To mark WSC's 150th issue, we invited three critics with different links to the magazine's past to reflect on changes in fan culture since 1986

WSC The term “fan culture”, which barely existed when the magazine started in 1986, has now become commonplace. But it seems as though there is actually less of a unifying fan culture now than there was then. Are there things that still bring people together, from Premiership to the Third Division, as we assumed there were when we started? 

Mike Alway I think fans, regardless of the level, are fearful of losing the soul of their club, whether it’s Manchester United or Rochdale. They’re afraid of the implications of the involvement of people with money, who don’t have any sensitivity to the culture. Even if things are going well. With Noades at Brentford, things are going great on the pitch, but still there’s suspicion behind it because, first and foremost, he is a businessman. And is quite unabashed about that.

Michael Crick I think there are basically two football cultures. There’s the television football culture of the big clubs like Manchester United and Arsenal, where there is a community that’s not even national any more, it’s international, and where people don’t really know each other. I went to the Cup final this year and when I looked around for familiar faces in the United end there wasn’t a single one that I recognised – and I’ve been following them home and away for 30 years. Now if a Third Division team got to the Cup final the fans would all know each other, and they’d probably know a few of the players and the people who run the club. The bigger clubs used to be closer communities like that.

But on the other hand, football is essentially about people sharing disappointment and failure and those things will always unite us. I watched over 50 United games last season and one other game, at Banbury. And watching them in a Cup tie, when they went 2-0 up and then gave it away, the reactions are the same, the disappointment, the frustration with particular players, all that is exactly the same, it’s universal.The psychology and the drama of the game is still the same at a ground with 100 people or a ground with 100,000.

Nick Hornby I think when WSC first started, there was a lot more that united fans of all divisions. Even things like food, it was a perennial moan. It didn’t matter if you went to Orient or Arsenal, it was the same awful pies and awful tea. And what’s happened to the Premier League clubs in the mean­time is extraordinary. I feel that I have much less in common with Second or Third Division clubs than I did. When you meet supporters of clubs from lower divisions, of course you always find something to talk about, but I do feel that we’re being taken further away from people who go to watch lower division football.

WSC Did you have many fans from other clubs sup­porting SUAM?

MC A few. But let’s be honest, most United fans weren’t interested in the Sky thing either. It was a min­ority of people even at United who had thought about the issues clearly. Perhaps 15 per cent had, and of those perhaps ten per cent were on our side and the other five per cent thought the Sky deal was a good thing. Although that gradually whittled away over the six months. But obviously, for fans of other clubs, the fact that it was United didn’t help, because of the resentment that is still there against United.

NH I think our two clubs have changed more than any other two clubs in the country, over the last five years anyway. I can remember going to the first game of, I think it was the 1985-86 season, at Highbury. There were about 21,000 there in a ground that held 55,000 and I was miles away from the next person. And it’s unimaginable now that that would ever happen again, that they wouldn’t be sold out for the whole season, more or less, by the time August came around.

MC Blackburn maybe are an even better example of a club that’s changed out of all recognition...

NH Although they’re hell-bent on going back where they came from in a hurry...

MC But 15 years ago you might have picked on Blackburn as the example of the football nostalgia ground, the old stands and the rickety tea bar and so on.

NH Yet now when you see them on TV it still seems to be the same gaps in the seats instead of the terraces. Their status has changed, but the actual culture of the club doesn’t seem to have changed that much. I re­member an outraged letter in WSC when Dalglish took over about selling I think it was Simon Garner. And this fan couldn’t believe it. Yet they’d sold him so they could bring in, you know, Shearer and Sutton. And that was genuine outrage on behalf of a fan who, basically, didn’t want that to happen to his club.

WSC So it’s not necessarily just to do with money. But the culture of clubs where there is a sudden influx of great wealth must change in some respects.

MA Fulham might look like the equivalent of Blackburn outside the Premier League, but I think they’ve been low enough recently, what with their relegations and their closeness to actually becoming extinct, that many people are just going along for the ride with Al Fayed. I think in the back of their minds it may all end tomorrow and if that was the case they’d be reasonably philosophical about it.

