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The circus that is modern football – Hard Times, Part 3

2009 June 10
by Paul Vallely

In 1854 Charles Dickens published his novel ‘Hard Times’. It held up a mirror to the social and economic concerns of its age. What would Dickens have discovered if had attempted to do the same today when, after a period of careless prosperity, the nation has once again fallen upon hard times? In a six-part series, Paul Vallely revisits some of Dickens’s themes – work, education, poverty, escapism, emotional health and migration. This week, he asks what today fulfills the role the circus played in Victorian England – and finds that the Beautiful Game offers the same social service for our insecure age.


Mr Gradgrind had reached the neutral ground upon the outskirts of the town when his ears were invaded by the sound of music. The clashing and banging band attached to the horse-riding establishment, which had there set up its rest in a wooden pavilion, was in full bray.

Dumb with amazement, Mr Gradgrind crossed to the spot where his family was, laid his hand upon each erring child, and said: “Louisa!! Thomas!!”

“In the name of wonder, idleness, and folly!” said Mr Gradgrind, leading each away by a hand; “what do you do here?” “I was tired, father. I have been tired a long time,” said Louisa.”Tired? Of what?” asked the astonished father. “I don’t know of what – of everything, I think.”

Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

Two youths in red shirts stand statue-still, their bottles of Budweiser halfway to their mouths, as if their arms are paralysed. They stare at the unquiet American. We are in the bar at Old Trafford, waiting for the team selection to flash up on the TV screen before a match. The grey-bearded academic before them has just asked a stranger’s question of the two Manchester United fans. In response, they inquire whom he supports, except that they don’t use the word whom. “I support both Man Utd and Man City,” he replies. The drinking arms freeze in astonishment as they regard him with a mixture of bewilderment and pity.

The object of their scrutiny is Professor Cary Cooper, the psychologist who has for the past 25 years been exploring the business of stress in the workplace and how people cope with it. For many, football, he has concluded, is a key strategy for combating stress at work and in their private lives. He speaks from experience; as well as being professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, he has been a Manchester City fan for decades.

But though Cooper has become a British citizen after working in the UK for the past 35 years, the cultural mindset of his native America has, despite his professional acuity, clearly not allowed him to grasp the essential psychology of being a British football fan. Or so these two fans conclude.

“I don’t think you’ve quite got the point,” one says when he explains to them that, as a loyal citizen of Manchester, he supports both teams.

“So who do you support when United play City?”

“City… usually,” he replies.

“Ah well then…” begins the fan. But the loquacious professor interrupts. “Only this time,” he said, “I’ll be cheering for United because I want them to win the Premiership because that’s good for Manchester.”

The two Reds look at him, then at one another, and then, in the only answer possible, raise their bottles to their lips with the telepathy of synchronised swimmers.


In 1854 the novelist Charles Dickens wrote a state-of-the-nation novel, which he called Hard Times. It told the story of an industrial revolution in which ordinary people were sacrificed on the altar of a brutalising economy. In opposition to the deadening life of the Victorian factory, and the utilitarian education system that supported it, Dickens saw the visiting circus as the symbol of escape, fantasy and the imaginary Other. In modern Britain, as recession creates a new set of hard times, the contemporary equivalent of the circus is football.

High in the stand, Cary Cooper peers down on both the Old Trafford pitch and the Stretford End, which is home to the club’s most vociferous and fervent fans. United’s standard pre-match fanfare blasts at ear-splitting volume over the crowds. It is the multi-trumpet voluntary from Rocky, a preposterous piece of music, Star Wars out of Ben Hur.

“This is Rome,” the psychologist squeals delightedly as chants of “United, United” echo across the crammed 75,000-seater stadium. “It’s gladiatorial.” It is circus in the original meaning of the term. Combat to the death. By other people.

