Authenticity and the Football League
Why is it that virtually everyone in the Football League seems to be on a perpetual chase for authenticity? It’s the buzz phrase “real football”, isn’t it? That whole “we’re better than the Premier League because the Premier League has become corrupted by money and Man United and Sunday afternoon games and Sky Sports and all that” thing.
Except that “Real Football” makes up half of the trademarked slogan of the Football League – “Real Football, Real Fans”. It’s this self-contradictory nature of Football League discourse that I find so frustrating – on the one hand, a nostalgia-tinged desire for authenticity, and on the other, all the marketing fluff of the league above that many fans love to hate for being “everything that’s wrong with modern football grr etc.”
I don’t understand how there is all that much difference. The barrier between the Premier League and the Football League is political and economic, not sporting. Half the clubs in the Championship seem to be sponsored by betting firms or financial companies, and most of them have played in the top flight in the last 20-25 years. Even outside the Championship, there are plenty of shiny new modern stands and stadia, and big attendances. The clubs of the Football League are not the little clubs outsiders seem to think fill the 72.
And then there are the fans, who you can never please. For them, it’s either cloying, mawkish nostalgia (as Stewart Lee would say) about the “good ol’ days” which so many of them want to return to – that sound you hear is the sound of modern football not being uninvented – or it’s whinging about how the club they support isn’t successful enough. Fans would seemingly love their clubs to have loads of money to spend on the best players and yet sneer in disgust at the Premier League or any Football League club that spends a lot.
The drive for authenticity has been both invented and perpetuated by the media. Football League coverage, aside from the usual news-based stuff, seems to be divided into two distinct categories. If it’s by someone who usually covers the Premier League, it’s usually horribly patronising, as if they the middle class journalists are having fun watching real actual working class people watching their working class football at a working class ground in a working class town.
If not, it’s probably by a fan of a Football League club, either saying roughly the same sort of thing or talking about how things were much better in the past and that the club has “lost its soul”. As you can see, there is a lot of moaning. And that’s not even mentioning 6-0-6/TalkSport-style ranting about poor form and managers. There are exceptions but very few – there doesn’t seem to be much non-partisan unpatronising Football League coverage of any sort.
Now I don’t disagree that some clubs have been affected negatively in recent years by money and the demand for success, Cardiff being the prime example. But some Football League fans seem to think football and their clubs should remain static and never change, and that any change is a Bad Thing. There is a refusal to accept the need to move on into the 21st century. In particular, Football League fans hate new stadia – yes, because that’s what everyone hates, isn’t it, that progress. “Oh no, I quite like having an obstructed view, poor medical facilities, poor fan segregation and having to stand up for 2 hours on Tuesday nights in January with a windchill of -4. I like it so everyone else should have to put up with it.”
Why should clubs have to change? Because the world has moved on, that’s why. For one, I can’t understand why people like to stand up for football matches – atmosphere my arse. Safety should be the number one concern. People that dismiss health and safety out of some kind of Littlejohnian spite are just too wrapped up in their own memories of good times.
And that’s the problem – people too often confuse having good memories of the past and what they want from the future. People don’t seem to want to let the past go – they want to constantly recreate it, even though nothing is as good second time around, especially in football. It has instilled a fear of change in the sport. I was like that once, about F1 in particular, but I realised that it was futile because the past isn’t coming back, and that even if it did, it would simply disappoint.
A small example of this is the BBC using The Chain in the intro for their new F1 coverage from 2009 – an awesome theme tune it may have been in the past, but in hindsight, returning it has devalued it, because it has just become a regular event now, part of the monotony of life. It has taught me that the past should just be left in a big locked box and stowed away in the back of your brain.
I recently read an article from a fan of a Football League club saying that he didn’t feel as emotionally attached to his club any more because it has changed. It was written with the sort of revelatory tone that suggested that no one else in the world had ever grown out of something or felt betrayed by something they loved when they were growing up.
This seems to be a wider issue – a lack of self-awareness. You don’t think that any club has been through a crisis before? You don’t think that any club has moved away from its long-term home into a new stadium before? You don’t think that people have become disillusioned with their clubs for daring to progress into the 21st century before? Something about having cakes and eating them springs to mind.
But it’s also pessimistic, because said person also seemingly doesn’t think the club will come out the other side the way he wants it to – he’s seemingly worried that things have changed forever, as if that had never happened in the past. Do people genuinely think football clubs were unchanged from their foundation to 1980 or 1992 or 2000 or some other arbitrary date? Do they not realise that the modernisation of football is a process begun long before they were born and that will continue until long after they die? No, they just think that it started the moment they hit puberty – funny that.
There is a reason why fans of different ages get nostalgic about different eras – it’s because they all grew up in different eras and they are all feeling nostalgic about a particular period in their lives, not because things were definitely better back then.
For instance, I feel nostalgic about late 90s football because that’s when I was learning about how football works with youthful naivety and belief in open doors that would soon be shut. Gradually, as less and less seems possible and limits to what could happen were realised, it became less exciting. This doesn’t mean that late 90s football was better, or that we should return to that. It’s gone for good. The only thing that would bring a similar state in football back would be restrictions, which is counter to the youthful open-doors naivety I felt – it would close even more possibilities. It just wouldn’t work.
This is exactly how I feel with F1 – the more rules that are introduced to improve it, the worse it feels because certain things now become impossible. The scope for the unlikely happening is reduced. It’s also why FFP is a bad idea in some respects, because it maintains the status quo at the top.
Football League fans don’t seem to understand this, for they are too stuck in their own little bubbles to realise that other people have gone through and are going through exactly the same process. The media and the Football League PR team pander to this, for the fans are king in the Football League – “the fan is always right”, even though he/she generally isn’t right (it’s elitist but it’s true). This has created this discourse of authenticity, as if that is what football should aspire to – to satisfy a desire to return to an airbrushed version of working class football some time before 1992.
It is no wonder, then, that if a Football League fan abandons his club, he drops lower down the pyramid, in search of a “more authentic footballing experience”. Thus it’s not just a Football League discourse – it has spread throughout the system.
In any case, there has to be some kind of happy medium where the Football League and its clubs can progress without becoming too detached from the founding principles of football clubs. I do actually think that’s roughly where we are right now. Yes, we have a few owners of clubs that are throwing money around in a bid to move beyond their station, while there are one or two clubs which seem intent on lurching from season to season just looking to avoid relegation – ambition should be celebrated but not over-ambition. But overall, I think the Football League is in a good place.
The problem is with those who want to change the Football League, and make it something that it isn’t – it isn’t the home of real football or real fans any more than any other league in the country, so please stop pretending otherwise. Otherwise it will be pretentiousness that will kill the Football League.