‘We need to bottle the energy and apply it’: Mike Calvin on football’s stand against the Super League

If a week is a long time in politics, the same is true for football. Since Sunday evening, the sport has breathlessly lurched from chaos to confusion, before finding a home somewhere between hope and (as far as the Super League is concerned) humiliation.

There aren’t many people better placed to make sense of the situation than Mike Calvin. The former Daily Telegraph, Mail on Sunday and Sunday Mirror journalist has an encyclopaedic knowledge of European football, forged from a career spanning over 40 years. Following the launch of his latest book, ‘Whose Game Is It Anyway?’, Beat The Press spoke to Calvin about the events of the last week.

You tweeted yesterday that you were pessimistic, despite the collapse of the Super League plans. Why is that?

I suppose it’s borne from a mistrust of the system. I had a sort of three-year sabbatical from writing to help set up an organization called the English Institute of Sport (EIS), where we looked after 36 sports, most of which were Olympic sports, and tried to work within the high performance system.

It was successful in as much as the EIS was deemed to be one of the key generators of Olympic success, from Beijing onwards. But, having worked in the system, I have first-hand experience of the venality of some people and the hypocrisy which is institutionalized in sport.

Most governing bodies, whoever they might be, tend to over promote the wrong people. There’s a narrow focus: they look in on themselves rather than look out into the real world.

I also worked very closely with government. I might not have been fortunate to meet (Margaret) Thatcher after Heysel, but one thing that meeting did give me was an insight into the application of power and the enduring influence of falsehoods.

There were nine of us called in to sit around a big mahogany table on the first floor at 10 Downing Street and it was obvious she’d made her mind up: football fans were second class citizens and deserve to be demonized. That was taken to an unforgivable extreme in the aftermath of Hillsborough.

Those attitudes were certainly prevalent in the early stages of the pandemic. The first instinct of (Matt) Hancock and Dominic Raab and people like that was to indulge in a bit of moral blackmail and play up to the stereotypes that that footballers were feckless multi-millionaires.

Actually, the most effective and socially active politician over the last year or so has been Marcus Rashford, who’s had a material effect on thousands if not hundreds of thousands of lives and deserves the greatest credit for that.

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So, my pessimism is rooted in the fact that the moment easy headlines loomed up, we saw a vacuous prime minister diving on something that he has no idea about.

We’ve got the fan-led review, which is just being instituted. I have a lot of time for Tracy Crouch. I think she’s one of the better sports ministers of recent years, but I just mistrust the system to actually do something.

It (the review) will take a long time. It will be couched in terms that give successive administrations get outs. If I had confidence that it was more than a nice little headline generator, I’d be optimistic and, to be honest, I’d love to talk to them.

But could self-interest, from a political perspective, potentially help the review to really reshape the way English football is run? Boris Johnson has a lot of ‘Red Wall’ seats to defend at the next election: surely he has a reason to back substantial reform to the way the game is organised?

I’m sure there will be political advantage in being seen as the politician or the prime minister who rode to the rescue as the sort of ‘Robin Hood of football’.

For me, it’s not a party-political issue. It’s a game that I love. I’ve fallen back in love with it despite all the distractions and the things which tell me not to do so, simply because I’ve seen the good the game can do.

I’m not talking about the 90 minutes; I’m talking about the rest of the week. Accrington (Stanley), for example, has got a whole range of social initiatives. They’re not unique. Most football clubs run literacy classes and look after our elderly. They are social hubs.

What we’ve seen in the last week is this huge outpouring of energy from the media, from supporters, from government. I have a friend who is a Chelsea fan and went to Stanford Bridge before the game against Brighton.

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He kept texting me saying, ‘This is amazing’. I found that really uplifting. That was an evening of euphoria: one by one, the dominoes fell.

I think we’ve got to remember that euphoria and not let anyone else take that achievement away from us. I talk about ‘us’ because it is a collective thing. We had, for instance, all the supporters and organizations associated with the six clubs (involved in the Super League) acting in concert, acting together.

There was none of the tribalism that we identify with modern football. We need to bottle that energy and apply it, not just to the financial side of football, but the social side of football.

Let’s have a concerted attempt to sort out the social media companies. Let’s have a concerted attempt to treat racism with the seriousness which that virulent disease requires. No more slogans, no more nice little sign soundbites, no more corporate comfort blankets. Attack it.

We don’t want to reintroduce tribalism where it’s not needed, but what about the clubs that did try and breakaway from the Premier League? How should they be penalised?

Think about if you’re a Wigan fan and your team has been relegated because of a points deduction. There are a host of similar examples. How do you feel when the individuals who control six clubs – to the disgust of the vast majority of their supporters, it should be said – have actively plotted for months to destroy the system?

You can’t do that and be welcomed back into the boys club the next day, but there’s an obvious economic influence to consider. The other 14 Premier League clubs have a vested interest in the gates that those six clubs would generate.

Someone suggested to me yesterday that if you’re Liverpool or say Manchester United, you say ‘We are going to donate 25% of our income to the football pyramid’. That then goes straight down to clubs who can use that money.

I think that’s a brilliant idea. It’s almost like a one-off fine. That will then give us a real measure of these synthetic, stomach churning, tactical apologies that we’ve had over the last couple of days. It’s like a punishment, but a positive punishment for the common good. That might work.

‘Whose Game Is It Anyway?’ was released on 19th April. You can read more about the book here.

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