamed for the current sad state of English football

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

The Game of Our Lives: The Meaning and Making of English Football David Goldblatt

Penguin/Viking, pp.416, £20, ISBN: 9780670920587

Bill Shankly, the manager of Liverpool FC in the club’s halcyon days of the1960s and 1970s, once said: ‘Football isn’t just a matter of life and death, it’s far more important than that.’ But as David Goldblatt shows in this penetrating study, it was a sport then in apparently terminal decline.The deaths in the next decade of so many fans at Bradford from fire, and at Hillsborough from suffocation, exposed both its obsolete infrastructure and and anachronistic governance.

It had few friends in high places and no ready access to funds. In 1963 the maximum wage of £100 per week had been abolished.The next year the High Court ruled that the Football Association’s regulations on retention and transfer of players were an ‘unreasonable restraint on trade’. But most clubs that faced this double whammy (Goldblatt, curiously, refers only to the first) were ill-equipped to match the higher demands from players which inevitably followed.

Fast forward to the modern era. The injection of television money and investment from oligarchs, sheikhs and American entrepreneurs, to whom ownership of a prestigious club appears a highly desirable trophy, has resulted in star players’ salaries breaking the barrier of a quarter of a million pounds per week. The crowds have returned to all-seater stadia; footballers, pampered like thoroughbred racehorses, play a faster and more skilful game on manicured pitches, and a working-class pleasure has become a subject of ubiquitous interest to all sections of society, royal princes and party leaders not excepted.

But as Goldblatt shows, the benefits of this new wealth are not equally shared.As he says of the Premier League, ‘The more uncompetitive it has become, the more the world seems to want it.’ The ability to challenge for the highest prizes is restricted to half a dozen clubs.The prospect of bankruptcy still haunts the majority.The average manager’s career is measured in months rather than years, as owners continue to believe that dropping the pilot is key to reviving a team’s fortunes. The ritual of the 3 p.m. Saturday kick-off is disrupted by the demands of the media for matches to be staggered over an extended weekend; while fans are powerless to prevent season-ticket price increases well above the rate of inflation and regular changes of the expensive club strip for marketing purposes.

The perception that football can provide a road to riches diverts young athletes from other sports; but those who have the talent to succeed in the national game attract attention for which they are often ill-prepared. Goldblatt rightly disparages the notion that footballers should be treated as role-models — a view once unwisely espoused by a future Lord Chief Justice — since few aspire to that role and fewer still are able to perform it.

Goldblatt writes about the making of English football; but for more than two decades the domestic game has been transformed by foreign imports — both players and managers. Like many other sports, football was invented in England; yet the balance of power has shifted elsewhere. The true superstars play in Spain, Italy or Germany. The national team is for the most part a national joke — a repository for overblown expectations and frustrated hopes.

For all the sophistication of his analysis, Goldblatt provides no convincing answer to the question of why clubs, originally rooted in their communities, still command such loyalty when few of their teams contain local lads, and some not even a majority of English ones, but transient mercenaries. Nowadays, the allegiance of fans is simply to a brand, which conceals rather than reflects a club’s former identity. It may be that a psychologist, rather than a sociologist, as the author is, can best explain this paradox.

Goldblatt describes football as a ‘social-democratic game in a neo-liberal world’. But social democracy should have no time for the racism, sexism and homophobia which still mar the sport to an extent greater than elsewhere in contemporary Brtiain. He ends with the hope that football might lead the way to a ‘more joyous, brighter and fairer society’. This is reckless optimism springing from an unreal nostalgia. Even match days, which he vividly describes, aren’t what they used to be. The so-called beautiful game reflects what the nation has become — and it’s not altogether a pleasant sight.

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  • “For all the sophistication of his analysis, Goldblatt provides no convincing answer to the question of why clubs, originally rooted in their communities, still command such loyalty when few of their teams contain local lads, and some not even a majority of English ones, but transient mercenaries. Nowadays, the allegiance of fans is simply to a brand, which conceals rather than reflects a club’s former identity. It may be that a psychologist, rather than a sociologist, as the author is, can best explain this paradox.”

    this is exactly what i think. why do the fans care!?? how can you be proud manchester city (or whoever) have won the title, when all you’re doing is watching money.

  • Ambientereal

    Sport watchers are usually compelled to take a side. It is almost impossible to watch a sport – match (of whatever kind) without being dragged by one team or the other for any reason. The reason that one of the teams “lives” in our neighborhood is as good a reason as any. When I watch Bayern versus Madrid I´m far from both cities but somehow I want Bayern to win, and if it wins I´m curiously happy. That in the Premier League five or six teams are able to win is more a compliment because in other leagues there are two or three top teams only (see Germany or Spain). That everything has a shorter life then before is normal in sport the same as in business. Long time ago, players started and ended their careers in the same club, today they change a lot, the same as most enterprises do in different metiers.

