My aim in writing this review is not to give a balanced account of the whole book but to explain why I think it should be read by fans of all English football clubs and not just those who support Manchester City. The subtitle of the book is “Manchester City, Modern Football and Growing Up” and the middle phrase, “Modern Football”, refers to David Conn’s account of the business of football.
Chapter 10, “The Money Game”, outlines the development of football from the people’s game to a game that many people can’t afford to watch. The early folk games were contests between groups of men that could last for hours. A Frenchman who observed a game between two Derby parishes in 1831 said, “If Englishmen call this playing, it would be impossible to say what they call fighting.” The Public Schools devised rules to tame the game and turn it into a sport designed to improve the character and health of the schoolboys who played it. Different schools had different rules for the game so there was a problem when young men wanted to continue playing at university or in old boys’ clubs. That problem was solved when they held meetings to agree on one set of rules and the Football Association was formed.
Several football clubs, including Birmingham City and Manchester City, started as church teams because churches recognised the health and social benefits of sport and took the game back to the working classes. Some employers also encouraged their workers to form teams and this led to the founding of Arsenal, West Ham and Manchester United.
From the beginning there was some tension between the ideals of the gentlemen who had formed the FA and the working class spectators who flocked to watch games. The gentleman amateurs regarded it as a sport to be played for health and fun; the working class spectators came to “drink, gamble, swear at the referee and generally let off steam.” The FA accepted professional football in 1885 but had rules to prevent clubs being run just like other businesses; the FA rules were designed to prevent owners making money from their clubs. Chapter 10 describes how these rules were changed and sidestepped. It also mentions Brian Lomax, the pioneer of supporter ownership who formed the first supporters trust at Northampton Town.
David Conn discusses club ownership in other parts of the book. He says that his investigation of football governance resulted in a feeling of alienation and detachment from his own club. Once he understood that his club was owned by people trying to make money from it, it was hard to think of it as his club in the naive way he had as a child.
He devotes a whole chapter, chapter 17, to FC United of Manchester, the club that was formed by a group of Manchester United supporters after the Glazers bought their club. Most of their fellow supporters decided to stay with Manchester United and continue to support the very successful Premier League team. The two thousand who started FC United felt that community was more important than success. Conn writes that “most had wanted a different experience, more raw and heartfelt as they remembered it from the cheaper 1970s and 1980s, to break free of the high prices, compulsory seating and corporate wrapping of a twenty-first-century afternoon at Old Trafford.”
This book raises so many questions that are relevant for fans of Birmingham City. What do we really want? Is football success the be all and end all? Would we welcome any owner, even one of dubious character, who could buy us promotion to the Premier League?
I want you to read this book!
Richer than God: Manchester City, Modern Football and Growing Up, 2012, by David Conn