The English Premier League finished this weekend and one famous old club, Newcastle United, almost found itself relegated from it. Whether they avoided relegation or not, Newcastle United Football Club has fallen a long way down. I’m no ‘Geordie’, but I have an immense respect for the people of this great city, their history, and their passion for football. The story of Newcastle United’s demise is a story of how the very fabric of society has been torn apart in late globalised capitalism. It is the story of the denial and denigration of community. This is why it’s such an important story to try to tell to a wider audience. This is a blogpost about football, but only as a major institution in British social life and history. So, even if you hate football please do read on…
Globalisation through football shirts
How can we understand something about globalisation by studying football shirts? Well, consider the evolution of the corporate sponsors of Newcastle United’s team shirt from 1980 to 2015. The story begins with this iconic logo worn on team shirts for most years between 1980 and 2000.
We see a blue star at the heart of which is the silhouette of the Newcastle skyline. The sponsor is Newcastle Brown Ale, a good brew, which was, at the time of its being club sponsor, manufactured locally. Heineken bought out the original brewers in 2008 and, since 2010, the beer has been brewed in Yorkshire instead.
This Newcastle United shirt represents the old pre-globalisation economy of more local manufacturing generating more stable employment for local people. I am not romanticising this period – it was still based on capitalist private ownership and exploitation and problematic practices of gendered labour. However, crucially, it was also bound up with very strong feelings of personal and collective pride, self-reliance, independence, mutuality, and community.
I skip a couple of seasons when NTL (now Virgin Media) was club sponsor to move your attention to shirt number two…
Now we have Northern Rock as the club’s sponsor. Newcastle-based Northern Rock began life in 1965 as a building society created in the merger of two regional building societies established in the 1860s. So, we still have local connections, but we see a distinct shift from manufacturing to finance.
It took just a few short days for this particular ‘rock’ to crash in September 2008 when it was revealed that it was massively exposed to the American sub-prime mortgage crisis. In the ‘credit crunch’ that followed, Northern Rock collapsed after the first run on a British bank for 150 years. The UK government was obliged to step in, guarantee ordinary people’s savings, and take the building society into state ownership.
Northern Rock’s predecessors were ‘mutual’ building societies set up and mutually owned by communities to perform a very simple, but vital intermediary function: they helped ordinary people to save and helped local businesses to start up and to grow. All profits were distributed among their members. The deregulation of finance championed by the Thatcher government of the 1980s changed all that. The vast majority of these building societies ‘demutualised’, i.e. became ‘publicly limited companies’ (PLCs) with shares trading on stock markets. They began to compete nationally and this triggered a process of consolidation with bigger fish swallowing up the smaller ones. Northern Rock itself had bought up 53 smaller building societies before demutualising and becoming a bank, floating on the London Stock Exchange in 1997. These demutualised building societies/banks also moved away from regional or national lending and into the world of speculation on global financial markets. Whereas the benefits of prudent lending were, for decades, enjoyed by their communal owners, today the vast majority of these once proud building societies are extinct. It is really only the largest privatised ones and the few which steadfastly remained mutually owned that remain.
Oh, and what happened to Matt Ridley, Northern Rock’s chairman at the time of its downfall? Well, in 2013, Matt Ridley was made ‘The Right Honourable The Viscount Ridley’, serving the Conservative Party in the House of Lords…
On to Newcastle United shirt number three – Virgin Money…
Oh, Richard Branson, that serial carpetbagger! When the Labour British government nationalised Northern Rock in 2008 for £1.4 billion, it took all of the building society’s ‘bad’ loans, i.e. those loans or investments which were not going to be repaid in the foreseeable future or ever, and kept those and then sold off the cleaned up Northern Rock to Branson in a shamefully cut-price deal worth ultimately around £900 million! So, then, in the season 2012-3, Newcastle’s fans had to stump up £40 or so for the pleasure of sporting Virgin Money on their chest. But it gets even worse, way worse in fact. Check out shirt number four…
Since 2013, it has been this company, Wonga, that has ‘graced’ the Geordie chest. For most of human history, in most societies, the practice of ‘usury’ – charging interest on lending money – has been either strictly circumscribed or outright prohibited. In the UK today, the exploitation of desperate poor people through short-term ‘payday’ lending at rates often exceeding 1000% per annum is perfectly legal.
When Newcastle United’s new owner, Mike Ashley, announced the sponsorship deal, the leader of Newcastle City Council described feeling ‘appalled and sickened’ at the Club’s decision. Local MP Chi Onwurah summed it up succinctly: ‘Some of the richest young men in Newcastle to wear shirts calling on the poorest to go to a legal loan shark.’
Economic globalisation and its social consequences
That brief jaunt through the football shirts of Newcastle United tells us much about the contemporary capitalist economy. We journey from local production to local high finance and then to global financial collapse. Now, on the other side of that collapse, what do we see? Rather than revival, we see parasitism: state parasitism in the form of Virgin Money and social parasitism in the form of Wonga. We also see the decline of the British economy in the figure of Newcastle’s owner Mike Ashley. Ashley, a billionaire, owns Sports Direct, which employs British people on very low wages and often ‘zero hour’ conditions to sell low-end Chinese leisure manufactures in depressing retail park outlets. Newcastle United represents a perfect cycle of parasitism: Fans get paid sub-living wage money from Ashley (and others), leading them to borrow desperately from Wonga to find the money to worship at the shrine of St James’ Park (Newcastle’s stadium). Ashley at one time even changed the name of this temple of football to ‘Sports Direct Stadium’, but finally bowed to public pressure and reversed his decision.
The shirts also point to a deeper social crisis behind this economic story – a story not just of poverty and exploitation, but of a process of deindustrialisation and of the commercialisation of football that has ripped the heart and soul out of football and the communities it brought together. This is true not just in Newcastle, but in towns and cities right across the UK.
Mes que un club!
In the Camp Nou stadium, home of Barcelona FC, the seats in one of the stands spell out the words ‘Mes Que Un Club’ (more than a club). This famous slogan refers to the Club as an institution at the heart of Catalonian history and, therefore, as an emblem of Catalonians’ struggle for independence and social justice.
The phrase ‘more than a club’ might have particular resonance for Barcelona, but actually every football club is ‘mes que un club’. Newcastle United is mes que un club. Southend United is mes que un club. Torquay United is mes que un club. Why? Because these clubs, like the building societies that were also destroyed in the name of greed, were founded and built up by ordinary working people and have brought people together as communities for decades. All of this has been thrown on the altar of profit and as football has globalised we now have the perverse and disgraceful situation of the ‘people’s game’ being owned, and ‘the people’ bled dry, by a collection of the dodgiest oligarchs, emirs, bankers, and sweatshop-owners in the world.
In a climate of deep-rooted enmity between rival fans, it is hard to imagine football fans coming together to win back their beloved game. But, there are some signs of unity. ‘The mythology of power that the rich propagate can only be sustained by the dreams of the poor’ wrote David McNally. We can only hope that football fans stop dreaming that an oligarch will come and buy their club and instead start dreaming collective dreams – of collective protest, of collective power, of collective ownership. Football fans of the world unite!