It’s late-morning on a cold, wet Sunday. Joe, my 13-year-old son has the ball at his feet, deep in the opponent’s half. Their left-back is holding his position well, his body tilted, guiding Joe towards the by-line. There’s not much space left to get past. But Joe shifts his body forward, feigns right to go outside him, then suddenly cuts back inside and with almost no backswing, whips in a cross with his weaker left foot that is just missed by a team-mate at the far post. It’s the best moment of my week.
Bill Shankly, the Preston – and then Liverpool – legend once said: “Football is not a matter of life and death; it’s more important than that!” Every Sunday, watching my son, I understand. It’s not the winning that matters, but it’s certainly not just the taking part that counts either. It’s the risk, the debt to the game that you repay with heaving lungs and dogged feet. It’s the theatre in which demons are faced and players emerge remade. For my son there is no question: football is more important than life.
Football is unquestionably the UK’s spectator sport of choice. It’s ‘the beautiful game’, of course, but it’s also much more than that. We are a nation of footballers – England particularly – where football is played more than rugby, cricket, tennis, and hockey combined. I grew up in a house that didn’t care about football, and I never played for a club, but I’ve clocked up months of my life with a ball at my feet, in the garden, the playground, or the park after school. I can tell you where I was for all of England’s major games and would emerge respectably from a pub quiz on who played in each one. Others can claim much greater football fandom that I can, but there’s no question that football genuinely matters to me.
So I found myself quite adrift when the football season was abruptly postponed in the face of Covid-19. The Premier League was exciting, the Champions League was hotting up and a summer of England football beckoned with Euro 2020. Most importantly, Preston North End were in a play-off position in the Championship, despite having a squad that costs less than some of our rivals’ individual players. All that now looks lost.
In this bizarre hiatus, the future of football is called into question. Some clubs, even leagues, could fold as revenues collapse. A lot depends on the nature of government bail-outs. And at the sharp tip of this question are the players and their astronomic salaries.
When some Premier League clubs were claiming government support for their support staff (by placing them on ‘furlough’ and therefore receiving 80% of their salaries in compensation) there was justifiably an outcry that clubs could more than afford to cover those wages if they cut their players’ pay by just a fraction. After the Health Secretary criticised footballers in a news conference, a Media war ensued, with Wayne Rooney branding the government ‘a disgrace’ for daring to single out football.
The tussle hit its ludicrous zenith when the PFA, the players union, suggested that pay cuts would only hurt the NHS, since the tax intake would fall. Apart from the fact that you can’t help suspecting most players would prefer their tax returns were kept hidden, the idea that the NHS depends on a small number of people being paid eye-watering salaries is nonsense. Not only does extreme inequality increase health problems, thus costing us all more, the point is that the government shouldn’t have to bail out businesses that can afford to weather the storm.
But why single out footballers? Gary Lineker, longtime face of English football, was called on to suggest to Andrew Marr that it might have been a tad unfair – “Why not call on all wealthy people to help, if they can?”
Joe’s footballing hero is the late Sir Tom Finney, the ‘phantom winger’, a Preston North End legend who was once England’s all-time record goal-scorer. He was also a plumber, using his second income to supplement the £14 a week he earned playing football. Finney is emblematic of the history of Association Football, a working class history, of deep belonging to a place, to a community, for whom and with whom you worked, hard.
Football is still, at heart, a working class game. Not only do more than 90% of top footballers come from working class backgrounds, the culture of football is dominated by a working class support base, of dedicated fans, part-time players, and pub-time pundits. Though the meaning of working class has changed dramatically, there is a heritage that binds people to a place in a collective commitment. This is the unspoken pitch-side realty for millions of football people. Supporting a club is not just about cheering wins and mourning losses. It’s an experience that connects us with others and the tough complexity of life.
I don’t come from a working-class background, but when I play or watch football I inhabit, if only in part, a different cultural world. Every time I watch a player complete a pass, make a tackle, volley a cross, I connect with a muscle-memory that relives the times I did the same, and the times I tried and failed. The struggle to find confidence, stand up to opponents, read a situation, keep running when I want to collapse – these are no more and no less than life as football. For many of us, particularly men (however unfairly), football is a part – often a major part – of how we make sense of our experience, of how we process the world. The extreme joy and pain that are shared with others bind us in ways that few other rituals can. When I watched Joe’s left-foot cross, it wasn’t just about the game. It was about Joe, the person he is wrestling with himself to become. Like parents up and down the country, week in, week out, my boy grew as a person before my eyes, right there on the pitch. I can’t explain to you what that move meant. But Joe knows, and I know.
This is why footballers have been singled out in this crisis. Because, whether they like it or not, they are us. We are not bankers, hedge-fund managers, supermodels or CEOs. But we are footballers.
The future of football now hangs in the balance as financial tussles continue under the spectre of an uncertain future. The traditional support-base of large clubs has already changed beyond recognition with many long-time supporters rarely able to afford tickets to games. That gap breeds justifiable resentment. The profound loss of football at this time of crisis is combined with the gratuitous symbol that our game has abandoned us – the players are protected while the people who make the club are laid off, a symbol that no amount of charitable donations can cover-up. And yet the opportunity exists, now, to wrestle the game back from its current mutation as a global commodities market and re-place it as a game that comes from somewhere. Clubs owned by fans, not billionaires. Players paid in line with the people who support them. There is no question that the English Premier League is the most competitive in the world. But at what cost?
If Covid-19 has shown us anything it is how much we need each other. Something football has always known and championed, but that the professional game must learn to remember.