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Leave your politics at the turnstiles

Submitted by on April 28, 2015 – 10:09 amNo Comment
United fans' version

United fans’ version

By Jonathan Allsopp

“Do we have to talk about politics again?” is a familiar rebuke chucked at me, often accompanied by a roll of the eyes and a sigh. I love a bit of politics. Not so much the cheap party political “we-can-prop-up-the-capitalist-system-better-than-you” variety beloved of modern mass media.

More the inspiring sight of people organising themselves to try to make the world a better place. Participatory democracy rather than sit-on-yer-arse democracy. There’s more to this politics malarkey than scribbling a cross on a bit of paper every four or five years.

There have been encouraging signs of a political reawakening in recent times as sisters and brothers have been taking a stand against big business and a complacent political establishment. Take the successful fight against eviction by the residents of the New Era estate in East London for instance. Or the People’s March for the NHS organised by a group of Darlington mums.

Or the National Health Action Party fighting a pro-NHS, anti-austerity general election campaign on a shoestring budget. Or UK Uncut’s acts of civil disobedience to highlight the brutality of cutting public services whilst huge corporations dodge tax. And whatever your views on the potential break-up of the UK, witnessing the campaign for Scottish independence gather pace last year as people began to realise their collective power and got involved in politics, often for the first time, was inspiring.

Football-wise, supporter owned FC United of Manchester continue to lead the way in demonstrating that football has the power to reach out beyond the pitch and change people’s lives whether it’s unemployed youngsters, kids struggling at school, elderly people living on their own or destitute asylum seekers.

Makin' Friends

Last October the Northern Premier League champions became the first football club to sign up to the living wage thus joining the fight against poverty and low pay, a natural extension of the club’s ethos of embracing its local community rather than bleeding it dry. But sadly this juxtaposition of football and politics isn’t everyone’s mug of tea with “leave your politics at the turnstile” an oft-heard refrain from those who prefer their football bubble-shaped and cut off from the rest of civilisation.

After all, what’s remotely political, say, about spending £140 million of public money on converting London’s Olympic stadium into a venue for Premier League football when the league is awash with billions of pounds of television money Eh?

Nevertheless a couple of recent FC United matches have left me reflecting on how, despite the alleged desire of some to keep politics out of the game, there is a particular brand of politics that remains welcome at many football grounds. On a nose-runningly cold, damp evening at the end of January a few of us journeyed to Farageland to watch FC United’s youth team play Dartford in the Football Conference Youth Alliance Cup.

The match was played on the artificial community pitch next to Dartford’s Princes Park stadium and the FC youngsters acquitted themselves well in front of a crowd of about forty or fifty big coat clad souls hugging the touchline but eventually lost 2-1. Afterwards we warmed up with a brew and parted with three quid to enter the stadium to watch the youth teams of Celtic and Villarreal do battle in something called the English Premier League International Cup. Never heard of it? Me neither.

Princes Park stadium, opened nine years ago, is a smart venue that has managed to maintain some character unlike many of the new flatpack stadiums of the lower leagues; there aren’t many football grounds that boast a sculpture of a tall wooden man propping up the roof of one of its terraced stands. It’s also apparently the most environmentally friendly football ground in the country making use of recycled rainwater, low energy lighting and the insulation of roof-top vegetation.

In addition to us FCers, there was a small but vocal contingent of Celtic fans and a handful of Clapton FC supporters, themselves no strangers to being urged to take their political baggage elsewhere. A recent food collection for a local refugee and migrant project was typical of the efforts of the Clapton Ultras to use football to improve people’s lives and their admirable anti-fascist stance in one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the country has attracted the attention of more than a few far-right morons intent on causing trouble. The Claptonites spotted our FC flag and came over for a comradely chat.

As the half-time whistle sounded we decided that we’d seen enough football for one evening and headed for the exit. But making our way towards the main gate we couldn’t help but notice an advertising hoarding occupying a prime spot on the half-way line opposite the main stand which proclaimed the ground as having been “BUILT BY A CONSERVATIVE COUNCIL”. It put me right off.

