Book Review: Fever Pitch
Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby
Published by Penguin as a Penguin Modern Classic
It’s a Friday night at the New Theatre in Oxford, and an appreciative round of applause ends Fever Pitch the play, a 90 minute soliloquy performed admirably by James Kermack. The production is an easy watch — the one-man format is faithful to the original book but somehow lacks ambition — and the audience, consisting of well-to-do folk in nice coats and a sprinkling of young men in Arsenal shirts, chuckle throughout. It’s an enjoyable way to close the working week.
Gazing at the bar during the interval, however, you wonder how many people have actually read Nick Hornby’s account of his obsessional relationship with Arsenal, first published in 1993. Many, you suspect, will not remember Michael Thomas’s championship winning goal at Anfield in 1989, and will have only hazy memories of a ground called Highbury. But whilst reading Fever Pitch was for me an epiphany, crystallising not only how I saw my relationship with the club I supported but also football in general, the landscape has changed radically in the intervening years. Penguin’s decision to re-publish Fever Pitch as one of their modern classics reflects the time that has passed. There will be a generation of readers for whom a journal about following Arsenal in the 70s and 80s will feel if not archaic, then certainly like a story from a different era.
So after watching the play I decided to re-read the book.
One thing which immediately comes across when re-reading Fever Pitch is Hornby’s attempts to convince the reader that football matters. In 2012 this feels curious. As I type, men, women and children are working out how their fantasy team did this weekend; Terry from Coventry is at the front of an endless queue of callers to talk to Alan Green (surely the equivalent of seeking counselling from the mad woman at your local bus stop); and sports editors are debating how many inches should be devoted to Ashley Cole’s latest tweet.
But in 1993 things were different. Importantly, football and marketing were two separate fields. Whilst hardly a minority pursuit, the game hadn’t ascended to its dominant place in contemporary culture, and the myriad of commercial trappings. Sky’s ‘brand new ball game’ had yet to take an Orwellian hold on how the sport was broadcast, as well as when its history began. And with fanzine culture arguably still to blossom, football remained confined to the back pages, the occasional terrestrial televised output and a selection of magazines mainly aimed at children. (The handful of live games screened each season meant the innovation of Channel 4 showing Serie A games in 1991 felt genuinely exotic).
The past 20 years, however, has seen football elevated to a mass marketed, highly financed activity, with billions invested into both the clubs and the media channels through which the game is predominantly viewed. Whilst Fever Pitch’s shtick was to explain to middle class people — i.e. those who read books — how functioning adults could be emotionally affected by the fortunes of their football team, the marketing penny has since dropped. Devotees of brand management imposed their logic onto the commercialisation of football supporters like never before, and whilst football was always a business, Fever Pitch is written from a time when your club’s merchandising efforts were still quaint rather than glossy or intrusive, and local building firms could still afford to pay to advertise at top level games. With the British television landscape restricted to four channels, the corporate business world lacked the means and know-how to fully exploit supporters. In contrast, the top division of English football today is regularly referred to as a product by both pundits and sponsors alike. The term has seeped, unchallenged and uncontentious, into the game’s lexicon, alongside managers taking jobs because ‘it’s an interesting project’ and Ashley Cole being ‘the best left-back in the world’.
In contrast, Fever Pitch is written as a defence of going to watch football matches, explaining to the uninitiated how the drama of football can be more vital than other forms of entertainment. Whilst 21st century football is a slick and glamorous product, Hornby writes from a cultural bunker. Football then retained a latent seediness — particularly in middle class circles — and this was brought home to me when I arrived at university in 1992. During that first term asking someone what team they supported felt like enquiring as to which method of vivisection they favoured. Football had been pigeon-holed as a working class sport, its image dogged by the loutish behaviour of a vocal minority. My peers were baffled when I began spending my Saturday afternoons visiting lower league grounds in the midlands (yes, I was a long way from the in-crowd), but football has since undergone gentrification. One formerly disparaging university acquaintance, now a film director in Los Angeles, recently tried to engage me in excruciating Facebook ‘banter’ after discovering a long-lost loyalty to, well, Arsenal.
The game has come a long way. Marketing football, in fact, must be one of the easiest jobs in the world, evidenced by Sky’s most recent slogan ‘Because every goal matters’. This angers me on a number of levels, not least because it simply isn’t true. Some goals don’t matter — they really don’t. This level of pedantry is shared by, I would suggest, a significant minority of those who follow football, but clearly not those whose job is to sell it.
But in balking at today’s relentless mass marketing, in jeering at the vapid media promotion, I’m aware, of course, of romanticising the past. Because the other important aspect to Fever Pitch is that it was written in the aftermath of Hillsborough, and Heysel, and Bradford. Hornby recounts a crush outside the Clock End when he was lifted by the mass of people, and a blithe faith that someone was in charge in such situations. He also describes the regular occasions he witnessed fighting both inside and outside grounds as football in the 70s lost its innocence to the nastier aspects of tribalism. New readers to the book may be surprised too, perhaps, by the descriptions of casual racism, including a particularly horrific episode when Hornby takes some Chinese students to watch England play Holland at Wembley in 1988, only to leave at half time because of the abuse they received from other supporters.
But Fever Pitch shows that football is bigger than the bigotry and violence that once infected it. At its core the book is homage to developing an indulgently myopic relationship with your football team, to the rawness and excitement of watching from packed terraces, to restricting your life’s ambition to seeing your side win the FA Cup final (sponsored by no-one) at Wembley. On terracing, Hornby quite rightly points to the need to bring football stadia out of the dark ages, but is fearful that asking fans to pay the full price will mean going to the football will no longer affordable for normal people: “These huge ends are as vital to the clubs as their players, not only because their inhabitants are vocal in their support . . . but because without them no-one else would bother coming. Who would buy an executive box if the stadium were filled with executives?”
Today’s high attendances, despite the exorbitant prices, appear to debunk Hornby’s worst fears but Fever Pitch is more important as a state of the nation address than a bell-weather for the years to come. Because despite the more distasteful elements to the game, football in the early 90s still retained its own cultural identity, ground in its own traditions, rather than those fostered on it by marketing executives and satellite broadcasters. In today’s identikit stadia, sitting in one stand is very much like sitting in another, but Fever Pitch refers to an era when your choice of where you watch the game reflected what you wanted to experience. Hornby looks at the socio-cultural profile of football supporters: diverse, perverse but loyal. It would be difficult to do the same today because the experience has become increasingly homogenised; from full volume tannoys creating a particular pre-match atmosphere to overbearing stewards screaming at you to sit down moments after a goal has been scored (this did happen to me). And although there are likely to be more toilets to choose from, it does seem rather a shame to give up so much simply to avoid someone else pissing on your shoes.
But there I go again, drifting into unnecessary misanthropy. Clearly football stadia are safer places to be now than even 20 years ago. I recall visiting the Baseball Ground in 1992 and sitting in a 2 tier wooden stand with no smoking restrictions. It seems extraordinary that thousands of people were allowed to watch football matches in such a structure seven years after 56 people lost their lives at Valley Parade. And the condemning of John Terry has shown that, as well as arguably a better organised sport of the pitch, football has realised that it must full into line with other social norms. It’s a work in progress, and football is always more likely to respond to social change than lead it, but there are some very good arguments to suggest that football today is a safer, more inclusive environment than it was in the days when Fever Pitch was written, and that has to be a good thing.
And I am, after all, still in love with the game. I spend far too much time watching, playing and occasionally writing about football. My personality and social skills are more rounded than those green days of my first term at university, but football will always be my main hobby in life, even if I’m now comfortable talking about other things now as well. But I suppose re-reading Fever Pitch reminded me of how, back in 1992, that hobby felt ever so slightly special. And that is what I miss most. Nick Hornby articulates an exclusiveness about following a football team (even a so-called big club) that seems to have gone. Whilst the options to indulge my interest are now gratifyingly diverse — I regularly watch whole Bundesliga games, listen to genuinely funny football podcasts and watch Fever Pitch the stage play whilst sipping red wine — having an obsessive-compulsive relationship to your football team has been commodified. The safer environment in which football is played denies the rights of passage experiences that Hornby describes, whilst the regular demand for football to be suitable for families repositions the game as a form of entertainment like any other.
But Hornby is at pains throughout Fever Pitch to describe his experience of following Arsenal as painful. I remember being struck at the time how this was the first time anyone had described the very personal relationship we have with our clubs. He reveals half-way through his genuine problems with depression, football either a symptom or a cause of some of his internal anxiety and gloom. How it’s possible to become too serious, to lack detachment, even to enjoy it as sport. To allow football to replace what’s missing in your life, whatever that may be.
And this is the ‘narrative’ that those who market the game have seized upon; the ‘proper’ fan will spend their money following their team because that’s what proper fans do, instantly robbing those of us who enjoyed football before Sky television of being gloriously misunderstood. Everyone now has an opinion about football. If everyone is now a ‘proper fan’ what is there left for those of us who remember low crowds and muddy pitches? It’s childish, but when I first read Fever Pitch it resonated because no-one had articulated how I felt about the game. Now, the notion of loving football has been wrung out to dry because everyone does. It may generally possess better quality, but like the band you discovered playing to 50 people who go on to make a highly polished second album to critical and commercial success, football no longer feels like its yours anymore.