Book Review: Savage Enthusiasm: A History of Football Fans
Savage Enthusiasm: A History of Football fans
by Paul Brown
Published by Goal Post books
In a world where many football supporters would be hard pressed to tell you anything about the career of Kevin Keegan or Trevor Brooking, Paul Brown has provided the invaluable service of chronicling the emergence of football in the nineteenth century, a period which, despite the sweeping changes that we have witnessed since the advent of the Premier League, is still the epoch that did the most to forge the sport as we know it.
Now, Brown has turned his attention to the history of organised football as a whole and not just its first few decades – choosing as his topic for concentration the history of football supporters and fandom in general. The result is a breezy run through the fan’s experience and at its heart is the notion of football’s irresistibility – why did the sport become such a behemoth, beloved by millions?
Brown is predictably excellent on the early years – ones that saw FA Cup attendances grow from 2,000 in 1872 to 73,800 in 1899. That oft provided reason of the game’s simplicity is cited as the main reason – although if that were the sole criterion, then perhaps cross-country running should have trumped it. Instead, the development of competitive football, the way the sport channelled municipal and cross-town rivalries, the train system’s ability to whisk fans from region to region at relatively low price (then, at least) and the way fans could identify with social background of the participants are all seen as equally key.
The 1883 FA Cup Final was something of a watershed – working class, northern Blackburn Olympic triumphing over the Old Etonians, a point from which football’s reputation as a stronghold for the ordinary man never looked back. The descriptions of soccer’s early years are evocative indeed – most notably a wonderful description of the 1901 final between Sheffield United and southern upstarts Tottenham Hotspur but also the contemporary labelling of Bovril as ‘Johnston’s fluid beef’, referees as hounded as they are now and tale of Aston Villa fans pursuing Preston players for half a mile after a heavy beating for their team, hell bent on violence.
Of course any book on the history of fandom must necessarily dwell on the low points – and the identity of the game has been irretrievably influenced by its various tragedies. The Burnden Park disaster of 1946 is chillingly described as well as the watershed moment that was Hillsborough, while Ibrox Park, witness to appalling scenes in both 1902 and 1971 is very much central to the narrative.
That the deaths of 66 fans in Glasgow in the later incident was down to supporters ‘foolishly’ attempting to re-ascend a precarious staircase was an illusion under which I among many was still labouring – when in fact, as Brown points out, the incident occurred after a small boy fell from his father’s shoulders. This laying of the blame for disaster with the at best, idiocy, at worst, hooligan tendencies of fans is still with us and became even more extreme in the wake of Hillsborough.
That a severe crush occurred on the occasion of the 1981 FA Cup semi-final between Tottenham and Wolves at the same Leppings Lane end of the ground just eight years before 96 people lost their lives is mind boggling while the corresponding fixture two years prior to the tragedy between Leeds and Coventry as well as the 1988 semi also saw reports and warnings made of safety problems. That the latter match featured the two teams who would find themselves at the centre of the disaster in Liverpool and Nottingham Forest is again chilling.
That things improved from there with crumbling stadia put out to grass is a cause for relief and Brown whizzes through the later years, spending some time analysing the non-match going fan’s experience via now half-forgotten phenomena such as Page 302 and Clubcall and touching on the development of fanzines and Arsenal Fan TV. The author is not ‘against modern football’ – his analysis is too nuanced for that but this is nonetheless a study in the main of football support as a physical experience – soccer as a televisual and internet based pursuit will need to wait for another volume.
I might also encourage Brown to think about a more detailed global study – descriptions of the 1930 and 1950 World Cup finals, both in South America, are superb, while the book’s latter sections do make room for the German inventions of safe standing and fan ownership models – now very much part of the picture in the UK too of course. In all, it’s a highly accessible and passionate run through of what it means to be a football fan in the UK and how that is very much a way of life.