What’s in a name? Everything, if you’re a football fan. The sport has always been driven by finance, but the post-1992 fetish for name-changing has taken commercialisation to a whole new level. And it’s spilling into our public spaces.
History, tradition and community are all high on the list of the reasons why long-suffering supporters stay loyal to their teams. It is fashionable to caricature those who campaign against the corporate rebranding of their clubs as traditionalist dinosaurs. But in an era when local neighbourhoods have become fractured, clinging to the original name of your team, stadium and even local railway station has become one of the few remaining signifiers of community spirit.
Which is why even Spurs-supporting north Londoners are attempting to resist the name “White Hart Lane” being consigned to the dustbin of history. It has been reported that Tottenham Hotspur’s spanking, new, state-of-the-art, 62,000-seater ground, which finally opens next month with a home game against Crystal Palace – and will host the Lilywhites’ last five home matches of the season – will be renamed with rumours that it will be called the Nike Stadium.
Spurs chairman Daniel Levy insists that no such deal has been agreed, but another equally-controversial decision made on Sunday has now appeared to bring that dreaded moment much closer. For Levy and his fellow Spurs directors have successfully lobbied the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, and Transport for London, to rename White Hart Lane railway station as “Tottenham Hotspur”. Which means that north London’s traditionalist dinosaurs – or loyal fans as I prefer to call them – will surely suffer a double whammy. The name White Hart Lane will be eradicated completely from the area, erased from history by those Stalinist corporate entities determined to commercialise public space, appropriate working-class culture and gentrify local neighbourhoods.
Changing the name of the overground station in the club’s catchment area to Tottenham Hotspur is a huge blow to the area’s heritage
Football stadiums were originally named after the districts they were constructed in. With the advent of the Premiership in 1992, however, elite clubs transformed themselves into brands, becoming cash machines for oligarchs, sheikhs and finance capitalists. Tottenham’s bitter rivals did it with the Emirates – as did Brighton with the Amex and Manchester City with the Etihad – which has allowed Arsenal, as a commercial company, to dominate the whole of its catchment area. Similarities do not end there – Gillespie Road tube station was renamed Arsenal in 1932.
Changing the name of the overground station in the club’s catchment area to Tottenham Hotspur is a huge blow to the area’s heritage. White Hart Lane is the station’s historic name. As a petition by local residents points out: “It reflects the road and ward … the heritage of the football club is to keep the name the same rather than turn an entire area into nothing more than a fanfare for a football club.”
Spurs promise to put money back into the local community. But the Gunners had promised to pay £7m towards transport improvements, including upgrading Holloway Road and Drayton Park stations – and this has clearly not happened. Local residents in Finsbury Park and Highbury feel alienated. As the Green party co-leader Siân Berry has noted, the renaming of the White Hart Lane station “opens up the slippery slope” towards other well-known stations and the network being “cluttered up with corporate branding”.
Whatever next? Knightsbridge, Home of Harrods? Virgin Euston? Burberry by Bond Street?
For my book Moving The Goalposts I interviewed Hull City fans who successfully stopped their club being rebranded as Hull Tigers. “My dad invested so much time and so much money on City,” one fan told me. “He went for decades. These clubs are the product of the city, of their local areas. The owners should be custodians of their clubs’ history and heritage. Whenever I go to the football I feel that my old man’s with me. It’s a lot deeper than a name change. It crystallises what we’re about as a community.”
Football’s fetish for name-changing is the latest illustration of how the sport, in the 21st century, has been infected by greed – how the beautiful game has been transformed from a paternalistic, relatively egalitarian sport into a global entertainment industry dominated by rapacious mega-brands. As Simon Kuper, the co-author of Soccernomics, puts it: “The true story of the Premier League is almost all about money.”
For the past 27 years, many football fans have been priced out of football. Since the 1990s, the cost of the average football match ticket has risen by 600%, making regular attendance something that only a certain strata of society can afford. This shift in the demographic of the game’s support had been anticipated by a 1991 FA report that noted how, in a consumer society, the leisure sector moved “upmarket so as to follow the affluent middle-class consumer”.
But such gentrification is now being resisted both on and off the pitch – both inside and outside the ground. Local north Londoners are pushing back against corporate domination. The idea of local pride – a sense of shared values, belonging and community – lives on. If there is hope it lies in the traditionalist dinosaurs.
• Anthony Clavane is a sports writer