NH There is a sense in which, if you’ve been going to Fulham for the last ten years, it’s because that’s what you wanted to watch, and if you didn’t, you’d go some­where else. But then there’s also the danger, as I sus­pect will happen with Blackburn if they don’t go straight back up again, that you drive out all the old lot, because they don’t want to watch Alan Shearer, or whoever, but the new lot don’t come either, because you’ve been relegated. So you may be worse off than you were before.

WSC How has the widening gap between the Premiership and the rest affected the attitude of the fans of lower division clubs?

MA Clearly there’s a huge gulf in class now. But personally the thing that bothers me most is that there are a lot of clubs spending ridiculous amounts of money on basically bad footballers. You do wonder, even given the massive subsidies that are available these days, whether somebody’s going to go too far at some point. It won’t be an Arsenal or a Manchester United of course, but a Middlesbrough or a Newcastle, say, just buying obscure Greeks for vast sums of money.

WSC This seems to be partly caused by a kind of transfer machismo, where clubs in the Premiership want to be seen to spending a lot of money for the sake of it.

MA Sometimes I think the media creates a situation where players are available, such as this boy Dyer at Ipswich, and the next day there’ll be a story that Bryan Robson’s interested. It’s almost as if Robson doesn’t do any scouting, he just picks up the tabloids to see who’s been hyped. It’s like the pop world to that extent. You can be a fantastic musician, but if you’re not being hyped among record companies, you don’t get signed. You have to have the right people talking about you, and football’s becoming more and more like that. But there are a few people, like Dario Gradi, who, regardless of all the money and television and so on, can still be doing really ex­citing things at Nat­ionwide level. Because if you’ve got someone who is int­erested in coaching and youth, and getting hold of the local comm­unity – as with Leyton Orient – then that is really something to counter the Premiership hype with.

WSC Have ambitions in the lower divisions also changed – apart from clubs with windfalls like Fulham?

MA What has changed is that your potential was infinite. I’m talking about Brentford, but I could say the same thing about someone like Colchester or Chester. The fact is that now when you go for your day out at Wembley, it’s finite, the numbers of people who will get involved. When we got to the Freight Rover in the mid-Eighties, it was a really hollow thing, there were only 25,000 people there. And yet at Christmas 1971 we entertained Crewe Alexandra and there were 20,000. That can’t happen any more.

MC But hang on, you could see it evolving over time that a club like Brentford could rise in a way that Coventry or Wimbledon have.

MA But at this current level, it won’t happen again. You’ll never get 20,000 people at Griffin Park in the Second Division.

WSC Do you think the hype and the money make Premiership fans feel less involved than they were in the Eighties?

NH I think Manchester United’s is a completely different case. Arsenal’s change of status is pretty much entirely dependent on Arsène Wen­ger. At the end of the season people were saying, well, it’s al­ways the same two clubs who are miles better than anyone in the league, with the possible exception of Chelsea, and it’ll be the same again next year. But when George Graham left in 1995, Arsenal finished 12th and Bruce Rioch wasn’t much better. Wenger turned things around so quickly, and brought in such quality players, that it’s fooled people into thinking this has always been the case and always will be. The success it’s brought has meant the games are sold out and you can’t get a season ticket, but I’m slightly suspicious of it, because I can very easily see circumstances in which we’d be back with Tottenham and Chelsea as was a couple of years ago.

WSC But isn’t Man Utd’s success also very much dependent on Ferguson as the key figure?

MC Yes, I think so. Many people say it’s the money, that it was the result of going public in 1991. But I think the fact that we started our run of honours around then is purely coincidental. There wasn’t actually a great deal of money raised by that anyway. I personally worry about what will happen after Ferguson. I think it’s much less likely that United could actually go down than it was in the Seventies, but nonetheless I could see us falling out of the top group quite easily, because there is no obvious successor. Unlike when Busby left, we have got a much more durable system for bringing through youth players. But then again, we all used to think that Liverpool would go on for ever – they’d have this constant succession of backroom boys. But it all went wrong and still looks like going wrong.

