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The Day the Football Died

At some point in our lives, we all experience a moment when football loses its innocence. We asked a group of football writers to share their memories on the subject.

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08 December 2015, 5:35am

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Plough Lane, the former home of Wimbledon FC, is now a modern housing development. The only clue that a football ground built in 1912, sold to the Safeway supermarket chain in 1998 and demolished in 2002 ever stood there is inscribed in the apartment blocks. They're all named after Wimbledon legends like Alan Cork, Lawrie Sanchez and Dave Bassett.

In 2003, when a one-man consortium backed by ASDA and IKEA built a stadium and business park in Milton Keynes, then relocated the Dons 56 miles from south-west London to Buckinghamshire, England witnessed the killing of a football club.

For me, it also killed any innocence left in the sport. Watching a House of Commons select committee chaired by Lord Taylor on BBC Parliament that summer, I knew other fans felt the same. The Independent Manchester United Supporters Association, whose own club was being slowly acquired by Malcom Glazer at the same time, spoke passionately about the social importance of the bond between football clubs and fans, and why it should not be severed by businessmen motivated by money. It made no difference. The FA's investigative committee waved through the MK Dons decision with a token regret that it was "not in the wider interests of football."

Football fans before and since have had their innocence destroyed in many ways: from the serious (Heysel, Hillsborough, Ibrox, Munich) to the farcical (Jürgen Klinsmann's salmon-flip during the Italia '90 World Cup Final). I know Irish Arsenal fans whose hearts were crushed by Thierry Henry's handball, and United supporters still ashamed that their club pulled out of the FA Cup in 1999.

And although the recently announced re-branding of The Football League as the EFL (English Football League) is small-fry compared to the callous partition created by the Premier League's introduction in 1992, it nonetheless signals the end of 127 years of history for marketing purposes.

Kids today are dealt crushing blows by the revelation that there's more than one Etihad stadium in the world. Just like them, you probably remember when football first stole your innocence. I know I do...

Somewhere in a box under the stairs I have an autographed photo of Lee Dixon circa 1990. As a Junior Gunner, every year you were sent a goody pack with a signed photo of the player of your choice. I don't know why I chose Lee Dixon that year. I can only think it was because he took throw-ins from near where the Junior Gunners stood in front of the West Stand. We felt he was our friend as he'd wink at us while retrieving the ball. In other years I had signed photos of Anders Limpar, Alan Smith and David Rocastle. The autographs were genuine – you could tell from the marks the pen made on the shiny photograph. They were like precious treasures to me.

A young Lee Dixon, circa 1990, bust sadly without signature | PA Images

Then, one pre-season around 1993, the signed photos were suddenly replaced with a tacky picture of the whole squad, each with autographs by their faces. While it was interesting to see how Steve Bould signed his name compared to David Hillier, there was one drawback: the autographs weren't real. They were computer-generated autopen images, crudely printed onto the picture.

That was when I knew the old world of football had gone and we were moving towards a future where players and clubs were no longer connected to the fans. Soon football grounds went all-seater and a mural was erected in the North Bank. The days when everybody at Arsenal knew Debbie and Sue in the club shop on Avenell Road were over. The "peaaaanuts" man's time would soon be up. The era of chicken goujons was upon us.

I asked other fans how they lost their footballing innocence. The first person to write back, a Spurs supporter, replied incredulously, "Wait. Did you have a peanuts man too?" We discussed this and decided that the old white-haired bloke with the deep booming voice must have sold peanuts at Highbury one weekend and White Hart Lane the other.

"He probably went to Upton Park midweek," we concluded.

Perhaps football was never really innocent. Did Sir Stanley Matthews really play until he was 50? Was Willy 'Fatty' Foulkes even fat? Was it all a tissue of lies? All I can cling on to is the steadfast belief that it wasn't Lee Dixon's fault. I know in my heart that Dixon would have signed hundreds, if not thousands, of photos of his own face, if only the relentless wheels of the corporate machine hadn't ridden roughshod over that marker pen.

While canvassing other fans I heard some awful stories. Like the friend who discovered his mates chanting "I'd rather be a Paki than a Turk" at Euro 2000. Or the one who joined in with a "Shhhh!" moment at White Hart Lane, only to realise that the rest of the fans were in fact saying "Tsssss" – the grotesque mimic of the gas chambers that anti-Semitic scum direct at Tottenham supporters.

I wanted to hear more, so I asked some football writers to describe the day the game died for them. Here they are.

@Josh_ua_Surtees

Dominic Fifield, The Guardian

I should probably start by acknowledging that football, for me, has not yet 'died'. It still grants me a buzz, whether in the press box or in the stands. I feel lucky to have a career which revolves around the sport.

But I do remember the day it finally sunk in that there is more to football than merely winning matches. Other priorities, political or financial, are constantly at work behind the scenes. That revelation dawned on me in mid-July 1999 in the breakfast room of the Zhong Ping Zunlian Ji Di centre in sweltering downtown Daqing, a heavily Russian-influenced city in the oil-rich Heilongjiang province of north-east China. I was working as a press officer for Crystal Palace, the club I support, on a highly unlikely pre-season tour and awaiting the final game, against Dalian Wanda, at the 28,000-capacity stadium visible from my breakfast table.

