What is a football club? It’s one of those questions that seem simple but turn out to be extremely difficult to give an answer to. Not all clubs are the same, and not all people will view a club in the same way, but – and this is perhaps especially true in an age in which it’s becoming more common for a single entity to own multiple clubs – it’s probably worth trying to define what a club is, or what we want it to be, as part of working out the direction it would be desirable for football to go.
The first clubs were established in the mid-to-late 19th century for members who wished to play. Gradually it became apparent that people were willing to pay to watch, but these were not neutral spectators as might be found at the theatre or the concert hall; rather they were partisan, exposing the enduring myth that football is an entertainment.
By 1882, when hundreds of fans travelled south to support Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup final, clubs had become emblems of local pride, something confirmed the following year as thousands turned out to welcome Blackburn Olympic home after they became the first northern side to win the FA Cup.
Provincial self-assertion was the great driver of early football as factory owners and mine bosses funded clubs from the industrial cities of the north and Midlands, looking to elevate their home through football. Or, more cynically, they recognised a means of keeping the masses quiescent: far cheaper (and more fun) to pluck a gifted centre-forward from Scotland than to raise wages or improve working conditions.
But that led to a disconnect – in England at least – that has never really been reconciled, which is that clubs represent people who do not own them. It would be misleading to portray the days when owners were unctuous local spivs or gravel-voiced haulage magnates as a golden age, but two things ensured they were, at least to an extent, run for the good of their communities. First, gate receipts were by far the greatest source of income for clubs, so there was a need to ensure there was something happening on the pitch worth watching. Second, until 1981 dividends were capped at 7.5% and no director could be paid by the club. Clubs were not seen as profit-making entities.
The notion of football as a civic good lingers (see, for instance, the continuing outrage over ticket prices going up during a cost-of-living crisis, as though clubs are immune to inflation), but the idea it should not be a commercial enterprise seems quaintly laughable today. The increasing importance of broadcast revenues, meanwhile, has decoupled clubs from their local communities. Major clubs cannot do without match-going fans – as the pandemic proved – but neither do owners have to be quite so sensitive to the demands of the local community while it is at least arguable they now have a responsibility to their global fanbase.
As the flow of money through clubs increased, so businessmen with few if any ties to the local area began to get involved, leading to the modern Premier League of private equity, state funds and overseas investment companies. Luton, owned by a supporters’ trust, represent a rare and noble exception.
Generally, though, that division between fans and ownership has never been so wide. On a very broad level, the aims of owners and fans will always be aligned. Whether the owners are seeking financial profit, political influence or a soft-power coup, on-field success will help – although it’s perfectly possible for directors to draw substantial dividends with their team nowhere near challenging for the league title.
For many that is enough: good owners are those who spend money, bad owners are those who do not. A vocal element of fanbases then become propaganda warriors, parroting their club’s lines and seeking to intimidate doubters and critics. Perhaps it’s natural in areas that feel neglected by Westminster that there should be a desire for a wealthy saviour but property development on land bought at a favourable rate is not beneficent urban regeneration.
Sheikh Mansour is not investing in Manchester, nor Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund in Newcastle, out of the goodness of their hearts – although it is telling that clubs are now so much part of the community that investment in regeneration projects habitually comes as part of the package.
But is that what a club has become? As traditional industries have declined, their role as emblems of their communities has become increasingly important. They offer a nostalgic link to past generations, even as the fanbase becomes more global – a tension that itself is not easily reconciled. But modern clubs are also vehicles for the profit of an outsider, whether that is economic or political.
While they are winning, fans can close their minds to everything but what is happening on the pitch; it’s when they are not that the danger comes; nobody should believe private equity or a state will have any compunction about abandoning a club once it has served its usefulness.
It’s the issue of multiple ownership, though, that has really brought the issue of what a club should be into focus. Perhaps it is true that, for instance, Salzburg benefit through their Red Bull link to Leipzig, but something vital must inevitably be lost. It’s not just that multiple ownership makes manifest the grotesque financial stratification of the modern game, it’s that it’s impossible to be truly Strasbourg if you’re part of Greater Chelsea or truly Palermo if you’re part of the City Football Group.
In them is laid bare the bifurcated nature of the modern club. They are vessels for memory and emotion, ciphers for often profound feelings of belonging and identity, and yet at the same time they are businesses governed by the whims of the very rich and powerful.
That is the problem of modern football: everything is to be bought and sold. Even that sense of communal identity, the vital force that has driven the game for a century and a half, has become just another commodity to be traded and exploited.