In normal times football, like any soap opera, offers an alternative to real life. It adds drama to the drab routine of the daily round. It offers a

sense of identity. It celebrates loyalty. And gives its fans a community to which they can belong. “All that is even more sought-after by ordinary folk in the alienated era of a globalised economy,” says Cooper. “And in a recession, doubly so.”

Football offers us one of the most potent of modern parables. When times are hard we feel the need for escapism more than ever. “Personally, I have found that getting immersed in football helps me escape from the everyday pressures of work,” Cooper says. “That is because the drama, raw emotion and passion – the last-minute turnarounds, the goals in the dying seconds of the game, the fact that in the FA Cup a First Division team can knock-out a Premiership club – all that is utterly absorbing.”

On the pitch below, Manchester United have just been awarded a controversial penalty. “Looked like a fair tackle to me,” the professor opines, and then continues where he left off. “Today, so many aspects of our work and daily routine are utterly predictable. Football, on the other hand, always has built into it the possibility of a spectacular piece of unpredictability.”

But it is more than that. Football offers an immediate result based on performance. That appeals to our natural sense of due order. For most of the time, in our increasingly complex world, it is difficult for most of us to discern the consequences of many of our decisions. “It might take months if not years before we understand the impact of our contribution to work,” Cooper says. “Indeed, in many jobs people never know precisely what their ‘added value’ is. But decisions reached by coaches and managers can be assessed in the short to medium term.” That is stressful, but it is also energising. And the bottom line is whether you win or not.”

On the Old Trafford turf below, Manchester United’s opponents have scored. “There you are,” he says.

Football also gifts fans a sense of something comprehendible in a world that is in so many other respects spinning out of control. “People don’t feel they have control over the big things that are happening round them,” says Cooper, “and the more the emphasis upon the global, the more disempowered the individual feels.” We may not have been able to understand the billions and trillions bandied around in discussions on how to rescue the international banking system from collapse, but we can all get our head around whether Ronaldo should go to Real Madrid, or suggest what Alan Shearer should do next at Newcastle.

Like all soap operas, football offers a containable alternative reality. It has its ups and downs, its ins and outs, its rights and wrongs, but they do not stretch the human brain beyond what it can comprehend. Unless you are a Boro fan.

“In a world where people perceive their views to count for increasingly little in the workplace and elsewhere in life,” says Cooper, “this is one arena where they can have an unfettered say. Your view is as valid as anyone else’s on why

the manager didn’t he play X instead of Y, or in insisting that he should have used 4-4-2 as opposed to one-up-front”. All that creates a little area over which we feel we have dominion at a time when the rest of life seems to be spinning out of control. The sense of control that results is an illusion, but it is empowering and affirming.

“And unlike the circus in Dickens, it’s not just about escaping from something but to something,” Cary Cooper says at half-time. The circus is a visitation by the exotic and the strange, but it’s short-term. “The circus is not about relationships. It’s about wild risk – the high wire and people putting their heads inside lions’ mouths. Today our bankers have ensured that ordinary people get enough of that in their real lives,” he laughs. “But when they enter the world of football they do not just get wild fantasy; they also get a narrative, a story, a tribe and identity.”

Cary Cooper first learnt that at Man City’s old ground, Maine Road, where he was a season ticket holder. The people who sat around him there were a mixed bunch. “One drove a bin lorry, another was an insurance broker, another a teacher and his wife, another was a sex therapist. It was a community of all ages and social classes, rather like a church.”

Another thing that football provides, he reflects, is a sense of connection that modern society has attenuated with the decline of the extended family and of fixed neighbourhoods.

How important that was became evident when the club moved from Maine Road to a splendid new ground, the City of Manchester stadium at Eastlands, which had been built to house the 2002 Commonwealth Games. Season ticket holders were allocated seats away from those they had sat next to before. They lost their neighbours. “It destroyed a lot of that sense of intimate community,” Cooper says, as the two teams return to the pitch to tumultuous cheering.

