The Refugee Crisis and the Beating Heart of AFC Liverpool

This article is about the beating heart of AFC Liverpool – and other football clubs and supporters in the UK.  I will be talking about the beating heart of AFC Liverpool because it is doing something that the UK government refuses to do, that is, to look after some of the most vulnerable people in the world.   This is because the club engages with society with its heart.  Our club came into existence because we could feel the consequences of social exclusion (especially from the Premier League football grounds) and wanted to do something about it.  As such, we make a point of welcoming people that have been told they are not wanted elsewhere.  Welcoming asylum seekers and refugees is therefore in our DNA.  But before I write about AFC Liverpool and its beating heart I first need to provide an outline of the current world refugee crisis.  

 
#RefugeesNotWelcome: The Iron Heart of the UK

migrant media

These headlines clearly indicate that asylum seekers and refugees are not welcome in the UK.  They fuel hate and division.  The reality of the situation, however, is quite different to that presented by papers such as the Daily Express and Daily Mail as the following statistics from the Red Cross and Refugee Council indicate:

  • The UK received 38,500 asylum applications in 2016.  This was less than Germany (722,265), Sweden (83,103), and France (62,771).
  • In 2015, only 45 per cent of cases were granted asylum and allowed to stay once their cases had been fully concluded.

Gandhi once stated that the moral greatness of a nation could be judged by the way in which it treats its animals.  The same might be said for the way it treats human beings fleeing persecution in their home country.  The UN Refugee Convention of 1951 and European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) of 1953 give us an indication of how well we can judge the humanity of a society in this respect.  Article 3 of the ECHR states that “no one shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” and that, if this is the case, it is incumbent on countries such as the UK to accept asylum seekers with open arms.  This does not simply mean not ‘sending them back’.  It means accepting people into the host society in full so that they can integrate properly into their host country.  

So, how humane is Britain and does it have a heart?   

With a right-wing media that demonises asylum seekers and refugees on a daily basis and a government that makes their lives as hard as possible, Britain does not register highly on the humanity scale.  While the picture presented by the media and government makes us think that most of the world’s asylum seekers and refugees are coming to Britain the truth is rather different.   Far from being ‘swamped’ by asylum seekers, the UK barely shoulders any of the asylum burden despite the world being in the throes of the worst refugee crisis since the second world war.  In reality, poor countries (not rich western countries like the UK) look after the vast majority of the world’s refugees. The UN’s Refugee Agency estimates that nearly nine in ten of the world’s refugees are sheltered by developing countries.  For instance, last year alone Uganda welcomed 489,000 South Sudanese refugees.  In two weeks alone Uganda offered refuge to more people than Britain did all year.  Moreover, most refugees just move from one poor country to another. They actually don’t go looking for rich countries like Britain.

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It is interesting to note how Britain compares to countries such as Uganda.  At the end of last year, 39,365 asylum seekers and their dependants were being supported by the Government. To put it into starker perspective, let us consider the case of Syrian refugees.  The number of Syrians who have sought asylum in Britain since the conflict began stands at just 10,626. That’s just 0.2% of Syria’s refugees of which there are now 5.5 million.  The number of Syrian refugees resettled in Britain stands at 7,307 since the conflict began.

More generally, and from a European perspective, over 1 million people sought safety in Europe in the year to March 2017. Yet Britain received just 36,846 asylum applications, including dependants.  Thus Britain only received around 3% of all asylum claims made in the EU during last year.  Then there is the issue of the Mediterranean passage route: 362,376 people arrived in Europe via sea last year whereas, this year, 1,530 men, women and children have lost their lives during their desperate attempt to cross the Mediterranean. Just under half of arrivals in Europe were women and children.  The situation now is such that the countries on Europe’s borders – Greece and Italy – are struggling to cope with the numbers of desperate people arriving.  For this reason, European countries agreed in September 2015 to relocate 160,000 refugees away from Greece and Italy to help ease the pressure.  Britain has refused to help at all and has actually been sending people seeking asylum back to countries on Europe’s borders.  It has also refused to keep to its commitment to provide a safe haven for 3,000 “Dubs Children” from the Calais camps; only 350 were brought to Britain.  

Bogus Asylum Seekers

The idea that asylum seekers and refugees are bogus is also far from the truth.  Aside from having to deal with a government that does not want them here, asylum seekers have fled traumatic circumstances.  It is no coincidence that, at present, more than half of the world’s refugees (55 per cent) come from just three conflict ridden countries. These are Syria (5.5 million), Afghanistan (2.5 million) and South Sudan (1.4 million).  Other significant countries of origin are the conflict ridden societies of Eritrea and Somalia.  The situation in Syria is probably better known by readers so let us consider the circumstances in some of the other countries that asylum seekers are fleeing to the UK from.

Sudan and South Sudan: Sudan is an Islamic authoritarian one-party state governed by the National Congress Party.  South Sudan, which split from Sudan in 2011, is predominantly Black, traditional (animist) and Christian and governed by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).  After the 2011 split a number of territories became transitional areas leading to fighting between Sudanese government forces and SPLM/A over cattle, land and natural resources.  The Lord’s Resistance Army (a Christian group) is also active in multi-ethnic and tribal South Sudan.  Darfur is a hotspot of fighting where the Sudanese government is accused of oppression and ethnic cleansing of Darfur’s non-Arab population.  

In the contested territories both government and non-state militia forces are responsible for civilian deaths, the torching and destruction of property, and mass displacement of persons.  Government militias are also guilty of crimes against humanity, including using rape as a tool of war, systematic torture, robbery and recruitment of child soldiers. In addition a government bombing campaign has killed and maimed civilian men, women and children, displacing tens of thousand others, whilst preventing communities from planting crops and feeding themselves. Human rights activists, journalists, and others that speak out against the government, and those suspected of having links to rebel movements, are harassed, intimidated, arrested, detained and tortured.  Over 400,000 Sudanese people have claimed asylum under the 1951 convention, and another 5 million have been internally displaced as a result of the continued fighting.  Darfurians were a key element of the population in the Calais Jungle.

baby syria conflict

Eritrea:  An authoritarian state governed by the ruling Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).  Human Rights Watch has found that “torture, arbitrary arrests, detention, and forced labour are rampant in the country” against opponents of the regime.  Torture includes severe beatings, mock drowning, being hung by the arms from trees, being tied up in the sun in contorted positions for hours or days, and being held in unlit underground bunkers and in shipping containers with extremely hot daytime and freezing night-time temperatures.  Although Sunni Islam and Roman Catholic Christianity are officially recognised, members of other religions are persecuted for being ‘unpatriotic’ and a threat to national security.  Churches are regularly raided and members imprisoned and tortured (some to the point of death) so that they renounce their faith.

As a result Eritrea is one of the most notorious refugee producing countries in the world.  Yet, for the majority of 2016, the UK was failing to recognise Eritreans seeking asylum. In the first nine months of 2016, just 28% of Eritreans were granted asylum in the UK.  Significantly, 87% of refusals on Eritrean claims that have been appealed were overturned in court.  There is a good reason for this:  The Eritrean government views refused asylum seekers who return to the country as enemies of the state and treats them accordingly.  According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, refused asylum seekers who are forcibly returned to Eritrea have been arrested without charge, detained with no access to the outside world and tortured and killed at the hands of the authorities.  According to the US Government ‘Country Report for Eritrea’, many simply ‘disappear’.  It is for this reason that UNHCR has advised against refusing asylum seekers who are critical of government or are members of, are associated with, or are even perceived to be associated with, opposition political groups since they will be at significant risk of all of the above human rights abuses on return to Eritrea.

Somalia:  A country that has been at civil war since 1990 with both government and non-state armed forces seriously violating international humanitarian law.  The two most pertinent groups in the conflict are government and Al-Shabaab which is a militant Islamist group.  Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government forces routinely carry out indiscriminate attacks on civilians, arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings of alleged Al-Shabaab members.  Similarly, Al-Shabaab has carried out extrajudicial killings of suspected informers or enemy sympathisers using public executions and beheadings .  They also use torture.

There are many reasons for seeking asylum from Somalia but two key ones are as follows:  First, according to Human Rights Watch, the forced conscription of adults and children is widespread on both sides.  According to the UN, Al-Shabaab abducted an estimated 2,000 children for military training in 2010. Amnesty International have reported that almost all Somali refugees interviewed in 2010 cited the forcible conscription of children as their reason for fleeing Somalia.

Second, members of minority clans are vulnerable to attack and human rights abuses because they lack the military capability to defend themselves against the warlords and militia groups of the large clans.  Members of minority clans are particularly exposed to the risk of rape, attack, abduction and having their property confiscated.

Living Charmed Lives

The idea promoted by organisations such as Migration Watch that bogus asylum seekers would uproot themselves and put their lives at risk on the often dangerous journey to their destination countries, such as the UK, is fantastical.  The Refugee Council research report ‘Chance or Choice?’ makes it abundantly clear that the single most significant reason for asylum seeking is to escape conflict and that, moreover, the most popular reason for arriving in the UK (rather than elsewhere) is down to the role of agents rather than people themselves; although it is important to note that some people do come to the UK because they believe that their human rights will be respected.  

As we have seen, people arriving in the UK have fled the most intolerable of conditions, only to find themselves in yet more intolerable conditions when they arrive:  Asylum seekers arriving in the UK can find themselves in detention centres or living in a ‘dispersal area’ on section 95 funding which is a mere £36 each week.  Moreover, passage through the asylum system is a trauma in itself for people already suffering the traumas of conflict, forced migration and sometimes separation from family.  Despite this, less than half of asylum claims are accepted, so huge numbers of people are faced with the further trauma of having to return to their country of origin.  

So what about the actual experience of seeking asylum in the UK?  

Although many asylum seekers spend time in libraries (where they learn English) most are dependent on interpreters when they first arrive.  Yet Refugee Council research shows that these services are wholly inadequate and that this can prejudice the outcome of cases.  Meanwhile asylum seekers living in dispersal areas do so in the most hostile of conditions which have been whipped up by the right-wing British media and politicians.  Theresa May has talked about creating a ‘hostile environment’.  She has succeeded.  In the month after the Brexit vote, hate crime increased by 49% in England, Wales and Northern Ireland which the Institute for Race Relations directly linked to the xenophobic language of politicians and media.  In the aftermath of the Manchester Bomb Islamophbic hate crime increased by 500%.  Asylum seekers are frequently targets of such crime. But that is just the thin end of the wedge.  The level of hate crime is under-reported because many asylum seekers will not report hate crimes to authorities.  This is because they have a mistrust of authority given their experiences in their home country as well as their fear of attracting unwanted attention to themselves since they believe that this might lead to their deportation.  In a nutshell, asylum seekers arrive traumatised and continue to live that trauma as they make their passageway through the asylum system and everyday life in the ‘hostile environment’ of Theresa May’s UK.

The Beating Heart of AFC Liverpool

If we were to transport ourselves back to the 1970s and 1980s, when I first began to watch football, there would be no reason to believe that football could offer anything different to the society that surrounded it.  Far-right racist groups recruited inside as well as outside of football grounds and racist chanting on the terraces was common place. Football was no place for someone from another country or with skin colour other than white.  But football has changed.  After the rampant greed of the 1990s, which was set in train by the establishment of the Premier League, the 2000s have witnessed a flourishing of football ‘in the community’ initiatives.  Community work has become such a prominent feature of football, in fact, that it now merits its own slot on TV programmes such as Match of the Day.   Of course it is easy to be cynical about these initiatives, which can be as much about attracting new fans as benevolent intent.  But whatever their real reasons for existing, they do.  Non-league clubs do more than their fair share too.  

Insofar as these initiatives focus on asylum seekers and refugees the activity is mostly oriented to providing opportunities for people to play football together.  A report by Chris Stone, for Football Unites, Racism Divides shows that these opportunities to play produce many benefits in terms of well-being.  However, many of the football playing projects are provided for asylum seekers and refugees, which strengthens those communities internally but they do not necessarily provide links to social networks outside of them.  

Suffice it to say that engaging with asylum seekers and refugees is not not just about playing football. Some clubs offer tickets for matches.  Sheffield United is one of these clubs.  However, the offer of tickets is infrequent so there is little chance that asylum seekers and refugees can integrate themselves into the fan communities of clubs such as Sheffield United.  They are more likely to experience them as tourists.  

So what can we do that is different?  

I have been involved at AFC Liverpool for just over one year now and the one thing that has struck me is that the club is a space of kindness.  In this respect it defies the world that surrounds it.  People give their own time, without payment or other reward, to run the club.  The beneficiaries of this are those that attend the matches or otherwise follow the team from afar.  Our fans embody the ethos and values of the club to make it a wholesome space of generosity and kindness.  

This is not to say that the people running the club do not get anything out of it.  Friendships have been formed among board members that did not exist prior to the club coming into existence.  These friendships have emerged from a shared set of values that, at AFC Liverpool, came from a desire to provide affordable football to people that were excluded by the Premier League and a desire to “contribute to social inclusion, and reinforce collective identities, improve self-esteem and inspire”. In a nutshell, AFC Liverpool exists to “reach as many people as possible, especially minorities, excluded and under-represented groups”.

It is for this reason that we, at AFC Liverpool, were particularly aware of asylum and refugee issues.  We discussed these issues at a recent board meeting and decided to establish an asylum and refugee fan project.  The point of the project is to provide travel cards and AFC match tickets to asylum seekers and refugees so that they can attend our matches.  Unlike at Sheffield United, we hope to be able to welcome asylum seekers and refugees to all of our home games.   And, as a non-league club playing in step 5, we are a small and welcoming community.  This means that it is easy for a new face to become known, and for the new face to get to know established ones.  As such, we are hoping that regular attendance will make it easy for asylum seekers and refugees to become integrated into our community.  Just to make sure, we will be running pre and post match events to ensure this happens.  These events will use the common language, interest and experience of football to build a greater understanding of the experience of asylum seekers and refugees.

Refugee980

This integration into our fan community is important because a key issue facing asylum seekers and refugees is a lack of social networks in their host city.  Asylum Link Merseyside are concerned that this is a particularly salient issue in Liverpool.  Ultimately, we hope that we can become the community that provides links into social networks that are currently missing for asylum seekers and refugees.  In doing so, we want those asylum seekers and refugees to feel welcome in our city.  But we don’t just want them to feel welcome.  We are hoping that regular attendance will give asylum seekers and refugees a sense of true belonging in our city because, ultimately, this is what football is good at doing.  Ultimately, then, we hope that this integration of asylum seekers and refugees into the heart of the safe and friendly world of AFC Liverpool will act as an antidote to the hostile environment that Theresa May has created outside – we want people to begin to feel more safe and more secure.  So although the UK has badly failed the humanity test, we are hoping that the beating heart of AFC Liverpool will finally provide asylum seekers and refugees with the humanity that they so badly need and hoped they might find when they came here.  

Please donate to our asylum and refugee project here: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/afcliverpool4refugees

A Level Playing Field

This article was first published by myself, Chris Allen, and Mike Hodson in issue 21 of @STANDfanzine earlier this year.  

Football clubs that were historically established to support communities are now commodities that the Global super-rich trade between themselves.  These clubs have never been worth more money than they are now.  Then there are the footballers that play for the clubs. Footballers salaries have never been higher. Footballers playing in the old Division One in 1984-5 earned £25k a year compared to the average UK income of £8,890, i.e. they only earned 2.7 times more than the average fan in what was a much shorter career. Fast forward to the 2014-15 Premier League season and the average footballer wage was £1.7m compared to UK income of £27,600, i.e. they earned 61.5 times more than the ordinary fan. Meanwhile, the average basic pay of a current Manchester United first team player is £5.77m a year which is 209 times an average UK salary and the highest footballer salaries in the world.  

This is a story of growing inequality between the football industry and its supporters that mirrors growing inequalities in society. It is also a story that has its standard villains and victims.  The villains are the super-rich clubs and footballers that are milking the fans for every penny they have got.  The victims are the fans that are paying more than ever to watch football.  Many fans can no longer afford to watch it and now find themselves excluded from football grounds. This exclusion has even reached the non-league pyramid where some teams now charge around £20 for a game of football.  

But the inequalities that football is creating is not simply harming its fans.  Inequality is bad for everyone – including the super-rich.  This was the theme in a book, The Spirit Level, written by Richard WIlkinson and Kate Pickett, which shows that wealth is not necessarily a good thing. It can be a very bad thing, especially in the context of growing inequality in society. They found that wealthy societies with high levels of inequality suffered from an erosion of community and social trust, increasing anxiety and illness, and excessive levels of consumption that made all of these problems worse. There is no better proof of this malaise than if we look inside the football industry where we find that inequality is bad for everyone – rich and poor.  This is the other side of the story of inequality.  

The financial meaning of footballing success

Prior to the establishment of the Premier League in 1992, the British football world was very different. Football was much more about community than a race for riches. In his book, Thank God for Football, Peter Lupson details how some of England’s most celebrated clubs – including Aston Villa, Manchester City, Birmingham City, Bolton Wanderers and Everton – emerged out of a church and a ‘muscular Christianity’ that promoted the importance of serving others, a sense of duty and building community – albeit a Christian one.  Although a church foundation was not necessarily typical of a lot of other clubs, its community ethos was. Many other clubs emerged out of the philanthropy of employers who were equally keen to support communities – albeit, like the church, for their own reasons.  But the point of football was to build communities.  

In the old Football League system, relations between clubs were equally communal and mutually supportive.   Thus TV money and gate receipts were typically shared between clubs. This meant that the money generated by the sport was more equally shared between bigger and smaller clubs which, in turn, assured the financial health of all clubs and therefore the overall game. It also placed an unofficial cap on wages. Since football’s wealth was more evenly distributed, rather than amassed by the big few, it meant that the big clubs were unable to pay sky high wages. So the game was not only more equal. It was less excessive.  

This changed with the advent of the Premier League in 1992. The redistributive financial model of the old Football League was now abandoned in favour of a ‘winner takes all’ model of competition that only the big clubs could win. TV money and gate receipts were now greedily claimed by the big Premier League cubs for themselves. The result has been a loss of community as clubs fight with each other to access the riches on offer in the Premier League.  These riches have become more and more astronomical over time as the TV deals that the Premier League has struck with broadcasters such as Sky and BT Sport have become ever more ridiculous.  

TV money is made available to clubs through simple participation in the Premier League.  Hence play-off finals between Championship clubs are now described in terms of their financial worth to the winning team that will get to share in the riches of the Premier League. Then there are the additional benefits of final position in the Premier League table, which brings its own financial rewards. This final table position has arguably become more important than winning for some clubs. So whereas Bill Shankly once famously said that “second is nowhere” because people only remember the winners, a top 4 berth (which secures access to the additional riches of the Champions League) is now talked about in equivalent terms to winning.  This has created a situation in which some clubs are more than happy to settle for ‘second best’.  Indeed much of the criticism directed at Arsene Wenger has been on the grounds that he defines success in these very terms because the club is primarily concerned to secure access to Champions League riches rather than winning the Premier League itself.  

The failure of footballing success

This scramble for riches has created a monster; a culture in which the pressure for ‘success’ is borne by those charged with delivering it – players and managers.  These pressures for success in the football industry are so crushing that biographies of some top footballers, such as the late Robert Enke, talk about how the everyday lives of top-flight footballers are lived in fear – a fear of failure.

robert enke

Then there are those players that have not yet made it. As top players’ wages have reached extreme levels of excess, Premier League clubs have found new ways to stay one step ahead of their rivals in the footballing rat race.  Many have now built academies where young players can be ‘brought through’ or sold on. This has led to a huge increase in the football trade in children since the formation of the Premier League 25 years ago. When Saturday Comes (360) recently reported that the average age of first departure abroad for migrants is now 21 whereas the number of footballers leaving their home countries before the age of 18 has trebled between 1995 and 2015. The Premier League is the principal destination for these footballers.  

Although the dominant media story about this migration of footballers is that they negatively affect the career prospects of homegrown players, there is a hidden story. Many of these children are recruited into football having few alternative economic prospects. According to Juliet Jacques, writing in the New Statesman, bringing youngsters into strange foreign environments where they need to adapt to new cultures, as well as handle the immediate pressure to succeed, has been a recipe for mental health problems.  

Although homegrown players may have the advantage of cultural familiarity, many are just as economically dependent upon their football dream coming true as the foreigner plucked from poverty. As the recent sexual abuse scandal in football has shown, this has created a system in which powerful figures in the game have been able to abuse would-be-footballers safe in the knowledge that they have little option but to stay quiet if they want a future in the sport.  The consequences of this on players like Andy Woodward have been devastating. Yet for all the positive talk about academies, few young players make it through the to the big time.  According to the Professional Footballers Association, more than 700 players a year end up being thrown out of football in their twenties after failing to earn a new contract.

Money, success and well-being

The point is this. Professional football players have never been better paid. Even ‘average’ footballers playing in the Championship are now being paid £324,250 per year. Those in League One take home an average pay of £69,500 and those in League Two £40,350.  This compares to the national average wage in the UK of £27,600.  But the players earning these wages are not necessarily better off than the rest of us.  There is a good reason for this.  

All the social scientific evidence suggests tht wealth and success do not bring happiness, fulfillment or enhanced well being. Charles Montgomery’s book ‘Happy City’ makes this point better than most.  He quotes surveys that show that the wealthier we become, the more miserable and mentally unhealthy we are. There is no better example of this than in football. Although there have never been so many wealthy footballers, there have arguably never been so many mentally suffering.

clarke carlisle

When Tony Adams published his ground-breaking confessional autobiography, he revealed a hidden truth about the reality of life for some Premier League footballers. It was a life blighted by mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. The stories of other high profile players such as Gazza, Clarke Carlisle, Stan Collymore, Dean Windass, Kenny Sansom, Gary Speed and Robert Enke (the last two being the tragic victims of suicide) have since become well known. But what has been less well known is how common their stories are amongst all footballers. We can find this out if we consult a recent FIFPro survey which found that 38% of current professionals and 35% of former footballers have reported experiencing depression and/or anxiety. To put this in context, statistics produced by the Mental Health Foundation show that:

  • Mixed anxiety & depression is the most common mental disorder in Britain, with 7.8% of people meeting criteria for diagnosis
  • 4-10% of people in England will experience depression in their lifetime. Although other studies suggest the prevalence of anxiety and depression might be as high as 16% among the general population

Although it is difficult to directly compare FIFPro figures with Mental Health Foundation figures, they are revealing. The incidence of mental health problems in football is huge compared to society at large. Even when compared with levels of depression and anxiety amongst another population – prisoners – that live their lives in a highly pressurised and suffocating environment, footballers still fare worse. A recent Ministry of Justice study found that 23% of male prisoners suffered from anxiety and depression; much lower than professional footballers.   

All of this points to an industry with a mental health crisis. The failure is not simply that money does not bring happiness. It is that the culture of success that is driving football has created a set of industry-wide working conditions that are destroying lives; sometimes literally. This has not always been well understood in football.  

When Stan Collymore was suffering from depression whilst playing for Aston Villa, his manager, John Gregory, told the media that he was bemused how Collymore could be depressed whilst earning £20,000 per week. However, we now know more thanks to players such as ex-Portsmouth, Stoke and Cameroon striker Vincent Pericard. He found life in the Premier League pressured and overwhelming but felt there was nowhere to escape from these pressures. He was unable to talk to team-mates about his depression for fear that he might be targeted as a weak link in an industry culture that simply could not tolerate weak links when there is so much at stake.  Moreover, he could not confide in his manager for fear of being dropped, sold or putting his contract renewal at risk.  

It is not as if the money compensates footballers for the pressures. In fact, money makes it worse.  Money is, after all, a lifeless thing that society invests with almost supernatural powers to make us happy. The reality, however, is that the powers of money are superficial. As many psychological studies of consumption have shown, spending it might make us feel good ‘in the moment’ but that just covers up our myriad of problems and real needs.

Many footballers spend their excessive wealth in ways that enable them to hide from their mental health problems. They invest their riches in alcohol and gambling, which are problems that are growing amongst professional footballers. The consequences of gambling can be severe. Research published in 2013 by X-Pro (a charity run for ex-players) found that three out of five (60%) Premier League players – who earn an average of £30,000 per week – now declare bankruptcy within five years of retirement. This is a staggering figure when one compares it with figures produced by the Office for National Statistics in 2012 which show the highest insolvency rate in the UK to be 35.2 per 10,000 in North East which is 0.352%!  

Levelling the playing field

The story about Premier League monetary excess being bad for fans is well known.  But the hidden story is that it has also been bad for footballers.  Over the last few decades football clubs have been transformed from community enterprises into ruthless money making machines. They now generate excessive and obscene levels of wealth.  But with that excess wealth have come excess pressures. Real human beings have suffered the consequences. If Wilkinson and Pickett are correct that unequal societies are bad for the health of everybody – which certainly seems the case in football – then there is a greater need than ever to create a level playing field for everybody’s sake. That means a more level playing field between clubs, between footballers, and between footballers and fans. Premier League and other ‘big’ football clubs will not willingly do this themselves.  So it is incumbent on fans to vote with their feet and support forms of football that are healthy for everyone and society in general.  This is why many fans in Britain have turned to non-league football where the sense of community persists and where there is a much more level playing field. This is visible across a wide range of existing clubs, from Hyde United to Exeter City, where supporters have taken ownership. It is also exemplified by newer, fan-owned clubs, such as AFC Liverpool and FC United of Manchester; as well as so-called phoenix clubs, represented by 1883 Darlington, AFC Wimbledon, and 1874 Northwich. These clubs are not only places of resistance to the dominant, contemporary monster that football has become.  They are also imbued with the historic mission of football: to support communities and build a level playing field.  And it is on level playing fields where more healthy societies are to be found.

ENDNOTE:  If you enjoyed this article and are concerned about how football can tackle inequality and build a more cohesive and caring society, then please consider donating to my fan project @AFCLiverpool which seeks to integrate asylum seekers and refugees into the heart of a supportive non-league football fan community.  The aim of the project is to provide friendship and support to asylum seekers and refugees that feel alone and afraid in a strange country, to provide a sense of belonging, to benefit mental well-being, to build social cohesion, to tackle discrimination and to generate greater understanding of asylum and refugee issues among football fans. https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/afcliverpool4refugees

News From Nowhere: AFC Liverpool and the Reclaimation of Football, Culture and Life

Trawling the bookshelves for literature on non-league football, two books jump out at me.  Jamie Vardy’s autobiography “From nowhere” and a biography about the same footballer called “the boy from nowhere”.  Whatever the content of these books might be (and I am sure it says lots of positive things about the non-league game) their titles are disingenuous about non-league football.  They give the impression that non-league is a vacuous space to which entry via relegation is a disaster and from which escape is the only logical desire.  I beg to differ.  There is nowhere that I want to be more than in the non-leagues.  

Let me explain.

This week, we at AFC Liverpool held our AGM.  This is anything but a vacuous space. It is a space that we govern for ourselves, it is full of the meanings we give to it, and it contributes to the purpose of our lives as football fans as well as people.  These are lives that would otherwise be governed by the institutions of capitalism; at work, at home and at play.  To understand this point properly, some sociological comparisons need to be made between what capitalism offers us in the three domains of work, home and play and what we and other clubs are creating for ourselves in non-league football.   

At Work

The work ethic has always been an important feature of capitalism.  It is for this reason that the Beveridge Report of 1942 named ‘idleness’ as one of its five evils.  Work was supposed to provide people with a source of meaning and dignity.  But things have changed somewhat since Beveridge:  Prior to the 1970s control of work was shared between employers and trade unions which meant that people felt they had some control of their lives.  However, when Thatcher and Heseltine introduced the principles of ‘economy, efficiency and effectiveness’ into the civil service in the early 1980s the workplace changed forever – and insidiously so.  The corporate organisation now assumed the power to define the logic and pace of work.  But as it did so, it also began to claim control over our lives and personalities as well as our time at work.  Organisations began to cultivate our ‘entrepreneurial’ characteristics through a combination of carrot and stick.  This is because entrepreneurial characters did not need to be told what to do. They would buy into the entrepreneurial values of the organisation and, as such, would be self-governing enthusiasts for its activities.  But in allowing our ‘selves’ to be ‘bought’ in this way, we lost our soul.  

My colleague, Rionach Casey, and I wrote an article in the academic journal Work, Employment and Society in 2004 on how this process was happening amongst housing workers.  A few years later I put together a book ‘The Knowledge Business’ which similarly showed how universities were colonising the souls of academics and, in doing so, moulding them into subjects whose personalities and lives (not simply their time at work) was increasingly governed by the business ethic of the university.  So both of these pieces of work, which were based on research into the working lives of two distinct groups of people, indicated that people were losing control over their own personalities as well as their working lives.   Meanwhile, the role of entrepreneurial academics became to enhance the ‘employability’ of students rather than to straightforwardly develop their intellect.   So as E F Schumacher had predicted in his brilliant book ‘Small is Beautiful’, the most significant question of our lives, ‘who am I?’, was now being answered for us by corporate interests; and in a way that suited their need to make us ‘employable’ and compliant.  

At Home and Play

It is not as if we have any escape at home or play.  Thanks to the rampant greed that Thatcherism bred a home is no longer seen as simply a home.  It is seen as an investment.  But we have been conned because, in investment markets, only those with capital are able to invest which has meant that more and more of the housing stock is now owned by fewer and fewer wealthy people.  Meanwhile more and more young people have been left without a home and therefore without a meaningful space in their lives in which they can be themselves.  

It is not as though we are allowed to be ourselves at play either.  The Trade Union movement did not just breed solidarity in the struggle for workers rights.  Worker solidarity also found expression in culture.  For instance, Brass Bands were a key feature of the industrial landscape, especially in mining communities.  Many played classical music but in their own unique way; by creating their own Brass musical culture.  In fact, according Jonathan Rose’s book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, many miners named their children after famous classical composers.  So the point here is that working class people have always been intelligent and creative as well as in tune with a wider range of culture than sneering elites have given them credit for.  Alas, although Brass Band competition is still alive and well, the vandalisation of mining communities by Thatcher has resulted in an inevitable decline in the number of brass bands in the UK.  Thatcher did not simply destroy industries, then.  In doing so, she undermined the capacity of people to organise their own culture and leisure as, indeed, the film Brassed Off illustrated only too well.

This trashing of working class culture has been nowhere more apparent than in football.  In his book Beastly Fury, Richard Sanders describes how football was initially a passion shared between middle and working class people.  However, the middle classes began to distance themselves from football when it became a spectator rather than participation sport.  Elite groups felt that the point of sport was to play it rather than to watch it.  Accordingly, posh public schools slowly ditched football and began to play rugby; a game that (at least initially) emphasised participation over spectating.  

AFC Fans Prescott

In the meantime, watching football became an important feature of industrial working class culture.  Moreover, this was a culture that working class people, themselves, were creating. So as more and more working class people flocked to football matches in greater and greater numbers they began to create their own fan cultures – local identities, club solidarities, songs, fanzines and so on.  At this point there was a clear split:  The clubs organised the football side of things whereas the fans organised the experience of following and watching the team.  But one of the features of capitalism is the desire to create new markets and therefore profit making opportunities.  Football was soon to become a new frontier in the commodification of working class culture.

The businessmen owners of football clubs were aware of their capacity to create new markets for football as far back as the 1970s when there was much business talk in the boardrooms.  This eventually led to the creation of the Premier League which, as we all know, has repositioned fans as consumers of a product created by football clubs rather than the authors of their own fan culture.  The contemporary football fan experience is now contrived and orchestrated by football clubs with one key aim in mind – to generate business in the form of new media products, hospitality experiences, merchandise and so on.  Suffice it to say that this has not occurred without opposition.   A key reason for the relatively recent emergence of fan protest groups is their disenfranchisement; a feeling that football fans are no longer the authors of football culture but, rather, consumers of an anodyne product that is created purely to fill the pockets of wealthy football clubs.   These clubs now organise the game and the fan experience.  In other words they have colonised the lot – in the name of money.

The general point, then, is that the authorship of our lives is being taken out of our hands.  We have little or no power at work.  More and more people have nowhere to call ‘home’ – that place where we are able to create and be themselves.  And we have lost control of our own cultures (such as football) to corporate organisations that want to package it up and sell it back to us for a profit.  This brings me to another point.  It is not just that we are losing control of the authorship of our culture and lives.  We are also being individualised and therefore de-collectivised.  This is because we increasingly only exist as consumers with money in our pockets.  That is how we are treated by corporations and that is how we are encouraged to behave.   

 

AFC scarf

 

What it really means to have an AGM

At first glance, the AFC Liverpool (or any fan-owned football club) AGM might sound quite boring and even insignificant.  But it is not.  It is actually very significant because it tells a story of how groups of people are getting together to collectively reclaim the authorship of everyday life from corporations.  In fact, in holding our AGM we are subverting the rules of everyday life.  We are no longer individual consumers of football.   At the AGM, as in the life of the club as a whole, the individual is decentred from the picture because, quite simply, there is no place for individuals.  There is only the collective; the community of supporters that literally is the club and that come together to run it collectively.  

Each discussion we have, and each decision we make, at the AGM is infused with the collectivist values that we share and that we have sought to give rebirth to.  In doing so, we are offering our own resistance and challenge to a mainstream society that is otherwise hostile to collectivism (or at least it was until 8th June 2017 when it made a spectacular electoral comeback).  

One of our collectivist values is social inclusion; the idea that a sense of community and belonging in football is so important to people’s lives that it needs to be recreated to replace the working class communities that have been ripped apart by the rampant individualism of the last 40 years. We are now nearly 10 years into this project at AFC Liverpool and, so far, have managed to create a space where people that were otherwise financially and emotionally excluded from football as a result of the establishment of the Premier League have found a new home and a community of which they are an integral part.   

The ideas of ‘home’ and ‘community’ are crucial.  They bring to mind spaces that are ‘of us’ and that feel comfortable.  They are spaces that empower us to be ourselves whilst enabling us to be in a supportive environment that we share with others with whom we grow together.  Our match programme is like our community newsletter.  As such, it could not be more different to the Premier League match programme with its carefully scripted narratives about the club and where every opportunity is taken to mould us into consumers of the football club and its products.  In our AFC match programme, we are reclaiming the authorship of football and scripting our own narrative.  We write about the histories and the issues that matter to us.  We also write about our own personal experiences of football.  This means that we share our own personal experiences of football and, in doing so, reaffirm that we are part of a community of people that share our football lives with each other.  At our AGM we discussed how we could do more of this ‘community stuff’ beyond the match programme and the discussions all added up to this one thing – that we are a community.   

But it is not just about our community as it currently exists.  At the AGM we were concerned to extend as well as deepen our community; to ensure that it is as open and welcoming as possible to a wider range of people that are lost in the world of football with nowhere to go.  Young people are a case in point.  I am 47.  People of my age experienced football when it offered community rather than a product.  But young people today find themselves adrift in a world that is increasingly devoid of community and in which a sense of belonging is something to be ‘bought’ from a brand name because having the right clothes gets you access to the ‘in crowd’.  Moreover young people are excluded from watching live football; the current age demographic of Premier League fans is overwhelmingly skewed towards the over 40s.  So where are young people supposed to watch football and find community?  Well, many are finding a home in the non-league and at clubs such as AFC Liverpool and that is something we agreed to continue to work on at our AGM.  We agreed that it is our job to ensure that young people know there is an alternative to exclusion from Premier League grounds.  But it is not just about young people, of course.  We have also discussed the need to reach out to asylum seekers and refugees whereas we already work with Liverpool Homeless Football Club.  

 

AFC banner

 

All of this adds up to one key thing:  we are re-building community and, in doing so, challenging the dominance of individualism.   As I sit through the AGM, it strikes me that we are achieving some success in this regard.  This is because one of the key indicators of community is the relationships that are formed.  As I glance across the room, I recall previous conversations that I have had with the people that are here at the AGM.  Very few of us knew each other before getting involved with AFC Liverpool.  It is AFC Liverpool that has facilitated the development of our new friendships.  They simply would not exist without the club.  If you think that I am over stating the case, then ask the question ‘without AFC Liverpool, where would we be?’  Perhaps we would be at home, on our own, watching football on TV?  Or maybe we would be watching football in the pub where the primary relationship the football supporter has is with a drink and the TV rather than other people.  But we are not in either of those places.  We are at our AGM amid the relationships and friendships that we have been lucky to develop as a result of the existence of AFC Liverpool.  

So the significance of our AGM cannot be underplayed.  It is not a boring meeting.  The very fact that this meeting is happening is a triumph of creativity.  It is a triumph of a desire to reclaim the authorship of football and, indeed, our lives in general.  Gandhi argued that the powerful only have the power to direct our lives – to suit their own interests – because we allow them to have that power.  At AFC Liverpool and other clubs like us we are denying them that power.  And we are having a great time together whilst we do it.

‘61 Minutes in Munich’: Football, Racism and Howard Gayle

Howard Gayle looms large in my consciousness as a Liverpool fan.  When I was young, I had a book about the 1981 European Cup campaign and he was in it.  There were lots of photographs of him and the team playing in ‘that’ game in Munich.  They are etched in my memory.  This was before the TV football culture so I did not watch the game ‘live’.  But I remember listening to the live commentary from the Olympic Stadium via Radio City.  This is what I did every time Liverpool played in Europe.   I would sit next to my radio and tune in to the voice of Clive Tyldesley which, in those days, sounded like it was being broadcast from another planet rather than a few hundred miles away.   And although we could not watch the game live, we were later able to watch highlights of our heroes on Midweek Sports Special.  Howard Gayle definitely came into that category.  He was a hero of mine.  He only played a few games for Liverpool, including this important one, but he was magnificent that night in Munich so I was always interested in him after he left.  

 

Howard’s autobiography tells the story of his life through the lens of his 61 minutes on the pitch that night in Munich.  Having watched the first leg 0-0 draw from the Kop, he was surprised to be included in the squad to travel to Munich in the first place.  He did not really expect to get onto the pitch but Kenny Dalglish was injured after just three minutes so Howard was thrown into the action early.  He then proceeded to terrorise the Munich defence whose only coping mechanism was to pull him down.  But little had changed since Liverpool’s 1965 European Cup fiasco in Milan which, thanks to blatantly biased refereeing, denied them a first European Cup over a decade before they eventually enjoyed their maiden triumph in 1977.  These were the days in which referees still played with the home team.  So despite their careless and ruthless challenges, the Munich players escaped censure.  Howard, on the other hand, was booked for an innocuous challenge with 20 minutes to go.  Bob Paisley took him off.  Howard was now not only the first black player to appear for Liverpool.  He was also the first substitute to be substituted.  The reason?  Paisley did not trust him to stay out of the referee’s book for the remainder of the game.  He did not want to go down to 10 men.

Howard Gayle on the Wing

This one match encapsulates the key problem which blighted Howard’s football career at Liverpool and elsewhere.  He was considered a hot head with an attitude problem. The reason for his ‘attitude’ was his fierce determination to stand up to the negative attitudes and racism that were directed towards him.   A now infamous encounter with Tommy Smith is recounted in the book.  Smith directed racist abuse at Howard during training.  Others, such as Roy Evans, did too but he was forgiving of them in a way he was not of Smith.  Smith comes across as an unpleasant character that delivered his comments with meaning.  Howard gave Smith as good as he got. Smith backed down but Howard had now been labelled as someone that had an attitude problem.  

 

The reality is that Howard did not have an attitude problem.  He was deemed to have an attitude problem.  This came about because he did not neatly fit into the prevailing culture at Anfield.  This was a time when established players would routinely  ‘give out’ to each other; especially up and coming young players.  They were expected to take this abuse ‘on the chin’. ‘Taking it’ was deemed to be a sign of their mental ‘toughness’ – an indication that they were able to tough it out in places like Munich.  By reacting to Smith in this way, Howard had apparently failed the test by rising to the bait.  He was judged to have a suspect temperament.  

 

If Howard was substituted in Munich because he was considered to have a suspect temperament, this book puts that substitution, and the management attitude towards him that led to it, into its proper context.  His is the story of a person whose life has been shaped by racism and the disadvantages that racism visited on him.  He begins with the slave trade and how colonial racism affected generations of his own family.  Racism became most apparent in his own life when his family were moved from Liverpool 8 to Norris Green.  In this overwhelmingly white environment he suffered at school and was sometimes barred from entering friends’ houses by their parents.  He was now beginning to have a problem with his treatment at the hands of ‘authority’.  On top of this he then he found himself disadvantaged in the search for work when he left school.  Angered by the multiple exclusions that he was suffering, he found himself involved in crime and eventually prison.  But Howard knew he was not a bad person.  He always understood that racism and discrimination were the forces that were pushing him to the margins and thereby limiting his opportunities.  So he was going to fight it.  

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Unfortunately, Bob Paisley and other Liverpool footballers saw the ‘fire in his belly’ that led him to fight racism as a problem of temperament.  This lack of understanding of racism and black communities was a problem that permeated the club.   Bob Paisley was unhappy when Howard moved back to Liverpool 8 and was persistent in trying to get him to move out.  He saw it as an unhealthy environment.  Yet this was a stereotype based on widely held ignorance.  Merseyside’s Chief Constable, Kenneth Oxford, was the chief mouthpiece in mobilising this ignorant stereotype in the aftermath of the 1981 ‘Toxteth Riots’ when Howard was at LFC.  Oxford would tour the radio studios promulgating his poisonous view that black people in Liverpool 8 were trouble – the ‘enemy within’.  Disappointingly, Gayle recalls how his fellow Liverpool players believed what they read about this ‘black problem’ in tabloid reports of the riots.  He felt he had to correct them.  

 

Some people did listen to Howard.  Graeme Souness stands out in Howard’s autobiography as a man of intelligence and compassion who was very good to Howard.  He also emerges as the hero we all know he is.  On hearing Paul Breitner’s mocking assessment of Liverpool’s performance in the 0-0 first leg draw at Anfield, Howard says “I looked at Graeme Souness.  His eyes were wild with rage.  It was at that moment that I knew LIverpool would be the team going to Paris not Bayern”.   

 

Howard’s Liverpool career was short and finished soon after the European Cup triumph in Paris.  He subsequently had spells with Newcastle United (loan), Birmingham City, Sunderland and Blackburn Rovers as well as a short spell in the USA.  Although he also played for England under 21’s in 1984 – and was under consideration for selection for the 1986 Mexico World Cup – his lack of enthusiasm for this part of his career is blatant.  He cannot divorce the the idea of playing for ‘England’ from its colonial past.  Moreover, he has no time for nationalist ideology.  As someone that has seen England play at an international tournament, and witnessed racism pouring down from stands occupied by England ‘fans’, I can well understand his attitude here.  I can also well understand why he rejected the MBE he was offered in 2016.  On this point, Howard deserves absolute respect. He has fought racism throughout his life because it needs to be fought.  He has done so regardless of the consequences for his career.  And here he is now rejecting consecration from the very thing that celebrates the enslavement of previous generations of his family- an MBE!  Howard comes out of this as a true role model.

Gayle and Barnes Racism Red Card

All this said, it would be easy to be personally critical of players like Smith and Grobbelaar who feature in Howard’s accounts of racism.  However, Howard does not personalise the issue of racism.  For him, everything is about context.  His autobiography serves as a contextual explanation for his own so-called ‘attitude’, which was a product of the discrimination he had endured in his own life.  By the same token, he is gentle on the likes of Bob Paisley, Roy Evans and his team mates who he also understands to be a product of their own context; in this instance, a football culture in which racism was accepted.  So although Howard is critical of Tommy Smith, he well understands that the racism of footballers like Smith was a product of their cultural upbringing.  

 

Although Howard seems to be forgiving of some of the racism directed towards him, he is disappointed that only a few people were prepared to listen to him and understand where he was coming from.  Graeme Souness stands out as one of these people.  As far as many others were concerned, Howard simply had a chip on his shoulder.  Their unwillingness to listen and eagerness to label Howard – rather than confront their own racism – is less easy to forgive.  If only they had judged Howard like the had judged them; by putting him into a bit more context before rushing to apply the labels. 

At Home with AFC Liverpool

It was just like football in the old days.  Meet at 12 and we will get to the ground by 1ish.  This was the suggestion from Adrian who tells me that AFC are a few bodies down and will I come to help out?  Will I be the programme seller?  Of course I will.  So I was on the 11.38 train from Liverpool Central to Blundellsands and Crosby which, in Margaret Thatcher’s world, makes me a social failure:  “A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure”.  I am 47 this month so that surely takes me beyond redemption.  

I arrive at Dace cafe at 12 o’clock where I meet Adrian and Andy to discuss Formby’s award winning programmes (edited by Adrian) and an autobiography of non-league football fandom (courtesy of Andy).  Then it is over to the ground.  I have not been in a ground this early since I visited the San Siro and arrived about an hour and a half before kick off only to find that the Milan fans had had the same idea.  In an era when football fans now flood into the stadium 2 minutes before kick off this ranked as unusual.  But I was grateful.  Their flags, fire crackers and incessant noise kept me and my friends entertained – and in awe – until kick off.  And it surely helped the Milan team that the fans were already warmed up and raring to go when they came out to engage in Serie A battle.  

The same applied in the good old days at Anfield, of course.  My friends and I would wait outside the ground until the gates opened at 1 o’clock whereupon we would rush onto the Kop.  We would always occupy the top right hand corner as you look at the Kop from the front.  These were the days of terracing rather than allocated seating.  The fact that we claimed our own little spot on the massed terrace each week gave us a sense of ownership.  We chose it and it was our space.  It was where the convivialities of school friendships became solidarities that were aligned with something we all truly believed in – LFC. And that gave us a sense of belonging together and with LFC.  It was all a far cry, of course, from the modern system of buying a ticket several weeks or even months before a match and being allocated a seat wherever one happens to be available in the ground – next to people you have never met before and who you won’t get to know in the 2 minutes before kick off when they turn up.  

Anyway, we conclude our chatting in Dace at 1.30 and make our way to the ground which is just over the road.  As we approach the gate I see the Chairman, Chris, so I ask him if he has that AFC hoodie for me.  Alas, he has some bad news!  He put an AFC hoodie for me in the club shop but someone else has beaten me to buying it!  “Are you going to Bootle away on Boxing Day?” Chris asks.  As it happens I have already conducted that delicate negotiation with Pauline (who has released me from the first half of a family gathering to allow me to see both halves of the Boxing day match) so I indicate my anticipated presence.  Great, he will bring an AFC hoodie to Bootle for me.  

This exchange with Chris is not a straightforward commercial transaction.  It contains an act of mutuality (an ethic of doing things for each other) that epitomises what AFC Liverpool is.  And characterises what it is not.  Take the Anfield experience for instance.  People that work in the Anfield kiosks tell me how it works.  The kiosk workers are required to perform what the sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls “emotional labour”.  This is the contrived labour that seeks to engender a positive emotional state in the customer. “Enjoy your visit to Anfield” they say with a smile to the customer that has just bought their £3.90 hot dog. Their task is not only to prepare and sell the hot dog, but to make the ‘customer’ feel good about paying £3.90 for a hotdog on their ‘visit to Anfield’. Welcome to the plastic world of consumerism where everything is done to make you feel good about parting with your money.  

The AFC experience could not be more different:  This is where Officials like Chris, Adrian and Andy and the various volunteers perform a labour of love – which includes bringing a hoodie to Bootle for me!  Unlike emotional labour which is false and contrived, their labour of love is born of a true and authentic passion for what they are doing.  This becomes obvious when I enter the ground through the turnstile and stand by the programme table from which I will be selling programmes.   As I start to sell the programmes I talk to our media officer, Greg, who is selling golden goal tickets alongside me.  

