on football, belonging, and shared, sensuous, practical activity

My experience and understanding of football has long been mediated politically. From 1999-2009 I set-up then chaired the Walsall Football Supporters Trust. In that time we sought ordinary shares in Walsall FC, and became the 10th largest shareholder at the Club. This meant we could ask questions of the Board at AGM, and in some way begin to hold the Club as a business (Walsall FC Ltd.) to account for the dialectical relationship between that business and the sporting side of the Club (Walsall Football Club), and the perceived subsumption of the latter to the former.

This dialectical relationship emerges inside a small, provincial Club that has an apparently undistinguished history, if you were to look at the books. This was revealed to me in a recent BBC Radio 5Live piece on FA Cup Third Round Day, of the greatest shocks in Cup History. Walsall’s defeat of Chapman’s Arsenal team was included as one of the top 10. Those charged with discussing this game had nothing to say about Walsall FC. Nothing to say about what this shock meant beyond framing it from Arsenal’s perspective, from the viewpoint of power. And this is the way that football is mediated for us, about who or what is in (money, status, power, bourgeois economics), and about who or what is out. And those who are out are marginalised and patronised and have no voice.

And for me this was what made the not-for-profit Supporters Trust, first as a Company Limited by Guarantee and later as a mutual, Industrial and Provident Society, so important. Through its organising principles and constitution it was designed to represent a set of community principles that anchored the football club in its locality and could then act as a vehicle for voice. This matters as much at Walsall FC as it does at Arsenal FC, where there are issues of power-over and representation that emerge in the relationships between supporters and Board, supporters and players, supporters and management, Council and Board, community and Club, and between different, representative supporter groups.

Thus, football becomes a mediation rooted in an immediacy that is cultural, historical, and material. Walsall FC sits in the shadow of local professional clubs with larger fan-bases in Birmingham, West Bromwich and Wolverhampton. Clubs that may have underachieved but which have won national and European honours. It is a Club that defines itself, intensely and acutely, as “we don’t come from Birmingham”. It is a Club that has won the Football League’s bottom division twice, being runners-up in the bottom two divisions a further six times. It has been football league play-off winners twice, League Cup semi-finalists once, and has never made it beyond the FA Cup 5th Round. It has had 36 managers since 1945.

NOTE: I fell out of love with football between 2009-11, and documented it as disillusioned Saddler.

This apparently limited footballing field of opportunity is mirrored in the Club-as-business which is effectively a small-medium enterprise, in terms of employees and turnover. This means that, in attempting to raise its profitability, and to grow its cultural and financial capital, pinch points emerge from the relationship between club-as-business and football club. These coalesced around: the controversy over the ownership of the Football Club and the land on which its stadium was built, and the sale and leaseback of the ground; the role of AGMs and supporter representation, and the relationship between Board and fans; and the perceived subsumption of Football Club’s identity to commercial interests of Walsall FC Ltd. These are, of course, natural tensions inside an institution that is mediated culturally, materially and financially. George Luckacs wrote of this in terms of conflicts of mediation and immediacy that create multiple viewpoints in tension, from the standpoint of the proletariat.

That is to say that every mediation must necessarily yield a standpoint from which the objectivity it creates assumes the form of immediacy. Now this is the relation of bourgeois thought to the social and historical reality of bourgeois society – illuminated and made transparent as it has been by a multiplicity of mediations. Unable to discover further mediations, unable to comprehend the reality and the origin of bourgeois society as the product of the same subject that has ‘created’ the comprehended totality of knowledge, its ultimate point of view, decisive for the whole of its thought, will be that of immediacy.

For supporters of a Football Club the immediate standpoint is on-the-pitch. It is “we don’t come from Birmingham”. It is “we are the pride of the Midlands”. It is “oh the lads, you should have seen their faces, going down the Wednesbury Road to see the Walsall Aces.”  It is “one step beyond”. It is this immediacy that congeals the wealth of cultural history of the football club. It is this moment that remembers that for all the apparently limited success on the field, there is belonging rooted in immediacy. For all that BBC 5Live had no way to give Walsall FC a voice in their 1933 victory over Arsenal, every Walsall FC fan holds that game in their heart. I remember my Granddad telling me that people said could hear the roars from Fellows Park miles away. And every Walsall FC supporter holds a 2-2 draw at Anfield in the League Cup semi-final against Liverpool in 1984, and a 0-0 draw away at Bury in 1995, and a 3-1 home win against Oldham in 1999, and a last minute equaliser away at Swindon in 2007, so deeply in their hearts.

