The game my father once loved

Our stadiums shimmer, the hooligans have gone and England's league rules the world. But as he recalls the Seventies, Jason Cowley cannot help feeling we've lost something along the way
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My father took me to my first football match, West Ham versus Derby at Upton Park. It was the 1971-1972 season, and the game finished a 0-0 draw.

Having listened beforehand to my father talking about the live experience of match day, I thought I knew what to expect at Upton Park: the aggression and hostility of the terraces, but also the ardour, the camaraderie, the tribalism, the rituals, the rough expressions of love. In truth, though, I was simply too young and ended up being completely overwhelmed by the intensity of the experience. The greatest shock of all – frightening in its way – was to discover just how at ease my father was among the hordes of men on the standing terrace he called the Chicken Run and how easily he seemed to lose himself in the collectivity of song and chant and synchronised movement.

He seemed to me to be a completely different man as he locked shoulders with those around him, all swaying as they sang "We're forever blowing bubbles"; so absorbed was he that it was as if he'd forgotten I was there with him even as I held his hand or tugged at his shirt.

We didn't go to football again for several years, during which time my commitment to Arsenal hardened into firm support. Although I was always pleased to spend the time with my father at Upton Park, and I loved football of any kind, I would still sometimes mount my own protests against his quiet refusal to accept that I supported another team, located in a different part of London. My protests included wearing an Arsenal shirt under my jacket to some games, or an Arsenal scarf or carrying a red Arsenal bag. My father never complained about any of this and would accept the good-natured jibing from the guys who stood around us on the Chicken Run, some of whom we got to know quite well. "Well, I've tried my best," he would say. Or: "I blame his mother!" Once I turned up at a West Ham match wearing a West Germany football shirt...

My first visit to Liverpool was with my father when I was 12. We went to see West Ham play at Anfield. Much of the rest of that afternoon is lost to me now, as are the play-by-play sequences of the game itself. What remains most vivid is the spectacle of Anfield: the reverberations, concussions, echoes and noise inside the stadium, the police patrolling the edges of the pitch, the heaving density of the massed ranks of spectators on the steep banked terraces. I remember how, as Liverpool attacked, pulsing towards goal with a rushing intensity, they seemed to sway and move as one on the Kop, in wave after wave, as if they were being sucked towards the pitch. I'd never experienced anything quite as communally intense during my visits with my father to matches in London. I didn't feel frightened or overwhelmed, as I had at the very first game I'd attended several years before. The atmosphere wasn't one of violence or intimidation, in spite of the astonishing noise.

This was the home of Liverpool, then European champions, our national club side. Surrounded by narrow streets of tight terraced housing, each one indistinguishable from the one beside it – the homes of the fans – as well as small shops and pubs, the stadium was part of a living neighbourhood. The football club was not apart from but was instead an expression of this community: for these people the love of football was an expression of the love of place. It was a form of secular worship.

Twenty-three years later, in November 2007, I was back in the city to watch football again – a Sunday afternoon Premier League match between Liverpool and Arsenal, which was also being shown live on Sky Sports. The Premier League, Sky Sports: someone waking Rip Van Winkle-like from a deep sleep would scarcely be able to comprehend the changes that have occurred in English football over the last 20 years. How, for instance, would he respond to newspaper headlines, such as this, from last summer: "Kaka set to become the world's first £1m per month player"?

Alan Smith retired from playing in the summer of 1995. It was hard for him, he says now, watching as some of his former team-mates played on for many years afterwards, with wages suddenly escalating. Those players included his old friend Lee Dixon, to whom he is no longer close. "There was a gradual upping of the salaries; £200,000 was the ceiling when I stopped playing. For me, it wasn't about money, but there were lads there of the same age enjoying football for another four or five years after I'd retired. Nowadays, the fans are much further away from the players, that distance is there... supporters can't relate to someone on a hundred grand a week. If you go to Old Trafford after a game, the players' cars – all blacked-out windows – are chauffeured around to an entrance, and then the barricades go up and the players are off. There's more envy now on the part of the fans, and you can understand that. As soon as all-seater stadia came in, it was bound to get more corporate. The atmosphere was bound to go."

Football was slow to embrace the unfettered free market. Throughout the Eighties, through much of the social and economic convulsion of that decade, when the old industrial infrastructure of Britain was allowed to decay beyond usefulness and a new spirit of entrepreneurial capitalism was at large in the country, football had remained unreformed, distinctively apart from the rest of society. During the Eighties, discussions were held intermittently between the chairmen of the so-called Big Five clubs – Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham – about the possibility of forming a new breakaway Premier Division. But these talks were motivated by commercial imperatives rather than by any disinterested attempt to remake the game for the common good. Following protracted negotiations with England's leading clubs, the Football Association published, in 1991, a document supporting the establishment of a new elite division, autonomous of the Football League.

On 27 May 1992, the 22 clubs comprising the old First Division officially broke away to establish their own Premier League, freeing themselves in the process from any formal obligation to share revenues with clubs in the rest of the Football League. The ethos of redistribution that had defined football since the foundation of the league was at an end. As if in celebration, Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB won an auction to pay £305m for the exclusive TV rights to the new FA Carling Premiership (a second four-year deal worth £670m was signed in 1997). Football, in the language of the ad men, had just become "A whole new ball game". The ownership structures of clubs were changing and some were preparing to follow Tottenham in becoming publicly limited companies; a new generation of director-entrepreneurs, led by David Dein at Arsenal, were intent on taking control of clubs away from the old established family owners.

