Since the FA’s decision to ‘null and void’ the 2019-20 football season in steps 3-7 of the non-league pyramid, debates have been raging about the rights and wrongs of null and void versus bringing the season to a footballing conclusion. These debates can be confusing: mainly because non-league football clubs find themselves in different situations with different pressures, threats, and opportunities.
There is no need to rehearse the debates about the rights and wrongs of different courses of action here because they have been more than adequately covered by the Non-League Paper (hereafter referred to as ‘the NLP’). However, it is worthwhile to look at a broader issue about the conduct of these debates.
What is striking is the moral and emotive nature of the language that some have used to make the case FOR null and void and AGAINST those who oppose it. My own club, AFC Liverpool, come into this oppositional category. We are second in the North West Counties First Division North table (step 6). South Shields, currently occupying the top spot in the Northern Premier League (step 3), are another vocal opponent.
The essence of the null and voiders’ moral argument is that clubs like AFC Liverpool need to put their selfish grievances to one side and ‘think of the bigger picture’. They argue that football is ‘the least important thing at the moment’. For example, Dagenham and Redbridge manager Daryl McMahon is quoted in the NLP as saying:
“Let’s be brutally honest, football is not that important …. We’re probably looking at another 600-odd dead today in the UK – and we’re still talking about when football is restarting.”
A letter writer in the NLP similarly argues.
“This pandemic has shown how insignificant football is, in terms of relevance to greater life. In the end, no relegation/promotion is more important than one’s health. The best and only thing to do is cancel the season …. Any club that decides to sue will be absolutely sick.”
The author of the letter is alluding to recent communication sent to the FA by Walker Morris Solicitors on behalf of 150+ step 3 to 7 clubs. The letter writers’ disapproving view of these 150+ clubs are, in fact, also shared by the NLP itself. In an editorial line on 29th March, the paper said that it:
“… would urge any club considering going down that road [of legal action] to think again. Hundreds of people have died, families have been torn apart and the country is in lockdown. Yes, your season has ended in a disappointing and frustrating manner, but it’s time to look at the bigger picture.”
So the null and voiders’ moral message is essentially this: Life and death are more important than football so the FA’s detractors should shut up and put up. But I’d rather not. Instead, I’m going to insist on a full discussion of problems and weaknesses in the null and voiders’ moral argument, which are as follows:
1. The ‘life and death’ language used against ‘the 150+’ is designed to provide arguments about null and voiding the season with moral force. Here’s a good example: “There are people dying and this is all South Shields care about. Acting like a spoiled, entitled brat.” The purpose here is to make detractors morally reprehensible (‘sick’) for challenging the FA whose track record on life and death, incidentally, belongs in the swamp.
2. By using moral force to make their argument, the null and voiders are seeking to claim the moral high ground and thereby put their detractors onto the back foot (‘look at the bigger picture …. people have died’). They have been so successful in this that they have obliged South Shields chairman Geoff Thompson to accept their ‘life and death’ argument, which has put him on the defensive when making his own case: “I must emphasise that people’s health and well-being come first …. We are just saying, at some point, football will return and we all want to be ready to return with a decision that respects clubs at all levels of the game”. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls this ‘symbolic violence’ because, as here, the opponent of power (South Shields) is compelled to accept and use the moral language of the powerful (the FA and its allies), rather than their own moral language, to make their case. This has two democratic consequences. First, morally forcing opponents of null and void onto the defensive like this (‘we are just saying’) is dangerous because it subdues the voice of opposition. Second, a morally gagged opposition will enable the null and voiders to side-step the democratic debate that would reveal the weakness of their administrative arguments.
3. All of the above said, we now need to challenge the ‘life and death is bigger than football’ moral discourse and the null and voiders’ occupation of the moral high ground: for the sake of the health of the democracy on which the quality of our lives depend. Indeed, it is significant that one of the key points raised in the Walker and Morris letter to the FA is its call for “democratic transparency”. So these are now our two tasks. First, to re-democratise the current situation we need to unpick the null and voiders ‘life and death’ moral argument so we can see it for what it is. Second, we then need to reconsider the oppositional voices of clubs like AFC Liverpool and South Shields within an alternative moral framework. Liverpudlians are especially well placed to help us to find this alternative moral framework because they have had to confront the meaning and significance of football through the lens of life and death before, whilst also having to fashion sensitive responses.
