Spiel Magazine – The Changing Boundaries of Fandom

March 26, 2012

Spiel is a free magazine about football from Liverpool. It’s dead boss la. (That’s scouse for very very good.)

I’m what is called a fair weather football fan: sometimes I might go watch a game in a pub, if all the other radio stations are on my nerves, I might switch over to five live rather than turn it off, and I once bought a long sleeve England shirt for a fiver from Lillywhites in 2006. Beyond this, I am largely apathetic towards the Beautiful Game.

However, a B5 free magazine on soft matte paper with full colour print changes all that. In their Editor’s letter Paul Gleeson and Dan Byrne explain; “This is issue is about football as culture.” It’s this approach that makes the magazine readable and likeable to football fans, fair-weather, and non-fans alike. Raising the tone, and moving away from lad culture, Spiel is at once an intelligent and obsessive look at football. Check out their website to get an issue, or have a look around. There are some in good stockists around the North, not sure about down that London way though. You can buy a copy online if you fancy though. I suggest you do.

To give a taste of the mag, here is one of the lead features.”The Changing Boundaries of Fandon” is by Roger Domeneghetti, writer for Who Ate All the Goals.

Whether it’s the Scouser who’ll never walk alone, the 100% Blade or the Geordie with portraits of Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer tattooed on either moob, we all know a true football fan when we see one, don’t we?

That’s the stereotype anyway; if you don’t support the team from where you were born you’d better have a bloody good reason. And unless you support them through thick and thin, taking in every home game as well as trips to all four corners of the country then, mate, you’re really just a bit of a fraud.

Locality and loyalty. Those two words describe how ‘true’ fandom has been defined for decades. The image is hammered home time and again in popular culture from lad-lit bestseller ‘Fever Pitch’ to the latest promo for the sponsorship pairing of Vauxhall Motors and the England team which makes the link between fandom and locality explicitly clear with the strap line “supporting a team, we’re supporting a nation”.

This relationship between fans and their local club has a common sense aspect to it, in addition to being named after the area in which the team plays its home games many sides were founded by local organisations like churches and social clubs or developed out of factory or company teams. Football also became a mass spectator sport at a time of rapid urbanisation with clubs providing a focal point for the populous of the area, a place for common identity to be forged.

Talk to a sociologist and they’ll tell you this theory is ‘functionalist’ – football clubs developed to fulfil a ‘function’ (a place to bond with other people from your town or city in a fast-changing world) and so it follows that supporters must come from the locality of the club.

The perception of the fan-local club link was heightened by the onset of football hooliganism. Firms would travel the country to metaphorically invade their rivals’ territory by the literal ‘taking’ of ends in the football ground or the smashing up of a local pub. Conversely, of course, local firms would defend their territory against such attacks.

While these lads were having a jolly fun time on the rampage their actions further cemented the idea that a club’s fans were inextricably link to its local area. It seems not everyone thought that Saturday afternoon was alright for fighting and so to counter hooliganism and the associated perception that communities were fracturing, clubs were encouraged to start projects, which were designed to create positive messages about the club and strengthen ties with the local area. In a way it was the forerunner of a political discourse that has led us to David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’.

Running alongside this, over the last 20 years at least has been an increasing gentrification and commercialisation of football. Thanks to Nick Hornby, Gazza’s tears and the Taylor Report the face of the game has changed dramatically; grounds are no longer the preserve of young, white, working class males.

At the same time, and thanks to that nice Mr Murdoch, TV coverage of the game has risen dramatically meaning there is almost daily access to a ‘live’ match. These modern forces are seen by some as negatively subverting and changing the nature of fandom and in the process creating a different stereotype – the ‘new’ fan whose ties with a team are less strong than the true fan.

Even more recently, the Internet and social media have further changed the nature of how fans interact with each other and the game. Football bloggers consistently challenge the narratives created by the media as well as challenging decisions made by football authorities or the Government in connection to the game.

In so doing, they often suppress their club allegiances instead defining their experience of the game through their common social and cultural experiences. Twitter allows people to easily and quickly communicate across vast distances sharing experiences in a way that further subverts traditional, geographically-deterministic notions of fandom.

