Like the Ancient Romans

Bernard Porter

Thames Ironworks FC in 1899 (Syd King is in the middle of the second row from the back)

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, said 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, south 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?


  • 23 December 2014 at 10:31am
    ejh says:
    "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."

    Actually I think it does quite a lot of good: it sets an example that more and more people know is there, and it provides an option that more and more fans are liable to find attractive with their privately-run clubs in permanent crisis.

    In re: the difficulty in identifying with non-locals, there doesn't seem to be one on any significant level. Obviously local-based sides from the past are particularly prized (Celtic's 1968 side particularly comes to mind in this respect) but a more contemporary source of pride might be the locally-raised, as opposed to the locally-born: sides that have particularly been based around youth teams, as opposed to being bought in for huge quantities of money in the style of Chelsea or Real Madrid.

    Names to mention, from the present or relatively recent past, might include Crewe, Ajax, Arsenal, Barcelona and so on. It's a hard trick to pull these days, because the behemoths buy your best players almost before they've grown up, but on the other hand it's an admirable trick to pull, and it's either that or find a sugar daddy who is more likely than not to run off with all the sugar when he gets bored.

  • 23 December 2014 at 11:06am
    Bernard Porter says:
    Agreed. I didn't mean to imply that the bulk of a team should be locally born. Geoff Hurst wasn't. 'Locally raised' is just as good. But look what happened to the last tranche of England players West Ham raised: Lampard, Ferdinand, Joe Cole... Lured away to Chelsea by a dodgy Russian plutocrat. (Mind you, it didn't help that Harry - I think - had just got them relegated.)

    • 23 December 2014 at 11:15am
      ejh says: @ Bernard Porter
      Redknapp is, I think, a very smart football manager, but he leaves a trail of financial devastation behind him. "Relegated" is pretty mild by post-Redknapp standards.

      Still, his dog does all right.

  • 23 December 2014 at 12:22pm
    Chris Larkin says:
    I think one of the main problems is the culture of impatience and enthusiasm for a "quick fix" that permeates football at nearly every level now. Success must be immediate, any loss is treated as a disaster and long term planning is constantly eroded by the short term appeasement. English football more than any other is obsessed with the need to fix everything by throwing money at it (i.e buy players). Take Liverpool for example of whom many pundits say their travails this year are because they didn't spend enough money to replace Suarez - they spent about £130m for goodness sake. What is really lacking is a belief that you can coach players over time, young, homegrown, locally raised and from overseas to achieve a team that is greater than the sum of its parts, rather than reaching for the chequebook at every transfer window (a classic Redkanpp ploy).

    Still, we could do with £130m at The Den right now.

  • 23 December 2014 at 4:54pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    I guess what a lot of people are 'following' these days is a name and an image - football team as collective celeb; for Premier League teams, the old joke about Man U supporters now looks less like a joke and more like a model to be emulated.

    As for whether localism carries the same taint as nationalism, I think it depends what you do with it - what it is that you're opposing, in particular. I don't think "want[ing] your favourite team to have genuine social links with its neighbourhood" has anything to do with wanting people with the wrong kind of ancestry to be kept out of it - and I think that, reactionary, form of localism would actually be more digestible to the powers that currently be.

  • 23 December 2014 at 6:36pm
    David Timoney says:
    The relationship of the fan to the club is as much of a performative construct as any other "consumption preference", hence what we now call "being a fan" (mediated by TV and social media) is different to what used to be called "following" (mediated by infrequent and scanty newspaper reports) for reasons far more profound than the nationality of owners or players.

    Many fans emphasise the "alien" nature of the club owners in order to define their own identity (i.e. more authentic), even though the social gulf between a contemporary Gooner and Stan Kroenke is no worse than that between his grandad and Sir Denis Hill-Wood. A Marxist would point out the class continuity, an Iron would point out that Arsenal are really a Kent club.

    Far more people see games live now than was the case in 1966, and far more people travel distance to see them, both domestcially and internationally. When you also consider the global "secondary" audience cultivated by TV and the Internet, it is remarkable that clubs retain such a large core of local support.

    Even more remarkable is the extent to which fans will bend over backwards to integrate foreign players, interpreting every banal PR gesture as evidence of reciprocal love and respect. In some ways, Per Mertesacker (who claims to have had an Arsenal strip as a kid) is more of a Gooner than a native of Islington.

