Conference Report: Future Football: a design for life conference by The Football Collective 30 November 2016 FC United, Manchester.
Introduction: The Football Collective and Academic Football Studies
By forming The Football Collective in 2016, Dr Daniel Parnell of Manchester Metropolitan University and Dr Paul Widdop of Leeds Beckett University sought to form a supportive and inclusive academic environment in which to debate key issues around world football. The field of academic football studies has expanded considerably since the 1980s and now incorporates fan groups; the increasing number of business opportunities based around football, including themed hotels and café chains; traditional media outlets and social media platforms; coach education, child protection and physical education; everyday participation and elite player issues including spiritual and mental health. Legal, marketing, business, media, sociological, historical and political analyses all now have their own well developed academic fields. The debates are increasingly global, and more locally legal frameworks, political scientists and economists have analysed the wider effects of European financial downturns, and the many patterns of player migration, facilitated by new professions such as player agents and representative public relations companies.
And what of the future? As both World Cup and Olympic history turns from the Brazil and the Global South, to Russia and Qatar corruption throughout the game is evident at the highest levels of financial mismanagement and doping scandals to concern for how wider grassroots participation can be developed across the globe. Many people say that football is the most global game in the world. However, this generalization is easily shown to be inaccurate, unless understood by global inequalities. The inflections of national, regional and local difference illustrate what a rich ground for critical analysis football remains. It was for these reasons that I was pleased to join The Football Collective and to engage with these issues in a cross and multi disciplinary environment.
Future Football: a design for life, conference report
The conference began with registration from 8.30-9.15-an indication that the organisers wanted to give as many speakers as possible a chance to present and this was aim was certainly achieved. With the manifesto ‘We are a network bringing critical debate to our game’ it was particularly good to see the first session from 9.25 to 11.30 dedicated to three PhD/ and Early Career Researcher papers, chaired by Professor Alan Tomlinson of the University of Brighton. Francesca Champ reflected on her work as a sport psychologist working in elite level professional football; with challenges including gender, professional playing expertise and the job insecurity of an occupation subject to relegation at the end of each season. Equally thoughtful, Mark Turner contextualised the networks, campaigns and tactics used by those who wished to see a return to standing crowds in English football. Particularly of note were the ideas around when supporters standing was ‘safe’ and under what circumstances. Finally Gavin Maclean presented his developing work on a labour process analysis of the work of footballers, using a political economy paradigm.
After lunch, the conference then split into two sections and again the strength of both was the new, and exciting, work presented across a range of topics. Having attended conferences on football, and wider sport, since 1998 I found the innovative work both critical and collegiate. Each paper disseminated research findings of which I was previously unaware and discussion enhanced the further development of research ideas and potential collaboration. Since many find academic study somewhat opaque in its use of theory and concepts, there was a refreshing lack of emphasis on subject-specific methodology. Instead most presenters chose to focus on rigorous academic peer reviewed research, in an accessible and understandable format.
Research Insight Series: First Half
I chaired a session and presented a mini keynote on the history of World Cup Posters 1930-2014, which is part of an edited collection on Football and Art, led by Daniel Haxall, and to be published with Bloomsbury in 2017. For those of you who attended the excellent conference at Hofstra University, New York state in 2014, this is one of many outcomes from the proceedings. Next up, Josh McCloed of Herriot-Watt University focused on Scottish Football boards of directors and their use of social capital. Mark Panton, the first of two Birkbeck presenters in this session, assessed the multiple roles of a variety of stakeholders in stadium-led regeneration, with case studies from London and Manchester-based clubs. His colleague Richard Irving historicized supporter club ownership and challenged us to conclude whether this was a way forwards for football or constituted a missed opportunity. Colm Cronin outlined the multiple and conflicting priorities in elite level football by asking what it was most appropriate and ethically desirable to care about, and whose welfare should take priority in the club. Finally David Horrocks and Alice Kelk of the University College of Football Business presented a psychological case study of suicidal behavior, related antecedents and professional football with a case study of Clarke Carlisle. We were fortunate to be joined by Clarke himself and he answered several questions about his views of mental health strategies for professionals. Again, this crossover between practitioner, professional and academic was an important part of the conference aims, and was particularly well received.
The conference pattern followed with a second half research insight series and a panel discussion. Much of the work of the day took place in a single room, divided for the parallel sessions and allowing a great deal of movement between sessions. Although establishing the first of any kind of new venture can be challenging, the appetite for a collective approach was perhaps indicated by the success of the inaugural conference. Along with thanks to Dan, Paul and the other organisers for facilitating such an impressive programme, I took away a sense that this will become a priority event in most attendees’ diaries in the future. I am looking forwards to the next event.