There are a lot of people who will tell you that football isn’t a sport anymore, and that it’s now a business. They’re wrong.
Sure, TV revenues veer towards the billions. Players earn thousands every day just for turning up to training. Stadiums exploit every opportunity to bring in money. But none of that is football. It’s business, business that piggybacks on the popularity of football. Nike, Adidas, even Macron – they make football their business, but they’re not intrinsic to the game. They are clothing manufacturers who thrive by creating a market around football, but that’s as close as they’ll get.
To paraphrase what Ben Jeffery wrote recently, in an article for The Point Magazine: “People love football – which is what makes it so profitable. But people don’t love football because it’s profitable. The truth is that capitalism is parasitic at its very core; it always survives off the energies of other things. In football, those other things are passion and the deeper attachments passion builds.”
You don’t buy a Leeds United pencil case because it’s the best kind of pencil case. You buy it because you love Leeds United, and this pencil case manufacturer has been wily enough to slap a Leeds badge on their wares. They’ve identified the well-spring of our passion, and dipped a spoon to have a taste. It doesn’t make them a part of football: they just feed off it.
Football clubs are still clubs for the playing, watching and enjoyment of football. It hasn’t changed, so don’t believe people who say it has. Most clubs have slapped an oxymoronic ‘PLC’ after ‘club’, sure, but like Robert Snodgrass’s appendix, if you snipped the PLC off tomorrow, the club would still exist and football would still be played.
So while there is a lot of business that is about football, football is not itself a business. The game against Millwall, and the tributes that day to Gary Speed, were a timely reminder of how that still holds true, and how great it is to be part of a football club, rather than a PLC. As a season, 2011/12 has been ruined by business: the tone has been set since the summer by the conflicts over how best the businesses that associate themselves with our football club should spend their money. The news of Gary Speed’s death ‘put football in perspective,’ for many observers; but at Leeds it also put business into perspective. And football emerged, in perspective, as far, far more important.
Billy Bremner was a footballing socialist – “Side before self, every time” – and as the tributes to Speed grew around Billy’s statue, it was fans of Leeds United Football Club who organised themselves to rise early in the cold, leaden mornings of that week to tidy the area, to make sure the flowers and shirts and messages were looked after, to make room for more. On Waccoe, the most cantankerous of internet forums, funds were raised and members deputised to design and manufacture a memorial banner that could be displayed at Elland Road – with money left over for charity. At the ground, the often obstructive stewards and staff helped willingly and enthusiastically and, later in the week, proudly hung the banner from the scaffolding around the East Stand.
Before the game, LUTV – who struggled to properly broadcast even a pre-season friendly in the summer – showed a video that did not miss a step in paying tribute to Speed’s Leeds career; eschewing their own paywall, they also put it on YouTube for all, for free. One clip used – of Speed juggling the ball towards the corner flag in 1990 – was a clear fan’s touch, a moment familiar to those of us with worn VHS memories of the promotion season and of Speed in his prime.
On the pitch, Gordon Strachan, Gary McAllister and David Batty gathered, reunited not only as friends of Gary Speed but as midfielders of Leeds United. Their grief was for someone with whom they had shared pitches and changing rooms; and particularly poignant was the return of the reclusive Batty, the player who didn’t enjoy any part of football apart from the playing. On the green grass of Elland Road was where they’d all, with Speed, been at their best, was the only right place for them all to be.
In the stands, the fans, so often afraid of being caught out as the last voice of a dwindling chant, and setting aside the recent hostile songbook, sang Gary Speed’s name with love and with gusto for eleven consecutive minutes with no fear of an accidental solo, no second thought for a sore throat or an aching lung. Fans of football, like fans of God, sing songs of praise, and Gary Speed was praised to the highest.
And Snodgrass scored a sublime free kick as Leeds United beat Millwall 2-0, and put another three points on the board for the season; although you might say that winning the match, in the circumstances, wasn’t important. But winning football matches, for a football club, is always important. When Bill Shankly said what he said about football being more important than matters of life and death he was wrong, but only because he was trying to enforce a hierarchy on three things that can’t be separated. Gary Speed would certainly have been a nice guy whatever he did in life – he might have been the best shop manager Top Man never had – but he was who he was, to us, because of football; and his death was what it was, to us, because of football. And when it came time to say goodbye, it was us, the football club’s fans, the football club’s staff, the football club’s players – past and present – who saw it done. Life, death, football: Gary Speed, Leeds United Football Club.
From The Square Ball magazine 2011/12 issue five.