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How the Failed Super League Exacerbated the Fan-Owner Dynamic As new European seasons begin after the spring’s failed Super League launch, the author of Fever Pitch, the celebrated memoir of football fanhood, considers the fraying relationship between supporter and shareholder.
NICK HORNBY5 HOURS AGO
In 1999, Manchester City, now the richest team in England and the reigning Premier League champion, was playing a future-defining game at Wembley Stadium. As the match approached injury time, Man City was two goals down, but there were five additional minutes to be played. City scored in the 90th and 95th minutes to take the game to extra time and eventually a penalty shootout, which it won.

The game was against little Gillingham, and it was future-defining because it was a playoff game, and it got City out of the third tier of English football. Thirteen years later, and after massive investment, it became the best team in the country. It is not impossible to imagine that if Gillingham’s keeper had pushed Paul Dickov’s 95th-minute equalizer around the post, another team might have been the beneficiary of Sheikh Mansour’s largesse. Sunderland, maybe. Or Birmingham. Or Gillingham.

Arsenal fans protest owner Stan Kroenke
Leon Neal/Getty Images

There are good reasons to be infuriated by the involvement of every single one of the clubs in the spring Super League fiasco, in which a self-appointed elite group from three countries tried to cut risk and excellence out of the equation and play one another forever, to maximize the profits of the brands created mostly by the players of the past. Of the English “Big Six” that announced their participation—Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur—the two from North London, Spurs and Arsenal, neatly and satirically finished seventh and eighth last season. (My team, Arsenal, announced its membership shortly after scrambling to a draw against Fulham, which was relegated not long afterward.) Manchester United, the biggest club in the country, hasn’t won a title for eight years. But for Man City to announce that it was raising the drawbridge was particularly galling. It was nobody’s idea of an elite superpower even 15 years ago. If anyone knows that the fortunes of even the most hapless-looking team can change unexpectedly, it’s Man City.

It is hard to understand what the Super League founders thought was going to happen following their unilateral declaration of independence. It seemed almost calculated to enrage, so one would have expected the protests that ensued to have been anticipated, priced in and fronted out. Instead, the Super League collapsed, like the kind of school bully who has never been punched back before, bursts into tears and runs home to his mum when it happens. But the abandonment of the scheme hardly defused the anger. Manchester United fans invaded Old Trafford and caused the postponement of a game against Liverpool 10 days after the club had withdrawn. As a new season begins, it looks as though the resentment and distrust is here to stay.

Manchester United fans storm Old Trafford
Manchester United fans storm Old Trafford, causing the postponement of a match vs. Liverpool in May 2021.

Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

I saw Arsenal play just once last season, due to the pandemic, and it was the last game. I was sitting behind a group of fans who waved their Kroenke Out placards—Arsenal’s American billionaire owner, Stan Kroenke, who also owns the NFL’s Rams and several other U.S.-based teams, is not popular—whenever the cameras went near them, weeks after the Super League scheme had ended in embarrassment and chaos. My teenage sons, both season-ticket holders and obsessives, were disgusted to the extent that there was a family conversation about which London club we would now watch. Brentford? QPR? Orient? The Premier League is the best in the world, unbeatable now in terms of star power and excitement, but the whole family was prepared to turn our backs on it, and on a lifetime of Arsenal fandom, if the Super League went ahead.

This kind of implacable, structural disgust is something relatively new in English football. Every now and again, when it was clear that mismanagement or asset-stripping was taking place, a chairperson or a board of directors would be subject to abuse from fans, but for the most part, this side of the game was uninteresting to us. So how has supporter anger crested over time, fundamentally altering the dynamics of fandom to the point of revolt?

Arsenal fans protest against owner Stan Kroenke after the club’s attempt to join a European Super League.
Arsenal fans protest against owner Stan Kroenke after the club’s attempt to join a European Super League.

 

Istarted watching Arsenal in 1968, when the chairman was an Old Etonian called Sir Denis Hill-Wood. Sir Denis had inherited the position from his father, an Old Etonian called Sir Samuel Hill-Wood; he passed it on to his son, an Old Etonian called Peter Hill-Wood. Eton is

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