The Generation Game
Many things age well. Wine, leather, beards, for example. Few things benefit quite as well from the passing of time, however, as the passing times themselves. With human beings increasingly incapable of appreciating anything until it’s at least 15 years behind them, the one thing that’s always reliably fashionable is nostalgia. Even this generation, with it’s vlogging and twerking and prime time celebrity barrel-scraping will one day be looked back on with twinkling whimsy from the neon hover-armchairs of the future. As will, in the full fogginess of time, the overhyped and overpriced world of modern football in the twenty-first century.
When the long-running Manchester United fanzine Red Issue shut down at the turn of the year, it did so in a blaze of valedictory rhetoric, a requiem for a culture lost to, in its own words, “happy-clappy families, half-and-half scarves, tourists and selfie sticks.” Its final editorial claimed the decision was not taken for financial reasons, but simply because they “couldn’t stand the stench of modern football” any longer.
It was, and is, an opinion widely shared. Liverpool fanzine Red All Over The Land chimed in, in solidarity with their archrivals. “If we’ve had anything in common, it’s the contempt we feel for the modern game,” opined its editor. In fact, despite the constant bluster and hyperbole of Sky, young fans today must often feel as their counterparts in the seventies, eighties and nineties did when the older generation kept banging on about much better everything was in the sixties.
When I first began attending football in the mid-1990s, cynicism of the now was already well-established. All-seater stadiums, the first heavy influx of foreign stars and the shiny new Premier League, with its bolshy Sky bombast and silly crowned trophy, were all seen as changes for the worse. Even the Champions League raised the hackles.They’re not all champions and it’s not a league! they said. What was wrong with the old European Cup, where you played Borussia Mönchengladbach three times and then had a final?
Growing up, I was given the distinct impression that the game I loved was nothing but a fancy, hollow shell of what it once was. A Boyzone cover of a Cat Stevens song. Now, however, with Generation Y becoming the new cultural arbiters, the nineties are held up as halcyon days. Even Andy Gray and Richard Keys are missed in some quarters, becoming Clarkson-esque martyrsaurs for the good old guard, despite being totems of the Murdoch revolution in the first place.
This is nothing new. Even the noisy terrace culture the Red Issue old guard revere was an unwelcome and intrusive one to the flat-cap-‘n’-rattle set, whose cheery, polite applause in grainy Pathé news footage seems sedate, even by the standards of today’s iPad voyeurs. A stoic generation who’d often attend the matches of their inter-city rivals would’ve likely been happier with a half-and-half scarf and a happy-clappy family than the venting, brawling and occasional piss-bottle throwing that succeeded them. Neither were perfect, but they were products of their time. The post-war forties and fifties had bred a sense of civility and unity that dissipated under Thatcherism in the seventies and eighties. The boisterous terraces were the product of an angry, disenfranchised youth, rebelling against a government that had forsaken their parents and demonised them. By the late nineties the atmosphere was calmer, both in the streets and in the stands. The prime minister was even playing unconvincing head-tennis and pretending to support a fashionable team. The kids were less angry and the grown-ups had grown up.
For all the changes in generational attitudes, though, football itself has stayed relatively consistent. Nearly every major, mooted ill of the modern game can be traced back to some golden age or other. The first superstar player was born in the sixties with Best, the first million pound transfer in the seventies with Francis – decades that are also responsible for the phenomenon of out-of-town “tourist” support. Manchester United gained a fashionable following during the Busby years, and Liverpool certainly haven’t forged their place as the country’s second most-supported club (nor the world’s sixth) from all the modern-day glory hunters desperate to be associated with their twenty-year league drought. Even the soulless corporate franchising of sides like MK Dons or Cardiff City are merely updates on the Woolwich Arsenal fandango of 1913, and the numerous colour swaps of United, Arsenal, Leeds, Juventus and more, as far back as 1902.
Where the twenty-first century has let itself down is in the speed with which it’s abandoned the common fan. Football has moved away from its roots. It is a working class game, after all, right? Except, technically, it’s not. Like all British sports, football was created by the only section of society with little better to do than sit around creating sports – the aristocracy. It was originally codified at Cambridge, by public school boys from Eton, Harrow and Westminster. When it was finally enshrined by the creation of the FA, it was done so by a solicitor, and the first official game was played near his home in the leafy London suburb of Barnes. When the working class embraced it, the rich picked up their ball and ran away, creating yet another sport in the process. But this was in itself just another generational change.
None of which is to say football should continue down its current path of gentrified globalisation unabated until every Starbucks is selling an official, Fifa-endorsed Chelseaccino or £20 Manchiato United. Nor that the rising cost of the match day experience should be dismissed as necessary, natural inflation. The German model, often held up as the standard bearer by disenfranchised fans, has proved it’s not, and needn’t be. Yet it’s achievements haven’t stopped Bayern Munich from operating similarly to its fellow elite modern clubs in England and Spain.
Football is a generation game, and many fans will always feel more of an attachment to the generation than to the game, in much the same way as there will always be a folk fan bitter that Dylan went electric, or a rock fan raging that a rapper can headline Glastonbury. Our cultural touchstones are important to us, but football has existed officially in three different centuries, and it can’t be defined by any one period. Its modern incarnation will always be rubbish to someone, but, like it or not, it’ll continue to be appropriated by all sorts of people and trends, in all sorts of places and times. Much like beards. Or wine. Or leather.