Rage Against the Machine – Have Football Fans Broken the Super League?

21 mai 2021
By Professor Simon Chadwick, Professor and Director of Eurasian Sport at EMlyon

Whether or not he actually existed, it seems unlikely that Ned Ludd would have been a football fan, although his rumoured existence led to violence in cities across Industrial Revolution era northern England during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Ludd was long believed to have been a textile worker from Manchester, who apparently rebelled against the introduction of machinery into the factory where he worked. Some thought that Ludd was seeking to halt industrial progress, though his actions have been more commonly interpreted as a challenge to the deceit of factory owners as well as threats to his livelihood and that of his co-workers.

Against the backdrop of rapidly changing technology and crippling economic conditions, in 1779 Ludd is supposed to have led a riot. During 1811 and 1812, his legend helped fuel a period of ‘machine breaking’ with workers (known as Luddites) smashing the weaving frames that had become a major source of concern for them.

The British government eventually responded by sending 14,000 soldiers into the areas where the Luddites were protesting, with a countless number of them either being killed or exiled to Australia. With Luddism quashed, industrial Britain went on to encounter decades of crushing labour laws and worker impoverishment.

Among some, the Luddites subsequently became framed as people who were out of touch with a fast-changing world, stubbornly refusing to move-on or even adapt. Luddism thus became synonymous with remote intransigence. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1984 that the novelist Thomas Pynchon even dared to suggest that it was, ‘OK to be a Luddite’.

In 21st Century terms, the Luddites are being reappraised as activists who stood-up for the rights of workers and for justice, and challenged the onset of capitalism. Contemporary assessments of their actions also cast them as good-humoured though challenging, with strong personalities, swagger and style. And as heroic defenders of a pre-technological way of life who fought against exploitation by nineteenth-century business people.

With historical symmetry, we recently witnessed another popular uprising in Manchester, not in a factory but inside another industrial facility. In early May, large numbers of football fans gathered outside of Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United, to protest against the club’s association with a proposed breakaway European Super League. Several fans gained entry to the stadium, some of whom started to smash cameras and other broadcasting equipment.

While it took the Luddites just over thirty years to move from protest to violent direct action, it has taken United fans just under thirty years to become their modern-day equivalent. Indeed, just as Ludd and his associates sought to destroy the textile machines, some United fans headed straight for camera equipment that was present at Old Trafford, just ahead of a planned English Premier League game against Liverpool. Some of the equipment was smashed

Back in 1992, football’s 21st century trajectory was established when both the English Premier League and UEFA’s re-branded Champions League were launched (the competition previously having been known as the European Cup). The two are now amongst the football world’s most financially valuable sports properties, their growth being fuelled by money from television and other commercial activities.

For years, United found itself ascending, caught-up in a virtuous circle of playing success and financial success. The club dominated the Premier League and twice won the Champions League. This ultimately led to the club’s acquisition by a family of United States sports entrepreneurs – the Glazers – which has relentlessly sought to pursue new business opportunities, based upon the club’s success, status and global profile.

With the Manchester club having got to a point where some perceived it as almost being bigger than the Premier League itself, rumours of a planned Super League first surfaced in 2007. Other dominant clubs, such as Real Madrid and Juventus, were also involved then, as they are now. Although the threatened 2007 breakaway eventually disappeared from view, it nevertheless continued to simmer in the background.

Boiling point has just been reached again, the new Super League plans prompting fans’ direction action at the Theatre of Dreams in May. In one sense, not much had changed since the mid-2000s, although in another sense the world is a profoundly different place. As in the era of Luddism, technology has moved on and football’s biggest clubs have been commercially and financially emboldened by the development of Over-The-Top (OTT) broadcasting (of which Netflix is an example).

Similarly, just as the Luddites’ actions were set against the backdrop of challenging economic conditions and the Industrial Revolution, so the current standoff between United and its fans is partly an outcome of tough times and the DIgital Revolution. The pandemic has challenged the finances of all football clubs hence the largest of them are seeking to exert their power and control to sustain their operations. At the same time, football has globalised and digitalised, and is fast becoming an entertainment product.

Many European fans believe that this has taken their clubs away from them, and it is worth noting that as Manchester United fans invaded Old Trafford’s pitch, the club’s Experience Centre (just off Tiananmen Square in Beijing) remained open for business. Equally, just as the textile mill owners of northern England sought greater profits through the deployment of new technology, so football club owners are rubbing their hands at the prospect of OTT-related financial windfalls.

So, does all of this mean that United fans, perhaps even football fans in general, can be labelled as Luddites, and is this a good thing? In one sense, the protestors at Old Trafford are activists in a very 21st century way, kicking back against the combined forces of globalisation, technology and business. Yet they are seeking to resist and rebel in exactly the same way that the mythical Ludd did. Just as mill working was central to people’s lives in the 19th century, so football has played the same role for more than a century.

Yet with every expensively priced Premier League matchday ticket bought, each club replica shirt that has been sold, and all the satellite television subscriptions taken, football fans have contributed both to the commercial successes of clubs and to sustaining giga-trends such as the penetration of new digital technologies (like OTT). Rather than being Luddites who are resisting change, fans somehow appear to be complicit in creating it.

It is hard to imagine troops being sent to disperse crowds at Old Trafford or for errant United fans to be deported to Australia, although the nineteenth century Luddite period raises the issue of what happens next. Britain’s government is spinning its attempt to quell the insurrection by instigating a ‘fan led review’ of football. Perhaps this is crass politicking, or maybe it will effect fundamental change in football. However, such is the magnitude and profoundly changing nature of the world in which football is played, one suspects that more episodes of football’s new ‘machine breaking’ are still to come.


This article belongs to the GeoSport platform, developed by IRIS and EM Lyon.
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