Football grounds are the essence of football’s material infrastructure. They matter to us. Our complaints about the soulless ‘blandscape’ of modern stadiums are indicative of the interest that we take in the materiality of football’s environments. We notice everything. The way a ground looks. The individual stands that compose it. The experience it bestows.
But how much do we notice and think about turnstiles? Probably not much at all. After all, they are merely the things that we pass through in order to get to where we want to be. But are turnstiles merely a physical gate to the action? Or are they more than that? Beyond their physical materiality, what do they mean? Culturally speaking, what are they saying? And is what they are saying important and worth knowing?
In the beginning
In 1863 the Football Association was founded. It immediately published ‘laws of the game’ to end the confusion of the sport being played according to varying sets of ‘local rules’. The new ‘laws of the game’ allowed matches to be played between clubs from different parts of the country. They also made possible the creation of an FA Cup competition in 1871.
Football grounds lagged behind the pace at which the game was developing. When Blackburn Rovers won the FA Cup for three consecutive seasons in the mid-1880s they played home matches on a field at Leamington Street. It had a blue and white stand holding 600 people.
By the time the Football League started as a ‘national’ competition in 1888, players were being paid to play but not much else had changed. Founding members Aston Villa were renting a field from a butcher for £5 a year. The pitch had a hump near one of the goals and trees that ran the length of one of the touchlines. Yet Villa made the best of what they had by building a pavilion along the opposite touchline in 1887.
Suffice it to say that Villa and Blackburn had more than fellow founding members Derby County and Everton. When the first league season kicked off, Derby played home matches on a cricket ground located in the middle of a racecourse. Everton could be found playing on a rented field with ‘fences and hoardings’ in Anfield Road.
They soon outgrew their surroundings.
With the advent of the Football League, the game grew in popularity. In 1888, Villa were already able to attract crowds of over 20,000 for some matches. As the game entered the 1890s, Blackburn and Everton were also beginning to attract similar-sized crowds.
Football was fast becoming a business.
There were now players to be paid and large numbers of people that would pay to watch them. However, football grounds were porous. Spectators entered through manned open gates. The lack of gate security meant it was too easy to slip in without paying. It also meant that clubs were losing money. They began to turn their attention to securing entry to their grounds.
The origins of turnstiles
The first football turnstiles appeared in 1873 when the original Hampden Park opened; the first fully enclosed football stadium in Britain. However, turnstiles did not catch on elsewhere until the 1890s when financial pressures really started to build on clubs.
Sensing an opportunity to grab their slice of the growing business of football, landlords began to increase the rents of clubs competing in the nascent Football League. Arsenal, Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton and Everton were among those affected. This added to the financial pressures they were already under in meeting players’ wages.
Some clubs responded by forming into limited companies since this enabled them to issue shares and thereby raise capital. The key purpose of this was to build fully-enclosed grounds so that they could maximise revenue. The turnstile was central to this project.
With the industrial revolution in full swing, engineers such as Archibald Leitch had become experts in using modern materials (such as cast iron, steel and concrete) to build industrial structures. Leitch now turned his attention to meeting the emerging demand for new football grounds with secure entry systems. He was aided and abetted in this by a Salford-based company called WT Ellison and Co.
Ellison’s began manufacturing cast iron turnstiles (known as the Ellison ‘Rush-Preventive’) in 1895. By replacing the open gate system, the Ellison Rush-Preventative enabled clubs to regulate entry to their ground. It allowed gatemen to ‘hold’ fans at the locked turnstile until they had paid to enter. On payment, gatemen would release the turnstile to let them enter the ground.
The ‘iron cage’ of the turnstile
Turnstiles not only prevented fans from ‘bunking in’. They were a significant innovation that changed social relations within football. Turnstiles dissolved the personalised and informal nature of the relationships that had hitherto existed between clubs, gatemen and fans in a way that would not have surprised 19th-century sociologist Max Weber.
At around the same time, Weber was observing how the growth of capitalist enterprise (from small family-run businesses into limited companies) was changing the social character of organisational life. Formal rules and procedures were beginning to replace interpersonal ethics and trust. Weber argued that these changes were beginning to trap us in a dehumanising ‘iron cage’ of bureaucracy.
Football was no different.
Hitherto, social relations between clubs, gatemen and fans had relied on ethical commitments and trust: grounds were porous. Fans were supposed to enter through open gates. Clubs trusted fans to pay on entry through the gate. Since accurate attendances were not recorded, they also trusted gatemen to hand over all of the money they had collected at the gate.
