When I began following West Ham fifty years ago nearly all the team was made up of local lads, including the World Cup-winning trio of Moore, Hurst and Peters; plus Harry Redknapp – a bit of a joke on the wing. (How we loved him! I still do.) Of course there were players bought in, one or two of them even from abroad; but the core was made up of East Enders and Essex boys. One of them (Andy Malcolm) went to my Dad’s school. We supported them because they were us.
For many years now, like many other people, I’ve been growing increasingly unhappy at the takeover of the ‘people’s game’ by global capitalism. There are groups of supporters all over the country, like FC United of Manchester, trying to pull their teams away from the behemoth. It does no good. It’s money that talks.
It turns out, however, that the phenomenon, and anxiety about it, are nothing new. I recently read Brian Belton’s Founded on Iron (2003, reissued in 2010 by the History Press), an account of West Ham’s origins. The club emerged from a works team, Thames Ironworks, hence the ‘Irons’ nickname, and the crossed hammers on the club crest: nothing to do with the name of the place. The president of the club, Arnold Hills, wrote in 1899:
‘In the development of our clubs, I find a tendency at work which seems to be exceedingly dangerous. The committees of several of our clubs, eager for immediate success, are inclined to reinforce their ranks with mercenaries. In our bands and in our football clubs, I find an increasing number of professionals who do not belong to our community but are paid to represent us in their several capacities.
‘Like the ancient Romans, in their period of decadence, we seem to be willing to be artists and sportsmen by proxy; we hire a team of gladiators and bid them fight our football battles… Now this is a very simple and effective method of producing popular triumphs. It is only a matter of how much we are willing to pay and the weight of our purses can be made the measure of our glory. I have, however, not the smallest intention of entering upon a competition of this kind: I desire that our clubs should be spontaneous and cultivated expressions of our own internal activity; we ought to produce artists and athletes as abundantly and certainly as a carefully tended fruit tree produces fruit.’
To be fair, Hills scarcely lived up to this himself. The same year, he financed the transfer of Syd King to bolster Thames Ironworks’ porous defence. King came all the way from Kent. And as any East Ender knows, ‘sahf’ of the river is almost as foreign as you can get.
The trend may be as old as professional football, but it has recently increased ad absurdum, so that very few successful clubs can claim their success has anything to do with the character or qualities of the localities whose names they take. It’s all down to the international capitalists who own them, or dominate them with lucrative TV contracts. (The rot really set it, as with so many rots, with Rupert Murdoch.) Most Premier League players now are highly talented and obscenely paid foreigners. That being so, how can anyone ‘support’ the teams? Follow them, perhaps; enjoy the entertainment they provide; but support, in the sense of identify with? You might just as well call yourself a ‘supporter’ of Tesco, or J.P. Morgan, or – an apter comparator, perhaps – Billy Smart’s Circus. Or am I reading too much into the notion of ‘support’?
The trouble is that objections to too many foreigners coming into British football can sound like racism, or at the very least Ukippery. That makes me uneasy. I accept that with the triumph of capitalism in just about every area of life (Marx was so right), there’s nothing much we can do about this. Murdoch is on the side of history. But does that make it OK? Is it so very bad, or necessarily chauvinist, to want your favourite team to have genuine social links with its neighbourhood, and so with you? Rather than being just ‘mercenaries’? Or to wonder whether there might be something in Arnold Hills’s striking parallel with ‘the ancient Romans, in their period of decadence’? Or is it just a sign of my grumpy old age?
(Previously posted on the LRB Blog.)