Paperback writers

WSC was first published in March 1986 and soon found itself part of a publishing boom. Al Needham casts his mind back to the heyday of football fanzines and what his own favourite, Nottingham Forest’s ‘The Almighty Brian’, meant to him 

Like many writers, I got my start in fanzines. In the mid-Eighties, I had an idea that was so obviously brilliant, I used to lie in bed wondering why no one had thought of it yet. So I bought a typewriter from an old woman on the next estate, emptied the local WH Smith of every bit of Letraset they had, monopolised the Banda machine at college and produced the first ever, erm, American football fanzine. (Five hundred back issues of Third and Long are still available in my Dad’s loft, if anyone’s interested. No? Fair enough.)

Round about the same time, as I was getting every copy of the second issue confiscated outside Wembley Stadium during an NFL friendly that took the concept of “meaningless” to new heights, someone else was doing the same thing with proper football, and you’re reading the latest issue of it. Without riding anyone’s jock, When Saturday Comes was the catalyst for a literary revolution that changed football media (and the fortunes of people who worked at a printers, knew your mate and could do jobs on the sly) for ever.

Of course, fanzines had been around since the late Sixties, but – apart from Foul!, the ground-breaking mid-Seventies dirt-sheet – they were exclusively put together by people desperate to work on the NME asking members of the Newtown Neurotics if they thought pit closures were a good idea or not.

Today, when the colonisation of cyberspace means that we’re all only five minutes away from having a really good argument with someone in South Africa over which Seventies Coventry City strip was the worst, it’s worth remembering how poorly served the average supporter was 20 years ago, especially if you didn’t follow one of the Big Five. If you were lucky, you had the Football Post, Pink’Un or Green’Un every weekend. If you weren’t, you had a correspondent in the local paper who either trotted out the party line in a Pravda-esque manner or carried a barely disguised grudge against your heroes because they never left out enough sandwiches in the press box. And that was your lot. If you wanted to buy something outside the ground that wasn’t the programme, it was Bulldog (the National Front youth paper) or nothing.

For a town that’s not supposed to be a footballing hotbed, Nottingham leapt on the fanzine boom very early. Notts County got in first with The Pie (albeit with a sizeable amount of pagination given over to real ale reviews), followed by Flickin’ And Kickin’ (about Notts and Subbuteo). Looking back, it was as if the people who put them together couldn’t believe at first that people would actually want to read about their own club, which is incredibly endearing.

By the dawn of the 1990s, Nottingham was awash with fanzines. Forest had four, each with a unique personality. The Tricky Tree was the insightful one, which had already clocked that something was rotten in the state of Forest. Garibaldi was the Viz-like one, with endless slurs about the ovinesexuality of Derby fans. And Forest Forever was the work of an incredibly prodigious teenage lad who is now part of the committee that’s raising money for a Brian Clough statue.

But the one I fell in love with was The Almighty Brian. God, how I loved that ’zine. Like all provincials who end up in London, I expressed my homesickness through devotion to my club and Brian was an absolute lifeline. The minute it dropped through the letterbox, posted by a mate at home, I was immediately transported to a pub near the ground on match day, bathing in the bitchings and slaggings and local slang.

Like the best fanzines, Brian instinctively realised that you couldn’t run a report of an away game without devoting at least two paragraphs on the nearby chip shop that would throw your pie into the deep-fryer before you could stop them; that it was perfectly OK to slag off the club you loved as long as you slagged the club you hated even more (with hindsight, you could see the seeds of Forest’s eventual destruction by merely reading between the lines of the mithering of certain Brian contributors); that taxi drivers in town provided better source material than a thousand programme notes ever could; and you could never write enough about how much you hated badge-kissing Judases such as Roy Keane. I’ve never been more proud of being published as I was when my piece on how to jazz up the half-time penalty shoot-out made it into an issue of Brian – and it wasn’t until I got a letter from the editor that I realised she was female.

Obviously, the very same thing was happening right across the country. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were witnessing the last great flourish of collective samizdat, with people in every city in the UK hunched over a typewriter or newly available and very temperamental desktop-publishing program, unable to believe that they were getting away with it. At one point, Nottingham even had its own fanzine shop (the owner of which was the number-one subject of letters in Brian during the relegation season of 1992-93, due to his minging jumper and penchant for describing his bowel movements) and a record shop with a size-able stock of the better ones. Of course, they weren’t as good as the local ’zines, seeing as they pursued obsessions of their own that were completely alien to the outsider. That was the whole point, really.

So what happened? Like all street (or terrace) movements, football fanzines were ripped off and subverted by traditional media for their own nefarious ends. In the penultimate scene of Withnail and I, Danny lamented the fact that they were selling hippy wigs in Woolworths. We watched the first episode of Fantasy Football and felt the same way. Before too long, every tabloid had its own “Fanzine” (or FanZone, or whatever) section. Like Jimi Hendrix is blamed for the hundreds of crappy Metal bands that came in his wake, it’s a bit harsh to suggest that Grorty Dick, A Kick Up The Rs and Brian Moore’s Head Looks Uncannily Like London Planetarium were responsible for the career of David Baddiel. Let’s not even think about that. And in any case, as with all publications with a limited consumer base in the mid-1990s, the internet was the real killer.

But we should celebrate the fanzine boom, not mourn it. The heyday of ’zine culture began in an era when football was on the ropes due to Hillsborough, Bradford and Heysel and under threat from ID cards, and ended in a time when an interest in football was practically mandatory. And that’s no coincidence.

From WSC 230 April 2006. What was happening this month