NH I think it’s true of football fans, or actually more true of the media than the fans, that they tend to talk as though things are a permanent state of affairs. Everton, for example, were always a member of the “Big Five” and they were until relatively recently. But there is a concentration of strength which means, I think, that we have got to be more concerned about making some of our Premier League clubs stronger. Otherwise there’s going to be a complete lack of interest. I think I am already fed up with the Double. It was great on the day, but it waned almost within hours.

MC The Double is one indication that the group of top clubs is getting smaller. For the first 61 years of this century nobody did it. Then it only took another ten years, and now it’s being done again and again. The oligarchy is getting smaller and smaller. It’s worrying, and that is why the Monopolies Commission decided against Sky buying Man Utd. That was the best arg­ument we had, that it would further the inequalities in football. Although that was an argument we couldn’t really voice at the time, because most United fans wanted to further increase the inequalities!

It’s a similar dilemma to almost every other British industry – the aircraft industry and many others. You can increase domestic competition, but that way you don’t promote “British champions”. Do we allow cer­tain clubs to get bigger than others in order to win the European Cup, or do we spread it out and go back to the Fifties, when any team could win the league?

MA But isn’t there a sense that this is all just a pre- lude to the European league anyway? That that’s really where the competition’s going to be.

MC I’m not sure if a European league can ever take ov­er from a domestic league. I don’t think you will get English clubs giving up the Premier League and just doing Europe. Because there won’t be the interest. The big games for us are when we play Liverpool, or Ars­enal, or Leeds. OK, Juventus and Real Madrid are big games, but it’s not a particularly big game playing Pa­ris St Germain or Feyenoord.

WSC But isn’t it the case that by having those games on TV season after season, Juventus and Real Madrid will grow into the big games for the next couple of decades?

NH When United played Juventus this season, there was already a sense that they were renewing a rivalry.

MC But rivalries begin in the playground don’t they. When you and I were growing up, there weren’t any Juventus supporters, and it will be a fair while before there are...

NH I don’t know. When I saw a kid walking down Av­enell Road in Highbury wearing a Blackburn Rovers shirt in 1995, I thought, well, anything’s up for grabs now. You can go into any shop and buy any shirt and say you support them.

MC Not in our lifetimes I don’t think.

WSC Many people stuck with football through its bad times but if you watch Sky you would think that it hadn’t existed before 1992. How do you think younger fans growing up now perceive it differently?

NH One thing that has changed from when WSC start­ed was that in those days you couldn’t buy a video. Everyone had had a video machine in their house for five years and the clubs hadn’t worked out what to do about it. Now there’s nothing that’s in the recesses of your memory that you haven’t seen on TV in the last four years – I’ve probably seen every Arsenal goal that’s been televised.

MC Twenty years ago United might be on Match of the Day, but probably not because there were only two games on. So you would be the only person you knew who’d seen the match. Now we’re in a world where everyone can discuss the goals and everything else.

NH If there’s one thing I think football has to address now, which it didn’t then, it’s how you can get kids in without having to queue up two months in advance. Because you’re going to lose a link otherwise.

MC In my case, I went to my first United game on my own at the age of 12, was hooked, and went on my own after that, queuing up at the Stretford End with my three or four shillings. You just couldn’t do that now. Maybe that audience will replenish the smaller clubs, but I doubt it. I think it’s more likely people will just carry on watching on television.

MA In a situation where Newcastle have sold all 38,000 of their season tickets, why bother supporting Newcastle when you’re never going to be able to see them? If that were me, maybe I’d still keep a place in my heart for Newcastle, but I’d move down the ladder and go to Hartlepool or Darlington. I think to some extent people will go down the divisions to watch football providing it’s good, or providing it’s winning football, but I don’t think that because there are 20,000 Arsenal fans who can’t get in, they are all going to spread themselves evenly among the other London sides. I do think there are probably quite a few Premiership fans who can’t get to see their clubs who are going to Fulham, because they are doing well.

