Passion, Glue & Photocopying: The Story Of The Football Fanzine

The 80s heyday of the DIY fanzine is way behind us, but thanks to the likes of Man U's United We Stand, Liverpools's BOSS and Wigan's Mudhutter, a dedicated band of fans are carrying the torch into the 21st century.
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The 80s heyday of the DIY fanzine is way behind us, but thanks to the likes of Man U's United We Stand, Liverpools's BOSS and Wigan's Mudhutter, a dedicated band of fans are carrying the torch into the 21st century.

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"I was 15 at school and it was an idea in maths class and went from there. I borrowed £20 from my mum and a mate did the same. We used the money to buy letraset, some glue, a stapler and pay to have 50 issues photocopied. In hindsight it was dire, but we stood outside Old Trafford and sold 46 of them. It took off from that point.”

It is difficult to imagine today in an age where modern technology allows us to do so much that putting together a football fanzine used to be so rudimentary back in 1989. But that’s the way things were for Andy Mitten,  who is still editor of the Manchester United fanzine United We Stand 22 years on. It helps being the best supported club in the country but the ‘zine scene’ is still very much alive and the advance of technology, which put an end to so many fanzines is now helping sustain the movement throughout all levels of the Beautiful Game.

The popularity of football fanzines no doubt reached its peak in the late 80s when the game was well and truly in the gutter. The zines provided the perfect opportunity for disaffected fans to complain about ramshackle and dangerous grounds, officious police, rising ticket prices and much much more. Even as a 15 year old school boy, Mitten could see the trouble the game was in “I'd go to away grounds and experience terrible facilities and rip off prices, even in 1988. You'd travel to Southampton and not be able to see the pitch because of high fences caging fans in. Major decisions were being made on behalf of football fans with little or no consultation. There were issues like ID cards, all seater stadium and rising admission prices. Like the other fanzines, we wanted to give fans a voice”

It is difficult to imagine today in an age where modern technology allows us to do so much that putting together a football fanzine used to be so rudimentary back in 1989.

It wasn’t all negative though. The gallows humour shone through in articles, cartoons, picture captions and even titles, as the readers of Brian Moore's Head Looks Uncannily Like London Planetarium would testify. And as Wigan Athletic fanzine Mudhutter’s  Martin Tarbuck says, “fanzines were the only way you got to read the views of other clubs’ fans and what they were saying about us in the pre-Internet days. I used to go the old Sportspages in Covent Garden and in Manchester and buy about 30 different ones in one go”

The Premier League and its unstoppable rise in the early 90s coincided with a technology revolution that forced many titles to shift their attention to the internet - allowing instant interaction as well keeping editors dry without the need to stand in the pouring rain to selling copies to pay in order to pay the printers’ bill. Whilst there is no doubt that the number of fanzines diminished in that period, many stood firm and refused to go out of print. Martyn McFadden of Sunderland’s A Love Supreme explains, “there’s been a tradition of fans buying printed media such as fanzines and programmes at matches for many years. I guess we need something to read when the match gets boring!” Martin Tarbuck from Mudhutter agrees. “There’s still a traditional hardcore - and I’m definitely one of them - who prefer to read material in print form. I still buy miles more football books, magazines and fanzines than I can ever hope to find time to read. There seems to be a bit of a rebirth going on at the minute which is great. It’s great to see people are still willing to stick their neck out and put stuff in print, not only does it costs money but you also have to convince people to spend their hard earned these days in an era where everyone seems to want everything for free.” It certainly helps that those running a fanzine could branch out into other areas to make money. McFadden is a busy man: “we have published ten books, run away game travel and have a shop opposite the Stadium of Light which sells our own range of merchandise, so we have a few different projects going on”

One of the oldest fanzines still going is Bradford City’s City Gent and its editor Mike Harrison thinks the continued presence of the printed fanzine in the modern age is down to the fact that the “articles included are more considered comment in a format which can be filed away and kept. Looking back at issues from the 80s and 90s show what great historical documents the back issues are and I hope that the current issues that we at the City Gent are still producing will be viewed in the same way in the future”.

