by Jay Baker
AFC Unity has a habit of attracting players who have really good jobs. And by “really good jobs,” I do not mean high salaries and superb perks that enable them to live flashy lifestyles; I mean they generally do really genuinely good work for a living. Teachers, doctors, nurses; these are women who work in public services, do important jobs. I think there’s some link between our culture of collectivism and our players who genuinely see life in general as being about more than just what they can get out of it, but what they can also contribute to the world around them. Interestingly, the rewards for our society as a whole are reflected by the work these women often do. For example, each £1 to a trash collector creates an equivalent of £12 in terms of health and sustainability. For every £1 a hospital cleaner is paid, over £10 in social value is generated. And for every dollar a researcher earns, a value of at least $5 is pumped back into the economy. In contrast to these examples, for every pound earned by advertising executives, for instance, they destroy an equivalent of £7 in the form of stress, overconsumption, pollution, and debt. So let’s talk about professional football players…
In my last entry to this column, I concluded that elite professional players of our fine sport understandably have a mentality of “win at all costs.” Indeed, everyone at the top of the game are trying their best to financially succeed: the players, the managers, the board of directors, the investors – sporting success and financial success are totally intertwined in the professional game; they’re one and the same. If you win a tournament, you reap financial awards. Conversely, if you lose money, you’ll have fewer resources at your disposal in order to do better on the field. It’s a fine balancing act, where the budget and the results must be matched carefully – football clubs raise finance in order to provide a catalyst for footballing success, careful not to “overspend.” If what the board consider to be a generous budget is provided for the management, the pressure is then on the manager to make decisions that reflect wise spending, in order to provide success on the field. As a result, the managers convey that pressure on to their players, as evidenced by Brian Clough telling his team on a particularly good day, “Now that’s what I’m paying you for!”
I met Brian Clough as a child when I was with my dad paying one of our many visits to various football stadiums. My dad encouraged me to ask for his autograph, which I did, to which the notorious and rather intimidating Clough – still getting his gear out of his car – replied, “You certainly can, my beauty,” before signing in my autograph book, with a personal message that included the all-important reminder: “Be good!”
On Monday, November 15th, 1976, I was born in Doncaster Royal Infirmary, like any football fanatic, kicking and screaming at 3pm – traditionally kick-off time. My dad supported Doncaster Rovers, and began taking me to games with him when I was aged 9. He played football since a young age, a small but speedy and skillful winger in local factory teams featuring former professional footballers, before turning to refereeing, instilling a sense of footballing fairness in me from the very start.
When my father first started attending football matches in the latter part of the 1940s, aggregate league attendances were over 41 million. By the time I began going, in 1986, they were around only 16 million, ironically damaged by several years of increasing wages for workers and the corresponding diversity of leisure activities that this made available to them – not to mention hooliganism putting people off and being used as state rationale for related crowd controls. Yes, I was watching a very different version of football to the one my dad had.
In my father’s day, the players retired from the game and joined the factories blokes like him worked, still playing football for fun, because they never earned much from the sport. But after that, they very understandably got together and complained that, despite being entertainers, many of the fans coming to watch the games in their droves were earning more money than the players they’d come to see! Tickets were selling in their thousands, and chairmen were making a fortune, as football clubs became seen as investment opportunities. No surprise, then, that players wanted their fair share. The Professional Footballers’ Association, led by Jimmy Hill, fought to have the maximum wage scrapped, and eventually, as we know, player salaries skyrocketed to astronomical proportions. Interestingly, the businessmen owning the clubs remained rich, and this continuation was only made possible by rising ticket prices and deregulated television rights deals. Top teams make sure they get more of the TV revenue than smaller clubs, in order to help sustain their bloated multi-million pound superstar wage bills. This is very different to American football, where television revenues are distributed evenly amongst all the teams, while the top teams get to the back of the line when getting picks on the up-and-coming college players ready to be drafted up to the NFL.
Televised soccer has meant revenues generated for the teams that play games the general public want to watch. Naturally, this means that the sport becomes top-heavy, because the larger teams attract fairweather fans who will follow clubs simply for their success and likelihood to win games – thus the larger clubs sustain significant income generation; smaller clubs will rarely get a decent opportunity since fewer members of the national audience care to watch them.
In 2012, the average Premiership club spent a shocking 70% of its turnover on player salaries – incredibly, Manchester City were spending more than 100%! No wonder they brought in Pep Guardiola to develop a football philosophy and subsequent brand, built up around the world – with New York City FC in the States, Melbourne City in Australia, and – back home – Manchester City Women: they required different revenue streams to try and plug the hole. And revenue streams are what women’s teams are becoming for many large football clubs, make no mistake about it.
Since I was a kid, I’ve witnessed what to my dad was an unknown phenomena of numerous clubs entering financial jeopardy and even administration. Even our very own Doncaster Rovers was taken over by a corrupt businessman, Ken Richardson, who ran it into the ground before being convicted as many fans got together to form the Viking Supporters Cooperative (VSC). These kinds of trusts are nothing new, and often a threat to powerful vested interests – shortly after it was founded in 2008, Liverpool FC bigwigs referred to the newly-formed Spirit of Shankly (SOS) group as “a very small, yet highly-motivated group of agitators” and yet a few years later it was named Cooperative of the Year at the Social Enterprise North West Awards.
The democratically-elected directors of the not-for-profit VSC helped support Doncaster Rovers and steer them from dangerous waters into calmer seas, where it was taken over by businessman John Ryan, who had a passion for Donny as big as his ego, and despite rescuing the club financially, eventually butted heads with the VSC itself when it started asking questions about shadowy consortia he was interested in selling significant control of the club over to. I wanted to see my club influenced by democratically-elected representatives of the supporters, so there was only one thing left to do and on November 15th, 2014 – my birthday, no less – I was gifted a place on the board of directors for the VSC by its voting members and in my year’s tenure on the VSC board, I felt sorry for my fellow directors – all really sharp, switched-on guys with rhinoceros skin who, regardless of what was shouted by some clueless hooligans who couldn’t tell a penalty from a pennant, genuinely cared passionately about Doncaster Rovers and felt fan influence in football clubs was the way forward. From what I understood, the current owners agreed, and their Club Doncaster initiative fit in well with the long-term vision for financial sustainability through collaboration with Donny’s other local sports teams.
One exception was Doncaster Rovers Belles, the world-famous women’s team formed back when the club was still playing at its old dilapidated Belle Vue stadium, at the time calling themselves the Belle Vue Belles and the subject of I Lost My Heart to the Belles by Pete Davies, who I cited here last time. The Belles, despite moving to the Keepmoat Stadium with their men’s league counterparts, made it clear to me in the past that they were pretty adamant about remaining independent, only to be informed by the FA, after having played just one match that season, that they’d be forcibly relegated from the Women’s Super League to make way for Manchester City Women and their millions of pounds of investment from the men’s club. When the Women’s FA Cup final took place at the Keepmoat Stadium, Belles’ self-professed “noisy fans” turned up on the day to hand out fliers about their scandalous “relegation” and passed around a petition, only to have their campaigning materials confiscated by stewards “acting on behalf of the FA,” including not only the pamphlets and petition but also replica shirts and a banner that read “DONCASTER BELLES: 22 YEARS IN THE TOP DIVISION ENDED BY THE FA’S GR££D.” As a director of VSC, I wrote a regular column in the local Doncaster Free Press at request of their sports writer Paul Goodwin, who covered the whole Belles affair and who himself wrote, “Decisions like this set a dangerous precedent. Bang go the concepts of competition, fair play, and a level playing field to do it all on.” He was right. But sadly he was talking about the very core principles of professional football itself.
In my time enjoying insight into the behind-the-scenes workings of a professional football club, I witnessed things I couldn’t reconcile. This wasn’t a reflection of that particular football club, but of the professional game as a whole. At the time, I’d co-founded AFC Unity, and a by-product of coaching players from the local area, who paid to play, was a decrease of enjoyment of the pro game: the cold concrete stadium bearing the name of a sponsor, featuring players supposedly representing my birthplace but who were manoeuvred into the team by their agents brokering the best deals for them, and everyone from the locker room to the boardroom obsessed with making more money to keep their jobs. I watched each game at this time with less and less enthusiasm. Who were these players I supposedly supported? What did they represent any more? A profit-making corporation called Doncaster Rovers Limited, with a board of directors with money on their minds, lest the team fail to exist at a professional level. As I mentioned in my last column entry, Sheffield Wednesday are owned by Dejphon Chansiri, a Thai businessman. Sheffield United are owned by Abdullah bin Musa’ad and Kevin McCabe (at the time of writing). These are just business entities, controlled by multi-millionaires, with rich players in the team, more than most quite content to play for whoever pays them the most. What are we really supporting any more? A professional football club that happens to be based in our hometown? What does that even mean in an era when they’re shifting clubs from Wimbledon to Milton Keynes? You can probably count on one hand your team’s players who actually have any connection to your town outside of playing their home games there. So what are we being loyal to, exactly? I’ve said this before, as Jerry Seinfeld humorously pointed out, when you’re supporting a pro sports team, you’re merely cheering for a shirt:
Lovers of the game all over are increasingly suspicious and disenchanted with the money-dominated nature of the big leagues. Manchester United’s fans, of course, simply went off and created their very own alternative, FC United of Manchester. They’ve been another success story, climbing up the non-league divisions to the point where they now just got themselves a brand-new stadium, paid a visit by the Tory politician who backed it – provoking outrage from a hard core of their followers, who stand true to the founding principles of the club.
