The glorious game has become an inglorious free-market free for all

by James Mills

“‘Tis a glorious game, deny it who can, that tries the pluck of an Englishman.” Is the chorus annually sang at the start of the Shrovetide football game, a precursor to the modern day version of the ‘glorious game’, still played every year in Derbyshire on Shrove Tuesday, which demonstrates the key community ties that link the origins of our national game.

Similarly, many of the modern day football clubs originated from community based teams that grew into the social sinews of their local areas. Although many of them nowadays have ballooned into monolithic globally recognisable brands, they are also national treasures as well as assets that employ thousands and inspire millions. Most important of all in a globalised world they remind us of the most important thing of all, locality.

On Monday the banking commission laid out plans to prevent another banking collapse by protecting retail banking from investment banking, which a few years ago exposed some of the fallacies of free-market economics. On the same day, Arsenal, known as the ‘the bank of England club’, was added to the growing list of foreign owned clubs in the Premier League. Could you imagine the streets of Paris, Munich, Milan, Madrid or Barcelona staying as quiet as the streets of London are, if this was their club?

It seems only in the English football top flight that the trend to external ownership of our top teams is prevalent. Of all the teams competing in the Champions League this week it is only the English clubs which are predominantly foreign owned. Out of the top Premier League clubs, Manchester United, Liverpool and now Arsenal are all owned by American businessmen with Chelsea owned by a Russian and Man City owned by Middle Eastern owners. And now that half the Premier League are under foreign ownership, the highest placed English owned club is Tottenham Hotspur which is owned by two non-dom tax dodgers, one of whom is the former Tory party chairman Lord Ashcroft.

Even in the Cambodian football league, where the ministry of defence is currently second after beating the Police Force – I know imagine the strike force – there is better protection of football team ownership.

Arsenal has also joined the long list of British brands that have become mere segments in the large portfolios of international conglomerates. Like other British brands from Cadburys to Boots, there is a grave lack of British owned British brands. The reasons for this owes much to the fact that British brands are doing very well in emerging markets and some English football clubs are probably the most recognised brands there are on the global stage. It would be a nonsensical question to ask anyone who has been outside of the UK in the last decade if they had seen a replica English football kit worn by the locals of the destination they visited.

After purchasing Liverpool, Tom Hicks the new American owner compared it to his previous purchase of Weetabix. The reasons for this is simple, he was not buying Liverpool football club for any other reason than he bought a cereal company. It was just another well known British brand.

It is easy to say who cares, after all most of the players and managers are foreign so why not the owners too? Well, football clubs are more than that. They are the collective reflection of a local community and a shared ethos. No one could possibly say a Newcastle United fan and say a Fulham fan are exactly the same for example, and try telling a City fan that they share a city with United and you will cause a stir.

Even in the lower leagues a great deal of local identity and culture is encapsulated in a football club. Would you be bemused, if someone told you, for example, that the Posh are taking on the Citizens at the weekend and it has nothing to do with Karl Marx or in six months time we could see the Canaries take on the Peacocks, which will pit Ed Miliband against Ed Balls. Or what about if someone said the Shrimpers unexpectedly beat the Trawler Boys in the cup last weekend and now face the Mariners. One could be mistaken for thinking the latter was a fishing contest instead of an almost 140 year old football cup competition.

Let me make it clear, foreign ownership is not all bad, as any Fulham or QPR fan will tell you. But when such a large proportion, especially of the top clubs, is foreign owned it shows the weakness of our economy and the lack of protection of our game.

Ultimately, the once ‘glorious game’ that demonstrated the best of community spirit, collective protection and of Englishness, has now become an inglorious example of how our country is becoming forevermore an island where everything has a price and nothing has a value.

James Mills is an Arsenal fan


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14 Responses to “The glorious game has become an inglorious free-market free for all”

  1. “..many of the modern day football clubs originated from community based teams that grew into the social sinews of their local areas.” Up to a point, but it was very brief, and top clubs were brands owned by wealthy businessmen and out of player/fan control very very quickly indeed. Within 5-10 years of foundation, in the case of most top northern clubs, and indeed the kind of financial chicanery and teetering on the edge of bankruptcy that we see now was very much a feature of late Victorian and early Edwardian league football. The community role of football was, and remains, the amateur teams in local parks on Saturdays and later Sundays where, now as then, most actual football in this land is actually played.