    • Jambo25

      This year’s Premier League is done and dusted and you aren’t even half way through. Its Chelsea’s. Over the next 10 years only 1 of 3 teams will win the Premier League: Chelsea, Man City and Man Utd. Everybody else are also-rans.

  • Money

    Can you name one superstar that plays in Italy?

    • stevieg4ever

      Not many superstars but plenty of decent players though: Tevez, Pogba, Vidal, Pirlo, Totti etc. I see your point, however.

      • Brogan75

        Old chaps that were young up to 2006, and Juventus ones (only team with money). Nobody else, rest is a bunch of african and south americans prospects, clubs hope 1-2 are decent enough to make a margin from selling them. What a show.

    • Brogan75


  • Fraser Bailey

    The question of why clubs ‘originally rooted in their community still command such loyalty’ is certainly an interesting one. As an example, as a mediocre or failing team at the second level in the early to mid-80s, Derby County were watched by crowds of around 13,000. Three to four years ago, as a mediocre or failing team in the second level, they were watched by crowds of around 25,000. Moreover, tickets are surely more expensive relative to average incomes now than they were in the early 80s. Derby County are currently doing well, so higher attendance makes more sense. Even so, as s second level team they still have bigger crowds than they did as a top level team in the late 80s.

    I think the answers lie in a mixture of psychology, sociology and plain show business. And somehow, amidst globalization, there seems to be a more pronounced localization.

  • Brogan75

    Sorry but since 2010 Italian serie A has become a joke, as NO superstar plays there anymore. There is no money, clubs keep buying crap cheap players from underdeveloped countries, people doesn’t care in the game any more.
    Take Inter, their youth team is always one of the best (if not the best) in Italy, but its Italin players almost never make it to the first squad, in which on the contrary play foreign guys who don’t care abut the shirt and have even less skills.
    In UK you still have passionate fans at least, even in overpriced stadiums, because “half dozen” teams can still compete, and beating the others is always a struggle anyway. The national team problem is due to the same issue as Italy (whose current national team is a cry, sent home twice in two consecutive different World cups by the likes of New Zealand, Slovakia, Costa Rica): too many unskilled foreign players, instead of growing its own talents. Clubs don’t care about the National Team.

  • Could it be that too much emphasis is placed on professional sports, and not just in the UK, these days?

    When you had Ted Williams, a very good baseball player for the Boston Red Sox, interrupt his major league career for World War 2 & the Korean War; it makes me wonder if any on the pitch would interrupt their careers to battle Daesh or anyone else.

  • Andrew Smith

    Spain and England are in a similar position – three strong teams, the rest with no chance. The German league has been dominated by Bayern for years. Evey few years the challenger changes: a rival team comes together (Wolfsberg, Dortmund, Werder) who then return to mid-table. The real stars play in Spain and the premiership.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    How did English football get so ugly?”
    Gutless politicians for not banning football decades ago.

  • Roy

    It is questionable whether football deserves a following. It will certainly not have me for a fan until the local team is filled by local players. This in fact should be a stipulation and a common sense solution to the suffocation of the game. If you don’t live within the County you are not playing for the County team. The way we see managers prancing up and down the pitch, chewing their gum, and remonstrating to players, reminds me of the bully boys and the mafia thugs who have placed their bets and want to see things moving their way.

  • Rhys

    “Nowadays, the allegiance of fans is simply to a brand, which conceals rather than reflects a club’s former identity.”

    That’s a shrewd answer to Michael Beloff’s own question, “How did English football get so ugly?”

    Football is an archetypal entertainment an Age of Consumerism.

    • Oddsbods

      It is like the Roman games, it keeps the populations mind off what is being done to them.

  • sabrina mark

    My husband has abandon me and the kids for the the past 8months now, and refuse to come back because he was hold on by a woman whom he just met, for that, my self and the kids has been suffering and it has been heel of a struggle, but I decide to do all means to make sure that my family come together as it use to, then I went online there I saw so many good talk about this spell caster whose email is so I had to contact him and in just 4days as he has promised, my husband came home and his behavior was back to the man I got married to.I cant thank the spell caster enough what what he did for me, I am so grateful. I even spoke to the spell caster over the phone, to confirm his existence. His email again is:

    • carpetburn

      praps the c**t can cast a spell for the wolves. Tell im to pray for us sabrina in our darkest hour.

    • I’m so glad it all worked out!

    • …can he magic away the last 20 years of British political history?

  • Why is English football so bad? Because most of the players are namby-pamby wallies, that’s why! (Hope I haven’t offended anyone!)

  • jesseventura2

    Who would ever have heard of homophobia in Shankly ‘s era let alone a scouser who could spell it?