Palace had been in administration since January. They'd made savage staff cuts, sold off the team's principal assets, and Steve Coppell was stoically preparing a threadbare squad with no salvation in sight. He'd been, publicly at least, pinning his hopes on a more impressive second season in English football for the side's two China internationals, Fan Zhiyi and Sun Jihai. Both had offered flashes of quality. Both would be badly needed. So highly did Palace appear to rate the young left-back, Sun, they had used him sparingly on the tour, as if wrapping him in cotton wool.

Sun Jihai makes his escape from Barnsley's Nicky Eaden | PA Images

I'd read those signs wrong. In shuffled the club's stand-in chairman, Peter Morley, flanked by the administrator, Simon Paterson – he had taken the bankrupt owner Mark Goldberg's place on the trip – and the chief executive, Phil Alexander.

"Have you heard the good news?" asked Morley, prompting thoughts of new ownership and a brighter future. "We've agreed a deal with Dalian Wanda for Sun. It's all arranged with the Chinese FA and the player's agents. He'll be staying here when we head back to London."

Now Sun Jihai was no world-beater. He had been a bit of a liability over his first seven months, accruing red cards and hardly suggesting he would one day be inducted into the Premier League's hall of fame. However, the supporter in me simply could not compute with the idea of losing more talent and accepting all that lay ahead was a hopeless campaign and, at best, survival from relegation to the third tier. The three gentlemen at my table were all delighted, poring over figures on their pads of A4 paper and congratulating each other on a job well done. All I could think about was who Coppell would have playing at left-back in the season's opener against Crewe Alexandra.

Football, the brutal business, is crammed with decisions like that. The reality was Palace still owed £525,000 to the Chinese FA over their players' original transfers, and selling Sun back to Dalian for £800,000 wiped off a chunk of debt and guaranteed money to pay the wages for August.

Jimmy Mulvihill, Blogger

On my first date with my Austrian girlfriend she asked me what I knew about Austria. I said, "Hitler, Josef Fritzl and Red Bull." She replied, "Don't talk to me about that awful corporation..."

Eight years earlier, Red Bull had taken over her hometown football team, Austria Salzburg (UEFA Cup finalists in 1994, three times league champions between 1993 and 1997.) They announced "this is a new club with no history," changing the kits, the players and the home ground in the process.

Austrian football has history and is currently in fine fettle having qualified for Euro 2016. In the past they've got to two World Cup semi-finals (1934 and 1954) but the country's league has been hijacked. Half of the clubs in the top division have changed their names to suit their sponsor's "brand identity", including Cashpoint SC Rheindorf Altach. Instead of sponsors helping clubs, the relationship is reversed: clubs are simply a way of capturing new markets.

Sadio Mané, now of Southampton, during his time at the controversial Red Bull Salzburg | PA Images

It's not like Newton Heath becoming Manchester United, or Dial Square changing to Woolwich Arsenal. Branding a club is a cynical attempt to leverage cold lucre from a proud sporting history.

I told my girlfriend about Hull City's failed attempt to crowbar "Tigers" into their name, to which she slammed her hand on the table and replied, "I wish the same had happened to us!"

She defected to "phoenix club" SV Salzburg after the takeover.

Euclides Montes, The Guardian and VICE

I learnt that football can be literally a matter of life and death over a fortnight in 1994. My relationship with the beautiful game has never been the same since.

Colombia, my national team, were heading to the World Cup in the States after a storming qualifying tournament. Pelé went as far as to say we would make it all the way to the final.

Very quickly during that hot American summer, I learnt that in football we shouldn't have expectations, but rather hopes. Expectation turns into bitter disappointment a lot quicker than hope; for an 11-year-old witnessing his heroes giving up the ghost in the group stages, it was a hard pill to swallow.

However, it was what happened when they came home that changed my relationship with the sport. Andres Escobar – the defender whose own goal in the defeat against the USA had epitomised everything that went wrong with Colombia's World Cup – was shot six times in a carpark in Medellin. He was 27. A mistake that happened while he was doing his job cost him his life.

Shankly said football is much more important than a matter of life or death. Alas, I learnt at a young age that for some people, it is not.

Steve Busfield, ESPN UK Managing Editor

It was 1993 and Graham Taylor's England were vainly chasing a place at the following year's World Cup. With a couple of mates I'd decided to follow the campaign to Poland and Norway. In Katowice, England escaped with a draw and we escaped with our lives after a mini-riot outside the hotel ended with a smashed up lobby, teargas, and a nice lad we had met being dragged away by Polish riot police.

Four days later in Oslo, Gazza was playing with a protective face mask and Gary Pallister was at left back, getting hopelessly lost, as part of Taylor's tactical masterplan.

During the game we bumped into the nice lad we'd met in Poland who had been grabbed by the police, unfairly and randomly as we thought at the time. It turned out he had in fact smashed the hotel's glass doors, and when he joined a number of England fans in Seig Heiling, we realised that he wasn't in fact such a nice bloke after all.