It may seem odd to look at upon the anniversary of the release of a book, but Fever Pitch is no ordinary book. This year sees the twentieth anniversary of a book that launched its own sub-genre – the football confessional continues to thrive to this day – and has been held responsible for both a sea-change in attitudes towards football supporters and for the gentrification of the game in a general sense, and it is worth taking a moment to pause and consider the impact of a book that went some way towards redefining football writing in Britain.
These days, there is a constant stream of books about the game for our delectation, but it wasn’t ever thus. There was a time, not so long ago, when ninety-nine per cent of all football books fell into three categories: dry statistical or reference books for those amongst us who enjoy burying our heads in the abstract, swashbuckling childrens stories about salt of the earth professionals or biographical books which often succeeded only in reminding the reader that the life of a professional footballer is considerably duller than most of us might have thought. There were honorable exceptions to this, such as Arthur Hopcroft’s 1968 masterpiece The Football Man, or Hunter Davis’ season with Tottenham Hotspur, The Glory Game. On the whole, though, the world of football literature presented would-be readers with a barren landscape.
Throughout the early to mid-1980s, though, something began to change. The fanzine movement had spread from music to football, most notably through the now-venerable magazine When Saturday Comes, and with it came burning anger, irreverent humour and the sense that here was a sub-culture that wanted a little more from the sports press than Shoot magazine or match programmes were ever going to offer. It is from this background that Fever Pitch came. Part confessional and part a biography about football from the late 1960s on, Fever Pitch was the story of Hornby’s adoption of the game shortly his parents’ marriage disintegrated, his love/hate relationship with Arsenal over the years and of his growth from childhood, through adolescence and university and into the real world.
Fever Pitch’s arrival in 1992 came at the cusp of a change in the demographic of the game’s support and perception that would be considerably further-reaching than most people at the time realised. Hornby’s book – and this may have been deliberate or may have been a happy coincidence – came as what some regard as football’s gentrification began, with the game’s reputation being resuscitated thanks to the slick marketing of Sky Sports and the shiny new and redeveloped all-seater stadia that sprung up in the wake of The Taylor Report. By the middle of the 1990s, the notion of the “new football supporter”, with his brand new scarf, middle-class idioms and ill-conceived attempts to join in with “banter” in the office or pub, was already a well-established enough stereotype to become a running joke on the sketch programme, The Fast Show.
Was Hornby somehow ‘responsible’ for this, though? It’s an appealing notion, but it now seems more likely that the books critical acclaim and subsequent commercial success were, although well-deserved, more to do with being in the right place at the right time. If football was “gentrified” by anything – indeed, if it was at all – this was done so through Premier League clubs shunting prices up to exclude less well-off supporters and a fall off in hooliganism that was due to better policing and more considered stewarding at matches. If anything, Hornby represents one of the last of the older generation of football supporters, who turned up to pay on the gate but keep their fingers crossed in the lottery of getting a Cup Final ticket, had to go to every game if they wanted to know exactly how their team was getting on and fed hungrily upon the meagre scraps thrown to them by the considerably thinner football press of the time.
This isn’t to say that he doesn’t mention the possibility of a change in the demographic of the football supporter happening in Fever Pitch, though. “To get rid of the old set of fans to bring in a new, more affluent group is a mistake”, he says in the section on The Taylor Report, although this does somewhat contradict his comments from the previous page over what might happen to those priced out in football’s brave new world, “But neither can we afford to take our kids to Barbados, or to Le Manor aux Quat’ Saisons, or to the opera.” Hornby’s Arsenal, we should perhaps consider, now sell the most expensive season tickets in the country but Hornby, who since the writing of Fever Pitch has become a best-selling author, has been personally insulated from the harsher effects of this by the wealth that he has acquired over that period. In a recent interview with The Guardian, however, he articulates his concerns over these trends, but football in Britain is probably already past the point of no return in terms of the affordability of tickets for all at many clubs.
On the subject of a change in attitudes towards football supporters, perhaps we are on firmer ground. Fever Pitch is as much about obsession as it is about football in a more general sense, and the book shone a welcome light on an aspect of (almost exclusively but not entirely male) behaviour that received very little attention elsewhere at the time. The internet has brought a whole new layer to people’s obsession and, as we have seen from some people’s use of social media to abuse other supporters, players and others, this has been far from an entirely positive thing. Still, though, significant progress has been made over the last two decades in terms of our perception – we are no longer all thugs, as popular discourse would have had it in years before and immediately after the Hillsborough disaster – although the behaviour of the police and clubs toward supporters continues to reflect the notion that we are a ‘problem’ which needs to be ‘contained’.
Hornby misses the mark repeatedly with his post-Hillsborough, though. He only pauses to consider that a crush like Hillsborough would be unlikely to happen necause you had a couple of thousand people in a half-full ground (it reads as an afterthought, more or less), and he doesn’t give any thought to the possibility that there might have been a middle ground between the rush towards all-seater grounds and getting crushed to death. He also notes that Wimbledon moving from Plough Lane to Selhurst Park “tells a story of its own”, without elaborating on this at all, failing to mention that the story of this move was really about that club getting sold down the river by its owner, instead preferring instead to leave implication hanging that this all came about somehow because Wimbledon “didn’t have enough fans”, or similar. And his response to the notion of clubs “like Chester and Wimbledon” potentially going to the wall because of the cost of ground improvements is “tough.” Literally, just “tough.” It is simultaneously surprising and unsurprising to see the supporter of a “big” club make a comment like that. As an Arsenal supporter, Hornby has never seen the true sharp end of football.
It should not be surprising that there is a hint of melancholy about Nick Hornby’s recent tribulations on the subject of football. We are all getting older, yet the players remain the same age and it can often feel as if the game that we grew up with is moving away from us. This doesn’t mean that to simply turn the clock back would be some sort of panacea for the games ills, though, even if such a thing were possible. After all, no-one would want to go back to the death trap terraces and ill-concealed menace of many football grounds during the 1980s. None of this, however, means that the game doesn’t require reform if it isn’t to completely alienate a younger audience that has grown up without the rhythm and routine of going to a match every week or every other week. Vastly increased television coverage, sky-high ticket prices and record youth unemployment may well mean that a generation of young supporters becomes live football’s lost generation. It is impossible to say at the moment what the long-term ramifications of British footballs ticket pricing policy of the last two decades will end up being. The goose may continue to lay golden eggs in perpetuity. But then again, it might not.
Fever Pitch does succeed as a book in two really significant respects. As a time capsule, it is a must-read for anybody under the age of thirty who has heard older supporters romanticising or demonising a football culture that has largely been replaced and would like a balanced view of how the game really was throughout this era. It also, however, dips into the considerably more universal matter of the obsession and sense of self-identification that supporters get from their clubs. Over the last two decades, the media has encouraged supporters to act more and more like fanatics, and it’s no great surprise that this, when combined with the anonymity and ease of use that the internet offers, has led to the blossoming of the culture of abuse that we see around us now. What Fever Pitch does offer is a little perspective on fanaticism in several different respects, and we are certainly all the better for being reminded of how absurd our obsessions are every once in a while – especially if this reminder comes from somebody just as obsessed as we are. It is, however, seriously flawed by comments such as those made about all-seater grounds which offer a none too flattering view of the writer himself. Important? Undoubtedly. The perfect football book? Far, far from it.
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