The design of the grounds make a difference, he believes. “Though Old Trafford is huge it has great atmosphere,” he says. The steep rake of the seating makes spectators feel closer to the action than in the more gentle, angled seating at Eastlands. “And the new City ground was designed as an athletics stadium, with three distinct tiers of seating, which make it harder for the contagion of enthusiasm to sweep through the crowd. For a year the atmosphere was dead, until the crowd found a way of communicating between the tiers, by throwing giant inflatable bananas, and the like, between them.”

He settles down to watch the second half. United win. Spectacular unpredictability, it seems, is not guaranteed.


There is more to community than a feeling of tribal warmth. Manchester United understand that. The club’s charitable arm, the Man Utd Foundation, organises a wide range of charitable activities. Some, like Unicef, are international; others, like the Children’s Society, are national; but many, like Francis House Children’s Hospice and the Christie Hospital, are much more local in their focus. A good deal are even nearer to home.

“We have a massive schools programme,” says John Shiels, the foundation’s chief executive, “and a lot of it is within a few miles of the ground.” In parts of Salford with reputations for serious crime the Foundation runs its “Kicks” programme for teenagers, which uses football nights as the lure for a drug awareness programme and projects to combat domestic violence.

In local primary schools it runs “Something to Chew On”, in which seven-year-olds are invited to “Design a Sandwich for Rooney or Ronaldo”. It is a basic nutrition programme, run in co-operation with the Food Standards Agency, for children in deprived areas, many of whom know nothing other than a junk food diet.

“We often begin with a lunch box inspection,” says Shiels. “One kid had brought a box of Cadbury’s Roses for his lunch; another had the left-overs of last night’s chips and beans. Some of them have never ever tasted cucumber or peppers,” says Shiels, who runs tasting sessions. Programmes to help with numeracy and literacy piggyback on many of the foundation’s projects.

“Even global clubs have to be based somewhere,” says John Williams, the former director of the Centre for the Sociology of Sport at Leicester University. He normally casts a fairly sceptical eye over the behaviour of the Premiership’s big business clubs, whose support, he believes, is “less resolute than that of some of the clubs at the bottom of the Premiership” and beneath. But he concedes that even multinational enterprises like Manchester United do a significant job in the local community.

The club’s academy for training young players plays a key role in that. “The Academy heightens the sense of belonging to a community at United, and also at other clubs which have a similar set-up: City, Everton and Middlesbrough,” says Shiels. “Local supporters follow the youth team, watching the kids play, and then progress through the reserves, all of whose games are open to supporters. For many it’s very important. From time to time at Old Trafford you will hear a cry from the crowd: ‘Get the local lads on’.” By which the fans mean not just Manchester-born players such as Wes Brown, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Danny Wellbeck, but those who are long-term products of the Academy, like the 11-times Premiership winner Ryan Giggs.


Football is not, in the end however, about winning. A bit of that is nice along the way, of course. “When we identify with a team we, as it were, acquire part of its success,” says Cary Cooper. Part of the deep attraction of football is the reflected glory of being associated with a winning club. The evidence of that is long-standing; it was many years ago demonstrated that productivity increased at the car plant at Halewood on a Monday if Everton and Liverpool had both won at the weekend. The more Britain’s influence declines on the world stage, the more Britons’ fantasies of footballing omnipotence, or mere competence some days, are needed in compensation.

But, almost by definition, a large percentage of football fans pin their allegiances to clubs that struggle or lose on a regular basis. What explanations do the experts offer for that? In part, it’s about hope springing eternal. “At the start of every season, every fan believes this may be their season,” says John Shiels at Man Utd. “After a while reality sets in. But people also derive status from their team losing. It becomes a badge of honour which says ‘following this team has cost me’.”

Cary Cooper, as a City fan, should know about that, and agrees. “There is a particular

pleasure that comes when your team is considered an underdog. It creates an extra bond because you share not only a bond of commiseration and complaining but also an antipathy to the clubs who are more successful.” Sometime passion is considered to be more important than achievement, which is why United’s crowds prefer the departing Tevez, who so evidently makes an effort, to Berbatov, whom the statistics reveal to be more productive, but who demonstrates a languor bordering on indolence in his style.