Deconstructing the Moral and Democratic Worlds of the Null and Voiders
Let’s be honest. The FA is in no position to take any moral high ground when it comes to life, death, football and democracy. Need we remind ourselves of its recent historic track record in this respect? Perhaps we should.
Similar to the situation today, where the FA stands accused of failing to consult Step 3 to 7 clubs about null and void, the same organisation chose to conduct backroom conversations with South Yorkshire Police and Magaret Thatcher (but not Liverpool Football Club) in the aftermath of Hillsborough. It would not be controversial to suggest that meaningful and democratic consultation is not its strong point.
It is also an organisation that pressured Liverpool to complete its 1989 FA Cup campaign whilst in the darkest depths of its mourning. The FA showed no regard for the lives lost at Hillsborough but, then again, it didn’t feel compelled to because it held Liverpool fans culpable. But, of course, you would form that view if you only spoke to South Yorkshire Police rather than real people that were affected by the tragedy.
Small wonder that Kenny Dalglish describes the FA in his autobiography as “uncaring administrators in London …. impatient to get on with their precious cup”. What Dalglish is saying is that the FA put football before life and death for reasons of institutional interest and convenience.
Fast forward to 2020 and we find ourselves back on old territory. As the FA seek to stop the football season being properly concluded, against the wishes of a huge number of step 3 to 7 non-league football clubs, the roles have been somewhat reversed: Clubs like AFC Liverpool and South Shields want to keep the possibility of playing football open, the FA don’t.
But the moral position of the FA and its supporters is no less important. Notwithstanding the FA’s disingenuous talk about ensuring the survival and sustainability of non-league clubs, what apparently matters now is the ‘bigger picture’. Nowadays, life and death come before football.
But you have to question the logic of this moral argument and, in Liverpool, we do. What the null and voiders want us to believe is that life and death exist in a juxtapositional ‘versus’ relationship to football. It is as if only one of them can predominate in the face of life and death questions: either life and death OR football.
If you put it that way, most people will intuitively feel that football is unimportant as, indeed, the anti-null and void chairman of South Shields, Geoff Thompson, has conceded. It would seem hard to argue it any other way. And that is the point.
Creating a false dichotomy between life/death and football means there can only ever be one moral winner which is life and death. The result is a moral silencing of the FA’s detractors, such as AFC Liverpool and South Shields, and thereby a closure of the full and democratic discussion that the Walker Morris letter is calling for.
But this dichotomy between life/death and football is fictitious. It is an arbitrary dichotomy that has been created to suit the null and voiders’ claims to be morally and ethically correct. There is nothing real or factual about it.
Let’s stick with Hillsborough. Liverpool and its fans learned a lot about life, death, and the meaning of football in its aftermath. The COVID-19 life, death, and football challenges that face us today mean that it is probably time for the FA and others to learn those lessons too.
What Liverpool Football Club and its fans learned from Hillsborough is that there is no such dichotomy between life, death, and football. They exist in a mutually supportive relationship. Far from having to choose, then, you actually can’t have one without the other.
Life, Death and the Meaning of Football in Liverpool
Liverpool Football Club and its fans have been on a long journey in which they have learned first hand about life, death, and the meaning of football.
In 1985, 39 people were killed at the Heysel Stadium. Alan Kennedy wasn’t playing that night so he was wandering around the pitch whilst the players got changed in the bowels of the stadium. He saw what happened first hand. He saw the dead bodies. The players in the dressing room were initially kept in the dark but soon learned what was happening too.
Few of them wanted to play in the match that night but the authorities (UEFA) insisted on it being played. The consequences of the tragedy, and UEFA’s decision to play the match, made themselves known in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy and as the weeks wore on.
On the plane home, Joe Fagan declared that he’d “had enough of football”. He retired immediately. As the dust settled, and the events of the evening sunk in, players also “questioned whether playing football professionally made any sense any more”. Life and death seemed more important than football.
Four years later, 96 Liverpool fans were killed at Hillsborough. It shook Liverpool to its foundations and left its players and fans bereft. The two people that were arguably closest to the tragedy were Liverpool’s manager Kenny Dalglish and it’s goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar. When the referee stopped the game at 3:06 pm Grobbelaar (a veteran of the Rhodesian War who was no stranger to death) recalls:
“I got my stuff out of the back of the goal and looked around from inside the goal, and I saw something that I don’t want to see again, an image that still haunts me. People’s eyes staring at me from behind the fence; you could see them, but they were no longer looking, just staring out into the air.”
