Friday, 25 August 2017

Who are "the fans"? None of us, all of us

Why I Wrote The Quiet Fan

As a book title, The Quiet Fan is meant to be more than slightly tongue in cheek. Sometimes I'm quiet when I watch a game (through shyness, fear, boredom or indifference), and sometimes I'm as noisy as hell (thrilled, annoyed, or I just feel like shouting out loud). I haven't written this book to point out the virtues of being quiet. In fact, it's the opposite. The quiet fan is the unrepresented fan - and that's pretty much all of us. I've had it with the idle pigeonholing of fans as violent morons (70s/80s), or dupes willing to do anything and buy anything for the sake of their team (90s and beyond).

"A Fan's Life."
One fan's life.
Fever Pitch was a good enough work, but it was only one fan's experience. One of the book's consequences (not Nick Hornby's fault) was the media's abandonment of its previous fan stereotype, the drunken hooligan (see Hillsborough and everything that came before). In itself, this wasn't a bad thing. It was published shortly after Paul Gascoigne's tears at Italia 90, and an emerging fan culture that had actually started to enjoy being in the stadium. The downside was that the apparent hooligan was replaced by the apparent fanatic - the obsessive, the so-called real fan. The only true and proper fans were season ticket holders who cared about their team to the exclusion of all else in life. This fan lived for something now called 'footie' and had no family (or at least none they paid attention to), and no life to speak of outside of the game. Emotionally inadequate misfits to be pitied and patronised, yet moulded and manipulated into becoming the Sky era's "passionate" customer core.

I dislike being told when I have to be passionate, or that I have to be passionate at all. I dislike being told that I would do anything for my team. No I wouldn't, and neither would most of the fans I've ever met. We don't always get angry when our team loses, we don't always look
for someone to blame - a player, a manager, the referee, the club's owner. That's just the furious twat who phones up the local radio station after every loss to vent, or who spewed out a tweet without engaging his brain. These fans don't speak for me, they just speak loud enough for the media to exploit them and generate clicks and listeners through manufactured controversy. If this fan was next to me in the pub, I would move away. Spitting, ranty, red-faced bloke - you're not supposed to get mad at your hobby. Especially not at one whose overwhelming characteristic is chronic imperfection.

The camera's happy - it's
found a "passionate" fan.
There are as many fan types as there are fans. There are hundreds of different ways of following your team, or teams - many fans have more than one, and it's not a crime. Some have no team at all, they just follow the game. Some of them are way more committed than others, which is a choice. Some have phases of fanaticism, followed by complete withdrawal. Because a fan doesn't want to or can't afford three replica shirts every season doesn't mean that his or her experience of football is any less legitimate. The time, effort, cost and emotional investment of travelling to two dozen away games a year may not be within everybody's reach, or on their list of desires.

Armchair fans, plastic fans, casual fans, fair-weather fans, corporate fans - they're all watching, to some extent, and they should all be spared our tedious judgment. As Billy Bragg once almost sang, "I've watched passes/With supporters of all classes." We won't turn you away.

Take any single fan's opinion about any given player on their team - there will be 20,000 fans and 20,000 points of view, probably more. Take a crowd of 50,000 in a stadium and, after the game, you will maybe find at least 50,000 readings of those 90 minutes. Ask fans about clubs, leagues, rules, seasons - same mixture of considered wisdom, well-informed fact, subjective flam, studied indifference and wild, speculative bollocks.

Most important of all, ask 500,000 fans what football means to them - you will get half a million different answers. So, dear media, with your gurgling pre-match sales pitch about "the most passionate fans in the world", your hyperbolic assumptions about what it means to be a supporter - please shut up, you have no clue because you are selling the game, not watching it. It's not just a highlight reel of colours, noise and tax-dodging billionaires dribbling round five men in La Liga to an ecstatic capacity crowd whose team always wins anyway.

When you pick fans to talk to, you seem determined to make them come across as mono-minded idiots. Yet fan identity is as fluid as the seven days of the week. Every day I wake up and feel differently about football. As you're obsessed with easy lists, here's a seven-step prose poem to hammer home this simple truth:

Sunday's fan is full of lingering resentment about the missed chances and dropped points of Saturday afternoon.
Monday's fan is full of stoical gloom that their team will ever again climb higher than mid-table.
Tuesday's fan is full of hope that tonight's away game at Gillingham could be the turning point of the season.
Wednesday's fan is full of despair that their team went down 3-0 at Gillingham without a fight.
Thursday's fan has vowed to give up watching football for good, because there are more important things in life, like climate change and the resurgence of the far right. 
Friday's fan can't help but look at Saturday's fixture list.
Saturday's fan is nurturing expectations so low that the scrappy 1-0 win against the league leader comes as a beautiful, life-affirming surprise.

Next week will be a different seven days again. Maybe on Saturday night the fan will fall in love with another human being and not even think about football for the next five years. It's allowed.

In Fever Pitch, Hornby describes how he stopped really caring about football for a few years in his teens when "suddenly life was all drink and soft drugs and European literature and Van Morrison". It's allowed. Some Saturdays I can't even be arsed to go to the home game just down the road, even though I've nothing better to do. On other occasions, I've sacrificed valuable time and cash on an ill-advised away trip to a crap town to watch what I was sure would be a crap game, and because we came back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 I'm still talking about it 30 years later. (Stop me if you've heard that one before.)

Really angry? Or just
 hawking for web traffic?
So I'm a quiet fan one day if I choose to be, chuntering to myself, thinking about other stuff, ignoring the fan in the next seat who loudly turns to me for affirmation that our goalkeeper is worse than fallible. Leave him alone, he's not going to come to your work place on Monday and start complaining about you knocking off five minutes early for a coffee break. Some days I'm a noisy bastard, screaming at that same goalkeeper to come off his line, for Christ's sake. Jesus, did you see that? I yell to the fan next to me, but they're looking away, they don't want to know me, I'm a frenetic loon. It's their right, because there are no rules about how to follow football.

Football's this wonderful gift that most of us are lucky enough to enjoy as a constant background when life is normal, when we're not at war, when we're not stranded on the beach at Dunkirk, when buildings and people are not being bombed or blown up. It covers all human states and emotions, not just commerce and anger. It's our game, everybody's game. Own it. And own the way you watch it.

The Quiet Fan was published by Unbound in autumn 2018 and is available here.


  1. No mention of that other great book which puts fans centre stage? The End is full of different fans actual opinions

    1. Haven't read that one. Is that the Tom Watt book?