“We decide when you play.”
– Manchester United fans
Exactly two weeks ago today, the owners of 12 football clubs put profit before anything else by forming a breakaway Super League.
As it turns out the project was over before it had begun, with the majority of those involved withdrawing their support just 48 hours later. The reaction to the proposals was volcanic from every nook and cranny of the footballing world.
Rivals clubs, players, managers, pundits, politicians and even members of the Royal Family condemned the Super League. The most vociferous reaction of all came from match-going fans. All of the Premier League sides involved faced strong supporter opposition, although the optics were most powerful at Stamford Bridge.
Prior to their game against Brighton on Tuesday night, hundreds of Blues supporters convened with bags of continental lager, placards and an arsenal of protest songs that Bob Dylan would be envious of. Okay, maybe not.
It worked though, with news of their club’s withdrawal from the breakaway competition coming through as many of them were still basking in the sun outside the stadium.
The protest was evidence of a growing appetite for fan activism in England. For many, the botched Super League plot ignited a long-suppressed feeling of discontent. No doubt fuelled by being barred from stadiums for well over a year, match-going supporters are at their wit’s end and they are finally prepared to do something about their lack of agency and the flagrant disregard the owners of their clubs have for them.
Manchester United supporters took things to another level on Sunday, forcing their showpiece showdown with Liverpool to be postponed. Starting in the early hours of the afternoon, one small group of United fans targeted the Lowry Hotel in Salford, preventing the team coach from making the short trip to Old Trafford.
A larger group of fans, at times numbering in the thousands, congregated outside the stadium itself. Some even managed to force their way onto the Old Trafford pitch, damaging a few cameras along the way. Outside the ground there were also scuffles with police when they attempted to clear the area for the arrival of the team buses.
The ‘tut tut’ brigade, led by Graeme Souness, were quick to stick the knife in after this, and a Premier League statement released after the fact claimed that protestors had ‘no justification’ for their actions.
This sort of hypocritical attitude is shared by large swathes of population; after the Super League plans were announced the establishment were quick to get misty eyed about the idea of the humble match-going supporter having their clubs taken way. However, as soon as these same fans do something about the situation, tired old cliches about ‘hooligans’ and ‘not proper football fans’ are wheeled out.
Then again, perhaps they’re right. Football is only a game after all and it does seem hard to justify bystanders getting hurt during the demonstration. Saying that, it is also right to point out that the overwhelming majority of those who gathered behaved impeccably.
With this in mind, the anti-Glazer and anti-modern football message of the protest should not be lost amid the tsunami of moralising editorials that are bound to follow in the coming days.
This cannot be the end, though.
The great scourge of supporter activism since the advent of the Premier League has been tribalism. A quick glance at social media suggests that this again could detract from the victories of Chelsea and United fans over the past fortnight. Throughout both demonstrations opposition fans denigrated the protestors’ efforts, either hurling classist insults or claiming that they could have done it better.
This is exactly what those breakaway clubs want. Recent events have proved that unified and coordinated direct action by supporters can be an immensely powerful tool. Allow this flame of activism to be snuffed out out by songs about Liverpool fans eating rats or United fans appearing on Jeremy Kyle cannot be allowed if we are to have real change.
Germany is a fine example to follow where this is concerned. When the Bundesliga announced it would be introducing Monday night games, supporters from clubs across the country directed their anger at the authorities, not each other. Performative resistance followed across the country, including volleyballs being thrown onto the pitch, stunning tifo demonstrations and even boycotts.
This sort of thing proves that football fans can change things. All it takes is a bit of coordination and unity. Thus, while dreams of clubs receiving community asset status and the 50+1 rule being implemented may seem a lifetime away now, the fight has to start somewhere. Why shouldn’t it be right now?