    You’re right to point out the novelty however of foreign ownership – this is quite new, there are no obvious advantages to anyone in the UK from it, and we don’t know where it’s all going to end.

  2. James Reade says:

    The important response to this is acknowledged by the author: Who cares?

    Why does it matter if a company is foreign owned? Specifically in the football context, why does it matter? It’s not like production can be shifted to China, if that’s the problem.

    Even then it shouldn’t be the problem if we are going to be free thinking and innovative. The kind of attitude displayed in this post is everything that is wrong with our economy. We protect everything so much that we don’t do any innovating any more. We protect old brands as if they are sacred and don’t let them fall by the wayside so new, more innovative brands come along. No wonder the economy is stagnating.

    Let football be foreign owned – if Brits have got tired of throwing money at the game, let others have a go for a while and instead of moaning about it, embrace it. It’s nothing to be feared of, any more than change is to be feared. Oh, wait…

  3. @James Reade I never said foreign ownership was all bad thing. But a predominantly foreign owned premier league is a symptom of a flagging economy and poorly protected football league. Again you cant say it is over protected. In response to who cares? Ask Wimbledon fans what they think of losing their local club and yes in theory football clubs can be moved as MK Dons proves.

    @James Hamilton I agree, I did says they owe their origins. Take the community origins of top flight of Premiership. Liverpool founded from a split in Everton FC, which was founded by a church. Arsenal, factory workers. Man City founded by local church and Man United by a railway workers. They owed much to locality in origin and even now all run community projects to recognise this. Personally, I would like to see more football clubs run along the same lines of the Green Bay Packers.

  4. A J Scott says:

    The glorious game, indeed. Now totally revealed as a plaything of billionaires, over-paid cheats, and mainly thoroughly nasty people, both on the pitch and off it. Shall we next find that the Pools system is rigged?
    And every politician who joins a Club Board, agrees to appear at a match etc should be charged 50% tax on his free ticket and all other benefits. The Royal Family should re-consider whether they should patronise this corrupt business; and in my opinion, opt out. Let Prescott do it all, and get the free pies.

  5. Neil Meadows says:

    “Ask Wimbledon fans what they think of losing their local club..”

    Wimbledon wouldn’t have moved in the first place if the locals had shown any interest in ‘their’ club.

    Why are you so afraid of foreigners? You sound like a BNP member.

  6. Jeremy Poynton says:

    Our Arabs at Eastlands are top guys. They bought the club having observed that there has been a hard core of support there, come thick, come thin, for decades. Add to that a superb business oppo in the regeneration of the surrounding area, also providing income to go back into the club, I am VERY happy with our new owners. They have acted with honour throughout, and have been very clear that the history of the club is very important.

    Best feeling I have had about City since watching them in the long gone glory glory years. It will take time, but truth be told, things have gone just fine so far. I have on my desk, in front of me, my ticket to the 1999 2nd Division Play Off Finals, a day which nearly did for me.

    I’ll happily take where we are now, and I’ll happily take our ultra-professional owners, who have looked to renew the club at every level.

  7. libertarian says:

    Football clubs employ 1,000’s???? Er since when? The total employee numbers of the 4 biggest clubs are all under 300 ( which includes playing staff, who are NOT employees as they are contract staff) Match day catering and security are all outsourced.

    Presumably you would prefer a lower tax regime and more incentive for English ownership of clubs then? I also guess you would prefer MG Rover to revert to English ownership.

    I also think this entire article shows the hypocrisy of Labour, the party that by its own admission deliberately let over a million foreign workers into the country then moans about 12 of them owning businesses .

    @James Hamilton

    Rose coloured glasses as always. Newton Heath ( lately Man Utd) was founded and FUNDED by the owners of the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Co.

    Woolwich Arsenal ( the clue is in the name) went bust after 3 years were bought by Sir Henry Norris who then MOVED the team to North London and then bribed league officials to stop them being relegated to the second division

    Man City where originally St Marks ( Gorton). They moved, changed their name to Ardwick and joined the football league Div 2. They went bust 2 years later and were reformed as Man City . Why am I telling you all of this? Because its always been the same, football clubs have always been bought, sold, moved and had names changed. This fixed in the community stuff is just not so for large numbers of clubs

  8. Jeremy Poynton says:

    My maternal Grandfather watched Newton Heath. Rest of the family were all rugby players – great disappointment that I took to football.

