Paul Breen reports on the Football Collective Annual Conference held in the University of Limerick from 23rd to 24th November.

Limerick, as a city, has a unique place in Irish history. Better still, a unique place in world history, thanks partly to its lovely neighbour with a girl’s name – County Clare. Located on the banks of the River Shannon, this city has been raided by the Danes, fought off the English, declared its own Soviet Republic and become synonymous with a song for an Irish Republican gunman. That song, Seán South of Garryowen, has been sung far and wide, and the story behind it remains contentious to this day. Yet, politics aside for a moment, it serves as a perfect example of music’s undying power to preserve, and even alter perceptions of history.

In this particular song, as with many another, a healthy layer of poetic licence has been applied. The protagonist of the song, Seán South, never actually hailed from the suburb of Garryowen, a place more famous for rugby in sporting versions of history. Myth though, in music and in folklore, is a powerful thing. There’s another legend of Limerick too, featuring a certain rugby playing revolutionary; a man widely recognised as the Diego Maradona of left-wing politics.

Doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara once spent an evening drinking in Hanratty’s Hotel in the city, in an event that had a knock-on effect of Fidel Castro learning to concoct Limerick’s most famous brew. Back in the 1940s, a young Irish chef named Joe Sheridan put together a recipe for Irish whiskey, and set in motion a flight path for himself that would lead to success in San Francisco. Of course, Clare played her part too since behind all great men in Irish history there’s always a woman, whether wife, sister, lover, mother, or whatever term we might apply to Brendan O’Carroll’s Mrs Brown!

Thanks to Clare’s Shannon Airport, Joe Sheridan’s drink found fame with passengers travelling to and from America in the late 1940s, as the frequency of transatlantic flights increased. And this past week, a new squad of visitors crossed the sea through a place designated as rugby territory from the minute you touch down, guarded over by a sculpture of the ferocious Paul O’Connell. Like Ernesto “Che” Guevara, several decades beforehand, doctors and scholars made their way to the heart of a historic city, and a university campus characterised by the river that runs through it. The second annual Football Collective conference took place over two days in the penultimate week of November in a city where it seems to rain as much as Wimbledon. But this side of the Irish Sea brought tougher ballers to town and rain didn’t stop play. Limerick University’s Popular Music and Popular Culture Research Cluster provided a packed programme of workshops and presentations relating to Football, Politics and Popular Culture. Keynote speeches were provided by Dr Mark Doidge and Dr Simon McKerrell, with an additional bonus of renowned film-maker Dr. Joel Rookwood providing a screening of The Sarajevo Derby.

A host of other papers addressed issues connected to football around themes such as migration, conflict, sectarianism, class politics, gender issues and many more. This excellent programme had all been put together by University of Limerick sociologists James Carr, Martin Power, and Stephen Millar. Participants came from far and wide for the two days, not only from across the water in England and Scotland, but further afield into the rest of Europe, the Middle East, and even South America. To name some individuals who took part in the sessions and leave out others would be wrong, because this was very much a team game, but from a football writer’s perspective one stood out for me.

This was a presentation given by former Charlton Athletic trainee Paul Campbell who is now a Sociologist with the University of Coventry, and gave a session connected to class divisions, race and local football. The reason I mention this in particular is that it serves as a fine example of the growing connection between football and academic research, and how this is increasingly taking on a real world, practical focus; making football a vehicle for understanding and impacting on popular culture. Other issues that were discussed included the state of the women’s game in England, the issue of safe standing and safe spaces for football fans, and the increasing militarisation of football.

Dr Simon McKerrell, in the first keynote speech, even drew on the 1980s music of Chas and Dave to illustrate how military references have come to play such a major part in songs and chants connected to football clubs, and on the terraces at games. Like the aforementioned Seán South of Garryowen, this is a song that says a great deal about the culture of the time, and how music can be used, even inadvertently, to introduce particular metaphors into popular culture. Here, in this case, from my point of view we see Ossie Ardiles being lauded with a song reliant on British army metaphors, around a year before the Falklands’ War and all this entailed in terms of associated media and cultural developments.

In spring 1982, politics could not simply be left behind in the dressing room, and the same military metaphors that inspired Ossie Ardiles, a sweet and exotic figure in English football, to dance around the stage on Top of the Pops now blazed out of tabloid headlines with his people cast in the role of baddies. Yet, even three and a half decades later, people such as Northern Irish First Minister Arlene Foster insists without any sense of self-deprecation or burning irony that sport and politics shouldn’t mix.

Questions arose, from all shades of political opinion, about where, how and when politics has a place in football, and whether there are certain times when football should be depoliticised or if it is even possible to remove political context from sport. Two key, interconnected topics capture a sense of the intensity of this debate, and the difficulty in finding solutions that satisfy everyone. The first of these related to the symbolism of the poppy, which causes much grinding and gnashing of teeth every November. Then, allied to this, came plenty of fruitful discussion on symbols and songs associated with the Northern Ireland football team.

My own paper, presented in conjunction with Sean Huddleston, organiser of a similar event in Glasgow last October, looked at the issue of why Northern Irish nationalist players and supporters still seem to identify more with the Republic of Ireland almost twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The idea behind this paper though, and all that I observed at the Conference, was not to go over old ground, rehashing divisions of the past. It was to search for solutions to these issues that still cause social division or to re-define and then maybe understand the problems. Even if one conference can’t solve something so contentious as the divisions in Northern Ireland, it can and did offer participants the opportunity to air their views and be exposed to new perspectives.

This fits in with the key aims of The Football Collective which was hosting the conference in conjunction with the University of Limerick organisers. This network of over 200 academics and practitioners hails from a range of disciplines and not just Sociology and Politics. Speakers from all sectors and subjects have appeared at this event and others in the past. The manifesto of The Collective is a simple one – to be “a network bringing critical debate to our game.” And as it says that involves a pride in and passion for our game, as one that belongs to supporters, whether working men and women on the terraces, kids in the park or academics in university departments. It’s a game that still belongs to us, and our communities, not just business-minded owners, TV channels fighting for rights, players’ agents, and the media.

Politics and football are deeply entwined, and this collective strives to have a real-world impact on events of the day. That is now an expectation of today’s universities in that we, as academics, are being measured not just on our research output in our own communities, but also in the impact we have on the wider world. Events such as these not only offer a platform for discussion but also a platform for an exchange of ideas across all shapes of opinion, and a stimulus for possible change too. There are so many areas where football is having a major impact and providing a vital counter narrative to prevailing attitudes of the day.

One of those issues where academics involved in the Football Collective are trying to change the conversation is in the portrayal and treatment of refugees. This was the issue at the heart of Dr Mark Doidge’s keynote speech, and one that is critical to the development of a better and fairer society not just in our own small corner of western Europe but in the wider world around us. This is where idealism needs to be put into practice with words rather than weapons, driving our actions to change for the better around issues such as this.

We seem to be living in a world where the right is rising ever faster and, in the words of one Israeli academic, the left too often sees itself in the role of victim, rather than as an instigator of change. Here, regardless of political opinion, the mood was very much of instigating and sustaining change for the better in society, using football as a prism through which to better understand politics and society, and to use this knowledge as a force for positive change. Limerick provided a fine field on which to host this event, and I look forward to many more in the future, leaving the last word to a woman (metaphorically) and maybe even getting time to sample some of those famous Irish coffees in County Clare.

Paul Breen is on Twitter @CharltonMen and author of football related books found here.