“What is being valued there, above all, is commitment and loyalty,” says Cooper. “It is an antidote to a world in general where there is less and less premium put on loyalty – particularly in the workplace where the psychological contract between employer and employee, of which loyalty and security were key, has been substantially eroded over the past two decades, a phenomenon that is getting much worse in these recessionary times.”

So valued is loyalty, he recalls, that when Manchester City were relegated to the old Second Division a decade ago, the number of fans buying season tickets actually went up rather than down. It may also reflect that streak of masochism in the English character, which we elevate to a virtue by celebrating defeat and dubbing it the Dunkirk spirit. But then a sense of history is vital to the dedicated football adept.

“What is that they are singing?” asks City fan Cary Cooper at the United game.

“We all hate Leeds scum,” I translate.

“That is extraordinary. United haven’t played Leeds for more than five years, because it’s that long since Leeds were knocked out of the Premiership. And yet that chant remains important to the United fans’ group identity.”

That’s nothing. They still sing regularly about Cantona and Matt Busby. The past is alive. At Old Trafford, season tickets are handed down from generation to generation. “The club offers a constant and a continuity that is lacking in the turmoil of a changing world and a contracting economy,” says John Shiels.


It is more even than history. One of the great clichés about football is that it has taken the place of religion in a secular society. The resonances are clear. It is much more than the fact that, as the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, wrote recently, many famous football clubs – Everton, Manchester City, Aston Villa, Bolton Wanderers, Birmingham City, Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur – have their origins in church clubs founded in the slums by vicars bent on improving the lives of the poor.

Football has taken on the appurtenances of a folk-religion too. Ritual, vestment, pilgrimage and liturgical chant (a significant proportion of football anthems are sung to hymn tunes), all in evidence in the stadiums that have become football’s cathedrals. Football has become, writes one of the more perceptive writers about contemporary religion, Andrew Brown, the way in which many people today tell stories about loss, defeat, and transience, all of which were once religious themes. Expect a rise in attendance at football matches, just as we should anticipate an increase in church attendance, Cooper suggests, as the recession deepens. Both are places where eternal verities stand in solid reminder that the trouble around us will one day evaporate. All things must pass.

The sports sociologist John Williams, at Leicester University, offers a revealing example of how individuals undergoing economic hardship use football as a way of giving meaning to life when others might succumb to despair. In the 1980s the city of Liverpool was going through tough times. Many of its inhabitants developed a sense that their city was being neglected by the Thatcher government.

“A number of Liverpool fans reacted by developing a resistance culture using football as a vehicle to take control of their own future,” he says. “They followed the team everywhere they played across Europe, travelling without paying, fare dodging, nicking into grounds for free. Supporting the club became a kind of career option. It created an alternative structure that added real meaning to their lives. The players got to know them and that added to their sense of self-worth. A couple of hundred people did this. They could have gone into crime but they chose this as their way of saying, ‘We’re bright and resourceful and we can take control of our own destiny’.”

Increased security at grounds means that is no longer a realistic option. Instead, as the nation became more affluent, and Premier League football became more expensive, the middle classes began to adopt football. Ticket prices went up. The average age of those who buy them has got steadily older, with fewer children and young people at games, eating away at the support-base for the future. The occupants of the all-seater stadiums that became compulsory after the Hillsborough Disaster became, he says, “consumers rather than supporters or fanatics”. Politicians started to talk about “their team”, as a badge of man-in-the-street credibility. All of this means many traditional working-class supporters have been priced out of the game.

“Some of the carnivalesque risk and excitement went out of it,” Williams says, “and it survives only in backstreet pubs where fans who can’t afford a season ticket watch illegal Albanian, Norwegian or Middle Eastern satellite relays of live matches. The pub has, in a

sense, reinvented the terraces. It is a place where you can watch the match, have a drink and behave as loudly as you like”.

