Book Review: David Conn, The Football Business: Fair Game in the ‘90s

David Conn, The Football Business: Fair Game in the ‘90s, Edinburgh, Mainstream, 1997; The Beautiful Game? Searching for the Soul of Football, London, Yellow Jersey Press, 2004.

David Conn, Britain’s outstanding investigative football journalist, has combined his literary and legal trainings in a distinctive contribution to the investigative journalist’s art. Conn sub-titles his second book (2004) ‘searching for the soul of football’. His search takes him from the heights of Arsenal and the lows of Sheffield Wednesday’s recent history to the community roots of the game at smaller clubs such as Crewe Alexandra, Bury, and non-league Glossop North End. He notes the ‘oddly passionless’ atmosphere at an Arsenal-Chelsea match (p.10), and his investigative journey celebrates the commitment and passion of fans of the smaller clubs, surviving and reviving without any significant support from football’s new riches in the post-Premier League era. A central theme in his analysis of the contradictions of ‘the beautiful game’ is the betrayal of the game’s wider interests by a Football Association increasingly dominated by the narrow and self-serving interests of Premier League chairmen. Conn captures in evocative fashion the persisting cultural vibrancy of football, but also condemns the motives of the money-seekers who have moved into controlling positions in the game since the formation of the Premiership. Conn’s search is an idealistic, romantic one, championing the minnows of the football world. His analysis of a truly rounded, balanced football club and culture takes him outside the cocooned ranks of the Premiership élite. It is to Crewe that he turns to evoke the soul of the game. Dario Gradi has been the manager at Crewe since 1983, and the Christian chairman John Bowler believes that ‘football has a special place in society. It unites people around a common cause, and we have a responsibility to use that to benefit the community’ (p.263). The club makes a profit, Gradi has presided over well in excess of a thousand games, young players are nurtured through the ranks and in some cases move on to success at the very top, the fans respect and support the club and its community programme, and companies clamour to sponsor the club:

And with all that, they are arguably competing way above their natural level, lasting five seasons in the First Division before going down then bouncing straight back again. Crisis in football: what crisis? (Conn, 2004: 263)

Such bouncing form makes Crewe an exciting place to watch football. In season 2006-7 Crewe was back in the third tier of English football, but playing smooth and fluent football that was a league above the standards of that division; and affordable. Conn’s study warns that the new riches at the top level of the game have inflated the cost for fans so that new generations scarcely feature at the matches: ‘In 2003, just 7 per cent of season ticket holders [in the Premiership] were aged 16-24’ (Conn, 2004: 63). The increasingly expensive glossy product of the Premier League has a real problem in that, despite superficial financial prosperity, it may be offering a cultural product with a diminishing core following, susceptible to the whims of a media-savvy generation of consumers with little in the way of deep-rooted commitment to the game and its traditions and legacies.

In his first book (1997) Conn’s acknowledgement section shows how the most prosperous and powerful institutions of sport/football are difficult and challenging to research: ‘Obtaining interviews with people in the upper level of professional football involves a gruelling obstacle course: letters, faxes and constant reminder telephone calls which are rarely even acknowledged. Despite its massive media profile, Premier League football seems determinedly reticent of explaining itself. The contrast could not be greater at other levels of the game, amongst supporters and the grass roots; in preparing for this book, all attempted brush-offs from Premier League press offices have been outweighed many times over by enlightening, often inspiring conversations with people whose involvement in football springs from their love of it.’ (p.7) His acknowledgements for the 2004 book reiterate this: ‘A great many people readily provided research and information for this book, and several people in senior positions in football refused to be interviewed. The difference is always striking between the men running the game who are so difficult to reach and so often unaccountable, and the crowds who give of themselves to football and are always open and eager to help.’ (p. vii)

Work like Conn’s combines a passionate populism – claiming to speak for the people, and the powerless – with a reforming zeal. In the final chapters of The Football Business (chapter 18, called ‘the cock-up theory’, and chapter 19, called ‘to the millennium’) Conn develops his analysis and argument around an interview with the then chief executive of the FA, Graham Kelly. He concentrated in this conversation on why the Premier League redistributed so little. The interview is used to good effect to lead Conn to conclusions about the traditional and ramshackle nature of the FA, and the need for reform (quotes on pages 282 and 284): proposed reforms are a windfall tax on Premier League and club companies; widening ownership and the introduction of democracy; an administration around a principle of unity, with ‘a single governing body, to run the whole of football for the common good.’ (p. 295); the use of a regulator (this could be the governing body); involvement of the local community more fully; uniting with local authorities to improve municipal facilities; and the extension of coaching qualifications. None of these reforms, or at least not very many, can be left to the football entrepreneurs: ‘… business alone does not preserve history, magic, soul’ (p. 297).

Conn interviewed Kelly’s successor, Adam Crozier, after Kelly left the FA. Crozier had been joint chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi, and produced documentation on the reshaping of the game in response to his brief, which was to bring a more commercial element to the administration of the game. The purpose? ‘… to lead the successful development of football at every level … to use the power of football to build a better future’ (p. 354). This is a reminder that investigative work is not just about observations and good quotes, but also about the interpretation of documents. Get hold of what people put on paper, accumulate all that you can and examine the values that are transmitted to the written word. In this way, investigative work uses material not as news, reported then forgotten, but as constantly developing and update-able sources and evidence – here Conn references back to his interview with Kelly, mentioning muddy kit on the floor at the first interview, to give colour that is actually critical analysis and interpretation in itself.

In these studies, the fruits of a loving labour supported by The Guardian and The Independent, David Conn provides a model for a balanced investigative framework for the analysis of football’s booming economies and get-rich-quick excesses. If his analysis, in conjuring up a lower-league utopia, or a nostalgic less ruthless football past, has an element of idealism about it, it remains nevertheless persuasive. Conn shows the hypocrisies at the core of the English professional game, but does so with compassion and dispassionate insight, an unusual blend to achieve. If you want to do genuinely investigative work on the economies and the politics of professional football, David Conn is your ideal guide.

© Alan Tomlinson, November 2006