First off, as a sort of disclaimer I would like to start off by conceding that I am by no means an expert on the topic of football fanzines. I have read a few in my time, but have not yet had the good fortune to contribute to one. Much academic work has been carried out on the subject — for instance, a paper by Richard Haynes immediately springs to mind — but this academic hobnobbing is not necessarily accessible for the average fan, nor does it have any great presence on the general football scene.
So why have I decided to write this brief blog article? The simple answer is that, whatever paths I have chosen to pursue certain leads in recent months, I have constantly come up against figure of the fanzine as a kind of floating phantom, not menacing but quietly persistent. One choice example comes from my piece on West Brom manager Tony Mowbray, where I noted that
Writing about fanzines further imposed itself upon me as I began to question the role of the internet in the demise of fanzines and, to an extent, football programmes, and to interrogate what it was that I thought was good and bad about internet journalism — from bloggers to constantly updated but fully-fledged journalists on the books of The Times and The Guardian. It is really quite something to read the sardonic and at times frankly condescendingly offensive responses of Times frontrunner sportswriter Martin Samuel, when you have been following his career at The Times for many years without ever questioning his authorial voice. I wondered, out loud, at times, whether the untrammelled slanging matches to be found on certain football forums — not to be named here — aren’t really another form of footballing hooliganism. Those who wish to instil the spirit of free, fair and unbiased debate are always wont to be belittled and sworn at by the abusive minority who flit from blog to newspaper looking for a verbal fistfight.
Furthermore, fanzines take on especial relevance because this is a time perhaps like no other in recent footballing history. It is an era when the control of the biggest clubs in world football is well and truly edging away from the grip of local fans, when corporate moula renders the historical memory of lifelong supporters null and void.
When centenary stadiums are torn down — a stadium for many a fan is a shrine in which quasi-religious chants are sung, a chapel, a truly harrowed place, a home; the Charlton Athletic fanzine Voice of the Valley, which struck a major blow to the club’s plans to leave their home of 90 years, once stated that the club could not move away from their traditional ground because the one involved the other — and replaced with corporate shells, complete with megacorp baptisms — the Emirates, how long until the Coca Cola stadium? — and breakaway clubs continue to form, it occurs to me that the subversive potential of the fanzine, or the webzine, may not have entirely run its course. Football fanzines, that medium dedicated entirely to football — up until fifteen or so years ago, mainstream newspapers still heaped a fair focus on other sports, especially the more “genteel” ones — once helped and can continue to help to repair a broken bridge to a footballing heritage.
What exactly is a fanzine, and when was the first fanzine made? Do forgive me now for taking you by the hand and leading you for a moment down memory lane.
Despite the widely held assertion that the fanzine is a child of the 1990’s, the advent of the fanzine in actual fact dates back to the late 1960’s, although it was not until the punk music movement of the 70’s that fanzines were truly popularised. The ethic preached by punk was that of ultimate ‘DIY’: away with the bureaucrat, the professional, the guy only in it for the money, and in with the struggling aficionado burning with passion and enthusiasm. Fanzines are licensed to criticise and praise freely and brazenly, are produced in direct opposition to “professional” media, and do not court — and in fact, in many cases, openly reject — advertising revenue. Fanzines consequently could also place a far greater emphasis on humour, sarcasm and creativity, as is evidenced by the imaginative names devised for a number of supporters publications. Such an anti-official line soon caught on in independent sports publications set up to challenge mainstream media, such as Foul, which ran from 1972-1976, and by the early 80’s, new technology allowed the London-based When Saturday Comes to take up Foul’s mantle with extraordinary popularity. The disenfranchised in footballing terms — gays and lesbians — meanwhile appropriated the fanzine in order to acquire a voice in an arena from which they were otherwise excluded, whilst political activism spurred the founding of the Manchester United zine “Red Action”, which sought to protest against racist chanting at Old Trafford. Over 350 fanzines are still thought to be in existence.
The link with the late 80’s and early 90’s, however, is one that is worth bearing in mind when considering the evolution of fanzines in recent years, and it is to this end that I would like to introduce a remark from BBC Sport’s Tim Vickery, a quotation which fatally piqued my interest and finally forced my writing hand. Discussing the problems of crowd control and hooliganism currently afflicting the South American came, Vickery asserts that part of English football’s move towards abolishing crowd violence came due to “due to a shift in supporter culture, where fanzines suddenly became more popular than violence”.
