Turning football fans into mere spectators

Two new books provide a fascinating, funny and sometimes emotional view of modern football and how commercialisation is shutting out lifelong supporters.

Viral Shah

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Football in England has come a long way in the past 20 years. Once looked down upon as a dying sport or, worse, as a threat to the social order, the game is now a family-friendly big business dominated by wealthy foreign owners and multi-millionaire players. Amid all the noise about football, it is refreshing to read two excellent books written from the viewpoint of ordinary fans reflecting on their relationship with their clubs: Daniel Harris’s On the Road and Keith Salmon’s We Had Dreams and Songs to Sing.

One wouldn’t expect references to literary icons such as Wordsworth and Gabriel Garcia Marquez in any normal football season review, but then Daniel Harris isn’t your conventional football writer. The Manchester United fan and ex-lawyer in the City (that is to say, the financial heart of London, not the blue half of Manchester) reflects on the 2009/10 season in his book, which had its genesis on the ESPN Soccernet blogs.

The premise of On the Road is simple: Harris travels to Manchester United’s 19 Premier League away games while steadfastly refusing to attend any of their home matches in a form of protest at the club’s American owners, the Glazer family.

The result is a fantastically entertaining read, with individual analyses of every game and informed discussions of tactics, player performances and the match-day experience itself. Given that the book is made up of a collection of blogs entries, it is written in short, punchy paragraphs brimming with insights into modern-day football.

Manchester United’s nouveaux-riche neighbours Manchester City are the target of plenty of vitriol. Harris is delighted when United win both the team’s league meetings and the League Cup semi-final. There is further mockery aimed at City’s DVD release, Blue Moon Rising, reflecting on a season where City were repeatedly beaten by their closest rivals and failed to finish in the top four, despite having spent hundreds of millions to get to such a position.

There are several references to the uselessness of United midfielder Michael Carrick (whose career seems to have tailed off after the humiliation he endured at the hands of Barcelona’s Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta in the 2008/09 Champions League final) and Harris also campaigns for United to field the young Brazilian full-back Rafael da Silva ahead of the moustached geriatric Gary Neville.

The reader gets a fine insight into the psychology of an intellectual and humorous fan. Highlights include hilarious critiques of the trivial happenings in the life of England’s Brave John Terry (such as his need for a favourite urinal), Harry Redknapp and ‘Big Sam’ Allardyce (the now ex-Blackburn manager, who famously thinks there is ‘too much perception in football’). Harris also shares the moment when he watched a home match, while on the toilet, via one of the many illegal math-streaming websites (the latter part is an essential student football fan experience, the former not so much!).

Harris writes with real authority on a topic that is close to his heart. But his perspective does not fall into the realms of sentimentality at all. For example, he is deeply critical of manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s actions during the Glazer family’s takeover of United in the summer of 2005. It is easy to sympathise with Harris’s despair with the club’s new owners as he breaks down the worrying financial situation, particularly the immense debt loaded on to the club by the Glazers to finance their purchase, what Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger has called ‘financial doping’.

There is also a general tone of lamentation at the increasing commercialisation of football, epitomised by the soulless corporate dome that is Arsenal’s Emirates stadium. Similarly, at Old Trafford, the supporters and fans have now been replaced by an ‘audience’. On The Road tries to encapsulate the dying embers of the true terrace football experience in a game where money talks. The examples of the Bundesliga and FC United of Manchester are promoted, but like Manchester United’s anticlimactic season (winning only the lightly regarded Carling Cup), there seems to be a downbeat tone to Harris’s conclusions.

Keith Salmon’s intensely personal account of his relationship with his first love, Liverpool Football Club, is more autobiographical, extending over many years. Thankfully, however, We Had Dreams And Songs To Sing is a cut above the usual, sub-Nick Hornby fan memoirs.

The book initially began as a diary of the author’s marathon journey to Istanbul and back to witness Liverpool win the 2005 Champions League in one of the most dramatic finals in football history. But it evolved to encompass Salmon’s account of three events that form the pillars of the recent history of the club: Heysel, Hillsborough and Istanbul. Interweaved between these highly emotional occasions, the narrative reflects on the dichotomy of Salmon’s personal and professional lives as he tries to juggle his love for the club with real life.

The book is written with a certain style; the narrative doesn’t fall into the trap of becoming a series of chronologically ordered match reports on different away games (no disrespect to Daniel Harris’s book, which clearly intended to do that and does it very well). Nor is this a book purely for Liverpool fans: any football supporter could make an emotional connection to the excitement of a big game and the panic of trying to make all the transport connections on a long-distance trip.

But this is not just a romantic evocation of Salmon’s love for Liverpool FC. It is a reflection on being a working-class man living north of the Watford Gap in Thatcher’s Britain. It is a traveller’s diary, epitomising the experiences of most Englishmen on trips abroad – deficient in foreign languages, but equally keen to experience the local culture.

There are difficult chapters in the book, particularly the distressing memories of the fans who died at the Heysel stadium in Brussels in 1985 before the European Cup final between Liverpool and Italy’s Juventus, and Hillsborough, where even more died before the 1989 FA Cup semi-final with Nottingham Forest. After years of psychological repression, Salmon struggles to deal with the act of recalling these events.

Salmon’s writing provides a strong sense of place. It is euphoric in the chapters describing the triumphs in Istanbul and Barcelona. On the other hand, the first-person narrative endows the reader with a powerful feeling of helplessness and claustrophobia in relation to events at Hillsborough. The fine margins between life and death are vividly expressed here as Salmon describes his good fortune not to get carried away by the crowd as it poured down the tunnel to the central pen at Hillsborough into the crush in which 96 people died. One can entirely empathise with the contempt for authority that emanates from this account, given the way the police went from herding fans to allowing a deadly surge into the ground.

Salmon reveals his guilt at not being able to help fellow fans, remaining a helpless onlooker at both Heysel and Hillsborough. The accusations levelled at him personally by an old lady (‘You should be bloody ashamed of yourself’) upon returning to Liverpool after the Heysel disaster, where 39 Juventus fans died due to the actions of a small minority of Liverpool fans, reflect the way the incident helped to establish the idea that English fans were uniquely violent hooligans. In fact, as Salmon reflects on the trouble at an end-of-season game between Roma and Atlanta, fan clashes are not an ‘English disease’ and riot police everywhere are heavy-handed. The Heysel disaster simply allowed English football to be turned into a Bad Example by Thatcher’s government and Europe’s football authorities.

Salmon’s book is not all about Liverpool. He also touches on the inner workings of Football League side Peterborough FC, through his work with soccer schools. The reflections on the financial constraints and tensions between the youth system and the main club make for a curious and unexpected read in the middle of a narrative so focused on the impact of Liverpool’s history on the author.

The book ends on something of an anticlimax: the loss to Chelsea in the Champions League in April 2008, described in the brilliantly named final chapter ‘Riise ruins the book’. Salmon cannot get a ticket for the match, a fact which highlights a sense of disillusionment at the increasing commercialism of football: Salmon, a fan of more than three decades, cannot get a ticket for another big European night.

It seems that for both Harris and Salmon, the heart of the club – its fanbase – is being squeezed out in favour of megabucks. It’s a gloomy thought, but it doesn’t prevent these books from being fascinating nonetheless.

Viral Shah is a freelance football writer and a graduate of the Young Journalists’ Academy. He blogs at LiberoFootball.

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