Monday, 11 February 2008
A Game for the Masses
I have mentioned before that I don't like football (soccer); but it is in my genes non the less. I am from a family of football season ticket holders; a family of amateur players - from three generations - and part time pundits; in short I am the black sheep. So I was surprised when, armed with work's new Canon EOS D400 taking a lunchtime stroll around Manchester United's home at Old Trafford, I understood what was going on.
For what was going on was in many ways a pilgrimage. The forecourt of the towering stadium was far fuller than usual (and it is usually full of tourists) but there was a notable difference. Jokes about Manchester United fans aside, there were far more Manchester people there. As we drew closer we could see there were knots of people gathered round what have become commonplace ways of marking mass sorrow: shrines of flowers. These shrines though were accompanied by football scarves tied to barriers, more usually used to control crowds on match day, scarves more often seen denoting tribal difference but now tied side by side to mark a loss fifty years ago. People were remembering the Munich air disaster that ripped the heart out of the young team known as the Busby Babes.
At one end stood an older man who looked like he had just stepped off those Busby era terraces fifty years ago: flat cap, tab dangling smoking from his lips, gaberdine rain coat. As he silently stood and mourned I resisted the cynical voice that cried out "For goodness sake it's only a game" and I wondered, as I reflected on Premiership's attempts to take football even further from people like him, by holding UK matches overseas, I wondered whether he was mourning the loss of football too.
I once met a man who played for Manchester United in the 1920s. His professional football career brought little in the way of financial reward - his cottage opposite Dobcross Band Club was earned by his factory work after leaving the game. Yet his view was that the honest slog of a lump of leather up a muddy pitch meant far more to fans then than the sanitised game that is presented now. If he were here this week I think he too would shed a tear for it seems that, if Premiership get their way what was once our national game, a game that drew all people together across the country (except me of course) will be little more than a Cirque De Soleil with balls: the sort of place you go once or twice in a lifetime to watch the expert skills of professional acrobats, rather than the sort of thing that inspires the sort of deep loyalty that brought that older man to reflect on the events of fifty years ago.
If I stroll down there in a week or so the flowers will be gone and the place will be back to normal: populated by hoards of tourists with little affiliation to the city, nor to the events that rocked my father's generation of football fans. Does it explain then, why I am more willing to stand and watch a group of local men scrabble over a ball on a Saturday afternoon at Springhead FC than I am willing to give the time of day to the football talked about at work on a Monday?
P.S. The photographs above weren't mine. The statue is Sir Matt Busby stood proudly surveying the forecourt of Old Trafford. Regular readers will guess who took them!