'The Establishment' and the football crowd - a history.

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Charles Robinson is an FSF member and academic working in Prague, and a contributor to the likes of When Saturday Comes and The Blizzard. Here he tackles fan demographics from a historical angle - has the establishment always feared 'the crowd'? 

Fear of the crowd and “the masses”, especially amongst those in positions of power, has a long and rather distinguished history. William Cooke Taylor notes in 1843, “As a stranger passes through the masses of human beings which have accumulated round the mills and the print works … he cannot contemplate these ‘crowded hives’ without feelings of anxiety and apprehension amounting to dismay.” It’s not hard to figure out the cause of such dismay. Cooke Taylor continues: “There are mighty energies slumbering in these masses…” Football crowds have, of course, been identified as a specific concern since the game exploded as a working class game in the final decades of the 19th century.

As E.P. Thomson notes in his The Making of the English Working Class, the Puritans sought to educate and regulate the working class, for when crowds get together and start enjoying themselves just a little too much, by singing, dancing, drinking, and watching football, law and order break down, private property is threatened, and work doesn’t get done. One of the achievements of successive 18th century British governments was to virtually eliminate football as a popular folk game, and between 1780 and 1830, according to Thompson, “The ‘average’ English working man became more disciplined, more subject to the productive tempo of ‘the clock’, more reserved and methodical, less violent and less spontaneous.” 

A wealth of historical evidence shows the British establishment’s fear of football as a working class sport, before the game declined in importance in working class communities by the 1800s. David Goldblatt, in his peerless book The Ball is Round, details some of the reasons. Public order, of course, was one of the main concerns, as well as the need to get the masses to focus on learning archery. The story is a familiar one – football comes to be incubated in the public schools of Britain, developing along the way a set of codified rules that gave structure to the game as it emerged once again, blinking in the light, as the main form of working class entertainment later in the 19th century.

At the same time, as John Carey documents in his coruscating (and heavily criticised) book, The Intellectuals and the Masses, in the early 20th century, as football really took off, similar fears of the crowd and of the masses were prevalent among “intellectuals” such as T.S. Eliot, Virginia Wolf, D.H. Lawrence, and H.G. Wells. The masses were, they argued, incapable of appreciating good art; in fact, they were incapable of any discernment whatsoever. It’s no surprise, then, that the masses gravitated not towards the theatre or the art gallery for their entertainment, but increasingly towards the football stadium and the pub. In fact, the two are happy bedfellows – everyone knows that a trip to see the football should be preceded by a few pints. The introduction of the half-day holiday and the lack of other easily-accessible forms of entertainment speeded up the growing popularity of football among the masses, and attendances rose at startling rates for decades, before a decline set in in the 1950s.

The crowds of football supporters were, admittedly, not always well behaved. James Walvin, in The People’s Game, quotes an observer at a game in 1899: “There were many thousands at Shrewsbury on Easter Monday, and the concomitants of betting, drinking and bad language were fearful to contemplate, while the shouting and horseplay on the highways were a terror to peaceful residents passing homewards.” The safety and comfort of the crowd were of secondary importance, of course, as club owners attempted to cram as many supporters into the inadequate and dilapidated stadiums which, in the early days of football’s development, often resembled today’s non-league grounds – except these were crammed with Premier League-type crowds. Deaths and injuries were not uncommon as fans sought to get a glimpse of the action. Stadiums improved as club owners recognised the commercial potential of football, although one never quite escapes the feeling of the crowd as an inconvenience, albeit an inconvenience offset by the huge sums of money flowing in from a seemingly ever-increasing and captive audience.

Such factors led to the professionalization of football, and from there to expressions of disgust and contempt towards a new element in the game: the working class professional footballer. These people went against the Corinthian and amateur spirit of the game. Towards the end of the 19th century, the Hull Packet and East Riding Times described the situation thusly: “Rough and unfair play, a disregard of the rules, disgraceful rows, and abuse of the umpires and referees, can all be traced, directly or indirectly, to the presence in certain teams of paid professional players, to whom a love of the game and fair play are of very small importance as compared to the absolute necessity of winning a match and dividing the gate.”

But as football became the undoubted sport of the English working class, the establishment’s contempt for the crowd refused to die, as evinced if we jump through history, taking in Ibrox in 1902 (26 dead, 500 injured), Burnden Park in 1946 (33 dead, 400 injured), Valley Parade in 1985 (55 dead, 265 injured), ending with Hillsborough (96 dead, over 700 injured). Admittedly, each of these disasters came about for varying reasons. But The Taylor Report, published in response to the Hillsborough tragedy, thankfully put an end to the brutal treatment of fans as caged animals, although football authorities and clubs have found new and improved ways of mistreating and exploiting football supporters, this time through their pockets.

The issue of rising prices at British football grounds is one already very familiar, but a few comments will help underline the fact that the unconscionable hikes in ticket prices over the last few decades are, whether intentional or not, simply another stick with which to beat the average football fan. Match-day and season tickets are becoming so prohibitively expensive that die-hard fans, especially from poorer backgrounds, are being disproportionately affected. Various reports published recently show the changing make-up of football crowds. For one thing, fans are, on average, getting older. Younger fans will simply not go, meaning that they will never catch that special bug that binds one to a club and, by extension, the wider community.

As such, a generation of potential young football fans is being excluded from access to an important social good and activity – membership of a community and a crowd. Whilst supporting a football club is in some ways irrational, the psychological benefits are great. We share a communal moment with each other that binds us in ways that other activities cannot. In a society driven by individualistic market imperatives, our sense of belonging together in a group of some kind has been eroded to the point of virtual non-existence, but football can still provide that sense. After all, how many times in your life have you hugged a stranger? Probably not many times, perhaps apart from when celebrating an important goal.

As football becomes an increasingly commodified and sanitised experience, it loses that carnivalesque feel. As the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin argues, during the carnival social distinctions and hierarchies dissolve, and a new social space of freedom and equality (and of excess) emerges, suggesting new possibilities. We become part of a living, breathing collective that sweeps us off our feet and carries us along through the song and the heaving of the crowd, and barriers drop away.

Of course, the introduction of modern all-seater stadiums has reduced violence at football matches, and serious attempts to eliminate discrimination have gone a long way towards making the match-day experience more pleasant and comfortable, and no-one desires a return to the dangerous terraces and racist chanting of the past. There have been gains and losses. However, safe standing seems to work in Germany, and could contribute to the return of the carnivalesque atmosphere at English grounds, although it is obviously a very sensitive subject. This would hopefully reduce prices and reinvigorate the atmosphere at many grounds. More importantly, it would put the crowd, so often the target of fear and contempt, at the centre of the football authorities’ thinking. And I do feel a little nostalgic for that wonderful feeling, as a boy standing on the Pop Side at the Baseball Ground, as Derby score a late equaliser against Notts County, and I’m lifted off my feet by the surge and the swelling of the crowd and I grab my glasses as they fall off my face, and in jubilation I embrace the guy next to me as the rush subsides. 

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Thanks to Jon Candy for the image reproduced under CC license.