MARTIN CLOAKE reviews author David Goldblatt’s latest offering on the continued cultural significance of football on today’s society.

Football books used to be noticeable by their absence. The reason Hunter Davies’s The Glory Game made such an impact in 1971 was that it was the first book to look at the game in the round. Even so, it was nearly 20 years before a canon of football literature began to emerge. Now, football books are everywhere. And it’s somehow fitting that, in this modern age of football, there is so much created in order to say not very much at all. What’s too often absent is an examination of football that is sociologically, economically and politically literate. And that’s why David Goldblatt’s new book demands to be read.

The Game of Our Lives: The making and meaning of English football looks at the development of the game against the backdrop of social, political and economic change in order to try to define why the game still means so much. It sets out as its basic premise the theory that football “is among our last and most precious collective projects in an atomised society”. Or, as the blurb on the dust sheet would have it “Football is a social democratic game in a neo-liberal world”.

Goldblatt is not only well-versed in the language and theory of the social sciences, he has a fan’s eye for detail, an obvious affinity with folk histories and creations, and a writing style that engages vividly at a fair old clip. His points are made clearly and complex theories expounded brightly – this is intellectual vigour not as something to show off with but to illuminate and pique curiosity. That itself says much about Goldblatt’s perspective, one that is unapologetic about knowledge while never patronising or obscuring in the manner of so much elitist intellectualism.

This is a story of football as a “thick web of values, rituals, histories and identities”. Goldblatt says we have been “mourning the passing of industrial Britain for over two decades” and yet “the further we are removed from that era, and what we remember as its values, the more football has kept those notions imaginatively alive”. Against this yearning for values past, he posits a game that has “created an economic model and a system of government that nurture their opposites”.

It’s that kind of analysis that enables Goldblatt to cut through the propagandising. In tracing the origins of the economics of the new football, he stands back from the hoopla that so many sports writers allow themselves to be mesmerised by, applying the eye of the seasoned observer of economics and politics. The new football, he says “did not begin with a burst of revolutionary entrepreneurial energy or the invigorating arrival of private capital, rather it was triggered by an entirely avoidable tragedy and disaster; it was steered down a particular path of development by the hand of the state; and a good chunk of the investment costs was paid by the taxpayer.”

And the value of the game was enhanced because “it inherited a vast body of cultural capital, of accumulated meanings, stories, collective memories and symbols whose values had not been tarnished by the problems of the 1970s and 1980s”.

That entirely avoidable tragedy and disaster was, of course, Hillsborough. Goldblatt says early on that it is “too soon to write a narrative history of British football since Hillsborough”, acknowledging that the battle still being played out is actually a battle for control of the way the game’s history is told. He understands that the incubation period for the new football began at Hillsborough and ended in Turin at the 1990 World Cup. But he’s blunt about the results, observing that “perhaps the most amazing thing about the new football economy is that it has barely produced profits at all”. He’s got the figures to back that assertion up, enabling to ask the blindingly obvious but seldom asked question ‘How has British football managed to create a business model in which as turnover rises, so do losses?”

What Goldblatt’s answer to that question will be is made clear early on, with a damning assessment of the FA as “utterly unprepared for the world of football after Hillsborough” because it “lacked the skills, the structure, the capacity or the intellectual energy to redefine its role in an era of highly commercialised football”. In the chapter entitled ‘You don’t know what you’re doing, the misgovernance of English football’, he lays bare the FA’s failures by setting the telling of the tale against a wider backdrop of business and executive conduct rather than preferring to see football as a world removed from all around it. He is scarcely less damning of the politicians who have rushed to embrace football as one of the touchpoints of modern populism but who have fumbled and fudged successive attempts to regulate the sport and bridge the growing gap between sport and customer.

One of the book’s most vivid and insightful chapters is ‘Keeping it real? Match day in the society of the spectacle’, in which Goldblatt takes us through the ritual of going to and watching the match while observing the changes to that ritual. The chapter title references Guy Debord’s theory of cultural life colonised by commercially manufactured imagery, and sets this against the idea of Don DeLillo’s “unseen something that haunts the day” to examine the rhythms of the crowd. One of the many interesting observations here challenges the idea that the middle-classification of the crowd is a relatively recent phenomenon, while acknowledging that definitions of class have become ever more complex. Instead, says Goldblatt, “what the new football order has done is accentuate and polarise those shifts”.

