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A Different League

Football's Changing Face

By Matty LongPublished 4 months ago Updated 3 months ago 10 min read
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As I write this, both North East teams are in the footballing headlines here in the UK. Newcastle because they’ve just placed their Director of Football, Dan Ashworth, on gardening leave following his controversial announcement that he was interested in a move to Manchester United, and Sunderland because they have sacked their manager Michael Beale (below), after only 12 games in charge. Quite remarkably, his sacking means they have had 17 managers in 16 years. I read reports of both these stories in the morning paper, alongside an article by the brilliant sports journalist Daniel Storey which remarked, on the Ashworth story, that the excessive interest in a role such as his indicated how much football has changed in the last twenty years. The roles of directors, backroom staff etc are as important as the coaches and the players. Football is a multi-million pound business, and that, I suppose, was inevitable, but it has, or has certainly set out to, put a significant distance between true fans and their clubs.

Sunderland’s mad statistic about their management indicates how horrendously mismanaged it has been as a club recently. In fact, most readers of this will already be aware that Netflix have released a series exploring the contrast between the mismanagement and the passion of the fans, ‘Sunderland ‘til I die.’ I haven’t actually seen it, but I’ve heard that the coverage of the fans does indeed convey their passion, where as the scenes from the boardrooms may as well have come from a script for The Office. Fans I surveyed echoed the frustration, stating they felt ‘devastated’ as well as “a bit numb. as we were relegated twice in two seasons, I was almost numb to the whole situation.”

Newcastle fans are no strangers to the pain of poor management either, having endured years of Mike Ashley’s ownership and his reluctance to invest.

In terms of bright spots, I do have many happy memories of supporting the club during this time, as it was under Ashley that I really got back into football again. I had a season ticket under Rafa and Bruce. But that is because a fan will always love their club, it doesn’t take away the financial strain and stress. Many had to make a financial decision themselves when it came to keeping their season tickets, whilst echoing the same sentiment as myself:

“Increasingly and predictably depressing and miserable as the years went by. We went from being a bit of a circus, to a shambles, to a toxic club, to a club with no ambition, to one that had promise which he actively didn't want to fulfill. I got my season ticket just before he took over and gave it up in the latter days of the Pardew no ambition era with the rationale being that even though I was resigned to him never selling up, I had to at least stop giving him my money. Weirdly, the 2009/2010 and 2016/2017 seasons in the Championship were my two favourites as an NUFC fan, but can't really let Mike take the credit for that given the circumstances.”

Some takes were quite brutal, however, from older fans:

“Horrific. A zombie club. I wasn’t even too happy if we won a game because it gave Ashley another stay of execution in the fan’s eyes. He was slowly killing it from the inside.”

But then some younger fans grew up with this and never knew anything else:

Pretty much all I've ever known. I don't think I actually understood the ownership properly before being 8 years old and what an impact it has. Mostly terrible and hoping my team would sneak a goal and hold out for a win. Mostly when we got relegated those 2 times as it made some woeful viewing before relegation. It was nice actually being in the championship, winning games and coming straight back up and remember fondly the "banana" kit that I owned and wore often alongside my Brazil kit when I used to play out with friends. My emotions towards Ashley were more toxic as I grew older.”

And of course the obligatory less-nuanced approaches:

“Fat c**t.”

But even though both clubs experienced a rise out of the misery of those times, the stories that I opened this piece with indicate that the nature of modern football means things aren’t always flowing nicely. As Sunderland were promoted to the championship, for example, fans saw glimmers of possibility, some even stating they felt they had “the world at our feet, the potential of our squad, our manager, a full stadium, our ownership and strategy, all bodes for good times ahead.”

But, even though they very nearly were promoted to the premier league not long after, you only have to look at the shambles of how the club welcomed Newcastle with the derby, followed by Beale’s sacking (the derby being obviously a very key fixture for him) to see that Sunderland’s road to redemption remains very long.

