REVIEW BY DAVID MARPLES – @DavidMarples

Savage Enthusiasm traces the evolution of the football fan from the sport’s earliest origins right up to the present day, exploring how football became the world’s most popular spectator sport, and why it became the undisputed game of the people.

The book starts with football’s big bang in 1863 with the creation of Association football. Within ten years, the public was hooked and football was woven into the fabric of if not daily life, then certainly weekend life. Brown posits this rise to football simply being the best sport and supports this with scientific theory published in Nature in 1996 alongside his own rather more plausible explanation that it is its simplicity that accounts for its popularity.

Brown diligently charts the rise of the game but always keeps his eye firmly on the fan experience: how the game was consumed from the sidelines and in doing so, offers an insightful commentary on Britain’s social and historical history from football’s beginnings in 1863 right up to the gloriously overhyped “Red Monday” that saw Liverpool and Manchester United play out an embarrassing fart of a game. For Brown though, it is the technological developments that gave rise to the truly worldwide consumption of this game to which he affords his attention.

It wasn’t always thus. Back in 1886, Blackburn Olympic held prize draws and raffles to drum up excitement. On one occasion, the plum prize was a “house of furniture” worth £50. Blackburn Rovers responded in kind with their own prize created to help the club meet running costs. The prize? A newly-built house named Rovers’ Cottage. A proper house – not just some furniture. Apart from this being a textbook example of good old-fashioned parochial one-upmanship between clubs that share a town, this rather heartwarming story illustrates that even from the beginning, football clubs needed their fans for money as much as vocal and moral support. The symbiotic relationship was born.

Savage Enthusiasm is littered with golden nuggets like this, which help the reader to envisage actual people with actual lives and personalities rather than the distant monochrome characters you see standing cheek by jowl on a terrace in a sea of flat caps. Even referees come across as personable. A poor old sod of an official only escaped Turf Moor in 1890 without being torn to shreds thanks to a horse-drawn police escort from a baying mob after initially seeking sanctuary in a neighbouring house. As fans yelled, “Go for him” and it was reported that his escape was against the backdrop of, “a hooting, running, stone-throwing mob”, it is easy to recognise the modern football fan in these vignettes from more than a hundred years ago.

What Savage Enthusiasm shows us is that violence, apparently inadequate referees, betting, a desire to milk the football supporter for as much as they are worth and mud slinging from politicians are not new phenomena. Oswald Mosely (yes, that one) set out his stall early doors in terms of mistaking football fans’ enthusiasm for criminal behaviour after the 1923 ‘White Horse’ FA Cup final. Chronic understaffing in terms of policing and stewarding for a crowd estimated to be in excess of 125,000 led to fans watching the game from the perimeter of the playing surface. With just the lone equine supervisor Billy, ridden by PC George Storey, it was a miracle that no more than 22 injuries occurred. Of course, this didn’t prevent Mosley attempting to make political hay: “What steps does the right honourable gentlemen propose to take to protect Wembley from hooliganism?” he asked. Luckily for the football supporter, Jack Jones, MP for Silvertown took a stand and defended their honour, pointing out that the crowd were “good-humoured” and that Mosley had “not right to talk about hooliganism”. Mosley was shouted down.

Someone buy Jones a posthumous pint.

This, at best, misunderstanding and at worst, criminalisation of the football fan continued. Brown guides us through the moral outcry to the fanaticism that football garnered in the 1950s with some decrying the game as “one of the veritable evils of our time”.

That’s not to say that football fans are angels and aren’t occasionally tempted to chuck a brick at someone. The story of the time that Manchester United played a home game against Stoke City at Anfield in 1971 owing to the closure of Old Trafford for violence in a game against Newcastle United is a fascinating one. Likewise, the anti-hooligan campaign suggested by Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary Bernard Ingham who proposed a “Goalies Against Hoolies” initiative that involved interviewing Manchester United keeper Gary Bailey since he was “an articulate graduate”. In some ways, it is slightly sad that this didn’t gain more traction since the sight of Bailey or Neville Southall remonstrating with dart-throwing casuals behind their net is an intriguing one to say the least.

Brown flips over every single cornerstone of football fandom, even the weirdly addictive experience of following your team on Ceefax and the extortionate rates of the early click bait known as Clubcall. The theme of exploiting the football fans’ innocent fanaticism is a thread that runs throughout the book.

Savage Enthusiasm guides the reader through the ages of the game we love and our experience and consumption of it down the ages with the sensitivity that topics such as Hillsborough, Bradford and Heysel deserve while also reminding us that despite the pitfalls, being a football fan is a fun and life-affirming state of being. What’s more, the paper has a luscious quality too that makes turning each page an unexpectedly pleasant experience.

We are all familiar with Jock Stein’s “Football is nothing without fans” soundbite. We may be less familiar with Brian Clough’s paean to the fan: “We feel we should have a voice in running our industry, and I mean ‘ours’ – I don’t mean ‘mine’ – I mean ‘ours’. Football belongs to everybody.” Brown’s closing sentiment – “The future of football belongs to its fans” is one that should be remembered, now more than ever.

Savage Enthusiasm: A History of Football Fans by Paul Brown is available from Amazon for Kindle and in paperback and from other outlets.

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