Kent, of course, has been making the political headlines as it cosies up to Ukip in a “ooh, Nigel come and talk to us about immigration figures” sort of way. A recent Dover Athletic home match was sponsored by Ukip so the county is clearly used to reactionary right wing politics infesting its football grounds. But let’s be honest, whatever your views on intertwining football and politics the Tories and football should never mix. There’s something just not right about it.

Aside from the incongruity of a football ground with sound green credentials being used to advertise a political party with none, the individualistic nature of modern conservatism is surely the antithesis of football’s emphasis on teamwork and collectivism. Bill Shankly famously likened football to socialism describing the essence of the game as “everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards”.

It’s perhaps indicative of how the demographics of football crowds have changed over the last few decades that the Conservatives now feel that there are votes to be gained through advertising at a football ground. Cameron’s laughable attempts to proclaim his love for a team in claret and blue are symptomatic of a need for vote-hungry politicians to demonstrate their connection with the masses. Not that long ago football supporters were a section of society to be feared and stigmatised, “slum people” as the Sunday Times infamously referred to us.


A few weeks later FC United visited another new ground; this time Stamford’s out-of-town Borderville stadium. As we queued at the shiny new turnstiles there was a notice offering a discount for members of the armed forces. Perhaps no surprise given that there is a large Royal Air Force base a few miles down the A1.

Instead of paying a tenner to watch their local football team members of the air force need only pay seven pounds. But why favour military personnel? What about a discount for, say, nurses or other NHS staff who work their socks off caring for patients. Or the unemployed? Or street cleaners? Surely there are other people, outside the military, who would be keen to attend a football match for a discounted price and equally as deserving?

Modern football’s obsession with all things military is also in evidence further north in Lincolnshire as Lincoln City recently announced plans for an “iconic Dambusters memorial” at their Sincil Bank ground to symbolise the close links between the club and a nearby RAF base. It’s part of a campaign to raise £380,000 from supporters and local businesses to bail them out of a financial mess after the Cooperative Bank asked them to find new bankers.

It’s all a marked contrast to the reaction to United supporters displaying that ace pro-peace “24 hour Peterloo Peace People” banner in the Stretford End back in 2003 which lasted only a matter of seconds before being taken down. Whilst it appears to be fine for football clubs to promote images of warfare inside their grounds and to offer discounts to those who volunteer to participate in organised murder in far-off countries, the promotion of a more peaceful outlook on life is seemingly frowned upon.

In our upside-down world mainstream politics has embraced the war machine leaving those who actively campaign for peace looking like dangerous extremists. What a shame that British football doesn’t have an equivalent of the German club SV Babelsberg’s Karl Liebknecht Stadion, a football ground in a working class district of Potsdam, proudly named after a socialist and pacificist.

Leave your politics at the turnstile eh? It’s such a cosy notion isn’t it? Let’s all leave our differences of opinion (unless they fit the template for a Daily Express editorial) outside the ground and unite as one inside it. Grand. Except that football and football clubs don’t exist in a vacuum.

The very act of forming a football club is a political one, no more so than in the case of a supporter owned football club; a group of like minded individuals coming together to change the world around them. The notion that as football fans we shouldn’t worry our little heads about why, say, Premiership football clubs can afford to pay their top footballers hundreds of thousands of pounds per week but can’t afford to play cleaners and caterers a decent wage is an insult to our intelligence.

So as long as there are Tory advertising hoardings inside football grounds. As long as there are matches sponsored by Ukip and football grounds sponsored by Help for Heroes. As long as there are discounts for members of the armed forces and the game continues its love affair with all things military.

As long as there are football club chairmen, managers and players who think it is fine to address Chinese people as “chinkys”. As long as there are supporters who have an issue with the involvement of women, ethnic minorities and lesbian and gay people in football.

And as long as there are football clubs who refuse to pay their staff a living wage, I’ll definitely be hauling my political backpack into the ground. I hope them turnstiles at the soon to be opened Broadhurst Park are big enough.

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