What is a football club? Sir Bobby Robson put it best…

Editor F365

Sir Bobby Robson was speaking about his beloved Newcastle United but his summation of a football club was universal and beautiful.

The following is a wonderful extract from Underground, Overground: The Fault Lines of Football Clubs, which you can pre-order here.


“What is a football club?” This is an easy question. If you’re reading this, chances are you have a favourite one. A football club is a group of people that provide one of the two teams required for a football match. Amateur clubs do so for the pleasures of their members; professional ones sell t-shirts.

The easy answer is fine, as far as it goes, but in a very important sense it fails to go far enough. Leaving aside the amateur clubs: why, if this is it, are football clubs supported? Why are they supported in such overwhelming ways? ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ has accompanied couples down the aisle and coffins into the flames. Children are named after footballers, arms are inked with badges, faces, trophies, dates. Memories are tethered to footballing moments and lives are measured out against them. Football grounds shape and even dominate cities: the largest of them hunch against the urban skyline like cathedrals, floodlight-spires jagging into the air.

Perhaps we might think about other things that football clubs resemble, other institutions of social importance. Stare at any given club for long enough and some familiar shapes will emerge. There’s a bit of a parish church in there, and a bit of a community centre. There’s a lifestyle brand, and a theatre for both pantomime and drama, and a museum, and a pub, and a social club and a reading group and a choir and a comedy improv troupe and an argument – lots of arguments – and maybe even a bit of a folk tale as well. History, society and culture, comedy and tragedy. All stitched together into this strange chimera: a football club. And while all clubs are fundamentally quite similar, each is distinct from every other in important and particular ways, like a large and uncommonly exciting bag of Revels.

Another question. Who do clubs belong to? When it comes to professional clubs, the legal entities belong to whoever has shelled out the money that the last owner was looking for, be that Roman Abramovich or Mike Ashley, the City Football Group or Manchester United plc. But this is an uncomfortably technical answer, correct and dispiriting: we can counter by suggesting that they also belong, in a far more powerful sense that probably wouldn’t stand up in court, to their fans.

In the early years of the 21st century, something unusual happened to one of England’s football clubs. The owners of Wimbledon FC were given permission to move the club some 60-odd miles north, to the new town of Milton Keynes. This was and remains exceptionally controversial, and in response a large number of Wimbledon fans formed a new club, AFC Wimbledon.

While what happened to Wimbledon was obviously extraordinary in its final outcome, the broad dynamics behind the split were familiar, perhaps even commonplace. At heart, this is a story of a club’s owners messing around with a club to the great frustration and unhappiness of the fans, and that is a story that has been repeated over and over at every level of the game. Cardiff City, Hull City, Charlton Athletic, Blackpool, Macclesfield Town, York City, Portsmouth…the list goes on. In fact, it might be quicker to list those clubs whose fans have never through some manner of owner-instigated strife. As far as I can tell, that’s none of them.

Generally this manifests in less spectacular ways: poor transfer decisions or managerial appointments, changes to colours or the crest. And these are met with varying levels of anger in the stands, on phone-ins and on social media. A full-scale relocation and subsequent phoenix club is extremely rare. But the idea of a divide between ‘the club’ – the owner, the directors, the associated executives, the people who actually run the thing – and ‘the fans’ – the people that are interested in a club but not practically involved with running it – is a persistent one. A depressing survey carried out by the Football Supporters’ Federation in 2017 found that 68% of English football fans felt that their club did not care about them or their views.

Arsenal fans

Wimbledon’s split – or relocation, or death and rebirth – was a moment of crisis that brought this tension out into the light and forced football fans to confront and interrogate their ideas of what a club is and is not, should and should not be. To consider what is critical about a club’s identity, what defines that identity and what an appropriate response might be when this identity is threatened. Forming a new club is a step beyond simply ceasing support for your old one. Were AFC’s fans abandoning their club, or had their club abandoned them? And beyond that question, a tangle of others, most notably: why, if you pick a football club up and put it down somewhere else, will the broad sweep of the football community respond by saying “Hang on, no, that’s not right”?

When I asked football fans the question we began with, I found that a fair few of them were happy to pass the question on to English football’s highest moral authority, the late Bobby Robson:

“What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.”

The enduring appeal of this definition is not just down to Robson’s lovely turn of phrase. It is a definition in two competing parts, positive and negative, not this or this but that and that. It is an argument. It asserts the existence of that same fault line identified above, the distinction between the club as a thing that is owned by a person or a few people, and the club as a thing that belongs to all its fans. Indeed, though he wasn’t talking about actual fan ownership, Robson’s club is a thing made by and of fans: present and engaged, active and affected, helplessly in love. To support a football club is an act of creation.

Robson’s definition is particularly pointed when considered in the context of Newcastle United. Newcastle: My Kind of Toon was published in 2008, a few years after Robson had been surprisingly and rather brutally sacked as manager by the much-loathed Douglas Hall and Freddy Shepherd. They eventually sold the club to Mike Ashley, the London-based billionaire chief executive of Sports Direct, whose stewardship of the club has descended into farcical tragicomedy. But while Newcastle’s ownership travails may be unusually baroque, the shape is familiar: the club’s owners, the club’s fans, the agitation of the latter by the inadequacies of the former. Yet never at any point does the identity of the club become wholly subsumed by its owners. Ashley is not definitive of Newcastle United; indeed, the more ridiculous his time in charge gets, the more he presents as some parasitic entity, attached but separate.

By presenting his definition as an argument, Robson folds this sense of contestation into the very idea of the club itself: it is not just that the club is made up of the fans and their affection, but that it is so in the face of this other conception, this other idea of what a club might be. What it cannot be allowed to be. There is, too, a sense of time passing, hands held across generations, the club tended and bequeathed. It is a constant process of affection, made and made again. And it is universal. We know that Robson is talking about his city of Newcastle, his beloved Newcastle United, but his definition is generous enough to encompass the world. This falling in love may happen in one particular place – that intersection of young fan with steps, hand and turf – but the world is filled with such particular places. Every club has one. Many stories of football support begin with one. To support a football club is to carry out a specific and localised version of a near-universal practice: clubs are necessarily distinct but categorically alike, just as every love story is its own irreplicable variation on a common theme of shared intimacy, humanity and joy, as similar and wholly individual as snowflakes.

The way in which Robson’s definition has become a touchstone suggests that plenty of football fans want to think about their clubs in the same way he did his. As something made beyond the corporate boxes and boardrooms. As hundreds and thousands of localised love stories. As the continual creation and recreation of affection and devotion, renewed every time a fresh pair of wide eyes falls onto the same bounded green space.

This is an extract from Underground, Overground: The fault lines of football clubs, by Andi Thomas, coming from Halcyon Publishing later this month. You can preorder it here.