I remember being among a crowd of people who all identified with their local football club in the way that any tribe, anywhere identifies with an outward and visible totem: we all need a symbol that says, ‘This is who we are, and we are proud of it and it’s something that can’t be taken away from us.’ I didn’t know the people among whom I stood and cheered, but they all belonged to the same tribe as me, and that meant they were not strangers.
We were a community; a community that supported each other as much as it supported a football team; a community that permitted rare moments of aspiration to ordinary people who had recently come through very dark times and whose daily lives mostly involved a lot of hard work, few luxuries and not much prospect that things would ever be any different. Traditionally that was what football clubs did. They were the tribal totems that lay at the heart of working-class communities, the intangible social glue that bound people together.
Now I am not foolish enough to believe the world could have stayed the same, or even naive enough, looking back more than half a century with obviously rose-tinted spectacles, even to wish things had stayed the same. But though TV cash and the internationalisation of playing squads have altered both the nature of football clubs and the nature of the game, I do still believe that for those born to membership of a particular football tribe, the tribal totem is still something priceless. These are not mercenary fans who follow big-name teams that are always at the top; these are ordinary people with their hearts invested in their local clubs.
As it happens, the President of Bury FC (NB not the owner) is a recently-made friend of mine. I met this fine gentleman on holiday this year, and even then he expressed great concern for the future of his club due to forces outside his community’s control. When I last saw him we still hoped that our cup match would be played. This week I sadly had to write to him offering my sympathy and hopes that his club could be rebuilt as others have been.
Like a pit village when its coal mine closes, more so perhaps, because people rarely loved the coal mine they just valued it, the loss of a community football club is a huge psychological blow to a town or city. Those responsible have sacrificed much more than just livelihoods, important though these are. They have undermined a tribal identity that means so much to its members.