Turnstiles changed all of this.
According to the brilliant football ground historian Simon Inglis, club chairmen such as Fred Rinder at Aston Villa saw turnstiles as a way to “overhaul the well-meaning but hopelessly incapable administration. One of [Rinder’s] first acts was to erect turnstiles, thereby smashing a ticket racket and boosting receipts from £75 to £250 (just as happened at Everton).”
Yet the significance of turnstiles could not be singularly reduced to economics. Weber would have also described them as ‘iron cages’ that were transforming the social relations of football.
In the same way that rules and procedures were having a dehumanising effect on modern organisational life, turnstiles similarly began to evacuate human relationships from football. Everything was now bureaucratically monitored and calculated: match attendance. Gate money. And whether the two equated with each other.
The ‘iron cage’ as a safety device
Although an economic rationale lay behind clubs’ installation of turnstiles, an alternative governmental discourse of safety later emerged. The Shortt Report (1924) and Moelwyn-Hughes Report (1946) both recommended minimum numbers of turnstiles to ensure that spectators entered grounds safely before kick-off. Alas, Conservative and Labour governments failed to impose these recommendations on a disinterested FA, which refused its cooperation with both committees of inquiry.
It was a taste of things to come.
The Safety of Sports Grounds Act (1975) tightened things up a bit by introducing a safety manual (the ‘Green Guide’) and licensing system for ‘designated’ grounds. The Green Guide required that ‘turnstiles should be of such numbers as to admit spectators at a rate whereby no unduly large crowds are kept waiting for admission.’
It wasn’t enough to stop the Bradford fire in 1985 or Hillsborough in 1989.
The Popplewell (1986) and Taylor (1990) reports into ground safety following both of these events found that football authorities and clubs had been ‘casual’ about safety guidance. In some cases, they had ‘disregarded’ it altogether.
Lord Taylor wrote that ‘The FA and the Football League have not seen it as their duty to offer guidance to clubs on safety matters.’ They were only really interested in the business side of football.
Since the FA had knowingly taken decisions that created fatal conditions at football grounds, Steve Tombs, Professor of Criminology at the Open University, has referred to the killing of 96 people at Hillsborough as a “barbaric act of social murder.”
Grounds for distinction
Although the football industry had been allowed to ‘disregard’ safety guidance on turnstiles prior to 1989, Hillsborough changed everything.
As new stadiums were built, working-class fans began to feel priced out. Meanwhile, a new army of middle-class fans began to flock to the shiny new Premier League stadiums. It all meant one thing: The social relations of football were in flux again.
The sociologist Richard Giulianoti studied these changes as they were happening in the 1990s. In doing so, he was influenced by the ideas of French philosopher and anthropologist, Pierre Bourdieu.
Giulianotti argued that the significance of the social changes happening within football was not simply a matter of one social class replacing another inside grounds. He suggested that a new class dynamic was being introduced into the game which would inaugurate new struggles over its cultural meaning.
The dynamic worked as follows: When middle-class lives overlapped with working-class lives, as in football, the middle class needed to find a way to maintain its distinctiveness as a class. Otherwise, it risked losing its social and cultural superiority.
Giulianotti described how football’s new middle class ‘consumers’ maintained their distinctiveness by engaging in cultural politics. This involved imposing new middle-class meanings on football which distinguished the middle-class interest in football as culturally superior.
As participants in the world of literature (Giulianotti refers to them as the ‘Soccerati’), books and fanzines have been the mediums for the practice of this cultural politics. As the cultural gaze of this Soccerati has been cast over football for the last 30 years, books have been written, read and debated on topics ranging from the aesthetics of the game to stadium architecture.
One result has been a cultural reimagining of turnstiles which have been given a new lease of life in the literary world of the new middle class. Under the cultural gaze of the social historian of sport, David Toms, the ‘iron cage’ has become majestic: “There’s something oddly magical about going through a turnstile”.
In his book Played in Manchester, Simon Inglis similarly writes that turnstiles provide a powerful cultural experience; a rite of passage marking the transition from the real world into the ‘fantasy realm’ of sport.
Giulianotti has been less than impressed by this literary reimagining of football and its material culture. For him, reimagining football is problematic because what it is really about is the new middle class asserting its cultural superiority over the game. As such, it is an act of power and colonisation.
