The Game of Our Lives: The Meaning And Making Of English Football

Here are some highlights from this 2015 book by David Goldblatt:

* Sir Richard Turnbull, the penultimate governor of Aden, told Denis Healey, then Britain’s defense secretary, that, “When the British Empire finally sank beneath the waves of history, it would leave behind only two monuments—one was the game of association football, the other was the expression ‘Fuck off’.” 1 Spoken in the mid-1960s as the last remnants of the British Empire were abandoned, Turnbull’s predictions were perhaps overly pessimistic. A case can still be made for the lasting impact of English jurisprudence, engineering, and education. The canon of English Literature may not have the demotic presence of rough Anglo-Saxon cursing, but it continues to shape the linguistic imagination of much of the world. Yet Turnbull was right to believe that among the most important legacies of nearly two centuries of global influence was a product of working-class industrial Britain. Cricket, the game of gentlemen, would leave its mark in much of the Empire, but football, the game of the people, would be present everywhere.

* Football is a complex phenomenon with family resemblances to many other cultural forms but identical to none. In its capacity to gather significant numbers of people on a highly regularized calendar, in a highly ritualized fashion, and, on occasion, to create moments of community and collective ecstasy, it has something of the church about it. Shorn of any religious dimension, it is closer to the theater. Like the cultures of music it combines a professional commercialized circuit with a huge web of amateur organizations and a great hinterland of informal play and practice. And ultimately, when seen not just as a sequence of unrelated individual matches but as the multicharacter, multilayered narrative of a season, football’s closest competitor is soap opera. On their own territory, football gives all of these activities a run for their money.
Both soap operas and professional football are significant components of Britain’s popular culture, but they are sharply separated by gender. Soaps retain a predominantly female audience and offer an infinitely more gender-balanced array of characters. Football, despite marginal shifts in the composition of its crowds and the growth of grassroots women’s football, remains an overwhelmingly masculine world. The leading British soap operas attract regular audiences that are easily in excess of most live football and collectively offer a weekly program at least as extensive as the football fixture list. Coronation Street and EastEnders , the old form of the genre, have the same kind of narrative and romantic connection to working-class urban Britain that football has acquired. The shows, like football, find themselves referenced and debated in a variety of other media, their stars endlessly featured in other contexts and their storylines taken as a sustained real-time commentary upon contemporary events. Football now manages all these and on a scale equivalent to the entire genre of soap opera. Moreover, beyond the emotionally disturbed, the soaps do not evoke collective ecstasy or carnival, nor do they provide the bedrock of collective identities. The Church, the theatre, festivals, and soap operas—football has acquired a place in British culture that exceeds them all, for it alone is the equal of each in their own domains of ritual, performance, ecstasy, and national narrative.
The sheer volume of newsprint and digital space occupied by football is the most obvious marker of the game’s ubiquity.