Gideon Rachman, writing for Prospect Magazine, defined the very essence of this new, supposedly fickle breed of fan. He has swapped his allegiance between Chelsea, QPR and Spurs, and suggested that: “to the true fan, of course, this is consumerist heresy. My response is that I’m the real football fan – because I’m actually interested in watching good football. The ‘true fans,’ on the other hand, are cultists worshipping a particular piece of ground or a shirt.” His approach is the antithesis of everything we are told represents a ‘true fan’ yet, Rachmann argues, he is “both more rational and more honest” a fan than those who trudge through the same turnstiles week after week.

Furthermore, there has been limited research to validate the functionalist theory and what little there has been suggests that Rachmann is not alone and it is the ‘true fans’ who are, in fact, in the minority which begs the question what is true fandom really?

As early as the Thirties, and probably even earlier than that, the supporter base of particularly successful clubs (sound familiar?) in large urban areas came from a vast geographical area. In short fans have been choosing which team to support on the basis of factors other than geography for much longer than the stereotype would have us believe.

Think of Toon Army loyalist Tony Blair. OK, he never said he sat in the Gallowgate End nor that he watched Jackie Milburn play but he was a self-professed fan. So why Newcastle? Blair spent the latter years of his childhood in Durham so Sunderland would have been an option too. That he chose Newcastle demonstrates that fandom can be about a proactive choice.

But then perhaps the whole thing was manufactured by arch spin-doctor and, supposed die-hard Burnley fan, Alastair Campbell, who grew up not in the shadow of Turf Moor but in Leicester and Keighley.

Even Nick Hornby the man who, in the early-Nineties defined fandom, for the prawn sandwich brigade at least, swapped from his beloved Arsenal to Cambridge while he was at university. And why did he choose Arsenal? He didn’t live near Highbury, it was just the first game his father, who had recently separated from Hornby’s mother, took him to see in a year of great personal trauma for Hornby. As he says: “I wonder how many other fans, if they were to examine the circumstances that led to their obsession, could find some sort of equivalent Freudian drama?”

OK, a true fan might not chose a club on the basis of where they live but once they’ve made that choice they’re loyal, aren’t they?

Simon Kuper and Stefan Szmanski offer what they call a ‘critique of the Hornby model of fandon’ in their book Why England Lose. They studied football attendances in England between 1947 and 2008 and found that year-on-year 50% of fans will not return. Furthermore this trend was in evidence for the whole period. The casual ‘new fan’ is not a new phenomenon.

Kuper and Szmanski had unearthed what they call the “dirty secret of English football” – many fans support more than one club. Football fandom is generally, they argue, very close to music fandom. Fans are able to follow more than one band at the same time and move on when one group splits up or fails to deliver entertaining output.

The pair also quote the similar findings of academic Alan Tapp who researched the fans of one particular football club in the mid-Nineties. Tapp found that many fans choose to watch different clubs at different times and argued that these “repertoire fans took a lot of pleasure from a multiplicity of aspects of the game itself, while single club fanatics were less interested in football, more devoted to the club as an entity.” Non-fanatics are getting more from the game? Eh? What? You get the torch; I’ll get the pitchfork.

The perception that runs hand-in-hand with the stereotype is that the ‘true fan’ is being pushed out of the game by the ‘new fan’ – supporters who don’t care as much. However, it seems the reality is that ‘true fans’ have always been in the minority.

Football clubs are a great number of things, but perhaps most powerfully they are symbols. Throughout the history of the organised sport teams have meant different things to different people. For some they may have always been exclusively geographical although even that is symbolic as the fan ‘displays’ their loyalty to the club and the local area through the songs they sing, the fights they pick or the clothes they wear (whether the full club strip or your Adidas Sambas). There will be a myriad of different reasons for the choices individual fans make.

The concept of loyalty is more elastic than we might at first assume. At least since the years immediately following the Second World War the majority of fans have had a regularly changing relationship with the club (or clubs) they follow.

It seems the ‘true fan’, the banner-maker, the face-painter, the wig-wearer, is actually in the minority. The impact of modernity on the game is not killing off these types of ‘authentic’ supporters; instead it is actually revealing the true colours of fandom.




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