I was brought up in a town called Swinton, which is a few miles west of Manchester and used to have an important rugby league team. Every other week I would go to watch this team play in what was an intensely local experience. In the first place, the ground was directly opposite the road leading to my primary school but also local were the players. At the time, for example, Swinton had a bustling winger called Peter Norburn who was good enough to play for England. At some point he had been our window cleaner and I remember my mother disapproved of him because of his flirtatious manner with women. When he was out of action for a while, she claimed it was because he had fallen off his ladder as he was turning round to joke with some passing girls.
Another member of the team, who also played for England, I got to know because I played cricket with him in the summer. He was called Ken Gowers and was rather short for a professional sportsman, but he had massive shoulders and bowled by taking a few short steps and then swinging his arm over with such power that he was distinctly quick. He wasn’t a very good cricketer but what stays in my mind was how furiously angry and disappointed he became when we were losing. Like most young boys, I had ambitions to play sport professionally but what I should have then realised I lacked, apart from sufficient natural talent, was the appropriate competitive spirit. I didn’t much mind when we were losing but Ken Gowers could not bear it.
I still find a rugby league match the most absorbing, time-limited sporting event to watch on television and I also derive pleasure from hearing the players interviewed afterwards and discovering that, apart from the odd antipodean, they almost all have strong Northern accents. There is still that local element to the sport which I remember from my early days at Swinton. Then again, it may be that what I also subconsciously like is that the extraordinary feats of athleticism and resilience I witness come from men who, relatively speaking, are only moderately rewarded. The comparison is of course with soccer. I hardly ever watched soccer as a boy but, living where I did, I had to have a team to support and there were really only two options. It may be that what first drew me to Manchester City was that not-minding-losing mentality I’ve just mentioned. After all, if a masochist had been looking for a team to follow during the fairly recent past, City, despite a few short bursts of glory, would have been the obvious choice. When an Arab sheik took over and the team was propelled into the upper echelons, the psychological adjustment required was considerable. What has been remarkable while this has been happening, is that, until very recently, I have been able to follow the team’s rise week by week, watching almost every match it plays on Saturday night television, or at least a full hour of it. The lesson this teaches me is that I am not a purist who appreciates sport for its own sake. Being a supporter of one of the two teams involved in a match, becoming familiar with all its players so that I can wonder why the manager keeps on playing Jones when Smith is so much better, is a major part of the pleasure.
Having so much to watch brightens or at least diversifies my life but leaves me with two problems. The first is long-standing. How can my pleasure be unalloyed when it involves propping up with my widow’s mite what was once the evil Murdoch Empire? Before I retired, I had colleagues who liked watching football but denied themselves that pleasure because they were not prepared to support Sky. I admired their principles, but though at a pinch I could imagine giving up football, to abandon rugby and cricket also would be asking too much. More recently, however, a second problem has emerged to reinforce the first as BT has begun buying into the football market. As I put it to a patient Sky employee recently, we’re told that competition is always good for the consumer yet, if I now still wanted to watch all of City’s matches, I would have to buy BT’s subscription as well as Sky’s. What’s more, the fact that competition has increased means that Sky have had to pay more for what they have retained, and my subscription has gone up. And if only a fraction of that more is in fact going via the Football League to the big clubs, then I am doing my little bit to accelerate the process which has allowed them to bring in more foreign players at obscenely high salaries and `delocalise’ even further the sport.
I seem to remember that when people first began to complain about a team like Arsenal occasionally fielding a side in which there was not a single English-born player, their manager accused the critics of xenophobia. It is true that it is easy to sound bigoted in broaching this subject and that `local’ is in any case a relative term. I can remember that even in the Swinton team of my boyhood, the scrum half was an import from Welsh Rugby Union who had no doubt been tempted North by a job in a factory owned by one of the businessmen who ran the club. I assume that they had a stronger feeling for the welfare of the local community than the international capitalists who dominate soccer now, but I can’t be sure. Moreover, when I look up on the internet those two players whom I most remember, Peter Norburn and Ken Gowers, I discover they were both born in Wigan, which is all of ten miles from Swinton. If I had been restricted to watching players who had been born in my street, it would not have been worth paying the entrance money. Yet it is, as most important things are, a question of degree.
Seeing foreign players perform can be civilising. I remember feeling when Eric Cantona was delighting his admirers that he had done more for Anglo-French relations than the Entente Cordiale, especially among supporters of Manchester United and, previously, those of Leeds (not the most fertile breeding ground for tolerance, or so they say). Yet, all in all, I find it hard to believe that having no-one in the team who is local, if only by virtue of being born in this country, can be a good thing, and that I should therefore not feel uncomfortable at making it more possible for the big clubs to scour the world for super stars. And what is happening in football may only be an anticipation of what is bound to happen, eventually, in the other sports. No finger in the dyke is going to stop this particular effect of globalisation, but should I really be adding to the weight of water? Perhaps then it is time to give up being able to watch Joe Root cream the ball through the covers; and renounce the exhilaration of seeing a Rugby League player suddenly and dramatically breaking through the defence into open space. After all, what am I if not one of a huge group of addicts whose suppliers are so confident in the strength of the addiction that they can do with us what they please? There ought to come a time when we say `no’ to exploitation. Tomorrow perhaps.