Leading Article: Football's leaving home. It mustn't forget its roots

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The Independent Culture
FOOTBALL LEFT home last week. Although its physical presence may remain among the narrow streets and corner shops where it grew up, its spiritual departure from the communities in which it was nourished was signalled by Manchester United's eager rush to be taken over by Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB. Other big clubs will inevitably surrender to the men in grey suits over the next few weeks, including Arsenal and Aston Villa, also founder members of the Football League, and Tottenham Hotspur.

The reaction, from those to whom a walk to their local ground was a regular act of pilgrimage, has been both fearful and emotional. In many towns and cities, particularly in the North and Midlands, a football club is the last distinctive feature in landscapes marred by identikit shopping malls, home improvement warehouses and multiplex cinemas.

The clubs also represent a link back through the generations within families, who have passed on their supporting habits to their children like a genetic code. No wonder, then, that there were tears and anger around Old Trafford as the club was metaphorically beamed into Earth orbit, ready to serve its fans in Malaysia as much as those in Manchester. No wonder there was such a sense of loss.

The sense of belonging to a local football club was as much a part of the social fabric as the milkman, or the bakery at the end of the street. Kick-off times were decided by when the shifts in the mine or factory ended to suit the convenience of the fans, not television scheduling. The players would belong in the town too, even if they had been imported from Scotland to ply their trade. They would be given a club house to live in, they would walk to training, or catch a tram. The limitations of their wage structure meant that suburban isolation was not possible. Football was on the doorstep.

Even the ending of the maximum wage in the early Sixties, and the exotic diversions of European competitions, seemed no threat. By the mid-Seventies, it was possible to find top teams still made up mainly of local players who were familiar with the area, with the clubs paternalistically run by worthies from the towns' better districts, whose qualifications were reflected by initials like JP and FCA after their names. These men did not care much for the fans - only stadium disasters, financial slumps or relegation would create a bond - but they had a patrician sense of community, and they knew football's place in it.

Now the MBAs have it. It is pointless to accuse the present generation of corporate directors of greed: the truth is that football has been saying a long goodbye to its core community for a decade. The creation of a European Super League now has an air of inevitability about it. Politically, there is a good side to it. When the drafters of the Treaty of Rome declared the objective of the "ever closer union of the peoples of Europe", it was always more likely to be fulfilled through sport than through multilingual bureaucrats in Brussels.

But we must retain what is valuable about English football, which includes the strong sense of local community, however much we accept that it is time, like a youth who has been living at home with his mum and dad for too long, for football to get out and see the wider horizons of the European market.