We sometimes take for granted the huge popularity of football, and the obsession so many of us have for the game. But how did we get here? How did we become football fans. This is an extract from the new Goal Post book, Savage Enthusiasm: A History of Football by Paul Brown:
Being a football fan is both a privilege and a burden. When you’re winning, it’s the best thing on Earth, and when you’re not, it’s the end of the world. And the thing about being a football fan is, whichever way fortune swings, you’re stuck with the game and your team for life. We fans have come to accept the great hold football has on us. But how did this happen? How did we become so entirely wrapped up in the game? How did we become football fans?
Many of us can trace the lineage of our support through our parents, our grandparents and so on. But association football has only been around for 150 years or so. At some point, several generations ago, our ancestors discovered and embraced the emerging game, developed affinities for individual clubs, cheered and sang, and helped initiate the fan culture that we’re part of today. But the roots of football fandom were established long before the association game was invented.
People have been fanatical about football ever since feet and balls were first introduced to each other, from ancient games in China, Greece and Rome, through Britain’s violent medieval football battles, to the (slightly) more refined public school games and, eventually, the codified game of association football. In vase paintings, ancient poems and old chronicles, there is evidence of football fanaticism that predates the formation of the Football Association and the creation of the Laws of the Game in 1863. Even in its earliest forms, football was able to inspire savage enthusiasm.
Football fever really took hold among the general public around the 1880s, fuelled by social changes that allowed working people the time and means to pursue new pastimes. Although their fanaticism was rapidly being established, these enthusiasts weren’t labelled as “football fans” until the early 20th century. Before that they were “spectators” and then “supporters” (terms that are still used pretty interchangeably today). The term “fan”, as a contraction of “fanatic”, was first used to describe keen baseball spectators in the sports columns of US newspapers in the 1890s. A 1900 edition of language journal Dialect Notes includes the entry: “Fan, n. A baseball enthusiast; common among reporters.”
In 1913, the London Sketch newspaper published a column with the headline “Football ‘Fans’” that compared the feverish behaviour of British football spectators to that of American baseball enthusiasts, “who are called ‘fans’, as short for fanatics”. And in 1914, the Daily Express used the term (again cautiously protected by inverted commas) in a reference to “First League football ‘fans’ in London”. It has since become common for people to be categorised as fans of anything and everything, but football fans, perhaps more than any other set of enthusiasts, occupy a significant and highly-visible place in society. Football fandom has become an integral and inescapable part of modern culture.
The traditional football fan, in an image captured some-where between the game’s post-war boom and its satellite TV-fuelled commercial explosion, is a familiar – if clichéd – character. He’ll most likely be male, wearing a replica team shirt, or perhaps a woollen hat and scarf in his team’s colours. He may have a rosette pinned to his chest, and a wooden rattle in his hand. He’ll arrive at his local football ground and hand over a paper ticket stub before pushing through a mechanical turnstile. He’ll procure a steaming cup of Bovril, and perhaps a match pie, then make his way to the standing terrace. There, he’ll sing and sway, and ride an emotional rollercoaster that rises and falls with the ebb and flow of the match. And afterwards he’ll head home, his mood altered for better or worse by the result of the game. A win makes the next week of work easier to contemplate. A defeat makes it a slog, but there is always the next match to look forward to. There is always the next match.
This routine might baffle outsiders, who fail to understand the vital importance of football. Ever since trainloads of provincial folk began to arrive in London for the first FA Cup finals, football fans have been viewed with bemusement and derision by sections of society. Initially there was a broad class divide. Football was the working-class game, and those of a higher standing who did not feel its popular appeal were wary of invasion by flat-capped northern factory workers. Noisy groups of football fans were at best boisterous, and at worst hooligans. To be fair, during the long history of football fans, a minority have earned a bad reputation with behaviour that would not be becoming of (by hackneyed contrast) opera fans. In certain periods, most notably in the 1970s and 1980s, high-profile incidents of disorder and violence led to the general vilification of football fans. The contempt with which fans came to be regarded would have tragic consequences, leading to a series of wholly-preventable disasters.
Things did change, and the reputation and treatment of football fans improved over the 1990s and 2000s, during what some might call the gentrification of the game. But, while few would mourn the gradual disappearance of the hooligan, the traditional football fan is also disappearing. As cash has been pumped into the game, the traditional working-class fan has been increasingly priced out. Today, top-flight football belongs primarily to the middle classes. And, with ex-prime ministers and heirs to the throne claiming dubious affiliations to Aston Villa, football’s popular appeal has also reached the upper classes. Politicians and royals recognise that an affiliation with football can foster an affiliation with the people. It has become fashionable to be a football fan.
It has also become possible to be a football fan without ever attending football matches. This has been enabled by expanding media coverage of football, which has made it easy to follow the game and watch matches from our homes, in the pub, or on the go, virtually anywhere in the world. The media has long been an enabler of the football fan. The rise in popularity of football and the growth in circulation of newspapers were indelibly linked from the late-1800s. Newspapers nurtured and promoted football, increasing the game’s popularity, and football fans bought newspapers to read their coverage, expanding newspaper readerships. Then came radio and TV, and it became increasingly possible to follow football from afar. Further technological advances, notably the internet and social media, have expanded football coverage and extended the game’s reach. What it means to be a football fan has evolved and shifted to such an extent that a 19th century fan might struggle to recognise a 21st century fan as a fellow round-ball enthusiast.
But fans do still pass through the turnstiles. And, at football’s lower levels, they remain the lifeblood of the game. The modern fan is still more likely to be male than female, although research shows that a third of football fans are now women. They may still wear a replica shirt, but the woollen hat and scarf have fallen out of fashion. (The rosette and rattle are now football museum pieces.) The turnstile they pass through may be electronic, with a plastic smartcard placed into a scanner rather than a paper ticket handed to an operator. Most likely they will sit rather than stand, in plastic flip-up seats that clatter when a passage of play brings fans to their feet. There is still singing, and the ebb and flow of emotion. And the result still matters, and affects the mood, until overtaken by anticipation for the next match. There is always the next match. Some things never change.
This history of football fans is a social history, a political history, a history of the media, and a history of the game itself. Primarily, though, it’s a history of people going out to watch their teams, win or lose, then going back again and again. It’s a celebration of watching football, dedicated to anyone who has ever had their heart gladdened or saddened by the game. It’s about being a football fan. It’s about being us.