We can make an impassioned case for and within the game – or we can watch as some of working class England’s oldest cultural institutions wither and die, writes Chris Fairley.
Across England sources of collective identity, from trade unionism and religion to local industries and high streets, have been on the decline for decades. In an age where creating and maintaining physical community spaces feels more like miracle working than town planning, a lot of working class communities – particularly in towns – are left relying on football clubs as pillars of identity and belonging.
As the coronavirus threatens to close lower-league clubs and decimate the grassroots game, English towns are rapidly approaching an identity crisis that many aren’t prepared for. And with the loss of crowds and ticket sales, dozens of clubs are heading into an uncertain future.
Huddersfield Town’s Phil Hodgkinson fears that up to 60 professional clubs could close, while English Football League (EFL) chairman Rick Parry warned that this threat won’t go away with the return of behind-closed-doors football. With big sponsorship and broadcasting deals, Premier League clubs may manage to weather the storm. However, with 17 of the 20 Premier League teams based in cities, towns can expect huge financial hits to their clubs, as well as the immediate loss of match days as a physical community asset.
It’s important to note the distinct role football clubs play in the collective mythology of towns, with the loss of other longstanding institutions leaving many communities vulnerable to far-right rhetoric. Our 2019 Fear, Hope and Loss report, looking at the state of modern Britain, found that environmental factors play a substantial role in forming social attitudes. It’s hard to imagine large-scale club closures coming without cost to identity, community and belonging. Without intervention, folding clubs will be yet another physical, and deeply symbolic, sign of decay in towns that are already struggling.
A test case here is Bury FC, a 134-year-old club that recently went into administration. Fans have rallied to sustain the club and its identity, but the prevailing sense is one of loss. Bury North’s new MP James Daly even used his maiden speech in the House of Commons to note the increase in social isolation since Bury stopped playing.
My own home identity is linked mostly to Luton Town FC. Luton’s financial difficulties and ejection from professional football in 2009 contributed to wider anger and unease in the town, and coincided with the peak of the English Defence League’s popularity. While it was hardly the only factor at play, the club became a very visual, very personal, representation of the decline, fear and hopelessness that had come to define my hometown in the late 2000s.
Obviously football isn’t the only thing holding towns together, and we shouldn’t just accept that bad things happening in working class communities will naturally result in community tensions or vulnerability to far-right agitation. The channels connecting cultural crises in England to racism and xenophobia should be investigated and challenged. However, the fact remains that football clubs have near-irreplaceable value to identity, pride and hope in communities across the country, and that losing them will have real consequences.
There will be further consequences for existing anti-fascist and anti-racist work in England. Grassroots groups like Football Lads and Lasses Against Fascism are bringing the anti-fascist cause back into the terraces. Others. like Football Unites, Racism Divides, are also doing great work, but their colourful and powerful vein of anti-racism will take a hit if vulnerable communities are cut off from organised football.
Ever-stricter anti-politics rules have proven a logistical challenge to anti-fascist organising in the stands. More importantly, football itself has a lot of existential questions to answer: the experiences of black coaches, gay players and female referees being particularly shameful examples. However, football remains a resource for connecting, educating and enthusing our communities that we cannot afford to ignore.
We can make an impassioned case for and within the game, expanding on existing work to harness football’s potential for building understanding, identity and resilience – or we can watch as some of working class England’s oldest cultural institutions wither and die, and deal with the identity fallout that is sure to follow.