But what do we expect? The more money your club makes, the more professional it becomes – and then the more you find yourself no longer part of the solution…but part of the problem.
At AFC Unity’s beginning, bullying, bad-attitude, traditional players not getting picked demanded greater democracy – but they didn’t want it for everyone, just themselves. They wanted to strong-arm their way into the game. AFC Unity being set up as a not-for-profit independent women’s football club coached by a feminist was seen by some as a weakness to exploit: “Oh, you’re about ethics and empowerment, so give it to me.” These same players moved on (thankfully) but lo and behold never once called for greater democracy from the traditional teams they went on to play for. This is because they themselves – if they were honest – wanted power. As we’ve shown at AFC Unity, we’re very much of the Nye Bevan mentality: “The purpose of having power is to be able to give it away.” That’s why, here we are, years later, and we’re opening up the football club to greater ownership, with responsibilities and rights taken up by the players themselves – players who aren’t just in it for themselves. These players aren’t journeying footballers drifting from one team to another until they get the high profile they want like some sort of football version of Chuka Umunna. Not at all. Quite the opposite.
Players having an ownership over their football club is key when they’re putting their money into it; in AFC Unity, they are getting an increasing input into how their subs are spent. There are bimonthly team meetings and these are becoming slowly intertwined into the ownership of the company limited by guarantee that is AFC Unity’s legal status, registered as strictly not-for-profit so that every penny has to go back in to the club, and is subjected to annual accounting scrutiny. How many other football clubs anywhere in the world can say this? Legally registered as a company while also obligated to be non-profit. There’s almost nothing like this in non-league grassroots football, let alone at professional level.
In the professional game, the argument is that those putting their money into clubs are not the players, but the supporters. There is still a major problem with this, though. Even the fan-owned FC Barcelona are five hundred million euros in debt and still seem unable to avoid scandal. After all, it’s bloated, the fans crushed under the weight of the club they supposedly own, and it’s still in the same system as all the rest of the clubs: turnovers of hundreds of millions are required to stay at the top of the sport.
So what’s the solution? Well, take the money out of the sport altogether.
For starters, you’ll find that players genuinely go where their hearts are. Suddenly, they play for their local team – wherever they genuinely choose to live at the time. Then the spirit of community returns once again; cleaners, youth workers, volunteers, refugees, all from your local area, all playing football to represent it. And most of all: playing for fun, not for money. This is an ethos that can not be found anywhere in the professional game. And it’s not about taking us back to the days before Jimmy Hill came along; it’s taking us forward to a world where every community has its own identity and camaraderie reflected in its own football team; rather than one team for a city with the pressure of thousands of citizens resting on it, paying more entry fees than the club knows what to do with; there would instead be one team for each district, with a few hundred people supporting it from that area. This breaks up Big Football the same way we talk about breaking up Big Energy or Big Banks. It localises it once again, by taking the money out of it. Communities working cooperatively could maintain their own facilities, and team supporters could pay just enough to cover the costs, the players being their neighbours, friends, family even. There would be an accessibility and relatable quality to the players known in women’s football for now but being lost to big money as we hear stories of top stars moving away from terraced houses into fancy homes in gated communities. Teams – and their players – should represent their communities once again.
Trapped by the big business of professional football, FC St Pauli have paid over a million euros for some players – their current squad of thirty-odd, at the time of writing, featuring only eight actually from the vicinity of St Pauli’s city of Hamburg (and this is a better ratio than most!) Granted, St Pauli is the football club providing “a home for those without a home” with supporters travelling from across Europe to sit in solidarity with like-minded fans, but they’re still supporting professional football. Fans flock to St Pauli games because they are seeking something they lost in their communities back home, and I can understand that. But flying on a plane to another city to pay for players’ over-the-top wages for kicking a ball about is counter-productive and adding to the problem, not the ethical, bottom-up solution in our own backyards (and at least, worldwide, St Pauli supporters have set up their own localised versions). But at grassroots level, we are poor, because they are rich. Professional football has to go.