* Perhaps a better measure of football’s new cultural weight than the sheer volume of news output or the uncountable hours devoted to video games in bedrooms across the nation, was the degree to which the game had become the subject of other cultural forms. Television, although it had covered football for over two decades from the mid 1960s to the late 1980s, had never really explored its possibilities beyond the sports slots. Outside of highlights shows and Football Focus , there were just a handful of documentaries and one-off dramas, like John Boorman’s Six Days to Saturday or Jack Rosenthal’s comedy Another Sunday and Sweet FA . In the 1990s this changed. Fantasy Football League brought together the worlds of stand-up comedy, the chat show and football fanzine trivia, the hosts both languorous and loquacious stitching it all together from the couch. Drama departments, which had steered clear of football, dipped their toes in the water: Cheri Lunghi took on the dressing room as The Manager , in which, quite unbelievably for the time, a woman was made the coach of a struggling professional men’s team; Arthur Smith’s bitter sweet comedy A Night with Gary Lineker was hugely popular on TV and in the theater. ITV ran its sex, shopping, and shooting soap Footballers’ Wives . Sky made ten series of Dream Team, Roy of the Rovers for the Premiership era, reduced eventually to Dynasty levels of implausible plot line, death, and betrayal. 8
From almost a century of cinema up until 1990, British football had been featured in just a handful of films: the backdrop to a whodunnit in the 1939 Arsenal Stadium Mystery ; the jaunty art-house documentary Goal! —the official film of the 1966 World Cup; in the early 1980s, there was the sweetly observed teen romance of Gregory’s Girl ; and the hapless hi-concept of Sly Stallone’s Victory , Hollywood’s take on “football meets the prisoner of war escape movie.” They were all eclipsed by the short, but utterly heart-rending, football sequence in Ken Loach’s Kes , in which Brian Glover’s PE teacher treats a coaching session as a chance to regress to his inner playground bully. The last twenty years, by contrast, have seen dozens of football movies released. The Sisyphean task of bending the arc of a Hollywood script to English football culture was tried again, but both Goal! and When Saturday Comes looked clunky and clichéd. A slew of hooligan movies, drawing on the new genre of hooligan memoirs, were equally dismal. Bend It Like Beckham had the easy charm of Gregory’s Girl transported from new-town Scotland to multi-ethnic London, but was slight. Mike Bassett: England Manager —a low-budget comedy about the trials of the England manager—had its moments, but it paled beside the real thing: Channel 4’s documentary Impossible Job , which followed Graham Taylor’s final days as England manager, was cruelly funny but bathed in the most acute pathos. As with so many attempts to dramatize football, fiction has found it hard to compete with football’s own spontaneous capacity for narrative. The art-house montage Zidane , released in 2007 and produced by the Turner Prize–winning artist Douglas Gordon and French filmmaker Philippe Perreno, succeeded by abandoning abandoning narrative entirely. Only The Damned United , an adaptation of David Peace’s coruscating novel about Brian Clough and his time at Leeds United, and Ken Loach’s Looking for Eric have risen to the challenge. Loach’s film manages this by combining Mancunian magic realism with Ealing Comedy , gently telling the tale of a struggling post-office worker and Manchester United fan who sorts out his life with the help of a magical Eric Cantona, played by himself.
Neither TV nor film was ever going to bestow serious cultural capital on football. Its elevation in British cultural life owed more to the sudden engagement of key members of its male literary elite with the sport. What sporting energies had existed among British writers had hitherto been directed elsewhere, towards cricket especially, but the haul of literary encounters with football was meager. 9 In the 1980s and early 1990s this changed. Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Sebastian Faulks, Geoff Dyer, Blake Morrison, and Nick Hornby all published pieces on football. The leading literary journals, previously football-free zones, took note. Karl Miller, editor of the London Review of Books , started commenting on the 1990 World Cup in the magazine’s Diary section, while the following year Granta published Ian Hamilton’s Gazza Agonistes . 10 Literary England had deemed football a permissible topic of inquiry, but despite this rapprochement football acquired only a very marginal place in the fictional landscape, more often than not used as a jokey satirical stage, like its cameo in Marin Amis’s London Fields . 11 Rare exceptions to this have been D. J. Taylor’s English Settlement , in which money laundering at a south London club becomes entangled in a wider story about the rise of the city, David Peace’s The Damned United and its follow-up Red or Dead , which fictionalizes the football life of Bill Shankly. 12
Of all the arts, poetry’s relationship to football has been the easiest and closest, an amity facilitated by the shared interest of poets and crowds in chants, rhythm and rhymes. Three of the most significant postwar poets—Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, and Ted Hughes—all found space for football as a potent childhood memory or a telling element of the urban landscape. 13 In the last twenty years poetry and football have moved closer together. Brighton and Hove Albion made Attila the Stockbroker, the postpunk poet and troubadour, club poet in residence; Ian McMillan was awarded a similar position at Barnsley. Andrew Motion, when Poet Laureate, backed the establishment of a nationwide football laureate. 14 More substantively, Tony Harrison’s “V,” still the most significant poetic reflection on the end of industrial Britain, drew widely on the oppositional and conflictual imagery of the game. Motion’s successor, Carol Ann Duffy, wrote a poem for the nation on David Beckham’s Achilles Heel, while Simon Armitage declared that “I’d always thought of poets as the goalkeepers of the literary world.” Don Paterson, one of Scotland’s leading modern poets, framed his own poetic account of national postindustrial decline through the story of a failing football club in his long collection Nil Nil . 15
The Royal Family had graced football with their official patronage, and their actual presence on the big occasions, since before the First World War, but they had hitherto been studiedly nonpartisan. In the last decade the royal house has let it be known that Her Majesty is a fan of Arsenal, a preference inherited from her mother.

* both the archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, and the chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, were very public Arsenal supporters.