Kenny Dalglish and his players were traumatised and grief-stricken. Several pulled out of their forthcoming international duty because, according to Dalglish, they “simply couldn’t stomach the idea of playing football”. John Aldridge was among them. According to Dalglish, Aldridge felt “kicking a ball was beyond him. It felt meaningless”.
Whilst all this was going on, the FA seemed to be occupying a parallel universe. Graham Kelly, its then Chief Executive, issued a statement saying the FA were “loath to abandon the competition” and set a deadline for the semi-final to be played. “How callous could they get?” Dalglish laments. “Get over your grieving or you’ll be expelled. That craven statement was made without consultation with Liverpool … by a bunch of uncaring administrators in London …. [the FA were] impatient to get on with their precious cup.”
But this time the response from Liverpool’s management and players was different. There were no managerial resignations and football hadn’t stopped making sense. In fact, football was the only thing that did make sense because it was the glue that kept people’s lives together.
Dalglish began to understand this when flowers and scarves began appearing at Anfield, which became a place of solace for the families: “Visiting Anfield was a very therapeutic experience for them …. Surrounded by people who cared, who understood their loss”.
Walking through the wreaths left on the Anfield turf Dalglish describes how he began to “appreciate fully the powerful hold Liverpool exerts on people …. Anfield was their second home, their second place of worship. Until then, I never understood that fans on the Kop always stood in the same place, creating a little community within a community”.
Dalglish spoke to the families and “found the relatives keen for the Liverpool players to get their boots on again”. The families also told Grobbelaar “how much our football team meant to them” and that the FA “cup meant everything”. In the shadow of death, football was the one thing that made sense to everybody involved.
COVID-19 and the Return of the Life, Death and Football Question
In the aftermath of the loss of 39 lives at Heysel Stadium football made no sense to some Liverpool players. Life and death came before football. But Hillsborough taught Kenny Dalglish, Bruce Grobbelaar and the club a different lesson. Life and death did not so much precede football. They were football.
Football was the medium through which life and death were understood. It reflected the meanings of life and death back to people. When confronted by existential questions of life and death, people found the answer in … well, football. The reason is obvious. Football is our lifeblood. It is what keeps us going and what keeps us together. What’s more important than that?
Suffice it to say that there were huge differences between the ‘play on’ approach of Liverpool Football Club in this situation and that adopted by the FA. Liverpool were repulsed by the ‘show must go on’ language emerging from the mouths of an emotionally vacuous FA in the aftermath of Hillsborough. Through the trauma of experience, Liverpool had learned to speak a language of compassion that conveyed how meanings of life and death made themselves available through football. Take football away and you take those meanings of life and death away.
Liverpool’s experience might be unique. But the sentiment about life, death, and football certainly isn’t. Look hard enough and you’ll find it in every football club, big or small, the length and breadth of the country. Take Bury Football Club for instance. In September 2019 The Guardian newspaper reported Bury fans receiving mental health support following “an outpouring of grief” at the loss of their club. A spokesperson from Bury Healthy Minds was quoted as saying
“While some people might say it’s only the loss of a football club, it’s more than a football club. It’s been a way of life, it’s their social support, it’s their social networks, it’s something they do on a regular basis – it gets them out, it gets them active. For a lot of people who have been going to the football club for a number of years, it’s the loss of friends and community that people are experiencing. It will be felt across a number of families.”
The point of the mental health sessions was to help fans “cope with loss”. ‘Loss’ is the language of grief. It is the language of life and death. In a football context. The two are inseparable. This is what the Walker Morris letter tries to convey when it says that “for the supporters … a club is more than just a hobby”. It is life. Get it?
Many AFC Liverpool fans have first-hand experience of Hillsborough. Their understanding of the life and death significance of football is second to none. They put their heart and soul into AFC Liverpool, every day, of every week, of every year. It’s what their lives are about and what keeps them going. Or it did. Until now. Speaking about the injustice of null and void, AFC Liverpool Honorary Life President Alan Harrison says:
“To be told that we have no worth by the F.A. is deeply hurtful. AFC Liverpool is my club and it’s so, so important to me. For over ten years now it’s had all of me. My money. My time. My effort. It’s taken a huge proportion of my life and I’ve gladly given it because I love our club. I have invested thousands of pounds in it. Try telling my Bank Manager that my money is worth less than someone who invests in a big club whose season they won’t dare to null and void.”