NH What most fans of our generation went through when we were kids meant that it’s going to sustain throughout our lives, it gives you a bedrock. If we’d only been ten times between the ages of 12 and 16, I can’t imagine there’d be any way that I’d be going now. I also get the impression that there is a teenage generation who are much more interested in things being flash than our generation ever was. If you’ve been brought up on a diet of NBA and Adidas and TV every week, I’m not sure that you’re going to “get” Brentford, in the way that we would have done.

MA It’s a question of exposing people to it really. And you’re afraid that if they go for a lousy game, North­ampton 0-0, they may never go again. But then we learned to get something from that too. I mean I’ve really enjoyed very boring games. Or at least you learn to get something from aspects other than the result – the atmosphere, the people you’re with.

NH But do you think there are kids who will watch Nationwide League Extra all the way through goal aft­er goal without any context?

MA I think so. We can overreact a little bit by thinking everyone’s ultra cool and that everyone’s got a com­puter and no one’s interested in the simple stuff we may have enjoyed. Free admission for kids is some­thing that seems to work lower down. At Brentford, they pick a game, usually a bad one, midweek, when they’re expecting maybe less than 4,000. And it can make a big difference, there might be another thousand. There are increasing numbers of Asian and black kids who go, and they’re watching the football. They don’t go there to say “It’s so boring” and “Where’s Michael Jordan?”

On the other hand, what I think is true is that a lot of older fans have been put off modern football because they think it is too flash. You definitely don’t see as many old codgers on a Saturday afternoon. I’m all for invention on the business side, but what I don’t like to see is American promotional ideas being transposed to lower division English clubs. You go along to Brentford and it’s the driving rain, Scunthorpe or whatever, and you don’t want half-time entertainment. They get a few kids to come out, unnanounced, kick a ball about and call it half- time entertainment. It’s a shambles, but just by doing it they think they’re cutting edge. And it would never be acceptable in America.

WSC Oddly, since so much about football was so awful in the Eighties, there seems to be nostalgia for aspects of it, such as terracing.

NH I’ve got no nostalgia for the Eighties at all. The percentage of hooligans among the crowd was very high. My team was terrible. Football was dying on its feet when this magazine started, wasn’t it?

MA It’s just our ages, isn’t it? For me, the Eighties were a disaster. My nostalgia is for the early Seventies and the late Sixties.

NH Mine too. And partly that’s to do with intensity and partly to do with the size of the crowds. I went to Highbury quite a few times in the late Sixties and early Seventies in enormous crowds, when the team was desperate. But the noise levels and spontaneity of songs, all that kind of thing, each game seemed more memorable. The Eighties had none of that really. I didn’t lose interest, but I sort of lost heart. I’ve got no nostalgia for the terraces.

MC I can remember writing a book in 1988 saying that there’s no more singing at Old Trafford any more, like there was in the Seventies. But if we were 30, then per­haps now we would be nostalgic for the Eighties. There are an awful lot of things I’m very glad don’t happen any more. Like the awful crushes. Quite how more people didn’t die I don’t know. I’m talking about pre­ssures in the ground, when you were actually crushed up against a crush barrier – I mean what a ludicrous state of affairs when you have an institution that actually has a thing called a crush barrier. But outside the ground as well.

MA At our level, I’ve got to say, segregation now is fantastic. Because if that had not been there through last season, for instance, Cardiff City’s visit to Brentford would have been carnage. Nothing has changed in that way. There are more hooligans in general soc­iety than probably there have ever been.

WSC How do you account for the current popularity of books about hooliganism?

MC They tend not to go into the really nasty bits, the people who got Stanley knives across their faces and that sort of stuff. It’s all a rather romantic idea of armies of people chasing each other down streets, from the bits I’ve read.

NH I wonder if it occupies a similar position to what Sven Hassel did when I was a kid, books about Nazi sol­diers in World War Two. Kids just want to read nasty things. It’s difficult to see how they can be a part of it themselves now, given the numbers that are involved in hooligan gangs, which is not enormous compared to what it was. That sense that anyone could just go along and be part of a gang of 500 people that was going to go up the Clock End at Highbury, that’s gone now. You have to know what you’re doing and you have to be able to find it.

WSC Or to know which website to look on...