But other changes are helping football weather the economic storm. “Women have come a lot more into the game,” says John Shiels, who was for decades a football coach before becoming chief executive at the Manchester United Foundation. “And it’s not just female fans who seem to be on the rise. Women are becoming coaches, having discovered that is an effective way to engage with their uncommunicative adolescent sons.” Football, the conversational lubricant in the emotionally constipated masculine world for generations, has become the channel of expression between mums and sons, too.

Patterns of loyalty are shifting, too.“Fantasy football has spawned new loyalties,” says the sociologist John Williams, “with individuals feeling more warmth towards clubs whose players are in their fantasy teams. Fans can now often have two teams – a local one and a super team – a Burnley and a Manchester United”. Some have a number of teams across several leagues. I met a fan on a train recently who had acquired teams in various places in which he had worked; he claimed to be, simultaneously, a supporter of Arsenal, Doncaster, Peterborough, Port Vale and Stevenage. It means, he said, he can find something on cable TV most nights in the season.


Football is not entirely immune from recession, as some have suggested. Clubs such as Liverpool have frozen their season-ticket prices, and Everton, Fulham, Manchester City, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Portsmouth, Sunderland and West Ham have all cut theirs. But Manchester United, where prices have gone up by around 50 per cent since 2005 – and where season-ticket holders have now also been compelled to buy seats for evening Cup games that many can’t attend – have pushed up the cost of theirs by £1 per seat per game. And a season ticket for one of the big four clubs can cost £1,000 each, with that figure rising to £1,800 per seat at Arsenal.

All the evidence suggests that, when times are hard, people take refuge in simple pleasures. Supermarkets know that people switch to comfort foods during a recession. But it is true of other comforts, too. All across the entertainment industry things are holding up better in recession than many expected. Down the road from old Trafford, tickets are selling well for the Hallé Orchestra.

“The box office is not bleak at all,” says its chief executive, John Summers. “Indeed, our targets are being exceeded. Last week was a record. We did six concerts in eight days at the Bridgewater Hall and played to 12,000 people. Even serious concerts like Gotterdammerung – that’s six hours over two days – sold really well. People aren’t even trading down to cheaper seats. And tickets for the two Manchester International Festival concerts we are doing with Elbow are changing hands at £500 a piece on the internet. It seems that in a recession those who have not lost their jobs feel so down that they want to go out and forget about real life.”

And if they can’t afford to go out, they need something to do at home, which explains why Sky Television, the home to Premiership football on TV, saw its revenues rise seven per cent in the last quarter. High-definition television is part of that – the number of subscribers has doubled to a million over the past year, in which BSkyB cut the cost of its Sky Plus HD box from £150 to £49 – but football is a major component of the profit, too. Fans can watch a match for around a tenth of what they would pay at the turnstile. And in the pub they watch for free.

Sometimes in a recession there comes an interesting clash between loyalty and money. That was at the centre of the saga about whether or not Carlos Tevez would stay or go at Manchester United. But by and large the two rub irritatedly alongside one another, moving in the same direction. “People won’t swap from supporting Arsenal to Tottenham just because the prices go up more at the Emirates [top season-ticket price £1,825] than at White Hart Lane [top price £1,675],” says the sociologist John Williams, “though they might go to the pub to watch, or just do something else.”

“Retail organisations would die to have the kind of relationship with their customers that we have with our fans,” the top businessman and former managing director of Arsenal Football Club, Keith Edelman, has said. “If you increased the ticket price at Arsenal, people wouldn’t like it and they’d write in and complain, but they would still pay up. In retail there’s a much less intimate relationship, so people are less likely to complain because they know they have free choice to go elsewhere. In a football environment, they don’t; their loyalty binds them to the club.” Their loyalty and, it is clear, a lot more else too. And recession may only underline that.


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