    @libertarian – City were also at Hyde after Ardwick/St. Marks.

    http://www.mcfc.co.uk/news/club-news/2010/july/hyde-hoping-for-lengthy-partnership

  9. AndyN says:

    Even in a discussion about football, one Labour Uncut commenter casually accuses someone of sounding like the BNP and another one proposes a 50% tax on something.

    No mention of Thatcher yet though – come on you lot, you’re slipping!

  10. @Neil Meadows The award to possibly the most stupidest comment to a blog post I have ever written goes to you! Did you even read my post? Do you even watch football? Have you never heard of AFC Wimbledon? Speechless…

    @Libertarian you come a close second. Football clubs or go further the football industry employs thousands in this country. Individual clubs again by your own recognition indirectly employ more thousands of people. Again, all those clubs like I mentioned in my article ORIGINATED from community ties, Woolwich Arsenal was yes a local employer. Same for the Railway Company. Do I have to spell out who played for and organised them… All clubs do community outreach schemes to recognise their local ties. But what’s worse you don’t even know Arsenal history, originally called Dial Square, after 15 local workers pooled together to buy a football.

    Thanks to the more sensible commentators!

  11. Oh,

    @Jeremy Poynton I agree I think foreign ownership is good for some clubs and City is a good example, also Fulham and QPR and arguably Chelsea and I also believe that Leicester will be another good example. But I think it has been bad for Liverpool and United despite their trophy haul since the Glazers, as still has potential to end in tears. I am dubious about Arsenal’s new owner. Different to Glazers in how he paid and owns shares and seems like its mainly been done to keep out Usmanov. Other than that I cant see how Arsenal gain. Apart from commercially by accessing the US market, it was a perfectly run club before. The only one who seems to benefit is Kroenke. But time will tell…

  12. iain ker says:

    and United despite their trophy haul since the Glazers, as still has potential to end in tears.

    ********************************

    United fans not happy with Glazer?

    Shame.

    I seem to remember Rupert the Baby-Eater sticking a bid in for Man U and the fans (98% of them BskyB subscribers) having a mass weepathon about it. The Baby-Eater was going to ‘asset strip’ you see and Man U would end up in the Isthmian Fourth Division.

    Steven Byers blocked the takeover in a bid to suck up to the masses – yes, that really was how the country was governed back then.

    The fans celebrated… and got The Glazers, who eat even more babies than Rupert.

    Take a heart of stone not to laugh.

  13. James Reade says:

    There have been plenty of bad British owners of clubs – why don’t we ban those too? Oh wait, there is this farcical good and proper owners test isn’t there? A test that really encourages potential backers to reveal all their skeletons in the cupboard.

    Refreshing myself on the whole Wimbledon to MK saga, I think if you want to brand that as only happening because of foreign owners I think you’re pushing it a bit far. The chap who built the stadium and lured clubs to MK wasn’t Norwegian.

    Despite what you say about Neil Meadows, he makes a point. Football clubs are local institutions, yet this psuedo public good nature (or mild form of positive externality) means that generally fans free ride. I free ride on Oldham’s (lack of) success. But if fans aren’t prepared to put the money in or cannot, when why should governments get involved? I’m sure other London clubs wouldn’t have been so impressed had local governments stepped in to help out Wimbledon to stay subsidised in a saturated area for top football clubs.

    Other commentators are right too – it’s more of a community thing at grass roots level rather than the top clubs, and one of the other positive externalities about football is the encouragement for folk of all ages to get out and get some exercise – but there’s no reason why football should be subsidised more than any other sport and other types of sports clubs on those grounds – and we’re moving well away from the Premiership here.

  14. @James Reade All I said was most football clubs ORIGINATE from local ties, thats just an historical fact your just gonna have to live with. Nearly all Football clubs run community out reach schemes and if your trying to say they are not part of communities then you clearly have never lived near a football club. Also When did I say there should be Government subsidy for football clubs? Did you even read my article? Your clearly just trying to be misleading. The MK Dons point was that clubs can be moved. Brooklyn Dodger in Baseball another example. Also, I never said once to ban foreign ownership outright. Your deliberately ignoring the MANY times I have acknowledged good foreign ownership. Personally, I advocate football club ownership more alongside these lines, but then I’m a Packers fan… http://www.leftfootforward.org/2011/02/super-bowl-xlv-green-bay-packers-pittsburgh-steelers/

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