And perhaps this immediate standpoint, and the contradictions that exist in the immanent relations of the football club, in the circulation of culture and history and football and money and competitive sport, are summed up by Darren Fellows in his description of Walsall FC’s unlikeliest promotion in 1999. Because he could see the multiplicity of conflicting mediations, yet he could still articulate the emotion of community and social humanity that is revealed by the concrete identification with other supporters.

In July 1998 we were nailed on 98/99 relegation favourites, had an inexperienced manager – Ray who?… Oh, and the majority shareholder and landlord wasn’t being particularly communicative with press or public nor especially sympathetic as the rent at [Walsall FC] became more and more of an issue amongst fans. Hope wasn’t as crushed as it is in 2012, but it wasn’t that much different. What happened over the next nine and a half months was as close to a miracle as you’ll ever see. Granted ultra discipline, togetherness, an unbelievable work ethic and the fact that everyone wanted to beat Manchester City all helped but Ray Graydon crafted the only team I have ever seen that was better on grass than it ever looked on paper and proved that impossible doesn’t exist. Misfits, cast-offs, those no-one else wanted and a couple of kids came together and blended to become the most efficient football team I’ve ever seen in Walsall shirts. And whilst they weren’t unbeatable, they never accepted defeat until the referee’s final whistle ensured there was no way back. They fought for themselves and each other like no other… It was, without doubt, the best season I’ve ever had Walsall FC watching… Miracles really do happen. I was there.

This brings me back to the problematic relationship between Football Club and club-as-business that emerged in the work of the Supporters’ Trust. The constitution of the Trust is rooted in collective work.

The Society’s purpose is to be the vehicle through which a healthy, balanced and constructive relationship between the Club and its supporters and the communities it serves is encouraged and developed.  The business of the Society is to be conducted for the benefit of the community served by the Club and not for the profit of its members.

The Society’s objects are to benefit the community by:

4.1 being the democratic and representative voice of the supporters of the Club and strengthening the bonds between the Club and the communities which it serves;

4.2 achieving the greatest possible supporter and community influence in the running and ownership of the Club;

4.3 promoting responsible and constructive community engagement by present and future members of the communities served by the Club and encouraging the Club to do the same;

4.4 operating democratically, fairly, sustainably, transparently and with financial responsibility and encouraging the Club to do the same;

4.5 being a positive, inclusive and representative organisation, open and accessible to all supporters of the Club regardless of their age, income, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexuality or religious or moral belief.

This is a reminder that in the face of the multiple points of mediation inside a football club, individual games, cup-runs, AGMs, cultural events at the stadium, negotiations over budgets, and so on, the football club itself acts as a moment of the production and circulation of cultural capital, through which supporters wrestle with owners and with other supporters over the ways in which it is financialised and monetised, and the ways in which that material, cultural relationship is used. And in the German Ideology, Marx highlights just how important it is to understand this interplay between power-over the capital relations that frame our existence and the production of that existence as a form of community. That we might only become ourselves through association. That Walsall FC becomes itself through its association with other football club for the means of playing football. That supporters become themselves through their collective work in creating and in remembering a cultural and material history that is not just their own, but is those of supporters of other clubs. This is why sharing the collective work of supporter ownership as a political mediation of a community asset is so important. Marx writes

The transformation, through the division of labour, of personal powers (relationships) into material powers, cannot be dispelled by dismissing the general idea of it from one’s mind, but can only be abolished by the individuals again subjecting these material powers to themselves and abolishing the division of labour. This is not possible without the community. Only in community [with others has each] individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible. In the previous substitutes for the community, in the State, etc. personal freedom has existed only for the individuals who developed within the relationships of the ruling class, and only insofar as they were individuals of this class. The illusory community, in which individuals have up till now combined, always took on an independent existence in relation to them, and was at the same time, since it was the combination of one class over against another, not only a completely illusory community, but a new fetter as well. In a real community the individuals obtain their freedom in and through their association.