There seems to be a bit of a rebirth going on at the minute which is great. It’s great to see people are still willing to stick their neck out and put stuff in print

A point that the young Liverpool supporters behind the excellent BOSS Magazine agree with. Daniel Nicolson says “There seemed to be a lot of young keen writers with great stories to tell. Before BOSS the only public outlet was the internet and a great story could fall down to page two of a forum with a handful of views within a matter of hours. It was down to there simply being no other platform out there to produce I guess, most importantly, something that can be found in a box in the attic in 20 years time” The release of BOSS proved there was still very much a demand “We released our first issue - only announcing it on a single message board on the Friday before - in October 2007. We printed around 200 copies. They sold out literally within minutes. We got 1000 more printed for the next home game and they'd sold out before kick-off.”

Nicolson realised like many football supporters that while the Internet certainly had its benefits “in an age where faceless warriors spend hours analysing and critiquing message board and blog posts I personally liked the idea of something traditional and physical.” For once Liverpool and Manchester agree. Andy Mitten believes, “fans have so many outlets now, from phone ins to messageboards. Most are just a platform for sound off and nobody listens. There are a million websites but most are regurgitated opinion. We only publish 44 pages a month and people take notice. We provide original material”

Fanzines have rightly proved popular at fan owned clubs such as FC United (A Fine Lung) and AFC Wimbledon (Womble Underground Press). Supporters of another fan owned club, Chester FC, have just brought out the first issue of The Blue and White fanzine proving once again that fans at all levels of the game still believe in the importance of the printed word. Co-editor Neil Bellis says  “we did consider bringing out a PDF version and selling that to reduce our costs but we felt that this could miss out a vast majority of fans who aren't very computer literate or who don't fancy reading a 32 page fanzine on a screen. You can get a better feel for it and we really wanted to show that it was a labour of love and that we'd spent a long time over it, which is something that may not have come across if we had gone with the PDF version.”

Fan owned clubs formed from off the field malaise have more than enough material to fuel a noteworthy fanzine. But with the growing disillusionment at football’s ever increasing commercialization, there are all manner of serious issues for fans to write about. Leeds United’s The Square Ball won the The Football Supporters Federation Fanzine of the Year 2011 Award and no doubt part of the reason for their win was the fanzine’s excellent analysis of Ken Bates’ controversial ownership of the club. Michael Normanton explains: “since taking over Ken Bates has sought to limit all dissenting voices. He formed Yorkshire Radio (a station which has made huge losses) and in turn took away the right for Radio Leeds to cover the games. He has also banned the Guardian and the BBC for daring to scrutinise the way he does business. At The Square Ball we have consistently questioned his ways of doing things and one of our regular contributors thebeatengeneration.co.uk has produced some fantastic graphics including Visit Beeston, Batesonomics and the most thorough explanation I have ever seen of who owns Leeds United. Leeds fans don’t especially like being told what to think, but the combination of a solid message and humour has really hit home with people. Anything that we feel the club is trying to brush under the carpet, we will focus on. It isn’t about muck raking or attempting to cause problems, just a case of trying to make sure the decisions being made are in the best interests of the club.” The football fanzine like those in its heyday still has the ability and power to inform and educate.

Fan owned clubs formed from off the field malaise have more than enough material to fuel a noteworthy fanzine. But with the growing disillusionment at football’s ever increasing commercialization, there are all manner of serious issues for fans to write about.

Fanzines today do embrace modern technology, particularly the social networks, in order to help make people aware of forthcoming issues and products and at the same to recruit and persuade contributors. As any editor will tell you these are the most important element of any successful fanzine. For example, podcasts are proving useful in proving to spread the word but also to add to the issues discussed within the printed fanzine. The Square Ball’s Michael Normanton says, “in addition to the blog we also have a fortnightly podcast that has been going since January 2009. It started off with just a few hundred downloads, but we’ve now attracted quite a cult following and get around 1,500 downloads of each one. Mudhutter has even used the summer months to fill the football free period with a Summer Special, Martin Tarbuck explains “we produce it online and make it available as a free download. Even though that’s not quite a ‘fanzine’ in my book, it’s still more of a fanzine than a hundred other things out there which people seem to describe as a fanzine these days!”

Football today is debated, discussed and dissected endlessly on all manner of platforms and all at the touch of a button or keyboard. Yet the simple football fanzine remains in this fast paced world. Supporters’ loyalty to their clubs is something which is often exploited in the modern game, but it’s this loyalty that is the fuel that fires a fanzine scene which is as important today as it was back in the 80s. Andy Mitten recalls with almost disbelief, “not for one minute did I imagine that UWS would be going 22 years and 207 issues later.” The fact that his fanzine and many others continue to flourish is something which all football fans should be grateful for.

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