Football is one of Britain’s most successful exports. The Premier League is not just a domestic competition but an international phenomenon. Nearly 70 nationalities are represented on the staff of the 20 clubs, and fans from every continent make pilgrimages to watch the Big Six: Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City. When television cameras scan the stands at big games, they capture multi-ethnic, prosperous and diverse crowds, joyfully coming together to support their team. For 90 minutes, it is possible to forget they play in a country being torn apart by Brexit.
The Big Six are based in areas that voted Remain in the 2016 EU referendum. But lower down the football pyramid things are different.
Since the second half of the 19th century, football has been the biggest expression of working-class culture in Britain. It blossomed in the industrial heartlands. Manchester United may have become one of the most recognisable brands in the world but the club started life as an employees’ side at the Newton Heath depot of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. Arsenal were formed by munitions workers in Woolwich, London.
These teams have become global properties in the past two decades. A YouGov survey found that only 28 per cent of Manchester United and 30 per cent of Liverpool supporters are locally based but most clubs remain rooted in their locality, rarely making it into the national spotlight. Stoke City’s support, for example, is 74 per cent locally based, according to the same research, and Mansfield Town’s is probably 99 per cent, according to the club. These Midlands clubs are a weather vane for the political mood of the country.
For supporters of Mansfield, going to the One Call Stadium is, on the face of it, a similar experience to going to Anfield to see Liverpool or Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea. In reality, the glamorous world of the Premier League is as distant as Hollywood stardom is for a Nottinghamshire amateur dramatics society.
Mansfield voted to leave the European Union by a huge majority. The 70.1 per cent Leave vote made it the seventh most Eurosceptic area in the UK. In London, Manchester and Liverpool, the homes of the Premier League aristocracy, the population were keen to Remain. The gulf in sporting terms is echoed in politics. It is no coincidence. Football is at the melancholy – and sometimes angry – heart of Brexit.
Last month, the Market Place and surrounding streets of central Mansfield were bustling. Shoppers were overwhelmingly white, although there was a smattering of Polish speakers chatting outside shops. The pubs in this area are shabby: it is £2 for a pint of Samuel Smith’s Best Bitter in the White Hart. The clientele were as worn as the decor. They were mainly men and happy to discuss the local team – nicknamed “the Stags” – but became suspicious when the conversation turned to politics. “Let’s just get on with it and get out,” one said. When it was suggested that Brexit might damage the national economy, he shrugged. “It won’t hurt us,” he said. “Look around. There’s nothing to hurt.”
The message is clear. Things can hardly get worse. Austerity has blighted Mansfield. Politicians – particularly Sir Alan Meale, the long-time Labour MP who was deposed by Conservative Ben Bradley at the last general election – are considered untrustworthy.
The men in the White Hart remember when Mansfield was a prosperous place. They are part of the over-50s population who came out overwhelmingly in favour of Leave. They have seen better days and the future looks bleak. What do nostalgic and disappointed men who are older than 50 do? They go to the match. Football is one of the few things that has been more or less constant in their lives. For three decades, many of their lives have been in a state of flux.
Many local men were employed in the mining industry. Mansfield was also one of the centres of hosiery manufacturing. The town’s brewery produced beers of renown. Like the Stags, these were sources of pride for citizens.
“Why wouldn’t you be proud to live in a town that not only powered the country through coal, but clothed its women,” Mark Watson, a Mansfield supporter said. “When you had a pint, it had the place’s name on it. It was like a Superhero town.”
Nottinghamshire pitmen defied the National Union of Mineworkers and most worked through the divisive strike of 1984-85. The breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers set up its headquarters in Mansfield. The strike-breakers were well rewarded but their pits still closed. When teams from other former mining regions play at One Call, chants of “Scabs” resound from the away section.
The textile mills shut down in the 1990s but the biggest psychological blow to the area was the loss of the Mansfield brewery. It was once the largest independent brewer in the UK and their bitter was the signature ale of the region. Advertising featured Ronald Reagan’s face alongside a pint with the words: “He might be President of the most powerful nation on earth . . . but he’s never had a pint of Mansfield.”
Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries took over in 1999 and moved production to the Black Country three years later. The loss is still mourned.
“There was almost a tsunami of identity-wiping acts over a couple of decades,” Watson said. “The pits closed, the hosiery factories closed when it was cheaper to import from abroad and the brewery shut. The football club was also being pillaged from inside before finally getting relegated from the league around 2007.”
The fabric of society was being unpicked. The Stags almost went the same way as industry. One potential buyer wanted to rename the club “Harchester United”, after the fictional side in Sky’s Dream Team television series. A succession of asset-stripping owners made survival tenuous.
John Radford took control seven years ago and things have improved. They were promoted back into the Football League in 2013 and remain a rallying point for a community that has lost much of its focus.
At a time of year when cash is in short supply, 5,311 people turned out to see a 0-0 draw with Swindon. The mood in the stands was surprisingly good. There is more of a community feel than at Premier League stadiums. Lots of people knew each other. There were proportionately more women and children than at top-flight games – it costs £36 for two adults and two children – and a sprinkling of black and Asian faces. The majority of supporters were men whose youth had long gone. Many of them wore Adidas Samba training shoes, Lacoste leisurewear and Stone Island jackets, displaying the casual style developed in the late 1970s and 80s. People who dress this way are not necessarily hooligans, but the look projects a message.