NH I’d never have worn a replica shirt across London in the Seventies or Eighties, but you see people walking past each other all the time now, just asking each other what the score was.

MA I think that shared experience, that feeling of be­ing homogeneous is partly to do with the radio phone-ins. I’m thinking of Tom Watt, who’s right there on the mark with something to say to anybody, whether it’s Clydebank, or Lincoln City, or Arsenal. He knows exactly what it is that’s recently happened, he knows who their most famous player was – their Dixie Mc­Neil. And this definitely does create a situation where people think, well, “my friend the Tottenham sup­porter” or “my mate down at Barnet”. You know, the mentality is, “he’s a bit crackers, but that could be us”.

WSC How has the relationship between clubs and the national team changed in the lifetime of WSC? [nb The discussion took place before Manchester United withdrew from the FA Cup.]

NH You used to watch the World Cup because it was the best football being played and of course the club teams were feeders for national teams. Now it looks like the other way around. You know that if you’re watching an international team with no players from Juventus, Man Utd, Barcelona or whatever, then they’re no good – oth­er­wise someone would have bought them.

MC In the future, we may see national sides decline in imp­ortance. Lots of my United-supporting friends don’t follow England at all, partly because so many United players have got injured playing for England, partly because of the Beckham thing and partly because England seems to be a London thing. I’m sure that’s not just a feeling in the North.

NH Were there two worse games on TV last season than England v Sweden and Bulgaria v England? They were just horrible games. You don’t see teams in the Premier League play like that any more. You always feel that tournaments pick up when England go out.

WSC So that’s a no to the 2006 World Cup here then?

MC l’d like to see it here just for novelty. It was quickly forgotten, though, just how badly organised Euro 96 was. I took forever on the hotline to get tickets for two games that weren’t sold out. In the end the only way I got them was by saying “I’m a journalist and this is making a very good story”. I think we may see a situation in 30 years’ time where national sides are much less important than they are now and club sides are everything – which reflects a development worldwide where cities are more important than nation states.

NH There was a story recently that reflected how much things are changing. Frank Leboeuf said he was going off to talk to the French manager because he was unhappy at being second choice behind Desailly and Blanc. This is how they think now. What’s he going to do? Ask for a transfer and become Swiss?

WSC Obviously the influx of foreign players has also affected how people think about their clubs.

NH It will be interesting if someone emerges in three or four years’ time who walked out of Chelsea because he wasn’t getting a fair crack, moves to, say, Ipswich, then gets transferred back to one of the top clubs. I get the impression that Wenger is desperate to sign English players but feels it’s not worth it. We’ve bought kids from Spain, Germany and France in the last two months. But when you think that Petit, Overmars, Vieira and Anelka between them cost £10 million, while John Hartson alone cost £7.5 million...

MA I think that there is talent out there in the lower leagues but it’s just lazy manangement that they’re not being picked up. I’m not against foreign players but it’s a matter of blend. I think there’s a general dislike of Chelsea, who seem to be going off in a strange, un­healthy direction, like a Pied Piper taking football somewhere it shouldn’t be going. At least United, for all their success, have a lot of Englishmen involved.

MC Not just English, there are something like 11 Mancunians in the first team squad.

MA I saw Arsenal reserves last season and with a couple of exceptions it was all English kids...

NH ...that they’d bought from Notts County for £2 million.

MA What is not so often noticed is that with the Bosman ruling and so few English players being bought from lower division teams, they are really now at the mercy of the big clubs. The boy from York who went to Sheffield Wednesday, Richard Cresswell, they sold him because he would have been out of contract at the end of the season and they wouldn’t get anything. So they they sold him for a million and half, and went down because of it.

WSC That was also where genuinely good management by someone like Dario Gradi paid off, in being able to persuade Seth Johnson not to leave Crewe for Derby until the end of the season.

MA Dario Gradi said in an interview that he’d known Johnson since he was about seven and it was perfectly normal that he’d just pop into his house. Danny Mur­phy, too, he couldn’t get back quickly enough, he would have walked home to Crewe from Liverpool.

WSC In stark contrast to 1986, football is now everywhere in the media. But is there anything that is still not being done, or not being done well?

