Football remains England’s national sport. As the 2003-4 season closes for the Premiership there can be little doubt, if television viewing figures are to be believed, that the English public’s enthusiasm for football is at an all-time high.
At football games today supporters come from all strata of society and include more women and young girls than ever before. There can be much debate about how such enthusiasm has developed over recent years but part of the reason must be the increased accessibility of games through television and the social ambience enjoyed by watching games on big screens in bars by groups of young people.
Yet only twenty years ago the game was ravaged by hooliganism and, in desperation, politicians brought all-seater stadia into the English game with very positive results. Unfortunately loutish behaviour still sporadically characterises the English supporters abroad when the national team is playing away but there are signs that even that is improving.
The increased accessibility of the game through television has prompted huge sums of money to be pumped into football, mainly into the Premier League clubs and players, and there is concern that the current structures and regulations within English football are not sufficient to handle the substantial changes going on within the game.
This concern encouraged the All Party Parliamentary Football Group, of which I am a member, to carry out an enquiry into the current state of English football and its finances. It published its findings earlier this year which can be found on www.allpartyfootballgroup.org.uk.
What I was impressed with during my time on the enquiry team over ten months was the enthusiasm from all parts of the football "industry" not only to give evidence but to take part with a belief that such an enquiry was long overdue. Almost everyone feels that the finances of football need to be reviewed urgently and constructive initiatives proposed to ensure that professional clubs at all levels are able to maintain their existence alongside clubs such as Manchester United and Arsenal.
During the last thirty years only a dozen or so clubs have had the ability to stay in the Premier League and before that the First Division. Teams such as Everton, Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton have stayed in mid-table without ever becoming League champions. Teams like Darlington, Scunthorpe and Rochdale have stayed in the lower leagues without ever looking like joining the higher echelons. Yet both the bigger and smaller clubs see growing numbers of supporters despite the modest expectations they must have.
This I can most readily understand. I have supported Bury since I was a young boy and, as any football supporter will tell you, your first love stays with you for life. It may well be that Manchester United and Arsenal now have hundreds of thousands of supporters throughout the country but there are still many who chose their team because they live in the town or even a far-off team because of the colour of their strip. Football is part of our national heritage, a vital part of our national community and one that I will fight long and hard to maintain at its lowest levels.
There are many ways that the social glue of community works in this country and football was very important in the years before mass media. While it is possible now to believe that someone from Newcastle can support Chelsea it is also clear that a town such as Yeovil has had its sense of identity helped over the years by the achievements of its football team.
Football has left behind its appalling reputation for hooliganism and, though no one can say that the terraces are places of immaculately polite behaviour, the national game has grown in the public consciousness such that its stars are household celebrities.
The positive attitude of everyone involved in the recent parliamentary enquiry gave me great hope that football in this country will receive its proper attention in the years ahead. I believe it is important that the game is not allowed to split into the "haves" and the "have-nots" such that the community game of the last hundred or so years simply becomes a financially-obsessed regulated ritual between franchised "clubs" in 10 or 12 catchment areas as has developed in American football.