Our MPs, councillors and elected mayors should not be powerless, watching from the sidelines as the towns and cities in their care rise or fall on the final whistle, argues Ian Wylie
They’re not pretty, but the football stadia in our north east cities and towns are vital organs. For better or worse, they are the beating hearts. This week, Middlesbrough’s beats strong and healthy. Sunderland’s is racing quicker than it was. And Newcastle’s is on the brink of a cardiac arrest.
Just as well it’s only football. Or is it?
The reward for gaining promotion to the Premier League is £170m in TV money – and that’s just the money that will go directly to Middlesbrough’s football club. The town will benefit too – a recent study calculated that Swansea City football club’s promotion to the Premier League netted the local economy nearly £60 million and 400 jobs.
And the cities of Newcastle or Sunderland can expect to lose the same money and jobs if their team is relegated this week. Newcastle United’s poor performances this season have already been suggested as a factor in the city recording the country’s sharpest drop in the number of shoppers – down 9.95% over the past year.
The success of our football teams also impacts on the reputation of our region’s cities and towns, which rarely get a mention in our national newspapers beyond the backpages. It’s the same story on TV, where viewers associate our cities and towns with whatever loan or betting company has struck a deal to buy “real estate” on the football shirt.
In our region of one-club cities and towns, the multi-million pound gamble of Premier League status is all the more dramatic. But football is too important to the economy, reputation and confidence of our towns and cities to be left to luck. Sir Bobby Robson once asked “What is a club in any case?” His answer: “Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city.”
Yet while we’ve been enjoying the glitz, glamour and goals of the “EPL”, we’ve allowed our football clubs – the crown jewels of our communities for more than 120 years – to be sold off to the highest cash bidder, no strings attached. Yes, promotion and relegation are part and parcel of competitive sport – but football’s conquest of contemporary culture means the fate of our towns and cities are now held too by its fickle fingers.
Our football clubs are civic, community assets. Our civic and community leaders – MPs, councillors and elected mayors – should not be powerless, watching from the sidelines as the prospects for the towns and cities in their care rise or fall on the final whistle.
We cannot take luck out of what happens between the hours of 3pm and 4.45pm on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Even the most optimistic celebrating Leicester City fan understands that success on the pitch could evaporate within a season.
But could we de-risk the relationship between results on and off the pitch? Could we ensure that the £170m feasts do not turn into famine? That the boom years do not become busts? That the dividends from success are invested for the long term benefit of the clubs and the communities that support them?
Of course, not all football club owners are disreputable. Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson is regarded as one of the “good ones”. Many clubs have charitable foundations which dutifully discharge their corporate and social responsibilities. Supporters trust are having some, limited success in having fans’ voices heard.
But it’s not nearly enough. We wouldn’t dream of ceding control of other vital community assets – consider our utilities and universities, for example – without putting in place guidelines and metrics against which to measure their commitment to the communities they serve.
We need to talk and think more imaginatively about how we can reclaim football to meet the needs and aspirations of our communities. We need to explore opportunities for our football clubs to collaborate and partner with the other organisations that contribute to civic life. We need to weave them back into our communities.
Pie in the sky? Maybe. But then, we didn’t think the Premier League could be won by Leicester City, did we?
Ian Wylie is editor of The Northern Correspondent
Join us for a lively conversation this weekend at BALTIC when we’ll be discussing:
Whose football is it? Reconnecting north east football clubs to their communities
Our confirmed panelists include: Roger Domeneghetti, author of author of From the Back Page to the Front Room, Sarah Munro, director of BALTIC, Peter Fanning, Newcastle United Supporters Trust, Dr Kevin Dixon, Teesside University sports sociologist, Luke Edwards, the Telegraph’s north east football reporter, Lois Stonock, researcher and curator, Charlie Tims, researcher, Michael Martin, editor of True Faith fanzine and Kate Bradley, chief executive of the Newcastle United Foundation.
The event takes place at BALTIC on Sunday 15th May from 10.30am. Tickets are priced just £5 and include a copy of the latest issue of The Northern Correspondent magazine.