“Machoism is part of the local currency,” Watson said. “Mansfield has always had a ‘firm’ [a colloquial term for a gang of football hooligans]. It swells for big games. They’re all a bit older now, but they have young lads coming through. Being a lad, and being macho, gives you a bit of an identity, as well as representing your town.”
These are the footsoldiers of Brexit. Football might also provide its shock troops.
Millwall are followed by a notorious mob. On the Saturday before Christmas they were away to Stoke City. Stoke were a Premier League team until last year but the Potteries have more in common with Mansfield than London, Liverpool and Manchester. Like the Nottinghamshire town, Stoke voted Leave.
Ant Bunn, editor of Duck Magazine, one of the best fanzines in the game, echoed some of the concerns heard in Mansfield. “Football is not about winning,” he said. “Ninety per cent of clubs don’t win trophies so the only thing you’ve got is community and heritage.”
The nature of the region is changing in the post-industrial era. “All we’ve got is the past,” Bunn said. “We’re massively proud of the pottery industry. That and mining dominated the area: pots and pits, smoke and stench. This was always a Labour stronghold but south of the city went Conservative in last election.”
For Bunn, football was intrinsic to community spirit. Stoke’s move from the Victoria Ground to a new stadium in a sterile area on the edge of town 21 years ago was supposed to herald a new era of success but added to the sense of dislocation around the game. “The Victoria Ground was surrounded by houses,” Bunn said. “People lived yards away. It was the centre of the community. Now you have to leave that community to go to the match. There used to be pubs and people near the ground. Now there’s only call centres and warehouses around the stadium. People turn up for the game and then leave.”
Duck Magazine produces a bobble hat design that features an iconic bottle-oven skyline evoking the pottery industry. It illustrates how tightly woven a football club’s identity is with local consciousness. The Six Towns of the Potteries are defiantly clinging on to their sense of self. The Leave vote may have been an assertion of local pride although Bunn believes there is a starker explanation. “As a city we’ve always been put down,” he said. “Perhaps that explains the politics of it, the perceived aloneness felt by a city that’s actually slap bang in the middle of the country. As a people we are lovely and welcoming and inclusive – yet guarded at the same time. The Brexit vote feels like a cry for help from a city.”
The sense of alienation is mirrored at Stoke’s Bet365 Stadium. “You used to meet and talk about the match in the pubs,” Bunn said. “Now everyone heads home and discusses the game on social media.”
Stoke beat Millwall 1-0 in a stadium built for the Premier League. It’s a no-man’s land: outside the top flight, apart from the city. Millwall supporters, like panto villains, surged towards the fences while waiting to be bussed back into town. No blows appear to have been exchanged. It was quiet, too, at the station. On the platform, a middle-aged south Londoner chanted half-heartedly about Tommy Robinson. His mates shushed him.
Robinson started life as Stephen Yaxley-Lennon. The former leader of the English Defence League (EDL) was convicted of football hooliganism in 2011. In fact, the entire persona of the 36-year-old is rooted in terrace violence. He took the pseudonym Tommy Robinson, copying the leader of Luton Town’s MIG (Men In Gear) crew in the 1980s and 90s.
The far-right draw some of their most vocal advocates from football supporters. There is a long history of extremist organisations attempting to recruit fans. The National Front were trying it 40 years ago. Today’s activists take a different approach.
The Football Lads Alliance (FLA) was set up in 2016 as an “anti-extremist” movement comprised of “firms” from across the country, some of whom are traditional enemies like West Ham and Millwall. The FLA was primarily concerned with protesting against Islamic terrorism. Last year, a financial scandal led to a schism in the group and a new faction, the Democratic Football Lads Alliance (DFLA) appeared.
The word, “lads”, generally signals active hooligans. These are not the downbeat, protest voters of Mansfield and Stoke. They are committed right-wing cabals. James Goddard, who was filmed trying to intimidate Anna Soubry outside Parliament and called the Conservative MP a traitor, has attended FLA and DFLA rallies and the latter group contains a significant number of former servicemen, members of the Veterans Against Terrorism sub-division. Some of those involved see themselves as guardians of Brexit. Many are confident streetfighters from the 1980s and 90s – dozens skirmished with baton-wielding police at a DFLA match in London in October – and they have powerful allies. A so called Day of Freedom rally last year in support of Robinson was attended by both football-based groups as well as Breitbart and Geert Wilders from the Dutch Freedom Party. “People mock the right but they are slick and have a professional approach,” said Les Crang, an academic who has studied and observed the FLA and DFLA at close quarters. “A lot of people assume they lack depth. That’s very far from the truth. They have outreach programmes and are media savvy.”
There are left-leaning football fans, too. Football Lads and Lasses Against Fascism was formed last year. Most of the spats between the opposing factions have taken place on social media but there are some on both sides who would be happy to see confrontation in the real world.
In Mansfield and Stoke, the Brexit vote may have been generated by a nostalgia for the past, when football was simpler, less expensive and part of a wider local culture. The DFLA have more dangerous instincts and a political agenda that is underpinned by the violent instincts of the terraces. The dark underside of Britain’s greatest export was unleashed by the 2016 referendum.
All pictures by Peter Dench for Tortoise