In part 5 of our 18 for 18 series looking at different aspects of the game in 2018, JIM KEOGHAN looks at how politics and activism – from across the whole spectrum – have gradually crept into English football changing the nature of how we define our clubs, our cities and ourselves.

Around this time every year stories inevitably appear in the press about poppies in football, and specifically the decision by Stoke City’s James McClean to not wear one. McClean’s decision, entirely understandable considering that a Catholic lad from Derry would always find it a challenge to wear something that symbolises those lost in all of Britain’s military conflicts, including the Troubles, is one that enrages some. Along with angry Daily Mail editorials, McClean has been the focus of numerous social media insults and also the occasional death threat.

Aside from revealing the myopic outlook of some of those who follow football, the annual poppy debate also throws up an age-old question that has dogged the sport since its inception: Does politics have a place in our national game?

Football in this country has rarely been seen as a medium for political activity to the same degree as it has in other countries. 

Much of this can be attributed to football’s voluntarist origins here at home. When the sport as we recognise it today was invented and organised in the late nineteenth century, it initially embraced the values of amateurism, an approach that emphasised the ability of players, clubs and leagues to operate free from state intervention and political control.  For the ex-public schoolboys, members of the clergy and civil servants who pioneered the game and ran it well into the twentieth century, any such politicisation of sporting activity was considered an anathema to the amateurist spirit. 

Such a perspective stood in stark contrast to other parts of Europe, where politics, the state and sport enjoyed a much closer relationship. One need only look at the close ties that existed between clubs and the Government in the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany to see this. To take the Soviet Union as the starkest example; in Moscow alone several of the city’s clubs had links to powerful groups within political society, such as CSKA Moscow (Red Army), Dynamo Moscow (Cheka) and  Lokomotiv Moscow (Ministry of Transportation). Here, that would be the equivalent of the Ministry of Defence running Spurs, MI5 owning Arsenal and the Department of Transport being in charge of Chelsea.

But although those who held dear to the values of amateurism might have fought hard against any politicisation of football, and Britain did indeed resist its worst excesses, in reality the game has never been as pure as is often assumed.

Political decisions and interventions need not always arise from the state or from political institutions. When, in 1921, the FA in their infinite wisdom banned its members from allowing women’s football to be played at their grounds, effectively killing the women’s game for a couple of generations, it can hardly be seen as anything other than an overtly political move. This was an exclusively male organisation denying football to half the country in an act whose motivation appeared to be the preservation of male hegemony within the domestic game.

Beyond football itself, the size and popularity of the sport inevitably meant that some degree of state intervention was unavoidable. Since the game’s inception, the Government has sought to regulate football in the interests of safety. Sometimes this approach has been relatively straightforward and benign, such as the 1975 Safety of Sports Grounds Act or the legislative response to the Taylor Report, which both sought to improve safety standards within grounds. On other occasions, as in the case of the 1989 Football Spectators Act, which planned to make ID cards compulsory for all fans, the proposed interventions were more authoritarian in their scope.

Football, during its long history, has also come into contact with the judicial apparatus of the state, specifically in the area of labour law. The various legal rulings regarding a player’s ability to control their own destiny illustrate what a profound effect on the game labour law has had.

In an attempt to restrict richer clubs luring players from poorer ones, from the start of the 1893-94 season, the Football League decreed that once a player was registered with a member club, he could not be registered with any other one without the permission of the club who held his papers. This applied even if the player’s annual contract with the club holding his registration was not renewed after it had run its course.

This system, which became known as ‘retain-and-transfer’ was challenged first in the courts in 1912 by Herbert Kingaby, who brought legal proceedings against Aston Villa for preventing him from playing where he wanted. He claimed that by transfer listing him at £350, Villa had priced him out of any move. In response, the judge ruled that ‘there was perfectly good justification’ for Villa to want to prevent this from happening. The ruling meant the retain-and-transfer system gained legal underpinning and remained part of the game for a further five decades until Newcastle’s inside-forward, George Eastham, successfully got the system declared ‘legally unjustifiable’ by the High Court in 1963.

