I’m back from England now and the fieldwork has given me a lot to think about and chew on. So much so that trying to figure out what to post has been one of the reasons I haven’t blogged in a month. Now at home and with a little distance, what I keep coming back to is the discontent among the English fans. They are still fans and the actual game itself isn’t the problem, but everywhere I went there was talk of how fans felt that they, the local fans, were being cut out of the game. Something is rotten in the state of English football. And if there is one word on the lips of every English football fan it is: Germany. As in “The Germans own 50% of their clubs!” or “You can go to a game in Germany for 11 quid!” It came up in most of my interviews and nearly every conversation I had with fans over the month, which when coupled with the all-German Champions League final at Wembley was too galling for many of the fans. There is a sense that English football is less concerned with who is in the seats than how much money is in the seats.
Beyond attending games I was able to go to three events during my time in England: two meetings in Liverpool – Football Without Fans is Nothing, and Against Modern Football, and one academic conference in Manchester on Football, Fans and Finance. And again all three featured the theme of fans being left out of the game, administration (bankruptcy) and fan ownership. The first meeting, Football Without Fans is Nothing was actually an organizational meeting to set up a protest against the Premier League over away ticket pricing. I’m wishing I could be there on June 19th to watch the fans descend on the Premier League HQ in London to protest on the same day that the League releases its fixture list for next season. While there was a solid agenda and some certainty of how to progress from that meeting, the following evening at Against Modern Football was less focused and showed to me just how fractured and difficult it may be for the supporters to get their message across. Against Modern Football devolved into whinging and a call for boycotts (which, if you’ve ever tried to get tickets to a Liverpool FC game, wouldn’t even dent the demand for seats to be filled with daytrippers).
But the most fascinating aspect of the debates is the way that all the discussions fit into the current political debates in England while I was there. Days after my arrival, the UK Independence Party scored some major victories in council elections and much of political debate became fixed on the UK’s role in Europe. Both debates are essentially about the effects of globalization on England. The problem in football is that it is arguably one of the most important industries in England and certainly its most important cultural export. And so the current changes that many of the fans feel are that they have lost control over their own game (both foreign ownership and some concern over the number of foreign players) – mirroring debates about immigration from UKIP, an increasingly unstable and unsustainable economic model that many of the teams have fallen into – fitting into the national debate about staying in the EU, and very little control over something they regard as “their club” – again, the debate about staying in Europe. That there is a model (Germany and the Bundesliga) that the fans can aspire to that has not just had success for the fans, but success on the field has inspired a number of the conversations and given the upset fans a goal to focus on.
Why is fan ownership so important to the fans? Football traditions in England run far deeper than any franchise in North America, the instability in the leagues has meant that even the greats of the game (Man U, Chelsea, Liverpool, etc.) have a history of being in the lower tiers and have a long history that emerges from the communities that they were founded in and have always been in. Franchises move, but these clubs are part of the community, literally. These fans don’t just feel like they own the team, they really feel like they own the team. In attending any of the meetings, even the academic conference people identified themselves not just by their name, but by which club they supported. It is part of their identity. So the threat that their team could be put out of their reach, or that some owner could blow up the team through mismanagement hurts. Although even then some fans hope their teams “pull a Portsmouth” so that the team can die and rise again under fan ownership – short term pain for long term gain.
So my biggest lesson of my fieldwork was that I can go out there looking for one thing, but discover that I may find something completely different when I get there. I went looking for how fans create and use space in and around matches, and that is essentially what I found, but how I found it was not what I expected. It is exciting though, as looking at how these fans are reacting to what threatens their game gives my thesis a better focus than I had before I left.