Pitch battles

Anne Coddington and Mark Perryman introduce the fan-led counterculture resisting football's transformation from people's game to corporate plaything

October 3, 2007
8 min read

Football is no longer stuck on the back pages. Players, transfers, intrigues are just as likely to be splashed across the front of your paper accompanied by daily supplements full of football news while entire TV and radio stations are dedicated to the game.

Football has never been bigger and this has been accompanied by what academic Steve Redhead describes as ‘post-fandom’. It’s a process that has helped the game become more inclusive. Watching the game from the sofa, or on a big screen down the pub, almost anywhere in the world, has vastly expanded football’s audience. Redhead describes this new relationship to football as ‘an ambivalent condition, which has become more and more pervasive’.

This ambivalence is breaking the traditional link between clubs and the places they are named after. (Question: Which is the only one league club not named after a place? Answer at the end of this piece.) And the process is increasing the commodification of fandom, seeking to turn fans into something most of them would never aspire to becoming: customers.

Football counterculture

This is the state of modern football. But there exists a counterculture among the fans that, while not political in a conventional sense, and certainly not taking the shape of an organised campaign, is nevertheless clinging to a set of ideals in stark contrast to the corporate power seeking to control their game.

At its best, this counterculture of writing, the visual arts, t-shirts and more embraces inclusion as a central value of fandom, welcoming the new fans swept up by the game’s excitement and emotion, while laying claim to the tradition of the people’s game. No one ever said this was a match that would be won or lost in 90 minutes, but it’s a pitch battle that the corporations are certainly no longer having all their own way.

Fanzine survivor

When Saturday Comes (WSC) was founded in 1986 as a photocopied

fanzine. Ken Bates, then the owner of Chelsea FC, which he’d bought for £1 in 1982, was the fanzine’s first target, and 21 years later he’s still

plunging a club he owns towards financial ruin. From its earliest editions WSC helped put those opposed to the ruination of their clubs in touch with one another; in effect, it established a community of interest among an impressive number of fans. It now sells about 21,000 copies monthly and has a readership of some 100,000.

The magazine’s publisher, Richard Guy, is convinced that the reason for its success is the stance the magazine took, and has continued to take. While WSC has thrived, football magazines from the major publishers IPC’s Goal, Future’s Total Football and BBC Worldwide’s Match of the Day have failed and been forced to close. In contrast to them, WSC has remained resolutely anti-establishment. Its illustrations and cartoons are wickedly funny, while the photography is not only high quality but mostly original too.

WSC began in an era of fans producing self-published magazines – fanzines. Most of them have now gone, but Richard Guy says they have reappeared in another form: ‘They migrated to online – the skills that produced the best of the fanzines were easily transferable to websites. The big difference is that now they are two-way – forums and messageboards are central to all of them, communication is becoming democratised.’

WSC has a web presence too, which Guy believes will increasingly complement the magazine’s content while helping it to reach a new generation of fans. But the fact that in almost any large newsagent the passion and humour of fans who haven’t surrendered to the monopoly game is poking out from among all the other magazines is testament to the imagination and enterprise of When Saturday Comes.

When Saturday Comes is available from W H Smith, published on the first Wednesday of every month, www.wsc.co.uk

You’re booked

The range of writing about football that followed the success of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch includes a clutch of unashamedly internationalist books. These provide a cosmopolitan sense of what it means to be a football fan and stretch the footballing imagination way beyond the sometimes limiting parochialism of club and country.

David Winner’s Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football is regarded as one of the finest of its kind. ‘I was inspired by the second generation of Dutch Total Football, Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit,’ he says. His aim was ‘to find a completely different way to write about football, mixing game and players up with subjects ranging from art to architecture.’ Using football, he provided an insightful, and richly amusing look at what it means to be Dutch.

Winner is convinced that the cultural changes represented by football deserve to be taken seriously. ‘We need to examine why it is so powerful culturally,’ he says. ‘It provides a drama and a poetry hardly anything else can match. Football is the number one global form of communication, something now shared right across the planet.’ Yet beyond the coterie of football sociologists and anthropologists the

magnitude of the worldwide cultural importance of football scarcely attracts any serious comment. Just a game? It’s certainly more important than that.

Picturing the game

Homes of Football is a photographic project Stuart Clarke describes as ’emerging out of the rubble of 1980s football.’ The 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives, was one of a series of tragic low points that affected the game in the decade. Clarke’s response involved photos focusing on the sense of locality that made football so special and that both the tragedies and the responses to

them now endangered.

‘I called it Homes because it’s always got to be plural, about clubs big and small, fans who share the same feelings, follow the same match day rituals,’ says Clarke. Collected together in a series of books, postcards, a travelling exhibition and Clarke’s own gallery in Ambleside, Homes of Football (www.homesoffootball.co.uk) has become incredibly popular amongst supporters.

‘Of course not all fans are the same, but our histories are linked whoever we follow. It’s a kind of elementary socialism, all having a stake in this game together,’ says Clarke.

The shirt off your back

Hugh Tisdale is the designer behind Philosophy Football (www.philosophyfootball.com), the t-shirt company he co-founded with Mark Perryman, one of the authors of this article. The designs feature quotes from the great philosophers, such as Camus, Sartre and Nietzsche, with similarly wise words from the best players, such as Pele, Cruyff and Cantona.

Tisdale explains his ambition: ‘I’m more interested in reaching

1,000 people with ten words on a t-shirt, than ten people with a 1,000-

word essay.’ His favourites? ‘Baudrillard, Hobsbawm, George Weah, our Palestine shirt.’ Not the sort of line-up usually associated with football and Hugh admits the shirts are unlikely to be worn by supporters attracted to the dubious fashion qualities of bri-nylon. ‘Not many would buy one of ours and a club shirt. But look at how awful most of those are. They should come with a free full-length mirror to show

how bad you will look in it.’

Instead Hugh prefers the everlasting qualities of a classic club kit:

‘The club’s name, its colours, its achievements – that’s what a shirt should represent.’ Strewn with sponsor’s logos, it’s another tradition gone, but not forgotten. Hugh has one set of images he’ll always cherish: ‘All those pictures of George Best in a red United shirt. At least he never had to play with Bargain Booze Drinks plastered across it.’

Which is the only league club not named after a place? Port Vale FC. Arsenal doesn’t count: as any Spurs fan will tell you, the club is named after its true home, Woolwich Arsenal, and has no business relocating to north London

Anne Coddington is the author of One of the Lads: Women who Follow Football and a senior lecturer in sport journalism at the London College of Communications. Mark Perryman is the author of Ingerland: Travels with a Football Nation and lecturer in sport journalism at the University of Brighton


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