* The language of faith and salvation, miracles and curses is long established in the game, but in the absence of any real belief in the supernatural or the divine, let alone an established theology and morality, the comparison simply will not hold. What remains of religion in a secular world—and Britain has become among the most secular of societies—is the abiding need for collective energies, identities, and shared meanings. As Durkheim put it over a century ago, “The only way of renewing the collective representations which related to sacred things is to retemper them at the very source of religious life, that is to say in assembled groups . . . men are more confident because they felt themselves stronger; and they really are stronger because forces which are languishing are now reawakened into consciousness.” 7 In recent years the British public has assembled in increasing numbers, not only at football, but other sporting occasions, occasions, evangelical gatherings, carnivals, street parades, music festivals, royal celebrations, and urban riots.
Why? Secularization is not the only social change at work here. The passing of industrial Britain has thinned the great crowds that once assembled in huge workplaces and fragmented the communities of the old urban working class. There have been immense individual gains from breaking with the narrow life courses and suffocating conservatism of these communities, but as the growth of these new postindustrial crowds suggests, there is also now a longing for the communal and the public in an individualized and privatized world. Perhaps the most salient social change of all in modern Britain is the fact that we increasingly live alone.

* Eating together, our most basic common activity, has become less prevalent in households of all kinds. By contrast, we go to the football match together and not just as a single unstructured mob, but as couples, families of all kinds in various cross-generational combinations, as well as in loose skeins of acquaintance and tight networks of friends: less than 10 percent of football crowds go to the game alone. We also, increasingly, live apart. The long-term polarization in the distribution of wealth, in England, combined with the geography of the housing market and schools, has produced a society in which rich and poor, indeed every gradation of the class culture, are less likely to live and learn in a broad social mix. 9 Football, by contrast, remains a place of social mixing, where crowds gather and make space, if only for a short moment, truly public.

* John Crace described the close connection between his mental well-being and going to the football. “At the best of times the idea of milling with crowds of shoppers on the high street makes me anxious and homicidal. Yet even when I’m nuts, I feel safe in a football crowd: over and beyond a sense of common purpose. I feel as if I am in a bubble, where there’s nothing getting between me and the moment . . . there is no me: only football. It is the most perfect time off, time out from myself.”
Or Nick Hornby, depressed, on the way to the game after visiting his shrink: “I felt better, less isolated, more purposeful . . . I no longer had to try to explain to myself where I was going or where I had been.” In this guise football appears as a salve for the fragmentation of society and the psyche, for the diseases of affluence rather than the cruelties of poverty.
Finally, there is the longing for narrative, for stories that make sense. This includes the match itself, but more than that, in an era of incredible social and technological change, football offers a sense of how each match and each season fits into a wider and meaningful narrative of personal, sporting, and social history. Certainly the football memoirs and oral histories of the last two decades have often been set over the course of a whole life of watching football and structured structured around the transition from childhood to adolescence, from adulthood to middle age. They invariably track the shifts from the postwar consensus (the golden age of the terraces) to the death of social-democratic industrial Britain (the rise of hooliganism, Thatcherism, Hillsborough, and its aftermath) to the emergence of the deregulated, globalized and deeply polarized postindustrial economy of the twenty-first century (the era of the Premier League). Nearly all are afflicted by a real melancholy that entwines the coming of age with the loss of a gilded if problematic past. From the very earliest days of its new commercialism football was simultaneously serving as a giant obituary notice for the death of industrial Britain, the passing of a masculine working-class world, rough but impassioned and alive, and its replacement with the comfortable but effete bourgeois world of the high arts. As David Thomas predicts, in the Daily Telegraph:
“A decade or two from now, the roar of the crowd may well have dwindled to an appreciative murmur as upscale audiences applaud the subtle interplay of footballers moving with balletic grace.… But as dusk approaches, the ghosts of footballing legends, will look down from on high. They’ll remember the passion. They’ll think of the steam as it rose from a pulsating, shouting, singing crowd, who watched hard men play a hard man’s sport.”

* Like any imagined community, the English football nation is predominantly a mediated occasion. England’s games are, for most, a television experience. But in a telling parallel with much of the nation’s political conversation, the tone of media coverage has consistently been set by the tabloid press. Over the two decades since the 1990 World Cup the steady decline in newspaper sales, and the huge expansion of space for football in the broadsheet press as well as on TV, radio, and Internet, have diluted the impact of the tabloids, but they remain the most powerful voices. Their contribution has been fourfold. First and foremost they have consistently set the narrative arc of every tournament in which England have played. That arc runs from the generation of overinflated expectations to the splenetic recriminations and vacuous post mortems that follow defeat. Secondly, within that arc, the press have elevated the role of the England manager in the story and then pursued a highly personalized and vindictive agenda usually reserved for politicians in their sights. Thirdly, the tabloids have taken the lead in framing England’s opponents in terms of comically antiquated stereotypes. And, fourthly, as sex and violence sell, the press have gone looking for such stories. In the 1990s they simultaneously pilloried and delighted in the violence that accompanied many of England’s games, actively searching out trouble.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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