In places, the book falls short, defeated by the scope of its ambition. The chapter ‘English journey, football and urban England’, while containing some pithy observation, seems upon completion to have been a whirlwind ride through the stories of urban clubs that serves as a useful potted history but one that left me feeling that Goldblatt could deliver more observation and conclusion than made the final edit. That’s especially true of the fleeting reference devoted to Millwall, one that focuses entirely on the club’s supporters reputation as one of football’s “most badly-behaved”. From a writer with Goldblatt’s armoury, a look at how the club has sought to counter the reputation it has earned, through much successful work in the field of race and wider community relations, would have been instructive.

There’s more depth in the observations on the identity of the home nations in ‘Football at twilight, Britain’s endgame’, a chapter that looks at football in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland at a time when the notion of a United Kingdom is being redefined even by its staunchest proponents. But here, again, five pages on Cardiff City but one paragraph on Swansea seems to be a missed opportunity to look at how Swansea’s fan community not only saved the club, but have helped take it back to the top level of the game. This is not, of course, a book about supporter activism, but Swansea’s story seems germane to the central thrust of this book.

‘Playing the race game: migration, ethnicity and identity’ does a more thorough job, examining the experiences of different groups of players and spectators without repeating the oft-made mistake of running all those differing experiences together. There’s also some neat juxtaposition, such as the observation that the hooligan firms of the 1970s and 80s were quicker to accept black faces than the game itself. Not a direct comparison, accepted, but cause for thought. There is a significant error in this section though. When talking about the controversy over Tottenham Hotspur fans using the word “Yid” in chants to identify themselves and the FA’s decision to attempt to ban the use of the word within English stadiums – something which runs counter to that body’s assertion that it cannot tell its member clubs what to do, by the way – Goldblatt says “to date, no one has been prosecuted or banned under these regulations”. And yet three Spurs fans were prosecuted and their names dragged through the courts and the press before it was found there was insufficient evidence.

Overall, this chapter does succeed in showing the very real advances that have been made, while also leaving no room for complacency that issues around race and identity are in the past.

In ‘Last man standing: English football and the politics of gender’, Goldblatt takes a look at what has happened to the masculinity that has shaped and often defined football. He acknowledges changes for the better while still observing that “English professional football remains a place where many men are resisting female encroachment on what they believe to be their home turf” and wondering what it all means for the codes of masculinity deeply embedded within the game. He does not ignore the women’s perspective – there’s rare acknowledgement here of the fact that the FA prevented, through a rule that stood from 1921 to 1971, the use of male club facilities by women, for example.

Summing up, Goldblatt references Anthony Crosland’s writing from the 1950s in which the Labour MP tried to set out “new ways of creating public space, and tangible collective solidarities beyond the factory and the working man’s club” to strengthen the proposition around which the book is built. I wanted to be convinced by that central proposition, but I’m not. But that is not the point of the book. What this is, is a much-needed, vividly written account of why the game means so much to us – one that gives an essential grounding to any real understanding of the conflicts that are played out within the modern game.

There are jarring moments, some of judgement and therefore simply a matter of opinion such as the passages on Millwall and Swansea mentioned above, or the selection of Ginola rather than Ardiles, Villa or Klinsmann as the player at Spurs who really changed perceptions of foreigners; some factual such as the early reference to Arthur Smith’s play ‘A Night with Gary Lineker’. But these are few and far between.

Goldblatt answers the question of why there’s so much fuss about a simple game by showing how deeply that game is rooted in the collective consciousness, and what it represents to us as a people. Or rather, what it represented, because this is a story of a struggle to hold on to something that is slipping away. I’m not convinced that football is a social democratic game in a sea of neo-liberalism, a collective force in an atomised society, but I am more convinced than ever that its ability to be both of those things is central to today’s culture wars. The ability to understand the power of folk memories, to see the influence of the collective – the great mass – as well as that of powerful individuals, to understand the often contradictory currents of popular opinion and understanding, are what mark this book out.

My mistake was to want to find the route to collectivist utopia within these pages. That is, of course, impossible. So is the glass half full or half empty? After reading the final page you could be left with the sinking feeling that all that we valued is slipping away. Or you could be reminded of what it is we value. Utopias, after all, inspire rather than provide blueprints. Goldblatt’s book is not only about the meaning and making of English football, it is about – in the fullest sense of the word – its value.