WCP: English Football and Working-Class Culture

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The recent announcement that some of the top football clubs in Europe were going to form a separate elite league drew immediate protests from fans. In Working-Class Perspectives  this week, Sarah Attfield helps us understand why. As she explains, football is not just a passion, it’s central to working-class culture and community. 

On the afternoon of Saturday, September 23rd, 1933, Tottenham Hotspur (Spurs) played Liverpool in a match at Tottenham’s home ground, White Hart Lane, in North London. About a mile away, at the same time, my grandmother went into labour with my mother. Spurs lost the match 0-3, but whenever my mother talked about the event of her birth, she always included this note about the football match. The proximity of her family home to the Spurs stadium meant she grew up surrounded by football culture, and she never lost her love for the team (although she reserved her strongest admiration for 60s and 70s Spurs goalkeeper Pat Jennings). She passed this loyalty on to me, and I have always been a Spurs fan. Despite living in Australia now for two decades, I still follow the team’s triumphs and disappointments, and watch the matches on catch-up TV. Occasionally, matches are played at a time when I can catch them live, and that’s always exciting.

Football has long been a staple part of working-class culture in the UK. When I was growing up, groups of kids were always playing football on the concrete play areas on our public housing estate. Informal games also happened in the school playground before and after school and at lunchtimes. There always seemed to be someone in a group who had a ball. In the 70s and 80s, they were generally boys’ games, though. Girls were usually spectators, but we were still football fans. In those days, some of the Spurs players lived locally, and it was always a thrill to spot them. I cut out large ‘THFC’ (Tottenham Hotspur Football Club) letters and stuck them to my bedroom window. When Spurs won the 1981 FA Cup we were ecstatic.

But football has changed a lot since my childhood. It has become a lucrative industry with top teams making huge sums of money from broadcasting rights and sponsorship deals. Players in the English Premier League now earn millions of pounds each year, and owners of the top English clubs are often billionaires or wealthy corporations. Despite the wealth generated by the top clubs, being a fan is expensive. Tickets to Premier League games for Spurs matches cost around £60 ($80), and securing a ticket usually requires a membership fee (very few tickets go on general sale), which increases the cost further. Following the club to venues for away matches requires resources for travel and accommodation. Rail fares are very high, and petrol prices are twice that of the US. Long-distance bus routes can be reasonably priced, but the journeys take much longer. On my last trip back to the UK early in 2020, I was desperate to see the new Spurs stadium. I had heard that it was beautiful and full of state-of-the-art features. I couldn’t get a match ticket, so I took a guided stadium tour. That cost £36 ($50 USD) and included a behind the scenes look at the players’ dressing rooms and a chance to stand at the edge of the pitch.

The new stadium is very impressive. I was in awe at the scale and the design. The guide told the group about the many high-tech features such as the retractable pitch. We sat in seats that our favourite players usually occupied, and we saw their shirts hanging in the dressing rooms. But we were also reminded constantly about how much it cost. Construction cost close to a billion pounds, and maintaining the stadium will be expensive. We visited an exclusive dining area where the rich pay premiums to be close to the pitch and watch the players enter the tunnel. And we saw the corporate boxes where companies entertain their wealthy clients.

The stadium sits on the site of the old one, in White Hart Lane in Tottenham, a working-class and a very deprived area. When you leave the stadium, you are on the High Road opposite discount stores, takeaways, and public housing estates. This area saw riots in 1985 and 2011, both sparked by police violence against Black residents. The contrast is stark.

Even though being a football fan requires economic resources, the sport remains a passion for many working-class people. Football is still a way of life and an important aspect of community. Locals feel pride in their teams, share joy when they win, and commiserate together over the losses. This passion has its negative consequences, too, when rivalry sometimes turns ugly (and there is a history of football ‘hooliganism’). Racism is also still evident in the various leagues, and players continue to experience it on and off the pitch.

But the sport also creates positive working-class role models. Beyond players’ sporting prowess and success, many are committed to social justice and improving the lives of young working-class people. Many of the star players grew up in deprived neighbourhoods like Tottenham, so they understand hardship and inequality. Some speak out publicly, such as Manchester United player Marcus Rashford who is leading a campaign to end child food poverty in the UK. In 2020, Rashford criticised the UK government for refusing to supply free school meals for low-income children over the school holidays. He started a campaign to raise awareness and pressure the government. He also talks about the struggles faced by his mother, who raised her family alone.

The passion for the sport and the culture it has created drew attention recently with the announcement of a new European Super League, a break-away competition for elite European clubs that would bring massive income to the teams involved and allow them to tap into overseas markets. Six English Premier League teams, including Spurs, were among the proposed founding teams.

The announcement was met with almost universal criticism from fans who saw the teams as a selling out and betraying fans’ loyalty. Groups of fans protested immediately. They railed against the takeover of their sport by billionaires looking to make bigger profits. To many, the game is entrenched in the fabric of society, so meddling with it would destroy heritage and a sense of local identity. And even the government attempted to intervene. The football governing bodies threatened to exclude the teams and players from local competition and within a few days, the English teams had all pulled out from the proposal.

The outpouring of anger and protest was both applauded by those with interest in the game and criticised by others who suggested that the mobilisation and the energy expended in the protest should target the fight against capitalism more generally. Some asked why these fans seemed so bothered by greedy football club owning billionaires and not by Amazon owner Jeff Bezzos. I’d suggest that the fans who expressed their anger and disappointment at their teams are aware of the huge disparities of wealth and the unfettered nature of capitalism. They see the inequity and exploitation on a daily basis. They might well be working for low wages in an Amazon depot.

But unlike Amazon, football is something they feel belongs to them. The clubs are nothing without their fans, and club loyalty takes time to build. Club fandom is steeped in history and club mythology. Fans knew that without them, the clubs would fail, and so they saw their power in that moment. Protesting about a new football competition was something they could do without fear of losing their job. Maybe their success with this protest will inspire some to join other anti-capitalist groups.

My mother’s life was shaped by hardship caused by a class system that prevented her from fulfilling her potential – even as a football fan. ‘Born within spit’ of White Hart Lane, she didn’t have the means to go to a match. I’m determined to go in her honour the next time I’m in London. And hopefully when I do, Spurs will win. Not that it will matter. Working-class football fans are very forgiving, and once the furore from the Super League dies down, we’ll go back to following our teams and wearing our colours with pride.

Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney