“The socialism I believe in,” said the legendary Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly, “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.” He is no doubt turning in his grave over the plight of his former club, whose future is now in the hands of crisis-ridden banks.
Shankly’s sentiments, common enough amongst football fans through time, have long been side-lined and ignored as big money and even bigger egos have taken a grip on the clubs at the top of the game and steered them away from their historic roots into a very dangerous place – the capitalist market place.
Premier league clubs alone are in debt to the banks to the tune of £3 billion; the situation in the lower professional divisions is even more critical. The total debts of these clubs is over £400m. Many clubs in the lower divisions are in hock to the tax authorities and could go bust at any time.
Liverpool and Manchester United have debts of £350m and £650m respectively. Their new American owners in both cases are extracting large sums from the clubs just to finance the buying of them in the first place. It is by no means certain that Liverpool’s owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, will be able to extend or re-finance their loan with their bankers, the troubled RBS, in January. Everton, with debts of around £60m, is up for sale, but so far there are no takers.
It is possible that with TV money, continuing big crowds, loans from the billionaires, and a soft approach by the banks (unlikely now), they will be able to ride the storm for a while, but there will be no hiding place in the medium and long term. What happens when hundreds of thousands of fans lose their jobs or find their savings and pensions funds, if they have them, devalued? How will they possibly afford the high-priced tickets? There will be gaps in the stands, ticket prices will have to come down and revenue will fall.
The other, and perhaps the most important factor, that could overturn the survival strategies of the clubs is the fans themselves. Long taken for granted, they are now beginning to assert themselves. Many Liverpool fans, for example, would support a financial boycott of the club should the present American owners remain in control after January 2008. In a poll carried out by the Liverpool Supporters Network last week, three quarters of the 2,000 fans canvassed said they were willing to withdraw financial commitment to the club in the form of match tickets and merchandising.
In Manchester, when the Glazer family bought Manchester United in 2005, a group of angry fans set up a rival club United FC which regularly attracts over 2,000 to home matches and boasts on the home page of their website that “FC United is owned by its members”. An adult ticket to a home game costs £7.50. Governing bodies FIFA and UEFA, which have warned about the indebtedness of English clubs, have taken an interest in United FC’s progress.
In Liverpool at the beginning of the year 350 supporters packed into a pub in Anfield and set up what they claimed was the country’s first football supporters union, with a series of aims. A short term aim is “to hold whoever owns the football club to account” and the ultimate aim is “the supporter ownership of Liverpool Football Club”. They call themselves the “Spirit of Shankly”, they have the quote about socialism by Shankly on their banner, and they symbolise the spirit of revolt by fans of football at the way in which their passion has been prostituted by the profit agendas of the new owners.