x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Premier League: There are echoes of Thatcherism all through the game

Supporters may not like it, but the former British prime minister's ideologies are inherent in football, writes Will Batchelor.

Margaret Thatcher poses with Liverpool's Emlyn Hughes and coach Bob Paisley.
Margaret Thatcher poses with Liverpool's Emlyn Hughes and coach Bob Paisley.

It is not often the English Football Association is credited with showing some backbone and common sense, so let's savour the moment, shall we?

The FA's refusal to command a minute's silence for Margaret Thatcher before matches this weekend is absolutely right.

Whatever your view of her achievements as the UK's prime minister from 1979 to 1990, it is a matter of record that Mrs Thatcher was no fan of sport in general or football in particular. That "Iron Lady" tag was nothing to do with supporting West Ham United, no matter what the internet might tell you.

She viewed the game, and its fans, with disdain. Her solution to dealing with a minority of hooligans was to treat all supporters as cattle.

She wanted us football fans branded with identity numbers, a scheme which never happened, and herded behind perimeter fences, which did. When that strategy reached its inevitable conclusion at the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989, Mrs Thatcher was, at best, incurious about its true causes.

For these reasons alone, the suggestion of a silent tribute, mooted publicly by Dave Whelan and John Madejski, the Wigan Athletic and Reading chairmen, was always a non-starter.

The silence would have been both unobserved and actively disrupted, not by a minority but a significant proportion of most crowds. Football does not need such toxicity.

There will be some fans - again, not all, but a significant number - who will interpret this lack of tribute as a victory for the game's socialist roots, a proud reminder that organised sport across Europe was a product of, or a precursor to, trade unionism.

Before they congratulate themselves too heartily, it is worth noting that while many football fans reject the persona of Thatcher, her ideology is rampant in the modern game.

The Premier League itself is a tribute to Thatcherism, formed when a group of stronger clubs decided to take a larger slice of a pie that was once shared equally by all. But that is hardly the fans' fault.

Nor is the player-transfer policy. It is now standard practice for all clubs in the English Premier League to persistently raid smaller, poorer leagues of their best young players. For us to succeed, other must fail. Very Thatcherite.

However, in the deluge of newsprint, online chatter and airtime devoted to transfer talk, one rarely hears a football fan express concern for, say, the French League 1 fan deprived of the chance to watch yet another gifted player turn out for his local team. So much for our international brothers. We're all right, Jack, pull up the ladder.

It is a similar story with new stadiums. While some fan groups have fought lengthy battles to stay in their traditional grounds (Everton supporters, for example, waged a long and divisive battle against moving beyond the Liverpool city boundary), others have jumped at the chance to inhabit those shiny new palaces elsewhere, with their ample parking and adjacent shopping centres.

Never mind the traditional hub of the community being bulldozed, they cry. More seats mean greater revenues means more glory.

Remind me, who was it that said "there is no such thing as society"?

The apparent unity of fans is a myth, an optical illusion.

We talk of standing united, of never walking alone, but why has there never been a successful fans' boycott to protest over spiralling cost of season tickets? Because, at the top clubs at least, there is a mile-long waiting list of others who would gladly snatch your seat and sing those same songs of unity.

Football fans like to boast of local pride but how many of us crave an exotic billionaire to buy a shortcut to glory?

Sometimes these foreign knights on white steeds prove to be good and noble stewards of the club.

Many more times they do not, as fans of Liverpool, Portsmouth, Birmingham City, Blackburn Rovers, West Ham and many others will testify.

But still we demand that the risk is taken, staking our beloved heritage in the hope of ... well, of what, exactly? A decent cup run, a chance to cling on to Premier League status at all costs, or simply to keep pace with the neighbours.

It may sound like a bad deal but such is the power of aspiration - that other pillar of Thatcherism - the need to acquire shiny stuff (trophies, medals, televised games) rather than simply appreciate what we already have: a fine old club to call our own.

I do not blame fans for this covert Thatcherism, nor do I claim to be immune from its allure myself. I simply make the point that football fans should be careful when trumpeting our politics - as we might not like the tune that echoes back.


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