Sport & Connected Communities

The place of football in the community


The recent obituaries for Brian Lomax, the man who drove the movement to involve football fans in the running of ‘their’ clubs through supporters’ trusts, once again raised some interesting questions around the place of the sport in local, national and global communities. Moreover, these are ideas that we have been seeing discussed in a number of the interviews and workshops we have been running with young people in Norwich and Sheffield.

One of Lomax’s key arguments was that football was much more than about winning, being entertained or making a profit. This is a view that has become increasingly prominent as growing numbers express unease about the domination of football by a win at all costs mentality and corporate interests. In an interview with The Guardian, Lomax argued;

“It’s about emotion, about sharing and comradeship, about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. These are very deeply rooted human needs and I believe that that is at the root of people’s love for football and loyalty for their clubs”

These types of expressions may seem somewhat antiquated in an era of global super stars, media saturation and internet fandom. But this ‘need’ to be part of something bigger, to belong, has been discussed by psychologists and others both in general terms and in relation to a whole host of groups, ranging from the local club to the nation-state. Furthermore, the role of sport is arguably becoming even more important as other sources of solidarity and comradeship (work, trade unions, religion, nationality) continue to fade. There are many markers of this loyalty and love – bands of fans travelling their length and breadth of the country to watch their team, the emptying out of a city when the club goes on a rare visit to contest a trophy at Wembley, the tireless work of supporters groups’ struggling to ensure their club survives. Recently, the strength of the relationship between fans and the local area has been beautifully captured by displays of solidarity with steelworkers facing redundancy in games involving Middlesbrough and Scunthorpe.  In the words of Tony Gosling, who chairs the Scunthorpe Supporters Society;

‘The steelworks is intrinsically linked with Scunthorpe and its football club, many of our members and fans will be affected by the proposed job losses. We really appreciate the effort the football club are putting in to show solidarity with steelworkers, and are pleased to stand alongside them in urging support to Save Our Steel’

However, in focusing on the significance of these acts, we shouldn’t simply dismiss other form of commitment that move beyond the local. A recent study by David Saunders showed that fans from around the globe also prize their own links to a particular club and gain a great deal from being part of an online community that has its own rules, prized forms of knowledge and hierarchies. Such allegiances might be easy to dismiss when compared with the fan who stands on the terraces come rain or shine, yet just because a community doesn’t involve face to face interactions doesn’t mean it is not valuable or, indeed, worthy of our attention.

These complex views have been echoed in some of our research with young people. initial work in Norwich pointed to the growing dominance of mediated football as the young people we spoke to professed allegiance to a coterie of Premier League behemoths rather than the local teams in Norfolk and Suffolk (although this was a far from representative sample!)

Yet subsequent research in Sheffield suggested a rather more complicated picture. On the one hand, we found a great deal of passion for the local clubs and a good number of season tickets holders among the teenagers we talked to. Likewise, our participants talked of friendship, atmosphere and the joy of being part of something bigger than yourself, win, lose or draw. While it seems likely that some of these discussions, around authenticity and plastic fans were informed by wider media debates, there was also a great deal of insight as the young people talked eloquently of enjoying the qualities of the elite players and clubs they regularly saw on television whilst remaining committed to ‘their’ local teams. In the latter case, many of their views echoed those of Brian Lomax who talked of the significance of ‘a sense of pilgrimage, of going to a sacred place; there is loyalty, sticking with something through good and bad times.”

In another part of the city we encountered a rather different set of views. These young people, mainly from ethnic minority backgrounds, had little time for or interest in the two Sheffield clubs. Instead, they claimed an allegiance to some of the biggest names in the Premier and Spanish leagues with Arsenal and Barcelona particular favourites. Indeed, time and again the holy triumvirate of Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar were discussed as the players worthy of recognition and respect. Another interesting, if not unsurprising, demonstration of the power of media sport in expanding the horizons of young people beyond the local and national. At the same time, the BAME groups displayed powerful ties to the hyper-local area. We interviewed them at a local sports centre where they worked alongside local coaches whose technical skills and intimate knowledge of the neighbourhood marked them out as worthy of a respect not always given to other figures of authority. These are, of course, just early sightings but do point to the complexity of young people’s engagements with both football and, indeed, community at the current time. Above all, they suggest that far from being cultural dupes, ready to follow whatever fad happens to come their way or, in relation to football, any pronouncement that this or that ‘role model’ utters, their views are complex and often sophisticated but also increasingly informed by media.