Elsewhere, the hand of the Government can also be felt in other areas of our national game. Positively, through Sport England, the state provides millions each year to the Football Foundation who in turn provide funding to ensure that grassroots clubs have access to better facilities. Positively, the state has also intervened to assist fan representation, specifically via the creation in 2000 of Supporters Direct, an organisation that has acted as a midwife to the growing supporters trust movement. Set against this, negatively, the government’s obsession with ‘austerity’ in recent years has crippled local authorities, who in turn have savaged budget allocations for playing fields which account for 90 per cent of those used by grassroots clubs. Only time will tell how much of a malign impact this will have on football in the UK.

What all of the above illustrates is that the idea that British football exists in some kind of perfect apolitical bubble, immune from ‘political’ decisions, political interference or state intervention is something of a misnomer. Clubs might not have fallen under the control of the state, but ‘political’ decisions have still been made and the political world has still been drawn towards football by the sport’s own gravity, an unavoidable consequence of its growth and mass appeal.

This muddying of the apolitical ideal is also true when it comes to the fans. Although they, as a body, for much of the game’s history adhered to the apolitical values so cherished by the founders of the game, in recent decades that benign environment has started to break down.

As early as 1910, when Colonel Calley, the Unionist candidate for Swindon became an ever-present at the County Ground in the run up to that year’s election, it’s been clear that some politicians have recognised the potential that fans represent.

We’ve seen it in the modern political era too, such as Tony Blair’s head tennis with Kevin Keegan back in 1997, David Cameron’s professed love for West Ham/Aston Villa a few years ago and, in the current climate, Jeremy Corbyn’s courting of fans across the country (replete with his own ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ terrace chant.)

Although some politicians are undoubtedly fans, and here I am thinking of the likes of Andy Burnham (Everton), Gordon Brown (Raith Rovers) and Ian Mearns (Newcastle United), most patronages, of either a club or just the sport in general, have normally been about taking a political shortcut; an easy and cheap way for a political figure to identify as ‘normal’. What better way to be seen as a man or woman of the people than to embrace the people’s game?

Most politicians who court the world of football are cementing a carefully crafted image or pushing for votes around election time, rather than overtly politicising the fans. To them it’s just part of an overall strategy, no different to appearing on This Morning, Have I Got News for You or Strictly.

The mainstream political world, certainly in this country, has treated football lightly, something differing little from any other entertainment medium enjoyed by the masses. But on the fringes of that same world, at the extremes, football has been seen differently in recent decades.

In October of this year, activists began a march at Park Lane in the centre of London to protest against ‘radical Islam’. The group in question were the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA). In this guise, and their former one – the Football Lads Alliance (from which the DFLA split in recent months) – the group has been active since 2017.

Formed in response to the London Bridge terror attack of that year, the FLA represented a coalition of football fans united in their desire to see something done to tackle what they saw was the growing threat of radical Islam. At its height during its early days, the FLA was amassing an estimated 20,000 supporters at its protest marches.

From the outset, the movement has faced accusations of being part of the far-right. Initially, it appeared to distance itself from such claims. The FLA liaised with local anti-fascist groups prior to marches, used carefully chosen language designed to stress inclusivity, and its then leader John Meighan declared: ‘Politically, we’re not left, we’re not right, we’re centre-middle and representing everyone against all forms of extremism.’

And yet, according to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) which has monitored the movement’s social media posts since inception, there has over time been a shift to the right.

The ISD points to the emergence of narratives that share much with those espoused by Britain First, For Britain and Tommy Robinson; narratives that highlight the danger posed by Islam, the ruinous impact of immigration and the threat posed by both to notions of ‘British identity’.

On organised marches and protests there has also been a growing willingness to embrace speakers from the far-right too, such as founder and leader of the anti-Islam party, For Britain, Anne Marie Waters; director of Make Britain Great Again, Luke Nash-Jones; and founder of Mothers Against Radical Islam and Sharia, Toni Bugle.

When it comes to the far-right’s efforts to recruit, mobilise and politicise football fans to their cause, the FLA and the DFLA are nothing new. The originators of this approach were the National Front (NF), who were active on the terraces in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were able, through their efforts, to gain representation at several clubs, such as West Ham, Chelsea, Leeds United and Millwall. Like the FLA and the DFLA, much of this representation was drawn from the ranks of hooligan ‘firms’. Both the Chelsea Headhunters’ and the Leeds United Service Crew, for example, possessed strong links with the NF.