This becomes nakedly evident when it involves the middle-class denigration of working-class fan cultures as somehow inferior. Giulianotti gets particularly upset with Simon Kuper for this.
In one piece, Kuper is critical of the intense emotional commitment that ‘traditional’ working-class fans have with football clubs. He goes on to suggest that they seemingly fail to understand that football is also an aesthetic form that should be culturally appreciated. It is as if working-class football fans are somehow stupid.
Seeing through the fantastical world of the turnstile
Back in the 1970s, Paul Willis wrote a book called Learning to Labour. In it, he attacked the idea that working-class understandings of culture are inferior. His social laboratory was school.
Willis argued that working-class kids did not ‘fail’ exams because they were thick. They ‘failed’ because they were smart enough to see through the mirage of a ‘meritocratic’ education system that promised to tackle inequality but worked to reproduce it instead. Why bother even trying? Moreover, working-class kids valued the authenticity of their own ‘manual’ culture above the pretentiousness of white-collar office culture.
They are important points that also apply to the so-called ‘fantasy realm’ of football.
In Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord argues that capitalism creates consumer fantasy and desire by transforming everyday lived reality into an imagined world of the spectacular. For instance, advertising transforms cars from wheels with a practical purpose into status symbols that say something fantastical about the owner.
We can also see this in the way football has been packaged up into something majestic and ‘otherworldly’; a project that the Soccerati has seemingly bought into. Debord would see this as dangerous because infatuation with the ‘better’ magical world of the spectacle (in this case, of Premier League football) is replacing an authentic life of ‘being-with’ each other as football fans.
We don’t need to look far to see how the spectacle of football is being resisted in working-class cultures of collective solidarity. In the North West alone, three fan-owned clubs have been built from scratch in the last 15 years; FC United, AFC Liverpool and City of Liverpool.
Fans of these clubs have not been taken in by the spectacle. For them, football is about ‘being’ active participants in an authentic fan community rather than consumers or cultural observers. This is most evident in the turnstile.
Collectivism at the turnstiles
Whereas the literary imagination has transformed turnstiles into a magical transitory experience to an exciting fantasy world, turnstiles at these non-league grounds are the material building blocks of something more authentic; fan community.
AFC Liverpool’s gateman, Andy, says “it’s a huge honour to be trusted to take important responsibility within the club. It always gives me a buzz pressing the foot lever and saying ‘welcome and enjoy the game’. Being the gateman is not just about taking their money. It’s an important role because it’s about initiating people into membership of the club.”
As turnstiles become electronically operated in the higher echelons of football, they remain human-operated lower down the pyramid where they welcome people into the community within. They are where anonymity is transformed into membership of a community of people. “So you’ve come back then. What’s your name?”
It’s a different kind of turnstile culture which involves creating and enacting the type of intimate human relationships that the very first football turnstiles dismantled. The ‘iron cages’ that replaced human values with commercial values in the first football grounds are now being transformed by non-league gatemen, like Andy, who are bringing those human values back to the gate.
What is more, this commitment to human authenticity in ‘traditional’ working-class fan culture doesn’t distract from the aesthetic appreciation of football’s material culture, as Kuper once suggested. John Connell’s study of the subculture of ‘groundhopping’ describes the lengths that ‘traditional’ fans go to in the service of appreciating football’s material culture; its idiosyncratic grounds and artefacts such as turnstiles.
Unlike the Soccerati, these ‘traditional’ fans don’t write about it to assert their cultural claims over football. Connell notes that they merely collect souvenirs (programmes etc.) and memories (photographs of turnstiles) in private collections that are kept at home.
Moreover, whereas the Soccerati have brought material culture such as football turnstiles alive in the literary imagination, traditionalists at non-league clubs are literally keeping football’s material culture alive. The turnstiles at Bracknell Town have come from the Stretford End at Old Trafford via St. Albans Football Club. Biggleswade Town’s ground is now home to Sheffield United’s old turnstiles. Their grounds are living museums to football’s historical material culture. Look who’s on the cultural high ground now!
They think it’s all over…
The football sociologist Anthony King argues that this takes us to the heart of the problem. In The End of the Terraces, King notes a tendency among critics of the Soccerati to celebrate the reclamation of football in working-class culture; to put working-class football culture back on a pedestal. He argues that this tendency is ‘populist’ and reactionary because it sides with football’s ‘traditional’ white male fan base.
But what about race, ethnicity and gender?
