A Yorkshire Tragedy offers a warning from history

When I read a review of Anthony Clavane’s new book last weekend, the sketchy outline convinced me immediately it had to be read.

A Yorkshire Tragedy offers a warning from history

A Yorkshire Tragedy: The Rise and Fall of a Sporting Powerhouse is about sport, as you might deduce from the title.

But it’s also about a lot more than that.

“It’s all about how sport has changed in Britain since the eighties,” Clavane explained.

“The collapse of communities, particularly in working-class areas, and it’s about why sport is important when a local economy collapses.

“Yorkshire is just a case study — it could be anywhere in Ireland, or England or Wales or Scotland, but anywhere that isn’t the moneyed elite in London, which has become more and more powerful since the ’80s.”

One of the great dramas of that decade was the miners’ strike in Britain, but Clavane focuses more on the aftermath.

“I was around for the miners’ strike, I was a student and tried to support them. They would have spoken then about the long-term effects on communities, they kept saying ‘it’s not just about us, it’s about our whole communities’.

“And 30 years on I went back to places like Barnsley, which was at the centre of the strike, and other places in south Yorkshire, and what I found was three generations of unemployment, drug-taking, boarded-up shops and ghost towns.

“These were unintended consequences, but the government of the day wanted to emasculate the National Union of Miners for whatever reason, and in so doing they created devastating effects.”

Sport is where those effects can be seen: “There were great teams in these areas — I don’t know how much you know about rugby league, but Featherstone Rovers won the Challenge Cup, the biggest trophy in rugby league, in 1983, a small town of ten thousand people.

“Today, though, it’s a ghost town — both their mines are shut.

“Miners played for the team on the weekend and went back to work on Monday, and that bond between an industry and its local community was very important.

“Now it’s lost, and that’s what I lament in the book.”

What has replaced that? Communal experiences like Strictly Come Dancing?

“The reason something like Strictly is successful, and the Great British Bake-off, is it becomes a shared national experience.

“Everyone’s talking about it and experiencing it communally, but in a way that’s also sad, because you can’t replace the local team representing the community every Saturday.

“You can’t replace that with some kind of glamorous TV game show, no matter how good it is — it’s ultimately a shallow replacement for something which was of huge import for about 150 years.

“The link between these mining communities and their sports teams was forged in the mid to late 19th century and lasted to the ’80s.

“In the last 30 years, we’ve had more of Strictly and the Great British Bake-off, which I wouldn’t criticise, but they aren’t a replacement either.”

There were other pitfalls.

Take the case of Leeds United: as Clavane says, a city of 700,000 people should have a team in the Premier League.

“That’s the other side of it. In the ’80s, teams like Leeds suffered, spending years outside the old First Division — compared to the ’70s, when they were one of the top teams around under Don Revie.

“Then, when easy money came into the game, TV revenue and the credit economy, they overreached and ran into huge debts.

“That in itself was because they were trying to play catch-up, taking reckless risks — borrowing £60 million on the hope of getting to the Champions League, but then they had to sell their best players and ended up crashing down the leagues.

“They became a cautionary tale, the other side of the coin to the devastated communities — when you get this boom, and all this money based on credit, you overreach.

“It wasn’t just Leeds, it happened to Sheffield Wednesday and Bradford City as well, but ‘doing a Leeds’ became a synonym for flying too close to the sun. It’s been an absolute scandal to me that Leeds — with the history, the size of the city — haven’t been in the top flight for 12 years.

“That’s because I’m a Leeds fan, maybe, but to me the Premier League without Leeds for the last 12 years isn’t the same.

“It’s not just Leeds, it’s the big Sheffield teams: English football in some ways has lost its heart and soul in historic, famous teams like Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United, Leeds United.”


e also identifies the way the demonisation of the working class has gone hand in hand with revisionism about the reality of community life before the ’80s.

“You see the poverty porn on television, programmes about scroungers and Benefits Street, The Jeremy Kyle Show, and the working class has been demonised to the extent of a denial there was a real world of social cohesion, but there was.

“The three things which held a community together were home, work and leisure. That lasted from the industrial revolution onwards, and particularly in the north of England.

“Many of the back-to-backs were destroyed in the north of England and people were moved to soulless tower blocks — that was the home. Then they lost their work with the closure of the mines, steelworks and mills.

“So what do you have left? Leisure. But what do you do when your football team goes into administration or plunges down the divisions?

“Then the revisionists like Dominic Sandbrook refer to an ‘imaginary’ world, you see TV shows like Shameless and there’s that demonisation of the working class — which coincides with the gentrification of sport. My argument is that a large part of the working class has been excluded from elite sport because they can’t afford ticket prices.

“Even in places like Barnsley — I spoke to a lot of their fans and they couldn’t afford tickets. Including David Bradley, who played Billy Casper in the film Kes, which brings the theme of the book together.”

Kes is an occasional feature on the TV schedules here, but it has the status of an essential text in Yorkshire. David Bradley features on the cover of Clavane’s book in a classic pose from the film.

“‘Essential text’ is a good way of putting it, a bit like our Ulysses, or The Grapes of Wrath of Yorkshire.

“It sums up the spirit of defiance and resistance, and communal responsibility — standing up to people who bully you, whether it’s your PE teacher, your big brother, the government.

“You have a working-class lad who’d be demonised today as a chav or whatever, who tames the kestrel and it soars off into the sky — it’s a metaphor for everyone having that potential which can be unlocked.

“But since neoliberalism was introduced in the ’80s, and the 2008 crash, these areas have been ravaged by a brutal economic system.

“When money is low and morale is low, your community’s collapsed, it isn’t a level playing field.

“Clubs in London have been boosted by the rise of the City of London, the flood of capital into London, while other parts of the country have been left behind — and you’ve seen political consequences.

“To me, the vote for Brexit, for instance, is directly linked to what we’ve been talking about.”

A Yorkshire Tragedy: The Rise and Fall of a Sporting Powerhouse by Anthony Clavane (Riverrun, €17).

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