  • 27 December 2014 at 6:47pm
    Harry Stopes says:
    I'm a Manchester City fan, so hardly a dispassionate observer in this discussion, but I think Bernard Porter underestimates the capacity of fans to adapt themselves to the new player demographics (as FromArsetoElbow also points out.)

    In the mid-90s City had a German striker called Uwe Rosler. He was one of our best players at the time, and a hero to the fans. One of the songs about him was based on the destruction of Man United's stadium by the luftwaffe in WW2. It finished with the line "Uwe's granddad bombed the Stretford End." So Uwe's difference, his Germanness, was underlined in the very moment he was celebrated as one of our own. Uwe was a City player before he was even born, the song implies.

    One of our current cult heroes, the right back Pablo Zabaleta, is lauded in a song that begins "Pablo Zabaleta, he is the f***ing man, he comes from Argentina, he's harder than Jaap Stam." When this song first surfaced in an Irish pub in Munich (I was there), a lot of us were singing the opening "Pablo Zabaleta, he is a f***ing Manc," etc. In other words, being "a Manc" isn't really about being born in Manchester, it's about being a City player. So it doesn't matter where the players come from, the fact they play for the team makes them local boys.

    Apparently Celtic used to have a song about the Japanese player Shunsuke Nakamura: "He eats Chow Mein, he votes Sinn Fein".

  • 27 December 2014 at 6:49pm
    Harry Stopes says:
    Caveat to the above. I'm not saying that the experience of being a match going football fan hasn't changed for the worse in the 20 years I've been going. It clearly has. But just that football fandom is complicated.

  • 28 December 2014 at 10:41am
    Bernard Porter says:
    Foreign players can develop genuine rapports with fans, and become 'adopted' by them, if they really commit to their teams long-term. Manchester City's Bert Trautman is a remarkable early example: a German recruited immediately after WW2. I remember Clyde Best, one of the first black players in the old First Division, being idolised by WHU fans who nonetheless continued to direct racist abuse at other teams' black players. Handel is an example in another cultural sphere. But they could not be described as 'mercenaries'. That's the difference. Money.

    • 28 December 2014 at 11:27pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ Bernard Porter
      Can you date when players started becoming mercenaries, out for the money?

      Presumably you'll say around 1992. But how about 1983, when gate receipts stopped being split evenly between the home and away teams, meaning the clubs with the biggest stadiums got to keep almost all of the takings from their home games, extending and entrenching a rich-poor divide that financed bigger transfers and bigger wages for the best players. A few years before that, Trevor Francis became the first £1million player when he moved from Birmingham City to Nottingham Forest. I'm guessing he increased his wages at the same time. Or what about 1961 when, after intensive campaigning from the Professional Footballers' Association (the TU for the players), the maximum wage was abolished? Or 1909 when players from Manchester United and Everton went on strike to force the Football Association to recognise their union and allow their clubs to top up their wages with win bonuses.

      Players have always played the game for a mixture of love of the club, money, love of the fans, personal glory, esprit de corps with their teammates, love of the city/town, love of the game itself, and a lack of other options. The precise contents of the admixture in a given case is about a lot more than the nationality or hometown of the player, and I'm not having this simplistic good old days stuff.

    • 29 December 2014 at 12:12pm
      Ally says: @ Harry Stopes
      Going back even further, there was the prevalence of the "Scotch professors" in the early professional game in England, economic migrants at a time when Scottish football remained amateur. Liverpool began with the "Team of the Macs" recruited from then-top teams such as Renton. []

    • 6 January 2015 at 3:48pm
      ejh says: @ Harry Stopes
      "But how about 1983, when gate receipts stopped being split evenly between the home and away team"

      I'm not at all sure about this. This source suggests that it was previously only 20% which went to the away side, which is close to what I seemed to remember from the time.

  • 29 December 2014 at 9:53pm
    Bernard Porter says:
    Yes I know all that. But it's a question of degree.

    • 3 January 2015 at 4:35pm
      Simon Wood says: @ Bernard Porter
      Or nuance, as common sense used to be called.

  • 8 January 2015 at 11:39am
    frmurphy98 says:
    Spurs had four NE London lads (all from Spurs-supporting families) in the team that mauled Mourinho's mercenaries on New Year's Day - surely a record in the Premier League era? I'm not sure if that's likely to afford a Hammers fan much satisfaction, though.

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