Recognized as Britain’s national sport, football has had a chequered history since the Second World War. The war had limited the number of games, and with the end of hostilities, massive crowds precipitated the birth of what has become known as the ‘golden era’ of the game.
   It was considered a ‘golden era’ because English first division clubs drew massive crowds, and yet the football was not overwhelmingly attractive. Facilities were poor, for players and spectators, and very little concern was paid to safety. This (amongst other reasons) led to the disaster at Bolton’s ground in 1946, when thousands turned up to witness the return of one of football’s most enduring legends, Sir Stanley Matthews. Starved of their weekly fix of football, 65,000 people crammed into Burnden Park, with another 20,000 still trying to get in. The inevitable crush killed thirty-three supporters, and injured over 500. It took forty-three years, and a similar disaster in Sheffield, before the football authorities and government looked seriously at the conditions faced by supporters.
   English football had become isolated in the prewar period, with the refusal of the Football Association (FA) to join the world governing body FIFA. Few overseas internationals were played, and the English public believed that the country that had ‘invented’ and codified the game was still the elite nation in terms of practition. The 1950 World Cup in Brazil sowed the first seeds of doubt, following a humiliating exit against a part-time American team, but it was not until Hungary arrived to play England at Wembley that everyone realized the opposition was ahead in terms of tactics and fitness. Inspired by Ferenc Puskas, Hungary demolished the English facade of superiority by winning 6–3, the first occasion England had lost to an overseas side at home. A return game in Budapest a few months later saw an even worse defeat, 7–1, and the FA finally realized something needed to be done about the widening gap. The first division itself was fairly strong, but new methods of management, training and coaching were needed if the English could compete with overseas opposition. Managers such as Matt Busby (Manchester United), Alf Ramsey (Ipswich) and Bill Nicholson (Spurs) combined British hard work with continental training and coaching. Busby’s United team of the late 1950s was considered the finest produced up to that time on home ground, and were one of the favourites to lift the new European Champions Cup inaugurated in 1956. A tragic plane crash in Munich put paid to those ambitions, and robbed British football of eight of its brightest prospects. Ramsey, meanwhile, had taken unfan-cied Ipswich to the First Division title in 1962, the year after promotion. His reward was the England manager’s job in 1963, and the chance to prepare for the World Cup of 1966, to be held for the first time on home soil. England’s victory in that year was based on Ramsey’s forthright belief in his own systems, four outstanding players in Banks, Moore and the Charlton brothers, and the huge support from the home crowd. The victory would lead to English clubs competing brilliantly in European competitions over the next twenty years, with the likes of Manchester United (1968), Liverpool (1977, 1978, 1981, 1984), Nottingham Forest (1979, 1980) and Aston Villa (1982) winning the European Cup, and other sides such as Tottenham Hotspur, Everton, Arsenal and Manchester City winning other European trophies. The popularity and the consequent financial success of the game during the 1960s led to the players union (the PFA) calling for an end to the maximum wage policy, which had been in operation since the advent of professionalism in the late nineteenth century. Although players were well paid in comparison with workers in manual occupations, clubs’ profits were not being channelled back into the game, either via wages or ground improvements. A delegation led by PFA Chairman Jimmy Hill met with the FA at the Ministry of Labour in 1961, and following threat of strikes from the players, the FA backed down. A year later, following protracted negotiations and legal cases, players were granted freedom of contract. Previously, once a player had signed to a particular club, he was tied to it until they said he could leave. The PFA claimed this was a restraint of trade, and so illegal. The turning point came in 1964 when George Eastham, a Newcastle United player, took his club to court to allow him to make a lucrative move to Arsenal. Eastham won his case, ending the old contract system. Many players took advantage of the ruling to negotiate new contracts and, coupled with the ending of the maximum wage policy, a new breed of ‘pop star’ player was created by the media. These players were young, very well paid and garnered a following from teenagers second only to music stars. The finest example during the 1960s was George Best. Blessed with an extraordinary footballing talent, Best became just as well known on the front pages, with his playboy lifestyle making more headlines than his performances on the pitch.
   Football’s high times during this period were not reflected on the terraces. Money made from the game was routinely taken away from the clubs, and little was done to improve the infrastructure of stadia. Coupled with the growing problem of violence amongst supporters, the 1970s is remembered as a period of excellence on the pitch and severe problems off it. Organized groups of hooligans inspired much critical comment against the game and its governing bodies. Violent incidents involving fans at home and abroad dominated talk about football in the late 1970s and 1980s. Certain clubs became known for attracting hooligans, notably Leeds and Manchester United in the 1970s, and Millwall in the 1980s. The year 1985 is widely seen as the watershed in the English game. Violence at Luton was followed by the death of one fan at Birmingham and then the deaths of fifty-six fans at Bradford City, when a wooden stand caught fire. The nadir followed at the end of May 1985 when fighting between Liverpool and Juventus fans before the European Cup final at Heysel in Brussels led to the deaths of thirty-nine Juventus supporters. British football was in tatters, with an awful reputation, and the Thatcher government decided to take on the task of reforming the game.
