It’s difficult to think of a football book that has been more unfairly maligned than Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch”. At varying points, this book has been variously criticised for the swaggering arrogance that has come to represent Arsenal FC, the gentrification of football supporters, an influx into the game of fake fans that didn’t properly understand the culture that they were colonizing (and didn’t much care, either), the rise of new laddism and for the glut of sub-standard “football confessional” books that followed it, only a few of which came close to invoking the spirit of the original. These are criticisms that have been offered with the benefit of the twenty/twenty vision of hindsight. When “Fever Pitch” was first released in 1992, it was an absolute revelation.
There had, of course, been some great football books written prior to “Fever Pitch”, but none of them came close to summing up the cranky, strangely “obsessed even if not obsessive” world of the football supporter. It was first published in 1992 and, whilst Italia 90 and Gascoigne’s tears had some effect in rehabilitating the reputation of the English game in general terms, the reputation of the supporters remained in tatters. Typical of the attitude held towards supporters was the generally rotten “Among The Thugs”, written by the American writer Bill Buford, in which he followed various hooligan groups around for a season, presenting his findings as if this was the typical match day experience. Football might have been a more dangerous pastime in 1992 than it is now, but his book was a million miles away from being the truth of the experience of the average football supporter. If anything, “Among The Thugs” was the precursor to the hoolie-porn that inexplicably clogs up the “Sport” section in Waterstones and recent hoolie skin flicks wastes of celluloid such as “Cass”, “Green Street” and “The Football Factory”.
The notion that football supporters could be ordinary, possibly even interesting people that loved the game and could get tetchy about it without throwing bricks through windows was still largely an alien one in 1992. “Fever Pitch”, however, is only really a book about football in a superficial sense. The strange sense of always wanting something else, the obsessing over minutae and the seeking of meaning from something which can’t really offer it could just as easily have been covered had he written about music or cars. “Fever Pitch” is really about the less easily definable characteristics of masculinity. Hornby is not a true “fanatic” in the accepted sense. He goes whole seasons when he simply falls out of love with Arsenal and stops going altogether. This, however, lends honesty to the belief that he is one of us. Very few supporters don’t have a life away from football – partners, jobs and families that take up large parts of our lives. Football was a convenient jumping off point because for all men, it remains one of the few constants in our lives. Jobs, partners and sadly even families all come and go in the end, but the game on a Saturday afternoon is always there. Even when we’re not there.
Equally important is the time of “Fever Pitch”‘s publication. The summer of 1992 is now regarded as football’s Year Zero – the beginning of the end of the terraces, the start of the Premier League and the start of Sky Sports’ domination of the game. It is here that Hornby falls down for really the only time in the book, commenting that, “if [small] clubs have to close down because they do not have the money to avoid another Hillsborough, then so be it”, before grudgingly admitting that “there is absolutely no chance of being crushed on a terrace at these grounds”. Ultimately, almost all of football’s major disasters have occurred at big matches – the European Cup Final (Heysel), an FA Cup semi-final (Hillsborough), an FA Cup Quarter-Final (the Burnden Park disaster), an Old Firm match (the 1971 Ibrox disaster) and an England vs Scotland international (the 1902 Ibrox disaster). Indeed, the Bradford fire, the only major disaster to happen at an British match, was the result of an all-seater stand catching fire. Hillsborough was still an open wound when “Fever Pitch” was written, but many of his comments on the subject are wrong-headed.
These, however, are comparatively minor quibbles. The mental image of a teenage, bespectacled Hornby marching through the centre of Derby in the early 1970s pretending to be a hooligan is a joy to behold, and the account of how a League Cup semi-final win at White Hart Lane against Spurs kick-started the rest of his life is one of the finest pieces of football writing that I have ever seen. At seventeen years removal from the end of “Fever Pitch”, we are frequently reminded of how different the game is now to how it was then. As such, it is something of a period piece, but it remains essential reading for anyone that wants to understand the culture of supporting a football team. It would be an exaggeration to say that “Fever Pitch” is the greatest football book ever written – David Conn’s brillitantly acerbic by appallingly named “The Beautiful Game?” and Simon Inglis’ dry tour of Britain’s football architecture in “The Football Grounds Of Great Britain” remain, pound for pound, better reads than this, and there can be no argument that David Peace’s “The Damned United” is the finest football novel ever written – but much of the criticism aimed at it is misguided to say the least. Even if we strip it of its historical context, there are enough universal truths in “Fever Pitch” to make it essential reading for pretty much any football supporter.
You can buy “Fever Pitch” here.