This is a previously unpublished piece about Robert’s football obsession.
On the 2nd May 2016 I was sitting in my living room watching, on television, a football match being played a hundred miles away. Anything but a Tottenham win, against Chelsea, would see my club – Leicester City – lift the Premier League title for the first time in its 132-year history. The club had started the season with the bookies at 5,000-1 to win the league. Elvis being found alive and Barack Obama playing cricket for England were offered at the same odds.
Adam, my son, was so certain that the result wasn’t going to go our way that, in the first half, he remained glued to his iPhone screen doing whatever it is that sixteen-year-olds do on their devices. His judgement seemed spot on too as by half time Tottenham had raced into a two-goal lead. But wait. Ten minutes into the second half Chelsea pulled a goal back. Adam now looked up from his phone screen and even my partner – with no real interest in the sport – came in to watch, placing her phone in front of the TV so that her friend could watch via Face Time.
* * * *
I have been a football fan, or should I say the supporter of a football team (the distinction is important) since my dad started taking me to matches in the late 1960s. He, in turn, got the bug from his father. I do not know who or what was responsible for my grandfather’s Leicester City obsession. My dad died in the late 1990s and it still deeply affects me that I was unable to experience with him our club’s successes and that he was unable to pass on his football wisdom to Adam or watch him play football. At his funeral, we insisted that his hearse circle Filbert Street (the club’s then ground) before heading for the crematorium. The Match of the Day theme music was played at his funeral. We asked the club if we could scatter his ashes on the pitch but they refused our request. To be fair to them, I guess we weren’t the only ones to ask and one can only wonder at the impact the spreading of human ashes would have on the pitch, let alone the footballers who would have to play on it.
I like watching football matches, whoever is playing. When I was young, I collected pictures of the great Manchester United team of the 1960s – including George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton, household names then and now. However, I can take or leave matches that don’t involve my club. To paraphrase Nick Hornby1, I am a Leicester City supporter first and a football fan second. Football matches not involving my club are pleasant distractions from everyday life, and, more pointedly, from the terrible responsibility and pain of supporting Leicester City. In short, how my team fairs on the pitch is very important to me. It comes close to obsessive love.
Millions of people across the globe have a similar affinity to their own clubs. Subjecting what many would regard as an irrational obsession to critical scrutiny might be regarded as a pointless exercise (it is, after all – as I’ve been regularly told – just twenty-two men – or women – chasing an inflated spherical object around a marked piece of grass for ninety minutes, and whether or not my team wins has no readily discernible impact on how my life goes). But, if only to conclude that millions of people are – in fact – irrational, the sport’s capacity to mean so much to so many people surely deserves some explanation, however perfunctory.
Perhaps a clue can be found in football’s roots. Most clubs were created, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, by and for the working-class communities in which they were located, Manchester United, for instance, by railwaymen in Newton Heath and Arsenal by munitions workers in Woolwich. For many, supporting a local football club, then, was one facet of working-class identity.
Nowadays, there are far fewer blue-collar workers, and a subjective awareness of class as a form of identity has declined. Football clubs, however, still serve as an important source of belonging in local communities, even more so perhaps as class identity has become less resonant. So much so, indeed, that they have been seen, along with other cherished local institutions such as trade unions and churches, as a way of fostering a new kind of ethical socialism.2 Maurice Glasman – the architect of this so-called Blue Labour position (which was particularly influential within the Labour Party when Ed Miliband was leader between 2010-15) – regards global capitalism as a threat to community cohesion, and local institutions such as football clubs are seen as a bulwark against the impersonal forces of the market.
Glasman returned to this theme a decade or so after originally proposing it to attack the billionaires and corporations owning England’s richest clubs in the wake of their decision, quickly reversed, to join a European Super League in which only the super-rich clubs would be allowed to participate. He wrote: ‘Football clubs are a form of magic and a form of belonging, of hope, of glory, but fans are just being exploited by venture capitalists from a thousand miles away. It offends against the sacred sense of belonging. Ideally, I would like to see the Labour Party taking very strong support for mutual ownership of football clubs.’3
A genuine football supporter doesn’t choose a team like one chooses a favourite band or movie. Rather it is a compulsory inheritance, something – rather like taking on the burdens of family responsibilities – that has to be endured in order to assuage the guilt of not doing so. Often, this is bound up with connections to the club’s city or town by birth or residence. It is also strongly related, as it has been for me, to the bonding of parents with their children.