Those first televised games on Sky were accompanied by extraordinary hype and fanfare: Monday-night live specials; dancing girls and cheerleaders; half-time entertainment (I was once at a game at which two sumo warriors, dressed in team colours, engaged in combat); brash and frenetic title credits; garish graphics and multi-dimensional camera angles. So few of us subscribed to Sky Sports in the early weeks and months of football's new deal that scarcity quickly acquired special value. Something exciting was happening to televised football and I, like many fans, wanted to find out exactly what. No matter the game – a wet night at Ewood, a bore draw at the Dell – it felt like an event in those early weeks to be watching football live on Sky in a pub or bar. Before long, ticket prices began to increase exponentially as the game sought to exclude one set of fans, the urban working class, while attracting the prosperous middle classes. By 2004, the average cost of a Premiership ticket was £40 – four times the minimum at some German or Italian grounds.

"The whole game is ridiculous now," says Jon Holmes, who was one of Britain's first sports agents and is a former chairman and chief executive of the European division of SFX Entertainments, the worldwide 'talent' agency that represents David Beckham, Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard, among many others. "I can remember on the day of the Hillsborough disaster walking away from the other semi-final and thinking that football as I know it had probably died, that I wouldn't now be able to take my son to games. It's over. Then Italia '90 came along. The BBC did it well. The Italians staged it passionately. There was drama against Cameroon, the last-minute goal against Belgium, the epic semi-final against Germany, when England were the better of two good sides. It was as if the whole nation stopped for that game. That game proved to Sky you could get a mass audience for football.

"[Gary] Lineker was popular, a different type of footballer. There was the Gazza factor. The game went upmarket on prices and this helped stop hooliganism. It's still there, of course, down in the lower divisions, where tickets are cheaper."

I was sitting with Holmes in an office he shared with the PR company Bell Pottinger in Holborn, central London. "Today the attendances are quite good, but I'm not sure about the involvement from the fans. Everyone seems to support the main teams, Arsenal, Chelsea, Man United, Liverpool. I don't think kids are going to the games, and so the relationship with the local side has gone. Too many people are buying foreigners."

Holmes conceded that as one of the first sports agents he had contributed to the inflation of players' salaries. "Look, it's a ridiculous industry; everyone pays the wrong people. The PFA are paid by the employers, the agents are paid by the club. Whose interests do they represent if they are paid by the clubs? Players think that's clever if they're not paying the agents – but they are; it's their money. Agents are no longer advisers; they are concierges, there to tell lies and get the players out of shit. It's useless now... Why should I go around lying and getting people out of jail?

"The peer culture is so dominant. We had a player I looked after who had five cars on lease but he didn't know where three of them were; they'd gone in gambling debts. There will be tragedies in this generation as too many players are used to a standard of living that will collapse once they stop playing. When Lineker (below) signed for Everton [in 1985] he was earning 70 grand a year – with bonuses, about £100,000. When Lineker went to Barcelona [in 1986, below] he was on £250,000 a year; about £350,000 when he came back to Spurs [in 1989]. He was the top earner in the country at that point."

Here was one of the game's most intelligent and influential agents estranged from a world that he and those who followed him had done so much to create.

On arriving in Liverpool, I'd booked a room at a boutique hotel on Hope Street, which connects the city's two great cathedrals: a link road between faiths, a route across the old sectarian divide. The area in and around Hope Street, with its restored Georgian buildings, has been revitalised, like so much of the city centre. I was in town for what turned out to be the first of four meetings between Arsenal and Liverpool in the 2007-08 season. Both teams had started the season well, and at this point remained unbeaten. After three years of transition, during which time Chelsea had emerged as the country's best team, Arsenal were once more mounting a title challenge. The game was thrilling; Arsenal utterly overwhelmed Liverpool with the brilliance and rapidity of their passing and movement – late in the game the centre-backs Kolo Touré and William Gallas frequently joined the attack or turned up on the wings as structures and formations dissolved and everything became more open-ended, fluid and improvised, with players interchanging positions in a demonstration of what can only be described as total football. And yet the game finished 1-1.

There was no palpable hostility between the rival fans that November afternoon, none of the expressions of mockery or regional antagonisms of old. The atmosphere was completely benign, as if the rival groups of fans were indifferent to each other. North and south: the shame is for England. No more. England no longer feels like two nations: in broad caricature, a benighted, socialist north and an affluent, more individualistic Tory south. To speak of two nations you must first have a coherent understanding of the meaning of one nation – and England today scarcely feels like a unified nation at all, hence all the wider anxious self-questioning which has become so much part of the culture. What is Englishness? Whither the British state?

London may be the capital of the United Kingdom but it feels increasingly like a quasi-independent city-state: heterogeneous, multicultural, complicated, polyglot, hugely unequal, teeming. A global city. The global city.

With the light already fading, though it was not yet 4pm, and as I waited for the players to come out and for the match to begin, I glimpsed something of what had been lost from our football culture and perhaps from society in general when most of those around me, men and women, boys and girls, rose from their seats to sing along to Gerry and the Pacemakers' "You'll Never Walk Alone".

For a few transitory moments I did not feel lonely in that crowd, as I sometimes do on match days at the Emirates when the collective hush of 60,000 people watching football can be estranging. These supporters seemed to be unified in a mystic communion that transcended the inadequacies of the present Liverpool team. Theirs was a connection extending back to Bill Shankly and the slums of Scottie Road.

Then the music stopped. The singing ended. The scarves that were held aloft were lowered. People sat down and began chatting. My incorrigible sentimentality was replaced by the hard-headed realism of fandom. There was a game to watch, a team to support.

About the author

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. To buy his latest book, The Last Game (Simon & Schuster, £14.99) for the special price of £13.49, including postage and packaging, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897.