It’s easy for me to finally admit all of this because, as I said, I long since lost any loyalty or love towards professional football. It seems difficult to believe that, as a child, my parents took me to pub quizzes knowing I’d get all the football questions correct. Now, while obsessed with the coaching philosophies and tactical concepts of the sport itself, I wouldn’t know most top players if I bumped into them in the street. Ultimately, even before I became involved with and fell in love with AFC Unity, there were only so many times I could sit and watch wealthy men serve as the sole justification for a ticket price twice as much as it’d cost for me to sit in a warm cinema enjoying two solid hours of entertainment…even while still watching millionaire celebrity superstars like George Clooney – the movie theatre still costs less. I had this conversation with family recently when my sister pointed out, “These people are just modern-day court jesters. Why are they being paid so much?” I thought she had a point. Wow. Paid court jesters.
Let’s go back to the value of work, and the social impact of jobs that we do – as I said at the start, some jobs like cleaners and researchers and nurses and doctors have absolutely immense returns on investment; those are the very backbone of our society. There’s a great example by historian Rutger Bregman where he compares trash collectors going on strike, and bankers going on strike – the city needed the garbage collectors as they just couldn’t allow their streets to fill with waste, so they gave them a pay rise that they needed; the bankers went on strike, and nothing really happened.
Someone kicking a ball around and being paid more than the people who do those good jobs cited above is, in my opinion, utterly immoral. The USA national team’s quest for equal pay is a just cause in principle, but long-term, the aim needs to be to avoid matching men’s obscene wages and instead chopping them down to size. This is my greatest concern about the rise of the women’s game: it will be seen as a money-making opportunity to sell twice the amount of football kits at extortionately high prices, sell twice the amount of football boots made in overseas sweatshops and oppressing and exploiting other women, and ultimately, simply reinforcing an out-of-control capitalist football system.
Not one single person I have ever met in all my life has ever said they think there isn’t enough money in professional football; not one person has said they think the players need a pay rise. Quite the opposite. We all complain constantly about there being “too much money in professional football.” People passionate about soccer almost always sympathise with the losers who just happened to make a simple mistake, which is human to its core – but mistakes cost money for the powers that be, and cannot be tolerated. These fans also hate cheating in the game – but when there’s money at stake, why wouldn’t the players cheat? It’s their job; their livelihood. Getting rich means getting to the top of the sport; getting to the top of the sport means getting rich.
Who has any power to change all this? The players themselves aren’t going to ask for pay cuts; they’d be mugged in the dressing room, probably kidnapped and dumped in some unknown location. The PFA is the most powerful union in the world – and it’s the only one whose base members get filthy rich through its bargaining powers. It’s more of a mafia than anything else.
So, women’s football may well be on the rise, but in what sense? When you have women who are multi-millionaires just like the men, cheating to win, hiring the slickest of agents, avoiding taxes, signing sponsorship deals, doing bad “reality” television shows, and promoting unethical products, will we suddenly consider ourselves a fairer society when families are having their incomes slashed while having to pay hundreds of pounds to take their children to watch the big women’s game? Ticket prices are so high that you’re seeing a Norman Conquest-style transfer of wealth from poor to rich via something as silly as soccer. In this sense, professional football becomes one of the most sickening examples of capitalism.
As technology replaces many jobs – in a lot of cases, jobs we don’t want to be doing – there will be a crucial requirement for implementation of a shorter working week, and even a universal basic income, as we finally realise work was only ever supposed to be a means to an end, not the end itself. Life is about enjoying leisure activities, socialising, travelling, while also contributing to making the communities we live in and the whole world a better and fairer place. Football would be very low on the list of jobs needed (in fact, it won’t even make the list) – but it will be a valued leisure activity. With that said, it’s more important than ever that we put our money where our mouths are, turn off the television, cancel the sports channel subscriptions, choose not to renew that season ticket, and instead support grassroots football. Kick the habit, get into something much heavier, man.
Start now. Start with supporting AFC Unity’s against-all-odds mission this coming season. As the for-profit football clubs enter teams into our league, your support is more important than ever as we try to promote a different, better way of doing things. It will cost you nothing but your travel fare and maybe a lunch on the way there – and you’ll be supporting these players who make a living working hard in jobs around your community, not by playing football. The football just represents that community.
If you can’t do any of this, find a local team near you. Support it. Urge them to adopt a transparent, democratic operating structure with a sense of local ownership, a commitment to remain linked to community issues, and a promise never to ruin the team with a money motive. Help them out. You’ll find a renewed passion, a renewed sense of pride and connection to your football team, everyone involved coming from your community, by your community, for your community. It can really help begin a significant change in football, and start to set the wrong things right.
Thanks in advance, and thanks for reading.
The views expressed in “Up the Left Wing” are those of Jay Baker and do not necessarily reflect those of AFC Unity or any of its personnel or players