William Abbs went to Old Trafford at the weekend and picked up a couple of fanzines. He takes a moment to consider the role of the fanzine in the modern media environment. The original article may be found here.
A trip to Old Trafford on Saturday has got me thinking about football fanzines. The fan who writes for a fanzine is likely to be a very different sort of supporter to the fan who doesn’t. Furthermore, those who submit opinion pieces to fanzines are not necessarily the same people who call radio phone-ins or post rumours on forums. Fanzines revel in what we could, for the purpose of this article, call the ‘otherness’ both of their contributors and the content that they produce, and that must partly be a consequence of the nature of the medium. There is inevitably some overlap between the fans who put their views across in print and those who do it online or on 606, but the format of the fanzine lends itself to a certain form of comment by a certain type of fan.
To explain ‘otherness,’ I draw your attention to a warning message on the front cover of Red Issue, one of two Manchester United fanzines that I picked up before the game against Wigan. As well as advising fans of Liverpool and Manchester City not to read on, lest they be offended, it wards off “day trippers” and those who believe in “the viability of the Glazers’ business plan.” Rival supporters are obviously going to find little to their liking in another team’s fanzine, but Red Issue deliberately seeks to exclude Manchester United’s sizeable community of more casual supporters too. These United fans might be free to attend Old Trafford on match days but, so the warning goes, they will not feel at home within the pages of the magazine. Immediately, the content inside is marked out as being distinct from the official club coverage that comes out of Old Trafford and the stories that emanate from the mainstream press. The voice of the genuine United supporter can be found within the fanzine’s pages, you are lead to believe. And even though he’s talking about a different division, it’s bound to be something Lizzie wouldn’t be heard reading out on the Football League Show anyway.
I approached Red Issue with a little trepidation, since I should point out that my visit to Old Trafford on Saturday was my first in nineteen years as a United supporter. There are any number of excuses that I could put forward to justify that revelation. Perhaps the most significant one is that my Dad doesn’t like football, meaning that there was no chance that he would take me to watch United as a boy just as there had been no pressure exerted on his part for me to follow my hometown team rather than one hundreds of miles away. Add in ticket prices, the absence of a driving licence, a weekend job whilst at university, and until recently the lack of empty seats at Old Trafford, and I hope my prolonged non-attendance can garner a little understanding if not sympathy.
Nonetheless, to return to the warning on the front of Red Issue, I couldn’t help but wonder if I too was one of the “day trippers” disdainfully referred to on the front cover. I had made the trip to Old Trafford for the day, after all. I think of myself as a committed United fan, not a casual one, because of the emotional investment I have made in the team for almost two decades. I realise that a fan such as myself is a product of the Premier League era, his support generated by the television boom, but I believe that I have a grasp for the club’s heritage too – or at least as much as I can do without having family ties to United or the north-west. The Glazers’ business plan certainly holds no sway with me, but would that be enough for me to feel accepted within the pages of Red Issue or, for that matter, the other fanzine I’d bought, the renowned United We Stand (UWS)?
In terms of who’s writing, both fanzines are built upon the contributions of seasoned United watchers. Red Issue boasts a column called “Mr Spleen: G-Stand Grumbler” while the writer of a feature in UWS, “K Stand Top Left,” recalls the fans that he has seen come and go from the section of the stadium that borders where the travelling fans are situated. Articles such as these originate literally from within Old Trafford itself, a world to which I was alien before Saturday. Reading them, I inevitably feel like an outsider. Another source of distance is the sense that the writers belong to their own community. In UWS there is even a dialogue going on between them across pages. At the beginning of his “News and Tributes” piece, ‘Meatbag Manifesto’ pre-empts what ‘Fubar’ will be writing about on the back page. As a new reader, I’m not sure I’m supposed to understand the conversation yet.
Of course, most of the comment about club and team affairs across the two fanzines is familiar to me. I am not surprised to see Nani’s histrionics as a subject of debate nor Rooney’s engineering for a move/new contract. What is enlightening, however, even liberating, is to read sentiments to which I am sympathetic that are just expressed slightly differently to how I would put them. And by differently I mostly mean with greater reference to a part of the female anatomy. A defence of Nani’s diving, so an article in Red Issue has it, might read along the lines of “he’s a lady part but he’s our lady part” (I paraphrase, naturally) but, the writer goes on, the winger’s behaviour goes against the spirit of the ‘United way’ as derived from a programme extract taken from 1937 and the example laid down by the teams of Busby. Rooney, meanwhile, is a lady part too according to the aforementioned Fubar in UWS, but he elaborates upon his point by noting that although the forward has crossed Ferguson he joins a group of players (Cantona, Ferdinand, Scholes) who were forgiven their own transgressions in the past.
The mention of time passing brings me to my final point. In UWS there is a brilliant, reflective piece (“7 Days”) that seems to ponder what exactly a fanzine sets out to achieve and what its limitations are:
You are reading ‘then,’ I am writing ‘now’… The club’s meta-reality – this really is the crux of the matter.
Essentially, this makes the point that no matter how sincere and articulate an opinion might be when it is formed, its impact could be lost upon the reader by the time they get to it. The relative immediacy of a phone-in largely spares it this problem but often leads to banal or ill-conceived comments. In contrast, the writer in UWS has the space to ponder how what a fan thinks of a certain player is never a closed topic; it changes, sometimes within a week. Rooney might currently be reviled by many but his standing with the fans seemed secure before and he could yet regain that status in the future. What’s the only thing we can be certain of, the writer asks? “We are Manchester United, you are not,” comes the answer. And with that he urges the club to give the number seven shirt to Nani. I find myself in agreement, but the justification for such an apparently contrary piece of digit allocation would probably be lost upon fans of other clubs. And therein lies the writer’s argument.
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