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Greg tells me that he travels from West Yorkshire – where he lives – to be here.  As we talk it is obvious to me that Greg talks about his work at AFC Liverpool in a very different manner to the way he talks about the necessities of his paid work:  AFC Liverpool is the result of what Greg and the other officials have created through their own voluntary efforts.  It is a community resource that they wholly believe in.  They give up copious amounts of their time to keep the club going each season, whereas the huge amounts of passion and energy that they invest into the club define what it is.  This is a small but thriving community and, as today’s programme seller, I have a direct route into it.

Now sociologists will tell you that some communities are tight knit and unwelcoming to outsiders.  This was especially true of urban communities in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.  However, sociologists will also tell you that other communities are open and welcoming – especially communities of people that are are involved in building something that is different from what already exists in society.  

As a relative newcomer to AFC I am in a good position to judge its community credentials and which of these two types of community it is.  On the one hand, I am not an insider so I have no reason to be defensive about it.  On the other hand, I have half a season of evidence on which to draw to make a judgement about it.  But after my cafe chat with Adrian and Andy, and as I stand here chatting to Greg, I have all the evidence I need that AFC Liverpool falls into the latter category.  This is not a little brother of the Liverpool FC that tells me I am ‘welcome to Anfield’ on plastic signage and where I enter the ground anonymously using a swipe card.  Liverpool FC is a place where nobody knows that Chris Allen is there – apart from a computer that adds my ‘bum on seat’ to the overall attendance figure!  It is a place where I am just a number.  

If AFC Liverpool has any relationship at all with Liverpool FC, it strikes me that it might be an LFC Mk 1, i.e. the people’s version that preceded the corporate machine.  You could say that it is the modern manifestation of the Shankly ethic:

The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life”.  

AFC Liverpool is embodied by people like Chris, Adrian, Greg and Andy who work in the service of their community with everybody – including me – having a share in the fruits of their communal labour.  This is, in fact, the point.  Unlike the Big Men that run ‘top’ football clubs to service their individual egos, AFC Liverpool officials are servants of a community of fans that collectively reap the benefits of their labour of love in the form of an Affordable Football Club.  How else does a football club like AFC provide ‘footie for a fiver’, unless its officials are willing to voluntarily give their time and energy to running it – so that ‘everybody’ can afford to access a match day experience that would otherwise be the preserve of the consumer-with-bulging-wallet.

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Far from being the anonymous consumer I am at the modern Anfield, then, I am given a personal welcome when I arrive at AFC.  This is because AFC has a gateman – a real human being.  Today it’s Andy.  Now although the gateman is a relic of the past at the high-tech grounds of the premier league, here at AFC he is an integral part of the fabric – a key part of the welcome that makes everybody feel a part of the AFC community.  So even if AFC Liverpool could afford a high-tech turnstile system, they would have no need for it. Ultimately, the gateman is indispensable because he embodies the people ethic of the club.  He is axiomatic to what it is.  

So whenever I enter, like today, there is always a friendly exchange which usually concludes with the gateman telling me to ‘enjoy the match’.  I even remember turning up to a game earlier in the season – early in my AFC fan career – to be greeted by name:  “Hi Chris”.  I’d only been coming here for a few weeks and they had even remembered my name!  This really is a People Zone!  It is a living community.  And I am beginning to feel part of the ebb and flow of this living community as I sell my programmes.  So get this:  I am not merely ‘enjoying my visit’ to AFC Liverpool.  It feels like home.

Now when we think of ‘home’ we think of a place based on reciprocal relationships that are mutually supportive.  The time and effort that AFC Liverpool officials give to the club are its lifeblood.  But its fans are giving too.  So although the hoodie I am buying and the programmes I am selling are valued as clothing and readership material (which becomes obvious in a nice exchange that I have with one of our fans who compliments my recent contributions to the AFC match programme) they are not just for wearing or reading.  Nor are they merely merchandise or souvenirs.  They are also the means through which fans are able to contribute to their football community.  In fact, this desire to make a contribution in excess of the entrance fee is what drives a lot of people to buy programmes and golden goal tickets.  They are supporting their club.  Moreover, we also support each other’s clubs when we travel to away games.  Let’s face it, the quality of non-league match programmes is variable.  Yet even when we know the match programme of our away-day host is at the lower end of the quality scale, many of us would buy it anyway because we want to put a bit of money into the pockets of the club we are visiting.  

This is, of course, hugely ironic.  Having paid far too much for my ticket to enter Anfield, I bring my own food so that my wallet can stay firmly shut.  It is because they treat me like a consumer that I refuse to play along.  Conversely, the non-consumers of non-league football are frequently on the look-out for opportunities to open their wallets so that their clubs receive that little bit extra on top of their gate money.  So a good match programme is valued, but that is not the be-all-and-end-all.  And this should tell you everything you need to know about fans at this level:  The standard of relevance for fans of clubs such as AFC Liverpool is the contribution they can make to the football community (‘If I buy a programme then I am giving something to the club’) rather than individualistic consumer values (‘What am I getting out of this if I buy it?’).  

As kick-off approaches, we continue to sell programmes which have nearly sold out.  This is not entirely surprising because our programme is good and, today, has an article in it about ‘The Great Non-League Bake Off’ by my mate, the non-league football blogger, Mike Hodson.  But I sense that the fans are good too and that many I have sold it too would have bought it anyway – such is the supportive ethic of the non-league fan.  Anyway, with most of the programmes sold, the next big question is whether our match announcer, Alan, will return from his holiday in time to plug-in his microphone and entertain his fans.  After some anxiety about what we would do if he did not make it, he is all smiles as he walks through the gate.  Cue relief all around because we will not now need to find out how the mic works!

alan-afc

People like Alan epitomise non-league football which is full of characters that it embraces and celebrates.  Alan could not be more different to the announcers that you find at big clubs.  When Charlie and I go to watch his other team, QPR, the announcements are anodyne and patronising (“Your QPR team today is …”).  They are the ritual fare of a club that eliminates the idiosyncrasies of personality from its ‘representatives’ who must become standardised clones of the QPR brand.  

Alan, on the other hand, is a character that serenades and entertains the crowd with his eccentric, funny and sometimes risque interventions.  As I listen to his verbal interventions each week, pushing the boundaries of match announcing beyond the stale norm, he is living proof that there is nothing contrived about AFC Liverpool.  And he makes me laugh when I most need it:  “Well done West Didsbury and Chorlton.  Good luck in the next round. Take your referee with you and I’m sure you’ll go all the way to Wembley!”.  Could you imagine a premier league club match announcer broadcasting that over the tannoy following a controversial FA Cup defeat?   Not likely. But that is their loss!   As for us, Alan is back and the teams are coming onto the pitch.  Alan reads the teams out over the tannoy and it’s game on!  Meanwhile I’m in the stand behind the goal, near the top corner with Andy and Dave.  I really do feel at home with AFC Liverpool.  And this really is like the old days!