As football’s fan base has diversified, surely the meanings that Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people and women give to turnstiles are important too. After all, they are all part of the struggle over the way the game is, and should be, run.
Take gender, for instance.
Where turnstiles are celebrated in one way or another in male football culture, Inglis notes how the new turnstiles that appeared at Anfield in 1906 were immediately problematised on gender grounds:
‘Complaining about the narrowness of the new turnstiles, one fan wrote to the Echo ‘Simply disgraceful … if they think any gentleman would ask a lady to squeeze through such an aperture, to the destruction of her dress, they are mistaken.’’
If that sounds like a quaint and outdated version of a female football fan, then Julie offers us her modern gendered experience of turnstiles as ‘frightening. You feel dehumanised in them. You feel like you are like an animal or a piece of meat going through something and they’re hard, unyielding, uncomfortable.’
Julie is talking about a different kind of dehumanisation to that inaugurated by the advent of the iron cage turnstile in the 19th century. This is not simply about the erosion of social relations of trust within football clubs. It is about the societal objectification of (especially women’s) bodies which, in the turnstile as elsewhere, are treated like pieces of meat. For these women, turnstiles are an apparatus that are contiguous with a patriarchal society that either treats them as objects or, as Liverpool fan Annie says, ignores their needs:
“The turnstiles that are out now, the tall ones, are even worse. They’re like prison architecture, metal, cold. They feel claustrophobic. Women have breasts and hips. We’re a different shape and height. Turnstiles completely change as soon as you experience them from the perspective of height. If you’re not very strong, they’re tough to push. It’s not an easy walk through. They’re heavy. It’s a very scary contraption.”
These women’s experiences of turnstiles, and the meaning they give to them, raises existential questions about football and its material culture. In football culture, turnstiles are taken for granted. As this gateman suggests, there is a feeling of inevitability about them:
“The new turnstiles are very reminiscent of prison gates. They are very high. That’s not meant as a complaint though as security is paramount.”
In fact, they are so taken for granted that they are axiomatic at all levels of the football pyramid right down to step 6 of non-league. To be admitted into step 6 of the non-league pyramid, clubs are informed that ‘There must be at least 2 spectator entrances to control the ingress of spectators. These must be controlled by fully operational turnstiles of the revolving type and must be suitably housed and lit.’
Perhaps this taken for granted attitude towards the existence of turnstiles at football grounds is something to do with the masculine culture which predominates in football – especially at the level of its governance. Yet when women such as Julie are asked about such ‘necessity’ for turnstiles at step 6 she presents us with an uncomfortable truth:
“There are turnstiles at non-league grounds in the North West Counties league. But what are those turnstiles for? Why can’t people stand in an orderly line and pay? Why are they put through a turnstile? What’s the point of a turnstile? And it’s not just about women’s experiences. What about small children? And disabled people?”
That said, she stresses that it is not simply about non-league. It is about all levels of football.
“What about airports which are supposed to be high security but you don’t see any turnstiles so what’s the point of putting people through turnstiles? People can charge through anywhere. It doesn’t make much sense. There’s much better ways to check whether people have knives going into the ground rather than putting them through a turnstile and body searching them. They’re completely defunct because they don’t offer real security.”
It never is all over…
So, turnstiles tell us a story about ourselves and the society we are. Since their imposition by football’s money men in the 19th century, there has been a struggle over the social and cultural meaning of football that has been mediated through its turnstiles. In recent years, turnstiles have been reclaimed from the cold and calculating logic of money men by the ‘Soccerati’ and non-league gatemen. In one way or another, turnstiles have been transformed into something valued and special.
Yet this struggle over the social and cultural meaning of turnstiles has been conducted between men; money men versus literary middle-class men versus men from traditional working-class fan culture!
Moreover, this struggle over meaning has reinforced the role of the turnstile in football’s material culture. We now take them for granted; as if we could never imagine football grounds without them – at any level!
From the perspective of women, however, this all feels very reactionary. Turnstiles are experienced as masculine devices that, in the cold light of reality, are redundant. As practical devices that purport to ‘secure’ football grounds, turnstiles are ineffective and unnecessary.
Wherever we stand in relation to the struggle over the meaning of turnstiles, it all goes to show that football turnstiles are not simply mechanical devices; fixed and inert objects operated by faceless functionaries. We encounter them as cultural objects that tell us a bit about the meaning of our lives, struggles over the meaning of our lives, and how these meanings are endlessly changing. So if you thought it was all over….