For the genuine supporter, it is not about entertainment. Support for the club is a product of the prior identification and sense of belonging rather than from the pleasure derived from watching skilful players, great matches or even from your club winning. This explains why clubs can rely on their loyal supporters irrespective of the quality of the football the team plays and the results obtained. There is, indeed, a certain badge of honour in supporting a team that is failing abysmally. In Julian Barnes’ words, supporting a football team ‘consists of a swirling mix of stupid love and howling despair’.4 Indeed, going to a match for the first time, one could be forgiven for thinking that supporters hate being there. Anger, outrage and sullen discontent are the major emotions on display. I often wonder myself if I have enough courage to be a football fan.
I’m reminded here of a line from John Cleese’s character in the 1980s movie Clockwise. Faced with a slim possibility of achieving his goal, the school headmaster he plays comments that: ‘It’s not the despair, I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand’. In the same way, defeat and failure for the genuine football supporter, when it is expected, is less painful than the tantalising possibility that success might just be a possibility. As Leicester City have become more successful in recent seasons, I find myself increasingly stressed when watching matches. At least watching on television allows me to record matches so that I can quickly fast forward the action at crucial moments when the opposition are on the attack and look like they might score. The despair if they do score is much less painful than the hope that they might not, and so finding out more quickly if my hopes have been realised or not is cathartic.
All genuine football supporters can think of occasions when their love for their team conflicts with other aspects of their lives. Apparently, there are hundreds of husbands from all parts of the world who persuaded their wives to name their daughters Lanesra without, in all cases, asking them to spell it backwards. For me, 14th February 2006 was a significant date. Could I really neglect my partner and attend Leicester’s home match with Derby County? Missing the game, which was of little importance to the team’s standing in the league, seemed inconceivable. Time for a compromise. Adopting reverse psychology, I set off with my partner in the car without telling her where we were going. Arriving at the stadium, I could detect her hostility but the situation was rescued, to some extent at least, by the three-course meal I had booked in the club restaurant overlooking the pitch. The Valentine’s Day Massacre she now calls it.
My commitment to Leicester City, and football in general, began to wane when I went to University in the early 1980s. This was partly to do with distance (I was living in Manchester), partly to do with my team’s pitiful performances and partly to do with the declining status of the sport. In the 1970s and 1980s, football was strongly associated with hooliganism and racism. It had traditional been a working-class sport but the heavily unionised blue-collar working class began to decline as a result of the collapse of Britain’s manufacturing base, a process that was accelerated by the election of Thatcher’s Conservative Government in 1979. Football became associated, as a result, with an underclass of undesirables.
Football support is tribal. Matches between different countries can sometimes seem like war by other means. The Daily Mail journalist Vincent Mulchrone wrote in his column on the morning of the 1966 World Cup final that: ‘If Germany beat us this afternoon at our national sport, we can always console ourselves with the fact that we have recently beaten them twice at theirs’.5 Relations between fans of different teams can, of course, vary enormously from friendly banter at one end of the spectrum to violence at the other. In the 1970s and 1980s, the scales tipped alarmingly so that going to matches at this time was always more akin to a battle than a gentle day out. The police, many on horseback, were always present to keep opposing fans apart and to shepherd visiting fans back to their coaches or to the railway station after the match. In this climate, attending your team’s away matches was a particularly risky enterprise. Being chased and spat at were common events, having objects thrown in your direction was not as uncommon as you might think.
In the 1980s, three disasters, each resulting in significant loss of life, represented the low point for football. On 11th May 1985, a fire in an antiquated wooden main stand at Bradford City’s ground during a match resulted in fifty-six deaths. In the same month, thirty-nine Italian fans were killed before the start of the European Cup final at the ageing and ill-maintained Heysel Stadium in Brussels, when Juventus fans were pressed against a collapsing wall while trying to escape from marauding Liverpool supporters.
Worse was to come. Four years later, on 15th April, I was travelling home in my dad’s car from a satisfying 2-0 win against Chelsea, then a second division side. With mounting disbelief, we heard on the radio that there had been serious crowd disorder before the start of the F.A. Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. It was clear, the Radio Two reporter said, that there had been many deaths but how many he was not able to say. In the event, ninety-six Liverpool fans died that afternoon, crushed to death when the police match commander ordered the opening of an exit gate to relieve overcrowding outside the ground leading to an influx of fans into an already full section of the stadium. Dying supporters were prevented from escaping on to the pitch by high steel fencing which had been erected at most top league grounds as a response to pitch invasions.
