The front cover shows Albion fans protesting against Bill Archer. The back cover
shows Manchester United's Old Trafford Superstore. So it's not a book full of hilariously
tall tales or whimsical trips down memory lane, then...
Ed Horton has been one of When Saturday Comes' most outspoken contributors for several
years now, regularly popping up to harangue unsuspecting readers with his extraordinarily
bleak vision of the future. What, in the limited confines of WSC, amounts to little more than a poke in the eye
becomes a repeated, unavoidable smack round the chops in the pages of Moving The Goalposts.
I've had a dig at Horton elsewhere on these pages (Where The Sun Don't
Shine) but those criticisms seem rather trivial now. Football fans are evolving. We've
always acted as critics, more recently we've been forced to act as protestors -
we've never before had to act as revolutionaries, yet that is exactly what we must
be. It'd be unreasonable to expect miracles, to demand perfect solutions at this
stage - we're still learning and, since my ideas are still in a state of flux, I'm in
no position to criticise.
'We'. I've already started using that word, despite previously slagging the Brimsons for simplistic
'us' against 'them' polarisation. Why am I more forgiving when Horton employs the same technique?
Well, for one thing, Horton has no intention of confining
football fans to a social ghetto, of pretending that fans are a single interest
pressure group - quite the reverse, if anything. For another,
Horton employs great, great rhetoric. The worldview that he's selling to us is not
necessarily simplistic - perhaps it's just that the huge mess that is modern football is
actually very simple, perhaps the situation really has gone so far that it is possible to
draw a dividing line between 'us' and 'them'.
Whatever, Moving The Goalposts is an absolute steamroller of a book, something
that should be every bit as important in its own way as Fever Pitch was.
The ferocity of argument is unparalleled. Chapter after chapter after chapter
condemning in the strongest possible terms the current state of football and those who are responsible
Chapters on commercialisation, ticket prices, wages, the devilish influence of
television, ground-shares, feeder clubs, mergers, the Premiership, the Champions
League. A chapter on the Bosman ruling that
quite brilliantly achieves a balance between acceptance of justice for out-of-contract
players and condemnation of the way that decision has been exploited. A chapter that
absolutely demolishes the Taylor report. A chapter that lays into
Manchester United like no-one has ever laid into them before, bringing us to the inescapable
conclusion that the country's biggest club is exploiting football and expecting football
to feel grateful.
That alone would be enough, a pile-driving piece of work that annihilates myths and
exposes lies. But there's more. Horton's pessimism may lead him to believe that
change is near impossible, with neither the current football authorities nor the current
government willing to incur the wrath of Murdoch, Sugar et al, yet that doesn't stop
him mapping out his route to a better future.
It's not all convincing - I remain extremely sceptical of subsidies for lower division
clubs, mainly because the level of safeguards required to stop that money falling into
the hands of the Archers and Richardsons of this world would seem prohibitive. But it's
there, it's raising a debate not only about what we detest about the post-Premiership
game but also what we'd like in its place.
Ultimately, I believe that straight subsidy is a cop-out. If we're really to solve
the problems faced by all but the biggest few clubs, we can only do it by removing the
main catalyst for those problems - private ownership, with all its personality-led
short-termism. If we can afford to subsidise smaller clubs, we can afford to bring
those clubs into some form of public ownership when the chance arises. Horton sees
this as an ideal, I see it as less unrealistic than that - many of these clubs are going to be in crisis, the opportunities
will be there.
Of course, many of you will be reading this and picturing Doncaster or Brighton or
Exeter or Hartlepool. What has any of this got to do with an upwardly mobile club
like Watford? One hell of a lot, that's what. The rumours of savage price rises for
next season, for a start. The proposed redevelopment of the East Stand, which will remove
the last bit of character from Vicarage Road. Trivial though it may seem, the fact that the club has largely ignored
fans' feelings with regard to "Z Cars" is not a great cause for optimism.
More than that, there's the whole issue of finance. The new board of directors
is made up of businessmen, people who think in terms of profit and not charity. If it's looking to
compete with the bigger fish, Watford Football Club will not be profitable on a day-to-day
basis - wages, transfer fees and other expenses will see to that. Even in one Premiership season,
Swindon's wage bill rose astronomically - and wage inflation has gathered pace since then. The vast majority of clubs in
the Premiership are not recording an operating profit, many are a million miles away.
So where does the directors' reward come from? Is it from loaning the club money to
cover those increased expenses, effectively getting us still deeper into debt, and
creaming off interest? Is it, as seems most likely, from a flotation in the future? Or both?
Whichever it is, we should be more wary. At Watford, we've known genuine generosity - but
Elton John is the only example Horton can find of such a thing and it's not Elton's
money this time around. When we demand increased expenditure on players, that is not
going to come from a big pot of money that just happens to be lying around. If it's anything
substantial, it will come from loans, loans that will have be paid back at
some point, loans that may be subject to interest. Keep your eyes open.
These are things that football supporters, whoever they follow, cannot think and argue about enough. No-one else
is going to stand in the way of the so-called 'free' market, no-one else is going to object.
Moving The Goalposts is at once conservative and radical, cynical and
romantic, bitter and idealistic. It will fill your belly with fire, your heart
with renewed passion, your head with thoughts of revolution. It is magnificent. You don't have to
agree with it...but you must read it.
It left me feeling empowered. I can think of no higher compliment.