20 Years of Fan Culture Part 2
One early Nineties issue of When Saturday Comes depicted a grinning Frank Rijkaard giving the thumbs up to Channel 4’s landing of Serie A coverage for a mere million pounds and comparing this favourably with the £304 million price BSkyB forked out for the right to bring us the newly formed Premier League. At the time, with Liverpool in the early stages of decline and George Graham’s unremarkable Arsenal side the reigning Champions, the sum did seem pretty ridiculous and as the fledgling broadcaster struggled to land subscriptions in its early months, the last laugh was certainly with the Italians.
In retrospect, the early nineties do seem to have been a mystical age for the football supporter. Fanzines had become widespread enough to justify a rash of spin off annuals and reference books, many of them excellent, and two branches of the now legendary Sportspages bookshop thrived on the back of Fever Pitch, The Football Grounds of Europe, All Played Out and other classics. The retro shirt business as popularized by TOFFS neutralized the static electricity of official club gear and it was suddenly safe to admit you liked the “footie” in polite society even if that term, like its close associate, “The Beautiful Game” sounded like a coinage straight from the playing fields of Eton or Charterhouse.
But as fan-led DIY culture won football new respectability, big business came a knocking. With improved facilities, a severe lessening of hooliganism and the emergence of a new kind of middle class fan, there was clearly money to be made and the initially beleaguered Sky (for so it was now rechristened) was the catalyst.
Cleverly using his newspapers to promote the game and therefore generate subscriptions, Rupert Murdoch’s brash network brought us Rochdale against Stockport when just a decade before, our live football diet had consisted of just England v Scotland and the FA Cup Final in a non-major tournament year. This surfeit of “entertainment”, along with a new range of mainstream mags such as 90 Minutes and Four Four Two helped monetize the boom. Football and music culture were meshed as Euro 96 approached and acts such as Mexico 70 and Van Basten enjoyed air play on the John Peel Show.
But the fans weren’t left behind entirely. Mainstream media quickly cottoned on to the fact that supporters wanted their say. The BBC, ever the innovator, introduced 606 with Danny Baker, an at first enjoyable trawl through the events of a given Saturday with particular emphasis on the nuttiness of ground regulators and nickname XIs. The internet and email arrived and the resultant listservs provided a foretaste of the message board culture of latter years – my fellow blogger Frank Heaven and I will testify to many an hour wasted at the desks of our Camden Town employers.
Fantasy Football League started on the back of the American led craze for dream teams and reached its peak during the aforementioned 1996 Henri Delaunay Trophy, with Frank Skinner a self-deprecating foil to David Baddiel, still unaccountably popular after his days in the Mary Whitehouse Experience. Features such as Phoenix from the Flames oozed charm as Nick Hornby was berated with good natured chants of “Nayim from the Half Way Line”.
But the euphoria was already punctuated by less savoury aspects. A gradual depoliticization of the football supporting process was coupled with a new consumerism and a marked dumbing down. Lad mags such as FHM and Loaded (no, I shan’t link to that shabby duo) signalled the game’s arrival as a lifestyle choice and armchair support swelled: it became more important for clubs to attract a television audience than paying customers, even if actual gates did rise simultaneously. The wheeling out of Jeff Astle on FFL was a wince inducer not only for West Brom fans and Skinner’s credentials as an “alternative” comedian were by now in tatters. Worse, the Beeb decided to hire disgraced Tory politician David Mellor to front 606, his only grace a dislike for Graham Poll. Recruiting Prime Minister John Major’s Chelsea supporting mate to interact with fans was too much for many and the subsequent years of Alan Green and DJ Spoony have only precipitated the decline.
But as the last strains of Fauré’s Pavane rung out and Des Lynam told us once again that we might have heard that “there was a football match on tonight”, it was easy to overlook these distasteful trends and to thump along merrily to the theme from The Great Escape. Sky had won the battle and we all started to love Jeff Stelling even if Soccer AM and the Sky FanZone appalled us. Next week, I’ll analyze the more amorphous modern era and the return of a more vocal kind of fan less happy to see their views strained through the prism of the powers that be. But, as we shall see, it will be an uphill struggle.
Part 1 of 20 Years of Fan Culture can be accessed here.