At the end of Living, his masterful depiction of the lives of the workers of a Birmingham iron foundry at the end of the 1920s, Henry Green sends two newly redundant moulders to ‘see the Villa play’. This is an uplifting, transcendent experience for the two old codgers, which Green describes thus:
The Villa team comes out, then everyone is shouting. On face of the two mounds great swaying, like corn before wind, is made down towards the ground, frantic excitement, Gates wailed and sobbed for now his voice had left him. The Villa, the Villa, come on the Villa.
Green’s novel is a celebration of England’s distinct regional identities. Living lovingly recreates the Brummagem dialect Green heard every day while he worked in his Dad’s Birmingham factory and which he praised in his autobiographical Pack My Bags as ‘literally unsurpassed in the spoken word’. A sycophantic, idiotic middle-manager named Archer describes his trip up from the London office as a ‘little holiday down to the provinces’ and the narrator sneers at his condescension.
It is appropriate, then, that this great novel ends its celebration of provincialism (a loaded term implying ‘vulgarity’ in Dr Johnson’s regency definition, but which inspired the highpoint of the English novel that is George Eliot’s mid-nineteenth-century Middlemarch, a provincial novel) with a trip to the football.
Today, of course, top-level football has lost its provincial appeal (although, incredibly, JB Priestley worried in his English Journey, 1934, about ‘the lack of any birth or residential qualification for the players’). In the age of ‘International Rights’ issues, the polyglot Premier League was inevitable. In a ‘modern multi-cultural democracy’, it may even be desirable. As in any profession, footballing acuity is not confined to one nation (and if it were, it certainly wouldn’t be this one) and diversity at the top naturally encourages entertainment.
Lower down the leagues, this argument is harder to sustain and for me this is what’s wrong with the Elite Player Performance Plan (or, as Adam Bushby of the 72 christened it, in his much timelier piece, ‘Love the Premier League: Fuck everyone else’). Under the plan, England’s footballing provinces, those clubs whose academies are classified below the seemingly arbitrary A-Grade, are entirely hamstrung in their attempts to hold on to their best young players. This, as Andrew Thomas pointed out on a recent Two Footed Tackle podcast, deprives fans of lower league clubs of the privilege of watching their own in action and this, without wanting to put too fine a point on it, is bullshit.
Fans who don’t care about England’s various provincial identities can watch the Premier League. They can support Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal or Newcastle United alongside their millions of virtually connected international fans. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this type of support; illusory or not, it makes you feel part of something big and that is exciting. But such support should not be indulged at the expense of provincial identities which need to continue to thrive and can continue to do so, as I suggested elsewhere in a recent piece on the Hillsborough debate, through football.
The EPPP, another rancid example of the centralization which is fast becoming the riot-inducing scum of Cameron’s Britain (it is an unashamed example of this, defended on the grounds that it will improve the quality of the national team and by extension the quality of football played a few times a year in English Football’s expensively constructed London based parliament), will isolate fans from clubs which should be celebratory outlets for regionalized identity but look like becoming tawdry inlets for a notionally English Premier League.