When the sociologist Michael Young coined the idea of a meritocracy in 1958, he imagined a dystopian future where those who had succeeded on the basis of their inherited advantages would instead congratulate themselves on having done so as a result of their skills and capabilities. In Young’s satirical essay, the elite believed their success was down to individual merit, while a disenfranchised underclass were considered deserving of their social position. Young’s term is now frequently used with a straight face by those who understand neither its original negative connotations, nor what a travesty it is to suggest that merit is the primary factor determining a person’s life chances today.
For a long time, I told myself that my achievements were the product of the meritocracy I was born into, where hard work was both a necessity and a sufficient condition of success. I grew up in Grimsby, and like many entrepreneurial origin stories, mine began at school. To supplement my nonexistent allowance, I sold Opium (knock-off perfume, before you fall off your chair). My teachers called the police, and having spent the morning in the classroom, I sat out the afternoon in a police cell. Thirty years later, I had gone from working on the docks in Grimsby to dealing with private equity investors in New York as a tech CEO; from waking up in a house with ice inside the windows to a home with neighbours from “on the telly” and in the Premier League; from being the son of a single mum who worked three jobs to keep four sons fed and clothed, to becoming a parent who can afford to provide almost anything for my own children.
Yet I now know that the “meritocracy” people talk about is a reflection of their capital, both social and financial. Data and experience tells me I am an outlier in a country where inequality has risen and life chances have got worse for children born into circumstances like mine. It might sound odd, but these realizations are part of the reason I decided to buy my home-town football club, Grimsby Town FC, with my business partner Andrew Pettit. A football club that finished 92nd out of 92 teams in the English Football League in May, and was relegated to the National League. A club with one of the oldest stands in the football league, in dire need of investment, historically teetering on the edge of insolvency without the aid of local benefactors.
On paper, buying the club was a terrible financial decision – and yet when you consider the chance to rebuild civic value in the town where both Andrew and I grew up, it felt like one of the most valuable opportunities of our lives.
In Grimsby, problems that were already becoming clear when I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s have crystallised in the years since: industrial decline, the slow demise of the once-dominant fishing industry and the social problems that followed from a lack of job opportunities and a general sense of abandonment. My brush with the law was tame compared to the reality some children in Grimsby face today, coerced into county lines drug gangs where they face the threat of shocking violence. In several of Grimsby’s wards, close to half of all children are living in poverty. The town continues to be failed by those who purport to care for it: framed by television cameras as a symbol of deprivation and decline, poked by thinktanks and prodded by journalists, caricatured as a victim of the Brexit that its people decisively voted for.
Yet this is nowhere near the whole story of the town I know and love. Grimsby deserves better than becoming the goldfish bowl of post-Brexit Britain, gawped at by the prosperous and socially conscious, a tourist attraction on the map of social and economic deprivation. Instead we should be looking to the town as a place where the voices we hear are not lamenting their lost past, but shaping their future. While many civic institutions and local businesses have faded away and shuttered over the years, professional football teams are one of the few institutions that have endured. Indeed, Grimsby Town FC has a 143-year history and a committed (if somewhat diminished) following today. The Mariners can still engender a sense of collective belonging and an identity that is deeply aligned to the performance of 11 men in black and white on a Saturday afternoon.
Often the only story you hear about Grimsby is about the lack of opportunity, aspiration and education. But dig deeper and you encounter people who avoided university because of the cost and are now building stable careers; twentysomethings running their own companies and people who neither wanted to leave nor felt they had to. “I love the town and never wanted to move away,” said the newest and youngest trustee of Grimsby’s new OnSide Youth Zone. She went on to become a partner at a local accountancy firm and told me: “It’s brilliant here. I grew up thinking everyone lived near the beach.” Young people who have pride in the town and know its problems should have a much greater role in determining the policies that will shape its future. Though we clearly need the support of central government, solutions have to be built as a partnership with the community itself.
Andrew and I became the major shareholders of the club on 4 May this year. This investment seems like the perfect counterweight to the ownership model of the “Super League” teams, a paradigmatic example of distorted capitalism where profit motives and dividend payments are regarded as the only measure of success. Football teams are viewed in high definition around the world but have become untethered from the communities that made them what they are today.
Buying Grimsby Town FC is an opportunity to place a football club and its values at the centre of a renewal that is already happening in the town, and to amplify the amazing community work that is being done by the football club’s charitable arm for education, diversity and inclusivity. We want to show that “levelling up” means recognising the myth of meritocracy and levelling the playing field, rather than assuming that opportunities trickle down. This can only work if it starts from within the community, with a shared identity that a 143-year-old football club is uniquely positioned to play a huge part in shaping.