The price of everything and the value of nothing
Posted on April 20, 2021
At about ten to two last Sunday I did an ungainly dance round my living room while screeching Neanderthal expletives. This wasn’t some desperate outcome of months of lockdown; it was a wild a reaction to my team scoring a goal. It was a goal that will probably ensure my team continuing to play in the second tier of English football next season.
My team is not one of the big hitters. To borrow from Mark Twain, we are best summed up by the notion that we have great moments, but dreadful half-hours. When those great moments occur, they are indescribably sweet. The half-hours? Well, supporters of my club know, through a combination of history, precedent and osmosis, that they’re exactly what we signed up for.
Some five years ago, venture capitalists from the other side of the world purchased my club. As befits the lack of good fortune that bedevils us, they were, to use football jargon, venture capitalists from the lower reaches of the pyramid. They’re more Keystone Cops than the Wolf of Wall Street. The clue, of course, is in the ‘venture’ part. They took a punt, often, it seems, using money that was ‘notional’. They started their stewardship with all the clumsy naivety of an optimistic gambler and then became steadily more inept, desperate and incoherent as time wore on. Far from elbowing a place at the top table, we repeatedly end up scrabbling to stay with the also-rans.
I don’t want to go all grammatical on you. If you’ve been condemned to home-schooling, you may have become familiar with some of the arcane terminology being foisted on our children. If so, you’ll have noticed the deliberate use of the first-person in what I’ve written: ‘my team’, ‘we’, ‘us’. That’s because I’m describing a central part of my life – one that is bound up with history, traditions, friendships, personal memories and matchday rituals. The chances are that if you don’t recognise any of this in yourself, you will do in someone you know.
The explosion of comment and reaction to the proposed Super League has prompted our senior politicians to come forward. It is an outrage, they splutter, that something so close to the nation’s heart and soul should be sold off in this unfeeling, aggressive way. These people simply can’t be allowed to breeze in, wave their wads of dollar-bills, walk off with our assets and wreck a way of life as they do so. Who do they think they are?
Well, the answer to that is quite simple. ‘They’ are JPMorgan and they have made an initial pledge of £3 billion to promote their new football toy. Oh…..and one of their vice-chairmen, David Mayhew, has invested some £600,000 in the Conservative Party – so ‘they’ are not exactly an unknown entity as far as our new champions of the peoples’ game are concerned. But, as we all know in the age of back-handing contracts to your mates or texting your old buddy, the Chancellor, to get a leg-up introduction, when it comes to making a few quid for yourself, old habits die hard.
And here’s a stark truth about the likes of JPMorgan. They really don’t give a monkeys that millions of people like me enjoy a couple of pints before a match. They neither know nor care that I can remember with bright clarity the first time I saw the towering stands (they were dilapidated and unsafe, as it happens) and the gleaming grass of my team’s ground. The fact that my grandchildren proudly sport Granddad’s team’s shirt is entirely inconsequential. They would consider my poring over the league table as the season ends as deluded actions in a man of my age (and, yes – of course I know they are). The fact that I don’t want to watch football on TV is immaterial, just as long as they’ll be doing so in their billions across the globe.
Regrettably, none of this comes as any surprise. Football at the elite level has become monetized, sanitized and commodified as distant owners crave the glitzy, franchise model that prevails across the cash-rich set-ups of American Football and cricket’s Indian Premier League. All the same, one can only marvel at the nerve of a political class performing its pantomime of concern over it all.
Lest we lose sight of it, of all the tricks that capitalism has up its sleeve, the most breath-taking is the show-stopper of selling stuff back to us that we already own. If it can convince us that allowing private companies to purloin everything from gas to wind to water and then to flog it at a profit, then it’s little wonder that the shiny jewel of football has caught its restlessly greedy eye.
In 2020 I wrote two books about football. Hugging Strangers captures what it’s like to be a hopelessly committed fan of a mediocre team. The other, Project Restart, is particularly apt at present, as it shows how football can hold a centrally important place in people’s lives and communities.