Raheem Sterling saga reflected in new Patrick Marber play on football
"There is this pure thing called 'The Game,' but then there's the slightly uglier thing called 'Football.'"
Greed, ambition, power -- all traits of the modern game rife at the elite level, but also just as prevalent further down in the far less glamorous world of the lower leagues.
That is the intriguing setting of a new play by Patrick Marber, The Red Lion, which is running at London's National Theatre until the end of September. The three characters -- player, coach, kit man -- and their differing relationships with football serve as both a study of the huge changes in the modern game and the wider world.
Marber is a celebrated writer, having been a comedy pioneer in the 1990s as part of the group which produced cult British satirical show The Day Today and helped create Steve Coogan's doomed chat-show host Alan Partridge, before his West End play Closer became an acclaimed Hollywood hit in 2006 and his screenplay for Notes On A Scandal earned him an Oscar nomination two years later. But Marber knows his football, too.
As a child in the 1970s, he watched the Arsenal side of Charlie George and Frank McLintock from Highbury's North Bank and now describes himself as a "frustrated Wengerite." "I love Wenger," he says. "I want him to do well, admire him, but desperately want to win."
In recent years, Marber helped save his then local team, Lewes FC -- currently in the Isthmian League Premier Division -- from extinction and how he turned the Sussex side into a shining example of how a community club can be run, complete with some of the best match posters around.
"The play is about football and it's set in the world of football but it's about lots of other things too," he says. "But mainly it's about a young player [Calvin Demba, a West Ham fan] who arrives at this club, and there's an old kit man [Peter Wight, Derby County] who takes him under his wing, and there's a younger ambitious manager [Daniel Mays, Leyton Orient] who tries to take him under his wing too.
"It's a sort of battle for the soul of this young player. And through that the play examines different attitudes toward football, what the game is. Is it a business? Is it about community?"
Issues which arose during his time on the Lewes board have fed into what appears on stage. Those experiences are scaled down equivalents of what Marber calls "big football," such as what is currently happening at Liverpool as they wrangle over a young star's demands which appear to be steered aggressively by the player's advisors.
"It's all around us all the time -- moral values. It's just come up again with Raheem Sterling. It's always there. When money enters sport, people come into conflict," Marber says. "The figures are radically different but the temptations are the same. It's all to do with bettering yourself and definitions of what is better for a young person.
"Football is a sport where the young are exploited by the old, to an extent. But, equally, the young need to learn from the old and the young are influenced by the old. Therefore it's like life."
Like life, running a non-league club means managing with what you've got as you anxiously look over your shoulder and gaze up to glimpse the top table you can only dream of reaching.
"You really feel the magic of the FA Cup, that cliché, down in the non-league when the FA Cup happens," Marber says. "Which, for us, is in August. The dream is to get to the First Round proper and get an away draw against a club that will provide your playing budget for the next season.
"The thing to remember about non-league is your playing budget for an entire season might be what a player like John Terry earns in a week. You're paying a squad of 18 to 20 players for a season on what he earns in a week -- 150 grand, 175 grand for a whole season. The figures are just so different."
In spite of those huge discrepancies, Marber knows all too well that a rich investor swooping in with grand plans of quick success is rarely the answer, at any level.
"Non-league is full of local businessmen who come in, buy football clubs, shove half a million quid in for a bit of glory and then bail out when there's a financial crisis, they've spent all their dough or it's no longer tax efficient to be the owner," he says.
"Non-league clubs are particularly susceptible to swaggering blokes with £200k to offload. And some of that is featured in the play -- the motivations of people who own these clubs. There are other clubs, Lewes being one of them, who become supporter-owned and are trying to build something that is a community asset, part of the town, that has a relationship with the town, and is trying to get young people into the games.
"It's build or buy, and of course as an Arsenal fan, I like it that we rebuilt our football club. I admire Wenger for doing that."
There is also plenty of cause for optimism in "big football," Marber believes, citing several signs of hope that there is another way to build sustainable success that does not rely on an absent oligarch owner or floating on the stock exchange.
"I like to believe that there will be more supporter-owned clubs, that a big club will go supporter-owned," he says. "That's what would make the difference -- if a Premier League club did a full Barcelona. That would be fantastic. I would love that. I would love it if Swansea did that or a club like Bournemouth did that, whoever. Someone coming up changed the model. That would be fantastic.
"I think it will happen eventually. It makes sense. There are very few badly-run supporter-owned clubs. I can't think of one, in fact. You think of FC United of Manchester or AFC Wimbledon, they are brilliantly-run clubs and they'll go up and up and up.
"Clubs like Swansea that have come up have fan input. And the Bundesliga, there's hope there. I feel that football will go more that way. That there will be community clubs, big community clubs, more fan-owned clubs because I think supporters want more involvement and want more say in the clubs that they support, and rightly so."
That positivity comes through when Marber talks about a sport which, despite such huge changes in media coverage and financial clout at the top level, must not let its beautiful simplicity become lost in money and hyperbole.
"The play isn't really a condemnation of the state of things. It's more of a love letter to the game, really," he says. "There is this pure thing called 'The Game,' but then there's the slightly uglier thing called 'Football.' But 'The Game' is magical -- kids playing in the street, in the park. 'The Game' has it's own particular point of view."