   Frustrated by what she saw as the inactivity and incompetence of the Football Association and Football League, particularly over the issue of hooliganism, Thatcher applied constant pressure on the game, leading to the passage of the Football Spectators Bill of 1988. Following on the example of Luton Town and their members scheme under Conservative MP David Evans, the Bill introduced a computerized membership scheme (dubbed an ID card by opponents) for all fans at all clubs, as the government sought to take control of the game. A popular campaign against the scheme was led by the new intermediaries in the cultural politics of football: Heysel led to the formation of the Football Supporters Association, a national nonclub association of football fans, while a whole raft of fanzines were started across the country, leading the intellectual and media charge against the greed and disinterest of the football industry and the media. These forces ironically combined with the game’s organizing bodies against Thatcher, and although it was ultimately the Hillsborough disaster that destroyed the ID cards system, the fans’ revolt against the idea undoubtedly helped portray the Bill as ill-judged and badly framed.
   Hillsborough is the second great breaking point in British football, and the catalyst for the transformation of the game in the 1990s. Ninety-six Liverpool fans were killed on the Leppings Lane terrace of Hillsborough, crushed against a steel fence, before an FA Cup tie against Nottingham Forest, after police failed to exercise proper crowd control outside and inside the ground. The disaster, caused by a combination of factors including mistakes by the South Yorkshire Police, the inadequacy of the Hillsborough ground, the poor safety facilities and lack of attention to basic detail, highlighted once more the poor state of the British game and its failure to develop a genuine relationship with supporters based on respect and dignity. It marked the lowest point in British football: within a week the fences were being removed, the government remitted Lord Justice Taylor to investigate the disaster and its implications and announced its view that football should move to all-seater stadia. By January 1990, Taylor had produced two reports, the second of which was widely considered the blueprint for the future of the game. This radical document called for all-seater stadia, new safety measures and standards, and crucially, a new relationship between football and its fans. Backed by hundreds of millions of pounds of government money (raised by cutting duty on the pools and channelled through the Football Trust), the physical fabric of football was to be thoroughly ‘modernized’. This period is thus one of direct government intervention in the game, on a number of different levels.
   This process of redevelopment coincided with the explosion of the financial pressures that had been building up inside the game since the early 1980s, and the development of a much greater professionalization of the industry, notably including the ending of the traditional collectivized commercial arrangements of football. The mid-late 1980s had seen increasing pressure from top clubs to keep more of their revenue and to be given a greater share of television revenue, leading to numerous threats to split from the rest of the League, and ever growing television coverage of a very small number of clubs; this process inevitably culminated in the splitting off of the top clubs from the League in 1992, with the formation of the FA Premier League (FAPL), following a power struggle between the Football Association and the Football League for control of the game. The new division was to run its own affairs, and positively market football as hip and trendy: crucially, the money for the League was supplied by Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB satellite station, which paid £304m in 1992 for four years coverage. Fans would thus have to buy a satellite dish to see live coverage. This was a central part of the transformation of the game into a middle-class leisure experience based on conceptions of lifestyle and consumption, with an explosion of interest across non-traditional football fans and a massive expansion of the commercialization of the game, notably involving merchandise. The whole image of the game, its social meanings, its dominant values and the interaction between it and supporters were turned on their heads within a matter of years, with the Sky hype machine churning out ever more coverage. Football essentially realigned itself within aggressively capitalist Thatcherite free market doctrines, became a true business, and sought to appeal to the middle classes. The demography of the spectators changed as a result (as ticket prices soared). Some clubs floated on the stock market and international capital sought to take over plum clubs, although the finances of the game remained as poor as ever; only Manchester United made a profit in 1996–7, despite the second Sky deal signed in 1996 worth £670m over five years and the other millions pouring in from merchandise, sponsorship, advertising and other sources. Most of the new money was simply paid out to players in wages (some getting £50,000 per week), or in rapidly escalating transfer fees, particularly through the internatio-nalization of the transfer market which led to the signing of players from all the world. Chelsea had over fifteen different nationalities represented in their 1998–9 squad alone.
   Yet, despite the popularity of the league, the buoyancy of the crowds and the massive public interest in the game (reaching unprecedented levels post Euro96), the financial imperative and the consequences of the penetration of the game by international capital led to yet more pressure for further reform, most notably ideas for a European Super League regularly suggested in 1997 and 1998 by European media companies. Such plans would eliminate the risk inherent in existing competitions and hence offer greater financial stability, and could earn each club up to £100m.
   Further radical change is likely over the next five years, notably including the creation of club television stations selling pay-per-view subscriptions for live games (following the introduction of digital broadcasting). However, the 1990s have in many ways been the most dramatic decade in the history of the game, with far-reaching changes to its constituency, its appeal and the way fans are attracted to clubs, and the complete and total dependence on football on television revenue and exposure (which culminated in the establishment in 1998 of Manchester United’s own television station, no doubt the first of many).
   Further reading
    Hornby, N. (1990) Fever Pitch, London: Methuen.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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