It is no coincidence that the heyday of the fanzine came in the aftermath of the tragedies at Heysel (1985 — also the year in which a young fan died in the clashes ensuing after a Birmingham City game and the setting for the Bradford stadium fire), Hillsborough (1989), and the subsequent clampdown on hooliganism and crowd control. Following the Taylor Report (1990), in which many football fans were effectively branded as vicious, barbarian ne’er-do-wells, fanzines became a form of protest on the behalf of the vast majority of supporters eager to demonstrate that to be a football fan was not synonymous with being loutish and uneducated, that supporting your football club could be a constructive and well-thought-out act. At the same time, FSA’s began to emerge, as masses of supporers set out to change the media’s representation of football and its disciples, as well as attempting to finally acquire some control of the clubs that they so loyally followed. A quotation from the Sunday Times bears this issue out eloquently, stating crudely that “[Football is] a slum sport, watched by slum people.” (June 18, 1985), a view that by necessity had to be opposed.
These points were reinforced by the formation of the Premier League in 1992, with fanzines providing fans with a thitherto unavailable forum in which to discuss the multitude of changes, both exciting and daunting, that were taking place in the hard-to-navigate waters of the contemporary game. In that age of sea change, many fanzines looked wistfully back at their clubs’ greatest players of the 20th Century, as if to attempt to apply adhesive to their club roots before the woods of history could be felled. In the words of Matt Stone, the co-founder of The Spur, the first Tottenham Hotspur fanzine, and a regular contributor to the superb MEHSTG (My Eyes Have Seen The Glory),
“Sadly Spurs fans continue to be characterised in the media either as extremists who publish Sugar’s phone number or as the most fickle fans in football – a charge which has never remotely rung true in my experience […]We started the fanzine to provide a forum for fans to prove they were far more knowledgeable, opinionated and interesting than they were given credit for. We printed any letter which made sense and wrote many articles which didn’t. I like to think that the fanzine movement helped to change attitudes”
It is doubtful whether the likes of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch could have been as successful without the path first paved by fanzine publication.
The significant role played by fanzines and fan protest in the 80’s — I am thinking here of the likes of the Queens Park Rangers Loyal Supporters Association, formed in 1986, who crucially opposed Fulham chairman David Bulstrode’s plans to merge Fulham and QPR into Fulham Park Rangers — allows me to dream that local fans and fanzines can still have an important say in the development of their football clubs, leading me to support such ventures as the “Hicks Out” campaign. Meanwhile, attempts by clubs to “cash in” on the fanzine phenomenon have by and large been unsuccessful, with the extortionate prices, un-amateurish feel and “official” spin offered by club publications — my Spurs’ “Hotspur”, although of pretty high quality, is a glossy case in point — failing to break the market. The recent trend demonstrated by clubs to attempt to exploit their fans financially shows no signs of abating, with expensive DVDs of Spurs 5-1 demolition of Arsenal up for sale almost as soon as the dust had settled on the semi-final victory, and both North London clubs having recently assembled and released bafflingly expensive club opuses claiming to package into one volume the entirety of a club’s memory. For me, the collation of a thousand fanzine issues would make a far cheaper, and more effective job.
Whilst some might view my fascination with fanzines as naÃ¯ve idealism, a search for a bridge with the lost past — a new species of fan-tasy, if you will — I have sought to demonstrate here that the subversive potential of the fanzine remains in spite of all of modern football’s advances. Although I have not yet had the time to do the relevant research, I would be intrigued to see whether the likes of AFC Wimbledon and FC Manchester have utilised the potential of the fanzine to unite fans around their cause. Whether or not the pervasive use of internet forums and noticeboards can ever emulate this potential — rather than serving as a nail in the zine coffin — remains to be seen, but it is my opinion that fanzines continue to be worth investing in.
What do you think? Is the fanzine an anachronism in the modern-day game? Will all fanzines be superseded by ezines or club publications? Tell us your thoughts!