MC There isn’t enough investigative journalism. Al­though it’s hard, and I’ve tried it myself, to get the intimate details on what goes on in football.

NH But is there a demand? I think that’s why they’re not doing it. Think about what happened with Ven­ables – people didn’t care. The guy who tried to do all that stuff on him, Mihir Bose, he was just looked on as a pain in the arse, as this guy who was trying to drive out the coach of the England team.

MC The appalling thing is, the FA took pretty much the same view.

NH I suspect people think that football has always been corrupt, so when a reporter sets out to prove that some­one’s a villain, they don’t care.

MA I think where people really do care about that stuff is at a local level. What happened at Doncaster, it’s not comparable to Arsenal, but there’s still a feeling it could be you. OK, we got Ron Noades, but someone completely different walked in at Brighton. Although, ironically, I think that often these people go in with the best intentions, even Mark Goldberg in his funny way.

WSC We’ve obviously come a long and strange way if someone like Ron Noades has been transformed into a club saviour...

NH At Arsenal there’d be a natural tendency to regard David Dein as the enemy and yet he’s done everything he said he’d do. Prices haven’t gone up enormously and when we played Cham­pions League games at Wem­­bley, you thought “Here we go, they’re go­ing to be 30 quid each, on top of the season tick­ets”. But they all arr­ived sep­arately through the post, for free. And you thought, “Hold on, he’s supp­osed to be the bad guy”.

WSC Was there a point between 1986 and now when football might have taken a radically different course?

MC There were two crucial events: Hillsborough and the Sky deal. But the things they brought about probably would have happened anyway. Hillsborough got rid of the government’s membership card scheme and the Sky deal brought in money. The money is the key, not Sky’s cov­erage. The highest ever viewing figure on Sky is less than three million and the average is no more than 1.4 million, which is nothing compared to what Match of the Day used to do.

NH You could speculate that if England hadn’t qual­ified from their group at Italia 90 things would have turned out differently.

WSC The publication of Fever Pitch was obviously another key event. Do you regret the fact that the obsessiveness of fans, which it helped make respectable, has now been dwelt on to such an extent?

NH It’s become a cliche, there’s no more mileage in it. I don’t think it neccesarily means much that such books are still being published. In terms of interest or cultural note, if you like, it’s been done to death.

MC The thing is that some would blame Fever Pitch for football being taken over by people like you and me.

NH But we were there already. I’ve yet to meet this mythical middle class fan who doesn’t know the name of the England captain in 1966 but can tell you all about the current Man Utd team.

MC But the continuation is that because Fever Pitch made it respectable for the middle classes to watch foot­ball or made them less furtive about it, that has helped drive out working class people.

NH Fever Pitch was published the same year as the Premier League was formed and I think Rupert Mur­doch had more to with it than I did. I never understood how that argument works. I wrote a book, a lot of people read it, then football clubs put up their prices? There seems to be something I’m not getting.

MC Nonetheless, the crowd are different at matches now, although I’m loath to use terms like working class and middle class because that’s not what it’s about. It’s about poor people who can’t go: there are some middle class people who are poor and some working class people who aren’t.

NH I’ve been in the same season ticket place at Arsenal since 1989. Some around me have packed in their season tickets because they can’t afford them, but they have been replaced by people from the same back­ground. A 25-year-old plumber, a single, working class guy might be able to afford it whereas a middle class teacher with three kids wouldn’t.

MC It’s typecast as class – but the real losers are kids on their own.

MA So in another 13 years we’ll probably all be back here saying “why doesn’t anyone go to football any more?”

Nick Hornby is the author of Fever Pitch and, contrary to recent speculation, still holds a season ticket at Highbury

Michael Crick is a writer and broadcaster. A WSC subscriber since 1987, he was an organiser of Shareholders United Against Murdoch. His books include Manchester United: The Betrayal of a Legend

Mike Alway is a record producer, designer and Brentford fan. He made the Bend It! series of football records and contributed to two WSC photographic books, Shot and This Is Soccer

From WSC 150 August 1999. What was happening this month

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