Updated: May 10, 2020
David Conn was born in the same year I was, so it was fascinating to read the view of someone with the same reference points – we were both, for example, at the 1981 FA Cup final and the Maine Road riot in 1993 – he with City and me with Spurs – who has seen the game develop from cult interest through pariah status and into multi-billion pound entertainment product.
It’s that journey, that transformation, that Conn details, revealing as he does how the governing body of the English game sold itself, and in consequence everyone associated with the game, down the river. Conn’s hard-headed enough to recognise the realities of a changing world and this is no rose-tinted nostalgia trip, but his gut instincts as a fan make him ask challenging questions about what has been lost. At every point, he always asks a question I was told to ask very early on both in my journalism career and when I started to become politically active – in whose interests is this development?
The Beautiful Game concerns itself mainly with the formation of the Premier League and what that has meant for the game. When the Premier League clubs broke away, all the talk was of ‘improving the English game’ – 21 seasons on the reality is clear. English football is dominated by a few rich clubs, the national team is an afterthought, and at grass roots level football is played in the same decrepit surroundings as it has been for decades. The trickle-down effect has been as phoney a concept in football as it was in the wider economy – making the rich richer doesn’t encourage them to distribute money, it encourages them to want more.
The book delivers a damning judgement on the Football Association, finding that it has abrogated its responsibility as the governing body of a national sport. Not only that, it willingly participated in the process by which modern owners changed sporting clubs into sporting businesses, reversing the intentions of the game’s pioneers. In a year when the FA will do much crowing about its 150th anniversary, Conn’s forensic examination of the organisation’s failings deserves as wide an audience as possible.
There’s plenty in the book on Hillsborough, what led to it, why the authorities tried to blame the fans, and how the game managed to profit from the deaths of 96 people who were its customers. Conn has access to some senior figures, and few, if any, emerge with much credit. He looks at how, at clubs such as York and Wrexham and Notts County, the fans have stepped in to try to salvage their clubs from the mess various transient owners and big-time Charlies made, and which football’s governing body did little or nothing to help with.
This strand leads, inevitably, to the story of AFC Wimbledon and the disgraceful treatment of Wimbledon FC. As a passionate fan himself, Conn’s sympathies are with the people whose club means so much more than just a business or a franchise. But interestingly, he also refuses to get drawn into the romanticism about the old club. It’s true the rise from non-League side to FA Cup winners is a great story but, he says, Wimbledon’s style of football made them widely reviled at the the time. Think modern-day Stoke City with pranks and you get the idea. Conn says Wimbledon reminded him far too much of the thuggish Sunday League sides he frequently came up against while playing to give off too much romantic allure.
Throughout this book, Conn maintains the view that football is “a great game, but booming out of control”. And that’s why Richer than God is a fascinating read. The book was marketed, rather mistakenly I think, as an inside view of the modern Manchester City – although I can see the commercial logic of hanging a title on the league champions.
In reality, it’s about the bigger picture. Subtitled ‘Manchester City, modern football and growing up’, the book is something of a personal journey for Conn. He recalls what City meant to him as a kid, and how his coverage of the farcical Francis Lee takeover gradually opened his eyes to the fact that clubs were changing from something representing community, accumulated memory and identity to mere business to be traded and profited from. And he wonders if, really, he loves the club and the game as much as he used to.
It’s a journey many of us in this generation will be familiar with. Are we kidding ourselves that the thing we support now is the thing we grew up supporting? Conn’s journey takes him through the freezing changing rooms and waterlogged pitches of grass roots football, still waiting for any more than the Manchester rain to trickle down, through a life following City with all the ups and downs that has entailed through the years, and into personal audiences with the Abu Dhabi bigwigs who now own the club.
It’s remarkably honest in places – Conn may be a fan but he’s not blind to his club’s faults. But it’s also measured, Conn weighing up the realities of a changed world and revealing some surprising positives. And there are some genuinely moving moments, such as the description of an anarchic evening watching FC United of Manchester, and the conclusion in which Conn gets to see his side win the League.
In The Beautiful Game, Conn was scathing about Abramovitch’s Chelsea, so I was interested to see what he made of Shiekh Mansour’s City in Richer than God. Whether he sees the latter, despite everything, rather too much through the eyes of a fan while viewing the former with hard-headed detachment is something you’ll have to make up your own mind about, but I found this central tension incredibly thought-provoking.
If you are interested in football beyond the surface, these books come highly recommended. I doubt there will be a more well-researched, well-argued, passionate and above all human history of the modern game written.