The Roker Ramble: Football Ltd.

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Oh, how we laughed. He's done it again, we said, he's taken them for a ride once more.

Yes, as news broke late last Wednesday evening of Mike Ashley's latest footballing faux pas, those on the red and white side of the northeast divide couldn't help but break into a wry smile. With things going so well on Tyneside this season, Sunderland's own poor start has been magnified by such regional factors, as the Magpies stole an early lead in the tussle for the region's bragging rights.

But, amidst the simultaneous outrage and hilarity surrounding the 'Sports Direct Arena', it was hard not to think that this was just one more death knell in the coffin of the sport.

Is this really what it has come to? Circumventing 'financial fair play' (the term 'fair' here is an arguable one, but we'll leave that for some other time) rulings by selling naming rights for stadiums? What about tradition? History?

The sour taste emanating from high atop the city of Newcastle by Thursday morning was unavoidable. St James' Park, a name that resonated through football as bastion of madcap Magpies and feverish support, having whetted a city's appetite for the game for well over a century, is now no more. Instead, ardent black and whites will rock up to a home now branded by a company synonymous with selling discounted sportswear - hardly a fair swap of histories, it has to be said.

Of course, this is nothing new.

Rather, it's becoming a trend. Bolton Wanderers were one of the first to put their house on the market, moving into the retail-tastic Reebok Stadium back in 1997. Since then, we've seen any amount of ludicrous monikers come and go: the Walkers Stadium, Kit Kat Crescent and the Ricoh Arena to name just a few. Not one of these product-branded ground names bear even a passing resemblance to the clubs that inhabit them.

It is likely to get worse. As sponsorship deals expire, fans will find themselves returning to a home in August whose name differs from when they last left it at the end of the previous season in May. Football stadium names will embrace a promiscuity rivalled only by the English League Cup, where the name of the trophy has changed, on average, every five years since 1982.

Many have contended that the naming issue is a mere add-on, and that football grounds in England sold their soul when they embarked on the road to the all-seater stadium. This is an argument worthy of note, but one with which context must be provided.

The trend towards the abolition of the standing terraces in the UK came under the shadow of Hillsborough. The home of Sheffield Wednesday, now irrevocably associated with that fateful day in April 1989, was analysed and then lambasted by the famous Taylor Report - and rightly so.

This caused something of a knee-jerk reaction, from both the authorities and the clubs themselves. Scarred by the events of Hillsborough and the horrific Bradford City fire four years prior, the decision to bump up supporter safety correctly became paramount, and gone were the days of standing at top-level football. Across the nation, identikit stadiums, complete with postmodern exteriors and framework rooftops, rose from the ground, while many years of club history sank below the surface, never to return. With those old grounds went abundances of character; atmosphere, too, would suffer.

Some, including Newcastle, simply reworked their existing grounds. Remove the crush barriers. Widen the access ways. Stick some seats in and the job's a good 'un. But still, the atmosphere suffered. Sanitisation set in. Worse still, the offering of a seat somehow justified, at least in the eyes of the clubs, the drastic inflation of ticket prices. Football, so long the shelter of the working-class, became a strictly middling game.

So, it would seem that the naming rights issue is just an aside, a pointless kick when the fighter representing tradition has long ago fallen to the ground. But that is not strictly true. It is correct that the aftermath of Hillsborough led to a frittering away of what many saw as 'real football', but at least we can understand the reasons behind the post-1989 events. Disasters cause reactions that, in hindsight, look overblown, but at the time it is exceedingly hard to argue against them. Having reflected on the events of the past twenty years, campaigns for a return to (some) standing areas, provided they are offered safely, are gathering pace. Advocates point to the German Bundesliga as proof that safe standing can work, and there are high hopes that the powers that be are beginning to agree.

The naming rights issue will see no such reversal in policy. For this, like so much else in the game of football, is entirely about money. It is difficult to blame Mike Ashley and his cohorts; they are merely trying to keep up in a league where a club's income is, above all else, the only thing that matters. There is little place for either history or tradition in the overpowering, self-praising, profit-driven behemoth that is the English Premier League.

Almost a decade ago, journalist David Conn wrote a 400-odd page lament on the state of football. 'The Beautiful Game?' is a fantastic but altogether sobering read. The facts about the aforementioned Hillsborough disaster are laid excruciatingly bare, while the majority of the book lends itself to discussing the shameful power of currency in English football. With eight years having progressed since Conn published the book's first edition, few have heeded his warning about where football is headed. The sport has not bothered to take a look at itself and see what can be done to put things 'right'. Instead, those at the top have ploughed on with their rampant capitalist goals.

And the fans? Aren't they to blame for this also? If they're so outraged, shouldn't they just stop? Stop going to games? Stop buying extortionate merchandise? Cut themselves loose once and for all?

Well, no. It isn't quite a simple as that. On paper, it seems so easy - if you don't like what you're seeing, you have no obligation to continue looking at it. Except, as football fans, we do. Like the alcoholic who craves just a sip of that pint leering at him from behind the bar, the 20-a-day smoker who can't quite kick the habit, or the gambler who can't resist a flutter on the 15.36 at Kempton, football fans crave that which hurts them most. It is utterly ridiculous, but our decision to keep coming back time and time again is simply in keeping with one of humanity's most frequent flaws.

This is a sport no longer. This is a business, and I hate it.

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