Monday, October 15, 2012

Game of two halves

Manchester: Home of the Beautiful Game?, Saturday 13th October, 3pm, National Football Museum

Words by Greg Stringer. Photograph by Roshana Rubin-Mayhew.

The two sides of the city – red and blue – are converging for the keenly anticipated 3pm kick-off in the country’s footballing capital. And this is a derby of sorts, though the lurid chants that reverberate around Old Trafford and the Etihad Stadium give way to rather more measured exchanges.

We are at that great glazed monument to sport, the National Football Museum, to hear local boys made good David Conn, a Manchester City fan, and United supporter Rodge Glass discuss our national sport. Guardian journalist David is the author of Richer Than God: Manchester City, Modern Football and Growing Up, while Rodge is the author of satirical novel Bring Me the Head of Ryan Giggs.

An appreciative audience in a fourth-floor eyrie hears Rodge Glass (below right) kick off with an exuberant description of Sir Alex Ferguson’s visit to the family home of hapless hero Mikey Wilson. It’s a scene of barely suppressed hysteria. But the excitement doesn’t last – Mikey turns out to be United’s worst-ever signing, injured and sent off after just two minutes of his debut. An embittered Mikey then reflects on how rampant commercialism has turned the sport he loves into a circus of hype and banality.

David Conn (below left) picks up the theme of grubby cash. He recalls how, driving to a recent Champions League game, he thought of the last time he’d seen City play in Europe: as a 13 year old pressed against a crash barrier on the midwinter terraces, when the crowd paid shillings to get in. Richer than God is a social history of a club transformed by oil fortunes from a team of homespun heroes to an institution of unimaginable wealth. There’s real poignancy in the description of his meeting with three former players who struggle to come to terms with the revolution wrought by Sheikh Mansour’s purchase of the club in 2008.

When chair Michael Taylor opens up the discussion, Rodge confesses that while United season tickets have been in his family since the 1940s, he has used sport in his latest novel as a template; a means to engage with the world very close up and with deep sympathy. He also insists, in answer to an audience question, that sport can be a force for good: witness the reaction to Bolton footballer Fabrice Muamba’s cardiac arrest during a televised game, or the sense of shock and sympathy in the wake of the latest Hillsborough revelations. "It’s also the greatest and most enjoyable thing I can do with the male members of my family," he says. 

David Conn says he is thrilled to be part of a generation which has turned its hand not only to more varied football fiction but also to different types of journalism about the game. For a generation with no inkling of the hardships of life during wartime, "going to the football is one of the most powerful experiences you can have". And writing about it is a privilege.

David also admits that sports journalists face an ethical dilemma: in order to chip away at the murky truths of the modern game, journalists need access to the upper reaches of power. But the corporate power-brokers only grant that access under strict conditions which journalists breach at their peril.
Insistently, the conversation returns to the ravages of commercialism. David Conn admits to a crisis of conscience about his club. It is no longer the club he loved as a boy. In fact, crucially, it was never really a club at all but a company, a vehicle for the rich to further enrich themselves. Yet this crisis was not brought about by the money men from Abu Dhabi, but by the club’s takeover by City hero Frannie Lee in the early 1990s. It was then that David realised the club was not run for the benefit of the fans. Painful indeed for someone who admits that he once, as a boy, got on all fours and kissed Lee’s TV image after a particularly important goal. Football clubs can enshrine virtues of solidarity and sportsmanship, and compel a near-religious faith in their fans. But David admits to a gradual disengagement from the club he loves because: "I don’t any longer feel that it’s my club."

Is there a point beyond which fans refuse to be pushed by big business? For Rodge Glass, Mikey will never turn his back on his team. He’s in too deep. But the absurdity of the modern game is summed up by David Conn who describes a visit to the United States to interview the new owners of one of the world’s most illustrious clubs. The Americans are watching their team being soundly beaten in a Premiership fixture and ask for an explanation of one of the more obscure rules. "I found myself explaining the offside law to the owners of Liverpool Football Club," says David. The game was up.

Greg Stringer is a civil servant and football fan.

You can read more reviews of this event, by students at the Centre for New Writing, on The Manchester Review.

No comments: