Leeds United fans know all about how it feels to have your club owned by a man who makes your teeth curl up with embarrassment, someone who has only to open his mouth to reveal the yawning cavity inside his skull. Thankfully, Bates is now consigned to the dustbin of Elland Road history – give or take an outstanding court case or two – and the club can finally look forward to a future unencumbered by the whims and conceits of an irascible and unrepentant old man. Some will mourn the loss of one of football’s “characters”, but really – with characters like that, the game would swiftly lose the plot. And anyway, it seems that there is another of the Batesian ilk, making a bad name for himself over in the Far East, in that soon-to-be City of Culture, Hull.
Hull City owner Assem Allam could be seen on the TV earlier this afternoon, simpering away to himself as his team of tigers beat Mighty Liverpool, courtesy of two wild deflections and some truly appalling Scouse defending. The atmosphere at times was really quite deafening, the Hull fans – not noted for the passion of their support – belting out “City Till I Die” in a manner calculated to rock the rafters. Allam bore the look of a man who felt he had personally inspired such vociferous support – and in a way that was true. For Allam’s pre-match comment on the song rendered with such feeling by his club’s fans was that “I don’t mind ‘City till we die’. They can die as soon as they want, as long as they leave the club for the majority who just want to watch good football.” Not the most subtle of rebuffs for those City fans who are protesting against Allam’s proposed change of the club’s name to Hull Tigers. In fact some would say that they were the words of a man disposed to let his mouth work without any apparent connection to his brain; the words, in short, of an intemperate oaf. Most unsuitable for a future City of Culture. But Allam was not content with one yobbish sound-bite. He went further:
“How can they call themselves fans, these hooligans, this militant minority, when they disturb and distract the players while taking away the rights of others to watch the football, and of companies who have paid good money for advertising?
“If they want to express their feelings they are free to do so, either outside the stadium or pay to take [advertising] space.
“Seriously, they are welcome to talk to the stadium management about buying a space for a permanent banner, 10 times as big if they want. I am a supporter of democracy. I would have no issue with that.”
The City fans have organised themselves in an attempt to stop Allam from ripping away at their traditions and history in the name of tacky commercialism. They will have noted with dismay that the Cardiff City owner Vincent Tan has succeeded against the protests of that club’s fans in changing the teams colours from blue to red, leaving them with the humiliating spectacle of their beloved Bluebirds turning out, in effect, in a strip that is a betrayal of their long-standing identity. Tan’s regime is also now threatening the future of popular manager Malky Mackay; the fans see this as a step too far and are issuing stern warnings and organising protests against such folly.
There is a growing and worrying need for sets of fans to form action groups against various pieces of arrant folly on the part of people who have bought football clubs in the evident belief that they then have the right to do whatever they like with those clubs. The model appears to be based on the franchise system common enough in the States, where owners do have this licence to operate exactly as they please, even to the extent of closing down or relocating their toys, under a new identity and perhaps thousands of miles away. That’s just too horrible to contemplate for English football and, in the absence of any obviously helpful legislation to protect traditional interests, it does seem that the fans have little choice but to band together and get militant.
The conclusion is difficult to avoid that the game in this country has taken a wrong turning in making conditions so propitious for loaded foreigners to come in, buy their trophy clubs and then, with little or no understanding of the history and social impact of those clubs, set about bending them unrecognisably out of shape. It may be that Assam is not aware of how embarrassing the Hull City supporters find it when opposing fans mock them by singing “Tigers, Tigers, rah, rah, rah!” at them. But any football fan would completely understand that kind of humiliation – so why make things worse with a complete Tigers re-branding? Does Tan at Cardiff honestly have any idea of the impact a change from blue to red has had on the fans of that club? Of the stick that the fans will have had to take from their despised rivals in Swansea? It seems doubtful that these people, flush with cash and arrogance, either know or care.
Both Hull City and Cardiff City are currently proud members of the Premier League – so things could be worse. Both are doing OK as well. But if you asked me, as a Leeds fan: would I settle for success at the kind of price being expected of fans of the two City teams – then I’d have to say, resoundingly: NO. History and tradition count for a lot in football. This new wave of minted foreign ownership is set fair to suck the soul out of the game if the trend is allowed to continue. That then becomes a national cultural issue and – surely – some Government department should be sitting up and taking notice. And really, they should be taking notice now – and thinking about some possible protective action now as well. Otherwise we will be doing the usual futile thing of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. You can’t get much more uselessly British than that.
This footballing Tale of Two Cities is a definite pointer away from the creeping, insidious growth of clueless foreign ownership – and that’s not a xenophobic stance, it just so happens that most of the new owners are not from these Isles – which probably explains their lack of appreciation of just what the game here – and the fan culture – are all about. It will be far too late to do anything about it when someone like Allam or Tan – or indeed like Bates, who proves that arrogant idiocy is not simply a matter of foreign nationality – decides that Hull isn’t a good place for a football franchise, and relocates them somewhere else entirely, with a snazzy new name to attract untapped local support. It could easily happen – who speaks then for the disenfranchised Hull City fan of fifty years faithful support?
If we did move away from the current situation, we could do a lot worse than look to Germany, and their preferred system which relies heavily upon community-involved, supporter-owned football clubs which are part of the local fabric and represent the heart and soul of the fans. It works very well in Germany, and certain clubs elsewhere – notably Barcelona – benefit from a similarly democratic and inclusive situation.
Whatever the future brings, I wish the supporters of Hull and Cardiff all the best as they struggle to retain their clubs’ identities in the face of unsympathetic ownership structures. They will need all the luck and good wishes they can get – but if they succeed, it’s good for all of us – because it would send out a definite message that every football fan of every team should endorse: You’re welcome here, Mr Billionaire, and so is your money – but don’t you dare mess about with MY club.
Perhaps then, fan power would really have found its feet and organisations like IMUSA, LUST, and the protest groups at Hull, Cardiff and elsewhere can start to exercise a real and responsible on the game in this country. That, if you think about it, is what will be needed if we’re ever to give the People’s Game back to the rightful owners. And they are of course the people – us, the fans who love football and want to see it prosper – in the right way, the proper way, the traditional way.
Not – please note – as some rich guy’s toy to play with, break and then discard as a bored and spoiled child will tend to do. Messrs Allam and Tan, and all the others – be warned.