By all appearances Prescot is just one decent length road with some shops and banks on either side. It actually has a bit more going for it than you’d first imagine – Daniel Craig lived there for a bit, Stu Sutcliffe (of The Bealtes, red.) went to school there; there’s a watch-making museum and, just off to the left, there’s a football stadium.
That weekend we’d been at the Bernabeu. Flashing lights and replica shirts; global tongues and world renown footballers. It was a million miles away from Valerie Park (the Prescot side street where AFC Liverpool ground-share with Cables, red.) yet I couldn’t help but be fascinated by AFCL. A club founded on the back of some disenfranchisement by Liverpool fans in 2008 during the Hicks and Gillete years. It was a dark winters evening when we went with around fifty people in attendance. I sat there listening to the players. You could hear the connection with the ball and the crunch of every tackle. It was the game at its semi-pro purest and I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not the fifty in attendance understood the complexity of the team they were supporting.
AFC Liverpool, despite their humble facade, provides us with a platform through which the financial history and shortfalls of the game can be explored.
You see football has always been a business. We lament the influx of commercialisation in our modern era, yet when entrepreneurs conceived stadium designs a hundred years ago they did so with the intention of running a profit: “We own the spectacle, lets cattle in and charge.”
Nevertheless for many years the relationship between fan and owner was a coherent one of mutual dependency. Where else could owners receive a profit? The working man had a ‘half day’ free every other Saturday with football providing him ample opportunity to forget himself. The drudgery of hard labour was only made easier through the tribal attachment and forming of an identity at football matches. Once again, supporter and owner needed one and another.
Fast forward one hundred years and it’s all changed. Why do AFC Liverpool fans feel so dissatisfied? Well their founder Allun Parry said at the time of the clubs substratum that ‘the nature of the Premier League is [that] even if Liverpool’s prices are kinder than others, they’re still too expensive for massive amounts of supporters. Many can’t go at all and many others can only afford to go to a few games a year.’
Rationalising AFC Liverpool: ‘What happens to those supporters in question? They can come and support us with fellow Reds, wearing the same colours and singing the same songs. It will hopefully bring many people back through the turnstiles’.
Several factors attribute towards the replacement of fans through turnstiles with consumers of global backgrounds. The initial step towards the slow burning shift from fan dependency towards profit maximisation came for owners with the foundation of the Premier League.
Enticed by the notion of financial independence and control over tv-revenues from Rupert Murdoch’s BskyB Company, first division clubs in 1992 agreed to form the Premier League. It is easy to forget, but in the years preceding the formation of the Premier League the English game was at an all-time low. Hooliganism was still an issue for the Tory party to condemn. The Hillsborough disaster challenged all leading bodies to re-evaluate how they regarded spectators. English clubs were only just able to return to European competition following Heysel – with the First Divisions top players plying their trade in Scotland and abroad; coupled with the looming 1990 World Cup and the general opinion that England could not succeed.
However, the symbolism of Bobby Robson’s men in Italia 90 reaching the semi-final and reigniting national morale is viewed as a turning point in our domestic game. Whatever reservations that Murdoch held prior to his purchasing and forming of the Premier League were soon to be dispelled. With the legislation following the Taylor report stating that all first division grounds were to become all-seated, Murdoch was able to exhibit a new, image conscious game branded towards a family friendly product.
The new face of football
When Jean-Marc Bosman got trapped in no man’s land in 1995 and decided to take on UEFA, it changed the face of football forever. Free transfers and the threat of such offered players more power than ever before. Because of this, a new level of expenditure from clubs on wages to retain talent has seen the fan overcharged in an attempt to subsidise player contracts. For Murdoch and the Premier League, the Bosman legislation was viewed as an opportunity to gloss football. Formerly clubs could only sign three foreign players. Now, however, the ability to sign foreigners was limitless.
Bergkamp, Zola, Cantona, Henry. The recruitment of some of the globes best talent allowed the spectacle on offer to become more desirable than ever before. And for the first time these players were not only desired domestically. Advancements in globalisation allowed for instantaneous communication; with developments in technology making our world shrink. The Premier League, and most notably Manchester United, became aware of a new-consumer market to target.
Whilst the effects of globalisation benefitted clubs financially, the impact on traditional localised fan-bases was harmful. Stadiums are only supply versus demand, so when the demand for tickets increased, the cost did so too. Sky’s TV became a safety net for a new generation of fans who have been out-priced of Premier League traditional consumption. In order to keep up with the top clubs achieving finances from across the globe, smaller clubs had no real choice but to increase their ticket prices too. This alienation and isolation has triggered a response by many fans that have been left clinging to the game they once knew. When our traders from public schools set sail from sunny harbours in the search of new land in the 18th century they took with them our beautiful game and its Corinthian values – adored instantly by the rest of the world it spread like wildfire – our traders will have had no idea that the game would one day domestically implode.
Permanently pissed off
I’m not sure if it’s the sea air, our civic pride, or the monotony of damp red bricks day in-day out; but us lot up north present a captivating aura of being permanently pissed off. We don’t generally choose to conform. People wear suits? We’ll wear Adidas. But it isn’t only a cultural representation – for when the system disenfranchised two of the nations, no, two of the globes biggest clubs (in Manchester United and Liverpool) the fans revolted.
It started with FC United. A beautiful club formed in 2005 on the back of high dissatisfaction. A protest club: against the Glaziers and against United’s treatment of the lads. It’s initially a sad thing to realise that the club they once knew was taken from them, but the sport: They couldn’t part from football. So instead of sitting next to global tongues, they chose to stand next to their mates on a terrace. David Conn summarised that there is now ‘profit and commercialism where the heart and soul of football used to be.’ Fair play to FC United fans for retaining their hearts and souls.
Up the East-Lancs’ road Carragher said in his biography;
“I’ve heard our supporters complain, rightly, about increased season ticket prices and regular kit changes, but then say the club should be doing more to fleece supporters in Malaysia and Thailand. Some are resentful of the ‘out of town’ influence at Anfield. We can’t have it both ways. If Liverpool wants to match United off the pitch, sacrifices will have to be made to our identity.”
It can snap
Yet in the same year his biography was published, AFC Liverpool was formed. Perhaps the sacrifices adopted by the club were deemed too great for many fans. To complain is one thing, but to actively revolt against the system and form your own club is a totally different animal. Within the compound of AFCL’s shared stadium lies a philosophy of a football club that helps to explain the historically strained relationship between fan and board. A relationship that is not as elasticated as the board believes. AFC Liverpoool has proven that the relationship can snap, and if it’s happened at the top it’s probably going to happen elsewhere too.
Because many fans who attend games don’t even like the other fans that go; they don’t like the manager; they hate the new stadium, there’s no atmosphere. The players are all faux celebrities with a mercenary tag branded on them. What exactly is it that keeps these fans going? It can’t be the cost of it all, because for most fans enough is enough. There are many movements aiming to reclaim football. They need to; the fight is real – because when average foreign footballers like Assou-Ekotto say they don’t even like football, that it was just a job, well it represented how far the game has changed since those flatcapped ‘other Saturdays’.
This article is by Daniel Fieldsend, author at Left Wing Soccer.