It was almost fitting, in a way. On the day that Margaret Thatcher died, Manchester United could have all but sealed a record 20th English title by beating near-neighbours Manchester City. Only a forgettable performance from United’s attackers and a less forgettable contribution from Sergio Aguero means they will have to wait until next month to lift that trophy. Never mind. Thatcher’s dead, but her legacy lives on. And to football fans, though many may not realise it, Manchester United are the most visible symbol of that legacy.
It hardly needs to be restated here, but Manchester United are, to use that overused word, legendary. It’s a toss-up between them and Barcelona for Most Famous Club in the World. It’s a matter of opinion whether Manchester United or Liverpool are the Most Successful Club in England. There’s no debate that Manchester United are the biggest club in the richest league in the world, with a global support that beats all comers. They are the most profitable football club in the world. They are also massively in debt, and have to pay millions every year for the privilege of being owned by a group of American investors. To put it another way, thanks to financial rules introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the late 1980s at the behest of the City (of London) and Wall Street, millions of pounds every year are diverted from ordinary football fans to prop up the Glazer family’s property empire, or car fleet, or whatever else they decide to spend it on. That’s Thatcherism in action right there.
A little history lesson is needed here. In the 1980s, the financial sector in London, and New York, was booming (Michael Lewis, of Moneyball fame, is very good on this). Bankers were making silly money in short time, and, greed begetting greed, were constantly on the lookout for ways to make even sillier money. One of the things they came up with was the idea of a leveraged buy-out. In this, a group of investors could take over a company with no money at all, simply by borrowing the money required. After the takeover, the new rules allowed them to transfer the loans onto the books of the newly acquired company. The theory behind this is that it makes it easier for investors to buy up large but unprofitable companies and turn them round so that they become more profitable and efficient. In practice, it is an asset-stripper’s wet dream. It has never been satisfactorily explained why an investor with absolutely no money of their own invested in the company would run it any better than the existing owners, and probably never will. Anyway, this sort of leveraged buy-out (brought to you by the same people who gave the world futures derivatives trading, source of many a commodities bubble, and subprime loans) is exactly what happened to Manchester United, with one cute transaction turning the richest football club in the world into the most heavily indebted. That it pissed off and alienated so many people in the northwest of England would not have caused Thatcher any sleepless nights, even if she cared about football at all.
Thatcher, of course, didn’t care about football. She did go to a football match once, the 1978 FA Cup Final between Ipswich Town and Arsenal, after which she remarked, “I thought the number 10, Whymark, played well.” Unfortunately, she hadn’t noticed that, although Trevor Whymark was listed in the programme, David Geddes wore number 10 for Ipswich that day. Who knows, perhaps it was the embarrassment of that mistake, but she could never have been described as a friend of football. Her response to the worsening hooligan problems of the 1980s, particularly the Kenilworth Road riot and the Heysel tragedy, was to propose an ID scheme for all football supporters, effectively treating anyone who wanted to watch football as a potential criminal. Yet though those plans were thankfully thwarted, and despite her reported misgivings about the Taylor Report, it was nevertheless implemented, so that despite her disdain for the game Thatcher indelibly left her mark on football, such that the game today is scarcely recognisable from when she left office in 1990.
English football has never had it so good. Or bad. At the top of the English game, the Premier League is awash with money. It attracts fans and players from all over the world – in Monday’s game, no fewer than 13 nationalities were represented among the 28 players who played some of the game (compare that to the 4 – English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish – who played in Ryan Giggs’s first Manchester derby on 2 May 1991). Meanwhile, the English national team is about as likely to win a trophy as at least half the teams in the Premier League – i.e. not at all; a match ticket in the middle of an economic recession costs around eight times the hourly minimum wage; and, thanks in no small part to the Thatcher-inspired sell-off of school playing fields and cutbacks in local government budgets, football at the grassroots level in the UK is arguably as bad as it ever has been. The kid who once would have played football at school, gone with his father to a game at the weekend, is no more across most of Britain. A generation now derives its footballing education almost exclusively from Sky Sports and Playstation.
But the stadiums are full, you say. Who can argue with full stadiums and a globally successful product? Apart from the use of the word ‘product’, it doesn’t tell the full story. The stadiums might be full at the top clubs, but elsewhere, lower down the leagues, financial instability and administration are a fact of life. The lack of rules and regulations for investors in football merely mirrors that in the wider world of business, something that Thatcher was a key proponent of in her day. Football might be of a higher standard than ever at the top level (a subjective measure) but it is less competitive, less democratic, and less likely than ever to meet the needs of ordinary supporters, those who actually go to games.
In an ideal world, football clubs would be part of the community, something everybody in the community could identify with. The number of English football fans who support their national team reluctantly, or not at all, strongly suggests that football at the highest level in England is something many can no longer identify with. A pity, because the national team, like the local club, ought to be a force that unites people, brings them together and is something they can feel proud of. This is why, whatever the results, so many Irish fans are opposed to Trapattoni – who can take pride in such neolithic football? But nowadays the local club has been flogged off to someone from Russia, or the Middle or Far East, whose duty of care to the ordinary supporters nowadays runs so shallow that he can change the team name and colours, and in one infamous case their city, on a mere whim.
Football clubs used to be just one manifestation of that something, back before there was no such thing as society, that made society. There were others, like the post office, railways, the NHS, institutions that people relied on, that served a clear social purpose. Add to that the water company, the gas company, the electricity company, and all those other things sold off to the highest bidder. After Thatcher, profit is the only measure of social worth, and likewise every football game must be reported in terms of how much money it means to the winning club. Similarly, fans must regularly be reminded of how much money top players earn and how wealthy their chairman is, as if these things are somehow as important as what’s going on out on the pitch. Meanwhile, the majority of fans and clubs look on at the Top 4/Champions League hegemony, knowing that, unless they win the lottery (i.e. get taken over by a rich Arab sugar daddy) they will never be able to compete. Of course, they could just change their team. Turn their back on a lifelong tradition, in many cases handed down through the family for generations, a core part of their identity, because the free market has decided they don’t fit in any more. Once again, sport is an apt metaphor for life.
A digression: when, as occasionally happens, certain club chairmen moot such ideas as abolishing relegation, I shudder. People often cite American sports leagues, which operate on a closed-shop basis, as an example, being more competitive, and highlighting the irony that in the US sport works on such a ‘socialist’ model. Well, if a bunch of multimillionaire executives sitting around a table making all the rules together, or colleges exploiting unpaid student athletes for upwards of half a billion TV dollars a year, is your idea of socialism, it’s small wonder people regard it as such a dirty word. The key word in American leagues is ‘closed shop’. It’s an oligopoly. Though their rules on ownership are better than those prevailing in Europe (i.e. they actually have some rules) the idea that the entire country be divided up into geographical markets, and each franchise given a monopoly in a certain market… does it sound like anything Margaret Thatcher might have come up with? Far more competitive and fairer would be a league system open to any club, with promotion and relegation on merit, gate moneys shared between competing teams and TV revenues pooled between all teams. Something similar to, say, what pertained in English football right up until the 1980s*.
Back to the main topic. Thatcher and sport. Already several clubs have announced plans to hold a minute’s silence for her this weekend – mostly rugby union clubs. One somehow doubts their league counterparts will follow suit. And John Madejski, Reading FC’s chairman, has sensitively proposed a minute’s silence for Thatcher before their home game against Liverpool this weekend… on the 24th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. Who says sport and politics never mix? There are precious few grounds for calling for a minute’s silence based on Thatcher’s contribution to sport – any sport, not just football. Therefore, a minute’s silence for her is a nakedly political gesture, of the sort right-wing apologists are usually adamant should be kept out of sport. It is to be hoped UEFA levy their usual nonsensical fines on anyone who takes part.
The debate over this though does confirm a clearer truth, namely what a divisive figure indeed Thatcher was. A great woman, no doubt – she possessed a rare single-mindedness, and was tough as an old boot, to boot – but you don’t have to be good to be great. Nor does one have to be a feminist to admire her for being the first female leader of her country, neither is it sexist in any way to deplore her for what she did as her country’s first female leader. She had some admirable qualities, as well as a seemingly complete lack of empathy, but as a politician must ultimately be judged by her actions. No matter how fervently she believed in her policies, doesn’t make them any more or less correct. She changed football, just as she changed the world, in ways that are hard for those, like me, who weren’t around in the 1980s, to imagine. Whether she made it a better place is open to debate – while her economic disciples loudly denounce the ‘dependency culture’ in Britain, they might like to consider her role in creating this through the mass layoffs, mine closures and rundown of industry in the 1980s, without ever bothering to consider the communities and people affected by her actions. Whether the post-Thatcherite world could be a better place is not open to debate – there’s no question that it could be. Look around you, at all the injustice, greed, inequality, corruption, discrimination and hatred. And that’s just talking about football: the real world is even worse. Yet thousands, millions, mourn the passing of a great woman, fed on the media hagiographies, just as millions continue to lap up the Sky Sports hyperbole about the Premier League – the most vital, important, exciting league ever. I should know, I’m one of them. It just goes to show, we all make mistakes, even Margaret Thatcher. She made one big mistake.
She should have stuck to the chemistry.
*Admittedly it is probably unfair to blame Thatcher for the abolition of the old system of splitting gate monies in favour of the home team keeping the lot, and the Sky TV deals favouring the top teams. One could certainly blame the focus on commodification and individualism that is a legacy of Thatcherism, however.