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comment Football is about tradition, rite of passage, love...fat cat owners just want to pillage its treasures


Banners outside Anfield, protesting against Liverpool's decision to join the European Super League

Banners outside Anfield, protesting against Liverpool's decision to join the European Super League

Banners outside Anfield, protesting against Liverpool's decision to join the European Super League

IT is a cherished treasure from football's Stone Age, a memory excavated by an archaeological dig of that Neolithic pre Italia-90 era of innocence.

The weekend of our pilgrimage along English football’s lesser-travelled, earthy Camino.

A time so far removed from European Super Leagues that a wideboy called Michael Knighton had almost snatched the Manchester United title deeds for a fee that, today, might get you a one-third share of Bruno Fernandes’s big toe.

We stood on careworn terraces, scoffed greasy spoon fry-ups at old East End cholesterol palaces, lorried pints in pubs as stripped down and unadorned as the football that followed.

We watched Rochdale, Orient and Brentford, the kind of teams that to the Glazers or FSG’s John W Henry are the sporting equivalent of Hiroshima or Nagasaki: Insignificant obstacles to world domination to be nuked off the map, vaporised to enable their rapacious pursuit of every last dollar on earth.

The football was awful, the stadia ramshackle, the atmosphere menacing.

It made a sweaty Monday night in Coppers, rain teeming down outside, with barely the price of a pint never mind the taxi fare home in the pocket, seem like the last word in glamour.


Leeds United players wearing 'Football Is For The Fans' shirts

Leeds United players wearing 'Football Is For The Fans' shirts

Leeds United players wearing 'Football Is For The Fans' shirts

It was magical.

This was February 1990. Neither Sky Sports nor the Premier League was yet born. The previous month, a Mark Robins goal had famously saved a lurching, trophy-less, 48-year-old Alex Ferguson from the Old Trafford firing squad.

In the intervening years, I’ve sat in the best seats at hundreds of Premier League and Champions League matches, got paid to attend half-a-dozen World Cups and European Championships, had a ringside seat as Messi, Ronaldo and Zidane wove beautiful tapestries.

Yet that off-Broadway weekend more than 31 years ago remains framed in a favourite corner of life’s gallery of memories.


It is complex and it is simple. Seeds planted in childhood, a sense of history, a feeling of belonging.

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Why would the base metal of a hungover Sunday lunchtime at a falling-down Brisbane Road, watching Steve Perryman’s Brentford take on Orient in the old Division Three assume the properties of so many bars of gold?

What would prompt a remotely sane soul to remember an interminable Saturday afternoon cross-London journey by bus, tube and train to Selhurst Park to watch Rochdale and Crystal Palace play a forgettable FA Cup Fifth Round tie as if were some miraculous and unforgettable Thames sunset?

The answer can be partially found in Michael Calvin's gorgeous BT Sport documentary, “Ours”, a masterpiece in shining a light on the connection between even the smallest, most remote football club and its supporters.

Calvin reveals the power of that vital umbilical chord between institution and fans - the one which the Super League cleaver is determined to sever - and its value in sustaining and regulating the rhythms of so many lives.

He focuses on the individual’s eternal desire to be part of something bigger than him or herself.

To worship as a congregation, to be elevated by the quasi-religious delirium of sport's equivalent of evensong.

In this world, the local stadium is the cathedral; the pitch, the altar; the rundown terraces, pews where the faithful gather, tracing the footprints of their fathers and grandfathers (they were largely male) before them.

Football is just a small part of this ceremony of life: It is also about tradition, rite of passage, love, the passing of the baton from generation to generation.


Fans protest outside Elland Road against Liverpool's decision to be included in the new European Super League

Fans protest outside Elland Road against Liverpool's decision to be included in the new European Super League

Fans protest outside Elland Road against Liverpool's decision to be included in the new European Super League

It is the magic beyond words I felt in another country and another code the first time my father led me through the warren of Drumcondra redbricks towards the Croke Park pleasure dome.

Together in the summer of 1976, we enlisted in Heffo’s Army. And I felt taller than the Hogan Stand itself.

That profound sense of Dublin identity ingrained in me as a child lives on: Summer Sundays in Croke Park are a means of bringing lost parents back to life, of telling old stories in the same pubs, of feeling safe in the bosom of familiarity.

I’m certain it is the same for many football fans.

The fall out from a Super League, the wrecking ball it would drive through the English game, would diminish their world, narrow the parameters of their existence, strip away so many of the flavours and condiments that make the meal of life a thing to savour.

This piece is unapologetically drenched in the language of nostalgia and sentimentality, because the skyscraping passions many feel are built on those surprisingly solid foundations.

But sentiment and community and love, these are indecipherable grunts from a foreign tongue to Super League money men fluent only in the lexicon of avarice and profit and bottom line.

Their world is about hollowing out things of value, smelting down precious treasures. They are people born without a soul.

They find no value in authenticity or romance or heritage or culture.

On their coat of arms, we find nothing but fat cats and dollar signs stretching to infinity.

Here is another story from ancient times.

The heartsoar of driving (yes, simply driving) by Villa Park on a family visit to Birmingham in August 1982 remains seared into my consciousness.

Just to be in the same postcode of one of these houses on the hill actually mentioned in Shoot! (the magazine that was our childhood sacred scripture) was a source of rapture, like a biblical scholar turning a random corner and happening upon the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

I was so overwhelmed I might have cried.

Even in 1990, 21-years-old, slightly beyond the Santa Claus phase of life and not entirely a cold-house for cynicism, there was something otherworldly in being physically present in Selhurst Park that Saturday afternoon.

I was certain I could smell the cigar-smoke a bespangled, Fedora-sporting Malcolm Allison had exhaled on that same touchline all those years earlier.

At Brisbane Road, we stood maybe 15 yards from Steve Perryman, a man who had played 866 times for the Tottenham side by which I was transfixed in childhood.

Joel Glazer would likely dismiss such recollections as straying into the low share-price territory of schmaltz.

Stan Kroenke might join him in sniggering at this sepia-shaded postcard from another age; he could not imagine how a few hours at Brisbane Road, a crumbling old East End tenement that had been witness to so much banal yet brilliant history, had carried us to the stars.

John W Henry might cynically ask his JP Morgan friends how they might monetise sentiment.

I watch a lot of English football, but these days I feel very little in doing so. It is a robotic pursuit, consumption stripped of the old enchantment, an exercise that no longer touches the soul. I have not supported a team in decades.

You can recognise the necessity for change, welcome incremental progress and still be horrified by the insatiable gluttony, the nihilism, at the core of this latest attack on the last fortifications of decency.

Here are a group of fanatics – the maniacal arch zealots of corporate greed - piloting the planes of a sporting 9/11, aiming their Super League jumbo jets at the twin towers of history and heritage.

They don't care about collateral damage, they are indifferent to the centuries old stories of so many football clubs that are institutions.

Their only interest in listed buildings is to pillage the treasures within, leaving only a broken shell behind.

Their warped world view exits to line already bulging pockets by destroying so much that so many finds precious.

Or maybe that’s just the ramblings of a jaded old-timer clinging to the jetsam and flotsam of Stone Age memories.

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