Newcastle’s big break of course with their massive Saudi takeover in 2021, celebrated at St James Park on a grand scale. Again, this was great for the club but of course came with questions about the idea that it was “sportswashing.” One thing I was keen to examine was what Newcastle fans actually thought about this, as many may seem indifferent and can be painted as such by both the media and rival fans, as I’ve discussed in earlier entries. I myself don’t particularly like being owned by Saudis, but that’s not going to stop me supporting my club. Even the founder of ‘Newcastle fans against sportswashing,’ which dedicate themselves to protesting against the regime, stated he’s been a fan all his life, is still a fan now, and always will be a fan.

I’m the same. If Mike Ashley’s ownership proves anything, it’s that a football club is separate from its owner. So yes, it is possible for me to be uneasy about the ownership whilst very much enjoying any success that the club find. Not every single Newcastle fan is an automatic Saudi apologist. Granted, some of them probably are. And Saudi flags popping up in twitter bios following the takeover, alongside fans dressing up in Saudi headdresses outside the stadium, probably doesn’t help. But I wanted to see what fans actually think, and so asked them about the takeover and how it made them feel (with no mention of the ownership or what they thought about sportswashing). Many are more in line with what I stated:

“The buzz is back and the club are where they are supposed to be, challenging right at the top of the league. However, having Saudi Arabia based backers, perhaps even as some report, the financial might of the state itself does come with questions due to their horrendous record on human rights. I think as fans we must stay vigilant and we must continue to call out these crimes and demand better. I do not think that this is at odds with supporting a football team.”

Or admitted it was a mixed feeling:

“I think as any reasonable and educated football fan who found his boyhood club became the richest in the world overnight at the behest of a regime responsible for heinous and unforgiveable atrocities, I feel mixed at best.”

One person actually mentioned the Saudi regime’s murder of Jamal Khasshogi, something the media and opposing fans often cite when criticising the sportswashing aspects:

“It's the best feeling being the richest club in the world but also knowing that we have owners that are responsibily going to invest in the club and make us a global superpower in years to come. There are questions to be asked regarding the state of Saudi Arabia and their involvement in the killing of Jamal Khasshogi. However, it is not the job of football fans or club staff such as the manager to answer for the regime. We should leave the political questions for those responsible.”

Interestingly, this particular fan still has a Saudi flag in his (now X) bio. Which goes back to the role of social media in fandom and rivalries in the modern age. Other fans addressed what they viewed as hypocrisy head on:

“Mixed. It’s not great having people part own the club that are linked to a regime like the one in Saudi Arabia however the people on their high horse about it all are just laughable.”

“Its easy for journalists in London and Manchester to be so self-righteous from their thriving and heavily invested in localities, with no idea how lack of investment and underfunding affects this area.”

And, just to keep the North East rivalry very much alive:

“What I categorically detest is the virtue signalling up-in-arms movement of the fans of other clubs who have immediately declared they would wash their hands of their team if the same thing happened to them. We all know you would be overjoyed, too. Because regardless of the ownership, and results, and all of the rest of it, football fans turn up for their team in their droves, whether they’re top of the league or bottom, Premier League, or conference. Except Sunderland. That lot closed a stand for two years. They couldn’t fill it.”

As I say, it is very much about rivalry and fandom and not about politics. I think this recent advert by Paddy power sums it up brilliantly and hilariously:

But corruption is everywhere in modern football. Consider this fan’s response to my question:

“Superb. What was not to like? The dirty secret about other team investors gets lost:: Abramovich, Shinawatra, Mansour were hardly angels from clean conscience nations.”

I would argue that whataboutery doesn’t change the issue, but the point is valid. And it’s not just the Saudi-takeovers and the millionaire playboys. The whole sport is controlled by money, with the headlines these days regularly being about what’s happening off the pitch rather than on it, with articles dedicated to corruption and the mess that is Video Assisted Refereeing (VAR). When I asked fans about the future of the sport, this is what they thought:

“As every organisation, the FA, UEFA, and football’s governing bodies will always chase the money. And money always attracts evil deeds. It’s sad, but it’s true.”

“Money has ruined the game, supporters haven’t seen any benefits, just higher and higer transfer fees, salaries and agents fees.”

“The financial aspect of the game has gotten ridiculous in terms of wages and transfer fees though. It will lead to the downfall of several clubs financially and believe there will be more clubs issued with punishments for their involvement in breach Financial Fair Play”

“It’s more of a TV show now especially with the VAR and the fact that a big TV screen tells you whether it’s a goal or not or a penalty or a goal kick etc.”

“I hope the whole sky sports and all the TV packages eat themselves in the end and the streaming services take over. I think they will in all honesty. We could get back to largely 3 o clock on a Saturday kick offs again and everyone’s social lives won’t be wrecked as a result.”

“There’s some big crossroads moments going to happen this decade from the grassroots Sunday morning game, to the non league pyramid, the women’s game to the supposed European super league right through to whether that twit from FIFA decides that they need a world cup every two years instead of four. It’s all drawing to a head. You can be sure of one thing though, the fans won’t be consulted.”

“It’s becoming a playground for billionaires to stroke their own ego.VAR is not the answer in my opinion and slows the game down. Money is making it a lot less competitive and is creating more 'yo-yo' clubs who will always be too good for the Championship but not good enough for the Premier Leauge (West Brom, Sheffield United, Watford, Burnley, Middlesborough, for example).”

“The recent Wembley trip seemed a very sanitised/corporate experience - no bother on Wembley Way and even though I was in the new Wembley standing section, it was all a bit placid and soulless. This is reflective of modern football. I miss the halcyon days of terrace life experienced in the 80s and even the mid-90s. I can only see the sport headed to an even more corporate and sanitised place - safe standing with your allotted spot is just not right. VAR is just not right. But somehow I think the core soul of football will survive - human nature to fight and compete with irrational hatred and spite will be eternal, despite the prawn sandwich brigade.”

Although this doesn’t paint a very optimistic portrait of the sport for the kind of fans the North East produces, I think there are shades of optimism there in people’s thoughts about football’s changing face. I hope that football’s soul will indeed survive in the North East. I think I’ve learnt that when talking to people and writing this series, and I think it’s clear that fandom really is its own separate instinct, and it really is very powerful. You only have to look at the ratio between years without silverware and seats filled every weekend to see that. And the general response I got when asking fans about their overall opinion of football personally, rather than as a sport, a business, or a political talking point, is probably summed up by the fact that, despite all the pain:

“I can’t imagine life without the beautiful game.”

And I think, after all I’ve learnt doing this project, I’ll finish by coming full circle, and reflect once again on the words of the late Sir Bobby Robson, who would have been 91 last week:

I read something about Rochdale FC’s stadium recently, that there features there a statue of a man named David Clough. He wasn’t a player, or an owner, he was just a huge fan. A similar statue is present in Spain at Valencia’s stadium. I expect changes in stadiums in the North East in the future, and not sure something like that would feature, but I like the idea. Until then, though, Sir Bobby’s statue remains at St James’ Park, and I hope always will. A manager, but also a fan, from a North East mining family, whose words are truer than ever, I’ve found, in this part of the country.

Nonfiction
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About the Creator

Matty Long

Jack of all trades, master of watching movies. Also particularly fond of pizza, country music, watching football, travelling, and tea.

X: @eardstapa_

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  • Randy Wayne Jellison-Knock4 months ago

    Aye, 'til tickets get priced out of our range, whether individual or season, & the streaming services all want us to pony up for the privilege of watching & the game gets reduced to rich folk playing polo on their fancy horses. Over on this side of the pond we had a couple of American football playoff games available only on streaming services. And tickets to the Super Bowl cost on average $8,400 with the lowest tickets set at $6,875 & the highest nearly $23,000.

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