20 Years of Fan Culture Part 1

Posted by on Nov 15, 2010 in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

In the first of a three part series charting the development of a different fan culture since the Eighties, I turn my attention to the early years of the fanzine movement.
In a recent post covering Howard Wilkinson era Leeds United, I underlined how appalling the Eighties were for the whites, but in all truth, they were a pretty bad time for us all. The wider populace had to put up with Margaret Thatcher and Bruno Brookes, but football fans were extra noteworthy for their pariah status. In 1990, I worked for a small publisher in Reading with a staff of 150 and not a single soul supported the local team aside from myself. Mention that I was heading to Elm Park and I would be subjected to the kind of look reserved for Val Doonican fans, although unlike Val, clearly potentially violent.

But it was around this time – indeed, a little before that – that fans started to find their voice. When Saturday Comes was already four years old and had quietly and unassumingly gone about its business. In an era where the only domestically minded alternatives were Shoot! and Match, the self-consciously unglossy magazine was a godsend and has provided the gold standard ever since.

WSC’s early days were punctuated by a campaigning zeal – Colin Moynihan, the hated “miniature for sport” had attempted to impose ID cards on fans in a severely misguided attempt to combat hooliganism and Ken Bates had advocated the erection of electric fences. Both were roundly satirized and vigorously opposed. But WSC wasn’t just about challenging The Man. Much of the early nineties was taken up in a bitter slanging match with a Manchester United fanzine. It was felt that the United fans’ publication was too partisan and overstepped the line, especially in its hatred of Ship Canal rivals, Liverpool; the list of club fanzines toward the back of WSC, an essential aid in the gaining of readers for aspiring publishers, omitted any mention of the organ in question, the still flourishing Red Issue.

If WSC was the Daddy, it was accompanied by an extraordinary rush of club devoted ‘zines. Inspired by the DIY aesthetic of the music world, originating a decade or so before with punk chronicle Sniffin’ Glue, there were some real stand outs. The most famous was Gillingham’s Brian Moore’s Head Looks Uncannily Like London Planetarium (disappointingly truncated to its first three words), but perhaps most representative of the new trend was Hartlepool United’s Monkey Business. Founded by Dave Shedden, one would never have known that he worked for a printer – courier was religiously used for the typeface and mistakes left in deliberately – a homespun policy that did nothing to detract from the wit and skill of the writing (our austere modern day obsession with website design is a stark contrast).
But the anally rententive among soccer fans (of whom there are many) soon initiated a more professional clutch of ‘zines. The A4 format of WSC was aped by the excellent King of the Kippax (Manchester City, and a prime advocate for that era’s craziest phase – the inflatable banana) and The Square Ball (Leeds), before things really did go all snazzy with The Gooner. This Arsenal fanzine’s byline read “no, it’s not the bleedin’ programme” and no wonder – production values cooked up on Pagemaker by founder Mike Francis were every bit as good as the club’s own efforts – only minus the inane interviews and intrusive advertising. Particularly enjoyable were its contributors’ accounts of European awaydays, kicking off with a trip to Austria Vienna after the Heysel ban was lifted and a precursor to the European Football Weekends of the modern era.

This explosion of literature, coinciding as it does with other major sea changes in the game – Nick Hornby, Gazza’s tears etc. – helped rehabilitate the reputation of the football fan and put the bad old days of Sergio Tacchini and Loadsamoney behind us. Indeed, the most encouraging aspect of these new currents was a heightened social responsibility: the fanzine world was united in its opposition to racism and hooliganism. The trend even inspired its own TV series, Standing Room Only, presented by the chirpy Simon O’Brien and despite being part of Janet Street Porter’s “yoof” schedule, eminently watchable. Suddenly, it was acceptable to put one’s head over the parapet again.

Next week, I look at the development of more commercial forms of fan involvement, not all of it pretty – unsurprising given a dramatis personae involving Davids Mellor and Baddiel.

Rob Langham
Rob Langham is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 50 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.


  1. Michael
    November 17, 2010

    It's a shame that fanzines themselves have become increasingly sanitised over the years. Most of the best writers seem to have moved onto blogs. Course, it doesn't help that most 'zines are now as expensive as a matchday programme.

  2. gerschenkron
    November 17, 2010

    Very good – look forward to the next in the series. You can't beat a fanzine IMHO. As regards football fans being treated like scum, I think Mike Hume was spot on with his assessment that there was a “grim culmination of a crusade against football fans led by Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government and prosecuted by the police and media”

    Full article is available here.

  3. Ben
    November 18, 2010

    Great new feature – I know a bit about music fanzines, but next to nowt about their football equivalent. Looking forward to the next instalment!

  4. Lanterne Rouge
    November 18, 2010

    I think what we are doing here is the pretty much direct successor of the fanzine although as Michael says, they are still available here and there – The Gooner appears to continue to thrive in its glossy hard copy format for one.

  5. Stanley
    November 18, 2010

    There are some great fanzines kicking around still (the recently revived No One Likes Us is a regular part of my matchday). The demise of the form is down to the adoption of something vaguely resembling their tone and style by mainstream media outlets. Many also have struggled to find a niche since the 'zine's former role as the unofficial opposition to the board was diluted by the advent of message boards.

    Still, as Lanterne Rouge states, the blogs listed to the right of this comment are continuing that fine work, albeit in a more tree-friendly manner.

  6. William
    November 25, 2010

    Excellent piece. Thanks for pointing me towards it after seeing my bit on Twohundredpercent. I happened to be reading about fanzines in the British Library yesterday (I'm doing a PhD on football writing – yes, you read that right). Do you know anything about a publication called “Foul” that ran for four years in the 70s?

  7. Lanterne Rouge
    November 26, 2010

    It rings a bell but I can't say I recall it. I'm jealous of your PhD – are you covering books and magazines?

    As far as Red Issue is concerned most of what I wrote up is from memory of the time but I'm sure the folks at WSC – Andy Lyons in particular – might be able to fill you in on some proper back ground.

  8. Ben
    November 28, 2010

    gerschenkron: Nice link, cheers.

  9. William
    November 30, 2010

    My PhD will mainly be covering magazines (fanzines) but newspaper journalism from the likes of McIlvanney and Glanville might provide a worthwhile counterpoint. Investigating the way the fanzines of different clubs refer/relate to each other could be very interesting, as I'm coming from a background in literary theory. I'm avoiding fan fiction though, definitely.

  10. Lanterne Rouge
    December 1, 2010

    Interesting stuff William – both my fellow blogger Lloyd and I are English graduates and studied a fair bit of literary theory way back when.

    I might have an old copy of 90 Minutes magazine at home when I return to the UK over Christmas.


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