I write this because I grapple with my football identity as a form of false consciousness. I grapple with its political connotations in the face of my desire to belong. How can I belong to a game that is unable to escape its misogyny? How can I belong in a game that is unable to escape its militarism and nationalism and creeping fascism? How can I belong in a game that is us and them? Yet there is something about overcoming alienation in this moment. In revealing the tensions that are immanent to the game. There are issues of power and status here, as well as belonging. And the possibility of revealing alienation and therefore of pointing beyond it. Elsewhere Marx argues:

The property-owning class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-alienation. But the former feels at home in this self-alienation and feels itself confirmed by it; it recognises alienation as its own instrument and in it it possesses the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels itself destroyed by this alienation and sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.

Where are the spaces to reveal that impotence, over the money available for players or the sale and leaseback of a football ground or the subsumption of a football club to its business-finance-relation? In this argument the alienation of the players or managers or Chief Executive or Board is lessened because of the space they have for agency and power-over activities on or off the field. Where are those spaces for supporters? These are so limited that they take the form of chanting, travelling to games, and remembering cultural and historical moments. Or they are displaced into the virtual. And in remembering Marx on Feuerbach, we might ask how these forms of displacement and disconnection that are felt by the supporter might become sensuous activity? How might they become the material of subjectivity, of community, rather than the becoming objectified and pejorative. How might we become more than “they are hooligans”, “they are misogynist”, “they are a law and order issue”?

And this matters to me because on Tuesday next week, Walsall FC have the biggest game they have ever played. This is a Club that has never played at Wembley in its 127 year history. One of only four Football League Clubs never to have played at Wembley. A club that has never won a national cup. So this becomes a game like no other. Different to a promotion because league form comes and goes, ebbs-and-flows, and you win some and you lose some. Different because, as my Dad says, “I can cope with the despair, it’s the hope that kills me”. Different because we understand our place. It is mainly in the third tier of the English Football League. It is mainly being knocked out of cup competitions early on. But it contains so many moments of history that we fight to remember and fight to renew, be they away at Bury or Liverpool or Swindon, or Gillingham. These are moments that are invisible or unknowable or unintelligible from the outside. But so rich with possibility and hope from within.

And this game in the Football League Trophy against Preston North End takes on an impassioned form of collective work, of association because of this possibility. Of collective work between players and manager and supporters and wider community that is stitched into the fabric of what the football club is and what it might be. It is the material history of the Club collapsed into one game. The relationships between the Club and its supporters, its community, its shareholders, its rivals, collapsed into one game. As Mark Jones writes:

Do it lads. For all of us, fans new and old, fans who’ve followed the club throughout all the lean times, for yourselves, for former greats who never got to take us there, for Albert McPherson and every other fallen Saddler, for the town, for our club, go on – do it.

This single game’s immediacy collapses all those other moments of mediation, so that in the moment of the game I am forced to ask whether it is possible for me to be activist and to retain my Self? How do I balance my pragmatism, my love for the game, my love for this Club, and my principle or conviction for voice? In part it is by seeing in this moment the possibility of sociability. Marx on Feuerbach argues that

The highest point reached by contemplative materialism, that is, materialism which does not comprehend sensuousness as practical activity, is contemplation of single individuals and of civil society.

The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity.

This is uncovering the potential for football as a form of sensuous, practical activity. An individual match that matters because it reveals the duality of hope and despair in this life. An individual match that matters because of our remembered stories and culture and history. An individual match that matters because it is shared, sensuous, practical activity; playing, managing, singing, despairing, hoping. This is the possibility that the game as a whole might enable some form of social humanity to emerge. The possibility that in the face of our lack of agency and power-over decisions and actions, which is revealed to football supporters on an hourly basis, I might learn to like the game again. Because I never fell out of love.