Club secretary and Hillsborough survivor, Adrian Cork, shares the feeling and says the FA decision to null and void the season could “could kill the game at our level” as a result:
“Once you become involved with a non-league club, it drags you in and becomes all-consuming. It becomes your life. Most people wouldn’t get what it takes to put a match on for 150 people. But we expected 7 months of hard work on and off the field to be recognised by the FA when deciding how to bring the season to a conclusion. We didn’t expect them to null and void it without genuine consultation. To have our work, our passion, declared null and void by an uncaring governing body is soul-destroying. To add insult to injury the FA haven’t null and voided red and yellow cards, so they can keep the fine money. Returning that to the clubs would help them survive post-COVID-19. ”
Let’s put the FA null and void decision in its proper context. An English Dictionary defines the word ‘null’ as referring to that which is ‘without value, consequence or significance’ and that which is ‘being or amounting to nothing’.
What the FA have done is to write-off the lives of people like Alan, Adrian and thousands of others who devote their lives to running and supporting their football clubs. The FA sees their lives and commitments as expendable because, according to their language, they are ‘without value’, ‘insignificant’, and ‘amounting to nothing’.
It is not surprising to find non-league football people telling the NLP that the impact of the FA’s null and void decision has ‘eaten them up’. It has taken a wrecking ball to their lives as Chester F.C’s Anthony Johnson says when he talks about: “the amount of time we have put in …. eight or nine months of our lives. For people to just expunge [that]”.
What is to be done?
It is dangerous to create a dichotomy between life/death and football. On the one hand, it takes us down the ‘bigger picture’ road which has led to the null and voiding of the non-league season at steps 3 to 7. On the other, it allows football fans (currently Newcastle United but also others at clubs such as Manchester City) to reverse the moral dynamic and emphasise football over life: the pursuit of footballing success is allowed to silence concerns about the human rights records of club owners which are deemed insignificant and irrelevant. But that’s what happens when you separate life and death from football.
We need an alternative moral framework that understands the relationship between life, death, and football differently, and in a way that protects us from these dangers. Fortunately, this alternative moral framework is already there for us because it emerged out of the dark depths of the Hillsborough disaster. The disaster taught people like Kenny Dalglish that juxtaposing life/death versus football was the road to nowhere because, in fact, they are intertwined. Football is what life and death are about: it reflects meanings of life and death back to us.
So how does this help us understand what to do now? The 150+ letter makes clear that decisions about concluding the football season need to be democratic and that the powers-that-be at the FA need to be held to account.
Democracy works best when you bust the moral myths that are used to legitimize the decisions of the powerful. As we have seen, the myth that legitimizes the FA’s position is that life and death are in competition with football. But it’s just a myth. They aren’t in competition at all. They exist in symbiosis: in a mutually supportive relationship.
For that reason, null and void is a non-starter. You cannot simply write-off and invalidate 9 months of people’s lives as if they have no inherent value or worth. To do so is tantamount to wielding an axe to the meaning of life for thousands of people that populate non-league grounds at steps 3 to 7, week in, week out. The last 9 months must stand and mean something.
Far from clubs like AFC Liverpool and South Shields being on the wrong side of morality, it is the FA that stands morally culpable. They are the ones overlooking the value and significance of thousands of people’s lives on the pretence of saving non-league clubs: incomprehensibly, it is keeping hold of fine money paid to them in games that now don’t count even though, as Adrian Cork said, their repayment of these fines could save clubs from the financial catastrophe that its decision has inflicted upon them.
One letter writer to the NLP has argued that a genuine FA would do something to address the problems our clubs face: “After many years of promises and in recognition of each club’s affiliated status, the FA should begin that long-overdue redistribution of income”. Step 3 – 7 non-league clubs have so far had nothing from the FA (a profit-making organisation that has posted record returns in recent years) whereas the Premier League has dispensed a miserly ‘sleight of hand-out’ to clubs lower down the pyramid.
Meanwhile, Rhyl (a club I visited in 2009 to watch them in the European Cup against Red Star Belgrade) have just gone bust. 141 years and a wonderful stadium kicked into the dust of history because the self-appointed guardians of the game simply don’t place any value on non-league football. Here are some of the adjectives fans have used to describe their feelings on twitter: ‘Gutted’. ‘Absolutely gutted’. ‘Sickening’. ‘Devastated’. ‘Massive blow to the community’. What will their lives be like now?