Along with wider societal changes in attitudes towards race and religion from the late 1980s onwards, several factors combined to diminish the ability of groups like the NF to operate as freely amongst supporters. The increasing prominence of ethnic minority players, the rise in the number of women, children and ethnic minority supporters attending games and a more aggressive approach by the police and the clubs in targeting hooligans (such as banning certain fans from a ground) all played a part in changing the face of the game. These factors were complemented by a succession of anti-racist campaigns, such as Show Racism the Red Card and Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football, as well as anti-racism community work undertaken by the clubs themselves.

Despite this, the far-right never completely gave up. After the NF slowly imploded during the 1980s, the British National Party (BNP) took up the mantle in the 1990s, aping what its predecessor had done, seeking out support on the terraces. In the heavily policed upper reaches of the game, their reach was limited, but further down the pyramid the BNP enjoyed greater success.

As far right groups tend to do, the BNP then went belly-up, and in its wake came the English Defence League (EDL). Like their fascist predecessors, the EDL looked to the terraces for their numbers, using the remnants of the hooligan ‘firms’ to spread the word. In a similar way to the FLA, the EDL portrayed itself as a protest movement against militant Islam (while adding in hostility to immigration). It was an approach that found sympathy amongst plenty of football supporters, specifically young lads who liked the appeal of being part of a gang and who had an affinity with the patriotism that the EDL wrapped itself up in.

Through all these various manifestations of the far-right, from the NF to the DFLA, there has commonly been an equal reaction from the left. From the 1970s onwards, the far-right have never had things their own way, facing supporter led anti-racist and anti-fascist groups who have emerged in response to tackle what these organisations were doing.

The latest example of this is the Football Lads and Lasses Against Fascism (FLLAF), an organisation that has come into existence in recent months to oppose what they see as another attempt by the far-right to politicise football supporters.

‘We are going to copy what was done in the past. As well as mobilising against their marches, we are going to counter them at our own clubs by leafleting, using sticker campaigns and ensuring that our voice is heard amongst fans, not just theirs’ says Celtic fan, Lee Stevens, one of the founders of the FLLAF.

Despite its infancy, according to Stevens, the FLLAF has been inundated with requests by fans to set up club level groups, from non-league clubs like FC United of Manchester, to Premier League giants like Everton and Liverpool.

‘We’ve had communication from across the football pyramid and from all over the country. And that tells me that people are concerned but also that they won’t take what’s happening lying down. We’ve been here before and beaten them back. I’m confident that collectively we’ll do the same again.’

The periodic tussle between left and right on the terraces has become, in its own way, a staple part of modern football in this country, albeit on the fringes of the game. But in recent years this marginal politicisation of fans has begun to spread. Today, there seems to be an increased desire for supporters to come together to enact social change, a political dimension to fandom that was barely existent during the previous century. 

Perhaps the most high-profile example of this has been the various football-based foodbank initiatives that have emerged across the country, such as Fans Supporting Foodbanks, a partnership between the Everton Supporters’ Trust (EST) and Liverpool’s Spirit Of Shankly group.

‘The idea started on a train journey from London. Myself and another National Councillor from the Football Supporters Federation in London had a discussion about how fan activism could be used as a force for change’ says Dave Kelly of the EST.

‘Our first collection’ he continues ‘was in November 2015, collecting food in a wheelie bin outside The Winslow pub prior to our game against Manchester United. From humble beginnings we now collect up to a ton of food for a weekend game at Anfield and Goodison. Our biggest single donation was £43,000 worth of Jaffa Cakes! We are responsible for collecting somewhere in the region of 20 per cent of all food collected in North Liverpool’.

The emergence of a more ‘politically’ oriented supporter probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. The meaning of what it is to be ‘a fan’ has been changing radically in this country during the past thirty years, a change that has had a profound effect.

For much of the game’s history, fans were a relatively benign bunch. Off the pitch, football in England was a sedate affair. Clubs were owned by ‘local boys made good’, run relatively conservatively and rarely ran into trouble. What’s more, the game was cheap to consume, easy to access and rooted in a sense of localism.  Because of this, a relationship existed of supporters as customers, there to consume what was on offer (albeit with a near pathological brand loyalty) but without any desire to change how the club was run or take control themselves.

Here there was a stark contrast to what happened in countries in Europe, such as Germany, Sweden and Spain where fans actually owned and ran their clubs, acting as stakeholders and not customers.

But this English model began to break down in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. As football started to change – a process fuelled by the arrival of the Premier League and its turbo-capitalist template – the relationship between club and fan altered. The old off-pitch conservative world began to disintegrate as a ‘wild-west’ economic environment started to hold sway. Ticket prices rocketed, gambling owners on the search for a quick buck arrived, financial security disappeared. A void opened between the club and the fan, leaving the latter feeling disenfranchised.

Into this void arrived supporter activism. It started in earnest with the Independent Supporter Associations who existed to represent the fans and hold clubs to account. High profile successes, such as efforts to stop Rupert Murdoch taking over Manchester United and the campaign to bring an end to West Ham’s loathed ‘bond scheme’ illustrated that fan power could effect change.

The next stage in this movement’s evolution was the arrival of the supporters trusts. For this change, inspiration was taken from a little noted development that occurred at Northampton Town earlier in the decade.

Back in 1992, most of the media was focused on the arrival of Sky and the Premier League, salivating over the influx of money, the promise of glamour and the hairiness of Richard Keys’ hands. Against this background, the financial plight engulfing lowly Northampton Town never really stood a chance.

The Cobblers were facing liquidation, having been driven to the brink by their chairman, Michael McRitchie, and his debt-fuelled attempts to improve the club’s footballing fortunes.

With no new investors on the horizon, the supporters there organised to help the club out of its financial hole. They’d done this before in the past on a number of occasions but perhaps scarred by the board’s response to a previous effort when the fans had helped out financially, which had been rewarded by the miserly gift of six blazer badges, the supporters demanded that this time they would get something better in return.

A democratically structured Industrial and Provident Society (IPS) was created that pooled individual investments from fans to buy a stake in the club. Supporters joined the IPS as shareholders with their capital entitling them to one share and one vote.  This would be used to elect a board and vote on issues relevant to the fans, such as stadium developments, ticket pricing and annual budgets.

Via the creation of the Northampton Town Supporters Trust (NTST) the fans were able to become part of the financial resurrection of the club. Not only did the Trust buy a stake, it also gained two positions on the board; bringing to life the concept of supporter ownership for the first time.

The model created by NTST was taken up by another organisation as the decade closed. In 1997 Tony Blair’s first Labour Government had stormed into power, fuelled by a landslide victory and sparkling with an energetic commitment to reform. Although football had undergone something of a renaissance during the 1990s, it was still a sport riddled with problems, such as racism, escalating ticket prices and supporter disenfranchisement.

An industry so in need of reform was never going to escape the attentions of Blair and Co. In 1997, with cross party support, the Labour Government launched the Football Task Force (FTF), under the chairmanship of David Mellor QC, the former Tory minister and quasi-celebrity Chelsea fan. Drawing on representatives from all sectors of the game, the FTF was charged with the remit of finding solutions to the many problems that still afflicted football.

The FTF started to look into the mechanics of the supporters trust model, gradually coming to the conclusion that what had happened at Northampton could represent a panacea to many of the problems that the game was facing.

Its recommendations were embraced by Chris Smith, then the Minister at the Department of Culture Media and Sport, and in 2000 Supporters Direct (SD) was launched. Its mission, both then and since, has been to promote sustainable sports clubs based upon community ownership and supporter involvement, to publicise the benefits of the model and also provide support and advice to groups of fans who wish to establish trusts of their own.

Since being established, SD has acted as a midwife to the creation of over a hundred trusts in English football. Some of these own clubs, others simply own a few shares and others have no stake in their club at all. But whatever their status, what they collectively represent is a huge amount of fans, over 400,000 at the last count, who are embracing the new concept of what a football supporter is; one defined by activism and the rejection of passivity.

This activism is not just confined to individual clubs. Collective action, in which supporters work together across club boundaries has also been evident, best exemplified in campaigns such as No To Gam£ 39 (the campaign against the Premier League’s plans to host a 39th season game abroad), Twenty’s Plenty (a campaign to get clubs to cap the price of away tickets) and Stand Up For Choice (a campaign to bring safe standing to stadiums).

