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Football's Northern Soul

Updated: Apr 1, 2021

The success of football as a sport and more importantly as a cultural phenomenon, is arguably down to one key factor: loyalty.

The game was developed initially by the sons of the ruling elite. It was at the likes of Eton and Harrow that what became Association Football was born, but it was in the industrialised North where the game took hold and became a true passion. To the sons of millionaires, landowners and the aristocracy, football was just that, a game to pass the time and prove one's masculinity. But in the Mills, factories, pits and forgeries of the North, it wasn't even life or death. It was more important than that.

So why did football take a hold of these places like nothing before it or since? Let's go back in time.

How we live our lives now as a species is nothing like how we lived for the majority of our existence and evolution over the last 100,000 years. We evolved to live in small communities, to forage and to roam, our lives and needs were simple. Lives were hard and short but they were focused primarily on keeping ourselves and our tribe alive. Survive, play and breed, we knew of nothing else. Our brains are no different now to how they were thousands of years ago, before the agricultural revolution and more recently, the industrial revolution. If you stop and think about it for a while, or even better, take the time to read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, you may begin to figure out why although we have material comforts, medicine and a wealth of practical things that make survival and breeding easier and a lot more fun, there is often an existential hole in many of our lives.

Now, before I lose you completely (you came here to read about football, right?!), just think how those humans living in the smoky, dirty, dark, cold, industrial north of around 150 years ago must've felt about their lives. They were poor, often hungry, working hard, dangerous jobs to stay alive, their children died young and education was rare. And all the while the barons of industry got rich off of their sweat, blood, toil and labour. Common people didn't have much, but they had each other.

Once the mills and factories started to put out teams and the game became organised and eventually professional, football became a way to bring people together to get behind something bigger than themselves, something that they could be proud of. The team they supported represented them, their community, what their community made and produced; cotton, steel, coal, hats, silk... whatever it was, their football team went on the road every other saturday and represented that town and those people, their tribe.

So that existential hole I was talking about earlier, could be filled, to some degree by football. By the feeling of belonging to something bigger than yourself, something that was able to help you escape the hardship of this unnatural existence, which human evolution had forced upon you. And even better, you had stolen it from your masters.

In turn, the industrial north became the rulers of the football world. Small northern mill towns boasted the most successful teams in the country. In places where people didn't have much, this became everything. And so the game spread across the British Empire and across the globe, taking with it the same appeal, sense of connection and passion that it inspired in Britain, to the working classes of the world.

We are loyal to our football team like we are loyal to very little else. Most of us will have more wives and girlfriends, husbands or boyfriends, than we have football teams. It's this ferocious loyalty which has seen the game grow into a multi-billion pound sport, with the English game the richest of them all.

And much like the poor and working classes were exploited by the wealthy in the 19th & 20th centuries, so the loyalty of football fans is exploited by the sports and media conglomerates of today. We, the working class people of the world, made this game what it is, yet it has always been the play thing of the wealthy, those who own our labour and our football teams. When the money men and the playboys have had their fun, or gone bust in the process, it's the communities that these clubs represent, who are left to pick up the pieces. It has happened at Oldham, Wigan, Bolton, Stockport, Macclesfield and Bury to mention only the local sides. Rich owners come in and then leave the club stripped of assets and cash, in free flow down and out of the Football League. In every case, the loyalty of the fans is the driving force that restores the club and the pride in it. Football fans never give up.

As people we are tribal. We identify most strongly with our immediate locality. People of Oldham are NOT the same as the people of Rochdale, despite their proximity. That is just how people are and that's what football represents. In so many instances, owners purchase a football club without truly understanding what it means to the people of the town. That is exactly what has happened at Oldham Athletic. The owners do not understand the town, the people and the club, nor have they really tried to and that is the problem. Football is about representation. The club represents the town and the fans represent the club. This is at the heart of everything, this IS football, in all it's cultural and symbolic essence.

So, Mr Lemsagm, I have one simple question; how can we represent you, when you don't represent us?

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