Why we should never stop putting our shoulders to the wheel of football change

John Nicholson
Manchester United fans protest
Manchester United fans protest

‘Don’t you ever stop moaning about football?’ someone once messaged me to say. ‘Do you even like football?’

I know some people think that because I am often extremely critical of football’s finances, politics, morality and culture, that I must not like football at all. But nothing could be further from the truth. If I wasn’t so completely seduced, obsessed and absorbed by all football at every level, I wouldn’t care at all about its finances, politics, morality and culture. But I am, so I do.

Football is woven into most aspects of my life so when I see it so readily accepting the unacceptable, mine and other critics’ protestations are not just shallow moaning, they’re protestations and illustrations at the defilement of something we love.

Rather, it seems to me, those who just accept it all uncritically and even now still write to tell us to ‘stick to the football’ are the ones who don’t love or care for the game, the ones waving in every appalling human rights abuser and capitalist attack dog without a care. Nihilists, ever pliant, for whom nothing ever really matters, swallowing every last ounce of guff and propaganda pushed out by the clubs and the owners.

We know protestations about the finances, politics, morality and culture of top-flight football might apparently make no difference, but that doesn’t mean we should say nothing about them. We know things change and while that change may be glacial, eventually we arrive somewhere that is not where we are now.

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Any knowledge of history shows us that every small act, every piece written, every conversation made, every logic spelled out, slowly, incrementally moves the dial.

About 45 years ago I saw a fan stop another fan from throwing a banana at West Ham’s Clyde Best. One small act. One small step on the road to making such racist behaviour unacceptable. In itself not much, but something, and it was something which someone else, somewhere else also did. And someone else, somewhere else. And eventually it all rolls into a cultural force. It’s not a straight road; there are many detours and bumps, many hills to climb and obstacles to overcome and it is always ongoing, we never arrive at nirvana, the journey goes on forever, but change comes.

A perfect illustration of this will happen in Australia and New Zealand in two weeks. We are on the verge of the biggest women’s World Cup ever. Everyone who put the shoulder to the wheel for women’s football over the last at least 50 years, moved that wheel a little bit further, taking down the walls built to stop them, one brick at a time.

Sometimes it feels like you’re not getting anywhere and that is certainly what the conservative wants the progressive to believe. But women’s football is a great example of how pointing out and protesting stupidity, ignorance and bigotry can transform a sport, transform society.

Twenty years ago I wrote a piece suggesting women be employed as pundits on men’s football and that there should be a MOTD for women’s football. It provoked a lot of abuse and no little contempt. One fella even suggested ‘You’re just saying this to get off with women, like them men who pretend to like cats.’ Aye. Right. But here we are. And look what’s happened. Shoulder to the wheel. Don’t give up. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

All along the way there have been naysayers, people who were outright nasty, negative and neanderthal about women’s football and others who thought it was just a lot of moaning about PC nonsense. Get back in the kitchen, luv. All of that. But all those shoulders that were put to the wheel eventually became an unstoppable force.

And, again, here we are. Women’s football is big and getting bigger. More women and girls are playing the game than ever before and it is on its way to being an entirely normalised part of society, with those who so volubly decry it now widely seen as sexist and ignorant.

That’s all been achieved by ‘moaners’, by people who wouldn’t toe the line, who wouldn’t take no for an answer, who kicked back and kicked back hard. People who only ever wanted equality, respect and fairness and who knew it was not too much to demand. There are still battles to be fought, and it’s not a perfect world, but change is here and is ongoing.

So if you read anything which is pointing out what is wrong with some aspect of football finances, politics, morality and culture, it’s not clickbait, it’s not pointless moaning, it’s not PC or woke virtue signalling, its someone who cares deeply for the game pushing one more time at that wheel.

And if you still think it is just moaning, take a look in the mirror. How much do you really care about football? Maybe it’s not as much as those people who you criticise. They’re inventing the future, so what are you doing? I’ll tell you what you’re doing. You’re just moaning.

Do you even like football?

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