Football had reached its nadir. That week’s headline in the Economist, ‘Why football died’, summed up the prevailing mood. In retrospect, it is possible to see that football disasters of some kind were inevitable. There could have been more. Such was the reputation of football fans by this time, they were treated like cattle, penned in on the, often over-populated, terraces of delipidated and dangerous stadiums. As the Economist pointed out ‘Britain’s football grounds now resemble maximum-security prisons’.6 Security was the major goal of football authorities and the police, even if it compromised safety.
Something had to change. And it did. A Government enquiry, chaired by Lord Justice Taylor, recommended all seater-stadiums among other things. Over the next few years, football began to recover, attracting a new, younger and more affluent demographic, sarcastically described as the ‘prawn sandwich brigade’ by more traditional supporters. A new product, christened the Premier League, was advocated by the richest clubs – as a means of curtailing the influence of clubs lower down the football pyramid who could still exercise their vote to prevent the big clubs getting what they wanted – and, with the backing of Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Sports, was launched in 1992. Since then, football in England (the Premier League at any rate) has become a multi-billion-pound industry with players from all over the world eager to sample it and be handsomely rewarded in the process.
The new product coincided with my return to the city of my birth, my team’s improved fortunes and the arrival of my son at the start of the new Millennium. I took him to his first match on his fifth birthday. Leicester City had, for many decades, been an archetypal example of a ‘yo-yo’ club, regularly promoted to the top league only to get relegated soon after. Great optimism was generated, though, by the purchase of the club in 2010 by the Thai duty-free company King Power run by the Srivaddhanaprabha family. With promotion to the Premier League in 2014 and top-flight survival secured the following season, the optimism seemed justified and hopes of an extended stay in the Premier League were enhanced.
But winning the league? No one remotely considered this a realistic proposition, hence the extraordinarily generous odds given for those crazy enough to waste their money on a bet. And for good reason. Prior to the 2015-16 season, only five clubs had won the Premier League – Manchester United thirteen times, Chelsea four times, Arsenal three times, Manchester City twice and Blackburn once. In 2015, Leicester’s annual revenue was £104 million placing it twelfth amongst the twenty Premier League teams that season. In comparison to the eighty professional clubs below them in this financial pecking order, Leicester were, and remain, a very wealthy club. But they are nowhere near as affluent as the super-rich clubs at the top of the list. The total revenues of the five richest clubs in 2015 – the two Manchester clubs, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool – amounted to £1.6 billion at an average of £350 million each.7
* * * *
Well into the second half now and Chelsea are on the attack. A one-two between Diego Costa and Eden Hazard put the latter through on goal. We held our breath. Hazard swivelled and calmly hit the ball past the despairing dive of the Tottenham goalkeeper into the top corner of the net. Pandemonium. Only ten minutes left. A crestfallen Spurs team start to lose their heads committing rash fouls as they see their title hopes evaporate. The final whistle blows. We stare at the screen as the league table is flashed up with Leicester’s name in gold as champions and as the players, congregating in the house of star striker Jamie Vardy, are shown jumping up and down manically. ‘The greatest story in the history of sport’ the commentator opined in typically hyperbolic fashion. As we share a bottle of fake champagne, we hear cars going past the house, the drivers using their horns to announce they knew what had happened. Supporters head for the stadium as an impromptu party begins.
The following Saturday we headed to Leicester’s stadium, the new focal point for fairy tale-lovers everywhere, for the last home game of the season. The match was irrelevant, merely an irritating formality that had to be gone through before the lifting of the Premier League trophy. The goosebumps began early as Andrea Bocelli, led on to the pitch by the club’s manager Claudio Ranieri, treated the crowd to a rendition of Nessun Dorma. I barely remember the match – a 3-1 win against Everton – but the post-match celebrations were unforgettable; the players being cheered, one by one, on to the pitch, the handing over of the trophy, the victory streamers and fireworks and the parading of the trophy by the club’s owner, fifty-eight-year-old Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. I had to remind Adam that it is not usually like this.
The bookmakers lost a lot of money and have never again risked offering such good odds for a sporting event. To this day, I regret not placing a bet.
