THREATENED with the loss of time-honoured football clubs, representatives of working-class northern towns is a national disgrace.
Lancashire was the birthplace of association football, with clubs such as Blackburn, Newton Heath, Accrington, Burnley and Darwen among the best in the country. It’s all right for Manchester City and United, but what prospect for the smaller clubs so important to our heritage? Bury and Bolton are the writing on the wall.
One of the most famous names in the game in Bolton Wanderers, a founder member of the Football League in 1888. Their old ground of Burnden Park left some indelible imagery: the nostalgic shot of a steam train pulling freight along the top bank of the terracing, LS Lowry’s painting of flat-capped legions on a Saturday afternoon, the crowd disaster in 1946 when dozens were crushed to death, and the exploits of centre-forward Nat Lofthouse.
Not so illustrious, but cherished all the same, is Bury FC. Of 1885 vintage, the ‘Shakers’ were nicknamed after a supporter’s boast as the opposition took the field: ‘We’re going to give them a shaking!’ Unlike Bolton, who moved to a sterile out-of-town new stadium, Gigg Lane is a survivor of an era when football was played near the factory gates and terraced streets.
How could English football allow these clubs to die? Money is always blamed: players who cost more in transfer fees and wages than could ever be taken at the turnstiles. But money is merely a vehicle for the human flaws of greed and the supposedly progressive but callous creed of globalisation, which has forged an unbridgeable chasm between rich and poor. Bolton and Bury hardly seem to be playing the same game as the Manchester giants.
Traditionalists, as in all social trends, are disparaged for wanting to preserve the old ways: their pubs and other local amenities that give people a purpose in life. Move with the times, they are told. But where is this progress leading us?
Many Premier League teams comprise almost entirely foreign players, who have no link or loyalty to the area. Matches played at times to suit Sky Sports and international betting syndicates. Advertising on players’ shirts and on illuminated and very distracting boards around the pitch. VAR benefiting the global television viewer spoiling the excitement of a goal and delaying real supporters’ journey home. And constant hectoring of fans about their behaviour.
The malaise began back in the 1960s, when sons stopped following in their fathers’ footsteps, eschewing the windswept perch at Boundary Park or Turf Moor to associate themselves with the flair of George Best and co at Old Trafford. While the top clubs grew, the Third and Fourth Divisions were played in emptying grounds.
The anomie of the lifelong fan is apparent at Stamford Bridge, home of Chelsea. Although situated in the richest borough in the country, Chelsea has always had large working-class support. Today, however, banners outside the ground declare ‘We are Chelsea’, ‘We are London’, and ‘We are everyone’. Who is this ‘we’? Inside, a multitude of Chinese tourists occupy the stands. They are welcome, but I feel for the ticketless genuine supporters, some of whom have been banned for heinous crimes such as swearing or standing up for a corner.
The truth is that the football authorities care no more about ordinary punters as parliamentarians care about voters. It is time for radical reform of our national game. Bury and Bolton retain hardcore support, and on this, they must build. They need to entice youngsters from their atomised existence on smartphones. Schools have an important role in reversing decades of neglect of local as well as national identity. Instead of vacuous slogans such as ‘We are everyone’, football should be brought back to its grassroots. Saving our working-class clubs is a cause of social justice. Let’s give modern football a shaking.