In light of this huge shift in what it means to be a ‘fan’, it’s probably of little surprise that supporters as a group have begun to take their activism beyond football itself, illustrated by the work undertaken by the EST and the Spirit of Shankly over foodbanks.

‘People are wrong to say football and politics don’t mix. Football is life. Politics is life. As the politicians bring in policies that discriminate against the working classes, the very people that go to watch football, why shouldn’t those same people start turning fan activism to wider goals?’ argues Dave Kelly.

So often it is the supporters trusts who are the vanguard for this wider activism. Taking inspiration from what happened on Merseyside for example, in recent months the Huddersfield Town Supporters Association have established eight food collection points, campaigned to end period poverty and helped refugees in the town with a successful outreach programme.

Possibly the best example of a trust acting as an agent of social and political change is FC United of Manchester, the community owned club formed by disaffected Manchester United supporters back in 2005 who were disgusted at the Glazer family takeover and tired by the increasing corporatisation of Old Trafford. Although what happens on the pitch is important for the fan owners of the club, FC United are foremost a community enterprise. Their guiding principle is to enrich the lives of the people of Manchester. The phrase ‘more than a club’ gets bandied about increasingly in modern football, most often as a branding tool. FC United truly inhabit the ethos.

Although the supporters trusts tend to be the most politically active elements within the constituency of fans, they are not the only ones. In recent years, a resurgent sense of fan culture at several clubs, specifically in non-league football, has given rise to a political dimension.

‘The Clapton Ultras, and the name was bit tongue in cheek, started a few years ago with a few Forest Green locals, made up mostly of disgruntled West Ham fans. They were fed up with the way that their club was run and by the football experience that you endured in the higher reaches of the game. They felt it had become too regimented, too stewarded, too expensive and despite the claims made by the club and the likes of the FA and the Premier League, you could still hear racist, homophobic and sexist language’ says Kevin Blowe, one of the early members of the group.

These fans turned to non-league football, finding a more welcoming football experience at the local club, Clapton FC, where they began creating a very different kind of fan culture.

‘We borrowed the culture of European ultras, in countries like Italy and Spain. We created a livelier atmosphere in the ground, free from the grim policing of stewards that you get in the Premier League’ Kevin continues.

The Ultras numbers spread by word of mouth, social media and sticker campaigns. At the movement’s height they were hundreds strong, turning average attendances at Clapton FC’s ground, The Old Spotted Dog, from around 20 in 2011/12 to 335 by the 2015/16 season. But for those involved, being an ‘Ultra’ was about more than football.

‘Ultras are political by definition’ says Kevin ‘And that meant that the movement was inevitably going to move beyond football. So, we were locally prominent in organising a food bank, active in bringing more people from ethnic and minority backgrounds into the club and also we supported the community’s only LGBTQ youth group.’

In recent months, after a falling out with the club, the Ultras have broadened their activism and actually started their own side, Clapton CFC.

‘This is a supporter owned venture, run democratically and which embraces the political and community minded politics of the Ultras’ says Kevin. ‘Clapton CFC is the embodiment of everything we believe football should be about.’

Similar ‘Ultra’ groups have appeared elsewhere in the non-league world, such as at Whitehawk and Eastbourne Town and more ‘progressive’ and politically active fan cultures have also developed at other clubs, notably Dulwich Hamlet and Lewes.

There is no doubt that football in this country has swerved the worst excesses of political involvement seen elsewhere. But our national sport is far from being apolitical. And increasingly this is something that fans appear to be embracing. We have come a long way in the past thirty years, as changes to the game have radicalised many fans in response. It’s perhaps inevitable that the rise of fan activism and the realisation that collective action can effect change has led many, from both sides of the political spectrum, to believe that their energies can be applied to the world beyond football.

Where it goes from here, nobody knows. But it seems likely we won’t go back to how things were before the Premier League began. Football’s neoliberal landscape appears firmly entrenched and in the wider world beyond, there seems to be a growing harshness blighting the lives of those who regularly go to the match. Those two factors, when added to the awakening of supporters to their political potential, seem destined to ensure that the mixing of politics and football is something that is here to stay.