In the following season, Leicester City reached the quarter final of the Champions League (a competition they had never played in before) before flirting with relegation. In response, fearful of the financial consequences of losing their place in the Premier League, Claudio Ranieri was sacked, a decision received by the football world with almost universal disdain.
After the game against West Ham on 27th October 2018, Adam and I had just left the club car park when he claimed to have heard a bang and, when looking back, to have seen a bright light that looked like flames. I dismissed his comments, distracted by the line of cars that had come to a halt ahead of us. We had, in fact, witnessed another football-related tragedy. About forty-five minutes after the game, and ten minutes after we had departed, a helicopter carrying the club’s owner, two of his personal assistants, the pilot and his partner left the centre of the pitch for Luton Airport as per normal. As it reached the top of the stadium, the pilot lost control and the helicopter plunged to the ground exploding on impact in one of the club’s car parks, not far from where we had been. No one on board survived. An Air Accidents Investigation Branch report attributed the crash to mechanical failure.
Now, in the second decade of the new century, Leicester City continue to compete with the rich clubs at the top of the Premier League table despite selling one of their best players every season. Leicester’s success in upsetting the apple cart at the top of the Premier League was one important factor in the decision of the six super-rich clubs to decide, in April 2021, to form a separate European Super League that would guarantee them a regular income from games against the top European sides.
On 16 May 2021, almost five years to the day that we had witnessed the Chelsea equaliser that crowned our club as Premier League champions, Adam and I were at Wembley for the F.A. Cup final between Leicester City and Chelsea. This was the first time we had attended a match for over a year, the Covid pandemic having necessitated football matches being played behind closed doors. Tears welled up in my eyes as I listened to the traditional rendition of the hymn Abide with Me before kick-off. These were tears of loss, for the many people who have lost their lives to the invidious disease, and for my own father who I had stood with on the Wembley terraces fifty-two years previously when Leicester had last reached the F.A. Cup final, losing for the fourth time. They were also tears of joy and pride that my club had won the opportunity of a fifth attempt and that I was there, along with other members of my community, to watch it.
Not much happened for the first hour of the match. The players were tense, unwilling to risk losing in order to win. Then, halfway through the second period, the Belgium international Youri Tielemans picked up the ball in the centre of the pitch and drove towards the Chelsea penalty area before looking up and unleashing an unstoppable shot from twenty-five yards past the goalkeeper’s despairing dive and into the top left hand corner of the net. The Leicester fans erupted, Adam and I hugged and punched the sky and people around us we didn’t know suddenly became best friends. There were some scares in the final twenty minutes or so but finally, after what seemed like an age, the referee blew the final whistle. As the team cavorted on the pitch with the trophy, the players insisted that the club’s owner, Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, the son of the late Vichai, celebrate with them.
On the way back to Leicester, on one of the socially distanced coaches that the club had organised for the event, I took stock of what had just happened. Just as five years previously, this was a victory for the underdog. Chelsea, owned by an absentee Russian entrepreneur, are one of the super-rich clubs, a club that was prepared to sacrifice the traditions and customs of English football in pursuit of even more revenue promised to them by joining a European Super League. Leicester City are hardly a poor club, the Srivaddhanaprabha family are hardly paupers. Nevertheless, they are model owners, conscious of their commitment to the community the club represents, and aware of their responsibility in preserving the club’s heritage. In that moment, as I closed my eyes for some much-needed rest, football mattered more to me than it ever had before.
- Hornby (1992), p. 135.
- Helm and Coman, (2011).
- Glasman, 2021.
- Quoted in Hamilton (2018), p. 285.
- Wolstenholme (1996), pp. 118-19.
- Editorial (1989).
- Sports Business Group (2016), p.19
Editorial (1989), ‘Why football died; slaughter at a British football ground must be the spur to
changing a sport that still lives off its nineteenth-century past.” The Economist, vol. 311,
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Glasman, M. (2021), ‘Why I will never give up on football’, UnHerd, April 28th.
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Hamilton, D. (2019), Going to the Match: the Passion for Football, London: Hodder.
Helm T. and Coman, J. (2011), ‘Maurice Glasman. The peer plotting Labour’s new strategy from
his flat’, Guardian, 16th January. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2011/jan/16/maurice-glasman-peer-labour (accessed May 17th, 2021).
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