Just when you thought the phrase ‘The People’s Game’ was a sick joke, football is proving that it is still the most important expression of working-class culture in Britain.
Claw through the thick slush of dirty cash and poisonous pools of rancid ambition and the solid core of decency and community still exists. The game is not yet dead.
Project Big Picture, the European Super League and pay-per-view fixtures reek of greed but Marcus Rashford is the flagbearer for thousands of supporters whose concern goes far beyond results or positions in the table.
Rashford is leading the campaign to alleviate child hunger and fans of Premier League clubs whose teams feature on pay-per-view television have committed the £14.95 fee to charity rather than pay to watch the matches.
Newcastle United and Manchester United supporters were the first to spurn the extra screenings and the Liverpool vs Sheffield United fixture on Saturday raised more than £120,000 to feed struggling families. Some of the pay-per-view programmes drew shockingly small audiences, in one case barely creeping towards 100 subscribers.
The Premier League will reassess the scheme today and are likely to reduce the price to £10 but their u-turn should not be applauded. Even to institute such a plan showed how badly the ruling body misread the situation.
It goes beyond taking supporters for granted: it reflects the breathtaking contempt for fans that exists in some boardrooms. Those who believe followers of clubs are so fanatical that they will accept any indignity should realise that lines have been crossed.
There is a limit to devotion, especially when the coronavirus crisis has highlighted structural flaws in society.
Project Big Picture had some enticing suggestions. A restructure of the financial basis of the Premier League and EFL is needed urgently and a redistribution of wealth essential to safeguard the pyramid. The attempt to condense the power to steer the game around nine clubs was a fundamental flaw in the blueprint for the future.
John W Henry, Liverpool’s principal owner and one of the main architects of the plan, is stewing with frustration in Boston and still eager to engage with ideas on the subject. Perhaps he needs to reverse the telescope.
Focus on the little picture, and start by protecting the most vulnerable sectors of the sport and worry less about grabbing control. Great leaders work by consensus. Attempting to create bloc votes of the elite to dictate to the majority will always be met with resistance.
If Henry and Joel Glazer do have the vision to fashion a sustainable future, the best way forward is to build trust rather than railroad their ideas through while reluctant and voiceless clubs plot in the background. Project Big Picture will resurface in another form but unless there is a radical rethink the status quo will remain, a situation that helps no one.
European Super League ideas emerge from the muck at regular intervals. This latest version is no more palatable than any of the previous incarnations. Change is coming, though, and soon. The revamp of the Champions League will happen in 2024.
Some sort of framework needs to be produced in the next few months so that a broadcast deal can be negotiated. Again, the superclubs feel that their status needs to be protected. They care nothing for the spirit of competition, unless it is between themselves.
What we will get in four years will not be a European Super League but it may be a staging post towards it. Do fans want it? No. Do the broadcast giants dream of weekly megashowdowns that global consumers would gobble up on pay-per-view? Yes.
The prognosis is not good for The People’s Game but, in this most difficult of summers, the heart has been lifted not by sweeping moves, individual moments of skill or stunning goals but by those who reclaimed the spirit of the sport.
The players, so often derided as overpaid prima donnas, have risen to the challenge of these troubled times. Rashford is not the only one. Jordan Henderson rallied his top-flight colleagues to raise money for the NHS as the first wave of the pandemic took hold.
Raheem Sterling was a clarion voice against racism and the Manchester City forward is now setting up a foundation to help the disadvantaged. His words resonate with sincerity and are eloquent with compassion.
“I’m not really fussed about having this million and that million,” he said. “What will make me happy is seeing I am able to help. Even if it’s five people, even if it’s one, at least I have helped someone come out of their bubble and experience that there is something better to England.”
There is something better to England. Fan culture has once again emerged with credit, showing that, despite the lingering mythology of hooliganism and terrace nihilism, supporters understand that togetherness transcends allegiance.
They know that there is more to unity than a shared chant. Many have dug deep into their pockets to contribute to the needy. The motto of Fans Supporting Foodbanks is ‘Hunger Doesn’t Wear Club Colours.’
All 20 top-flight fans’ groups joined the boycott of pay-per-view. From Newcastle to Brighton the message is clear: supporters are the soul of the sport and they can and will act as a community when necessary.
Will those who drafted Project Big Picture and the European Super League conspirators take the correct lesson from the boycott?
They may look at the figures generated by the likes of West Brom-Burnley last week and Brighton-West Brom last night and decide that the low takeup was more about the appeal of the clubs involved than anger at pay-per-view. It might just confirm some biases that the less glamorous teams are disposable. That would be a huge mistake. The solidarity among Burnley, Brighton and West Brom supporters is the reason for the lack of viewers.
The thought of players and fans as activists causes palpitations in the corridors of power. Rashford has exposed the hypocrisy and vileness of this government.
In a manner Labour politicians can merely envy. Supposedly insignificant, ordinary men and women have forced the Premier League into retreat over pay-per-view and sent a signal to Downing Street that the nation will not countenance child hunger. Football has been the platform for a shift in political momentum.
The people have not yet lost their grip on the game. Not by a long shot.