How the 1990s saved English football

Paul Gascoigne Italia 90
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England’s semi-final exit from Euro 96 didn’t stop the momentum of what became known as Cool Britannia, though as is the way with fads, it quickly provoked a backlash. For a minute there, everything looked tremendously exciting. “Hindsight often judges the era unfavourably,” writes Michael Gibbons in When Football Came Home: England, the English and Euro 96. “But a generation that had emerged from the rubble of the 1980s in Britain helped to send an undeniable wave of optimism through the country. For a short while, anything seemed possible.”

Lobbing disdain from a distance, some pour scorn on the Britpop era – there’s a limit to anyone’s taste for inter-Gallagher squabbling and lager-vomit. The denser end of lad culture tarnished the whole with an ever-lower common denominator: boobs, booze and bants. It wasn’t always thus. Founding Loaded editor James Brown often highlights the fact that early cover stars included Gary Oldman, Airplane! star Leslie Nielsen and a young ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed.

“I never thought Loaded was sexist at all,” stated one contemporary magazine editor, who happens to be a woman. “The writing was great, it was inventive and crazy.” The woman was Karen Buchanan, and the mag she launched was called FourFourTwo.

An alternative voice

The mighty organ you hold in your hands was first unleashed in 1994, shortly after the only postwar World Cup for which none of the Home Nations qualified (the decade wasn’t all sunshine and chocolate, but having a summer free from the binds of bias allowed a generation to become happily infatuated with Hagi, Stoichkov, Romario, Baggio and Bergkamp). Modesty prevents a full solo on the bugle of self-promotion, but FourFourTwo was always designed to appeal to intelligent, thoughtful, amusing, good-looking opinion-formers like you, and all the mates you’re going to persuade to subscribe.

Again, let’s flash back to the 1980s for comparison. Your choices, dear reader, are Shoot! or Match, which are fine unless you’re older than 13. There’s dusty old World Football, for those who love arcane league tables. And that’s about it. 

But the new decade quickly brought salvation for the savvy older reader. From October 1990, with Gazza’s tears barely dry on his cheeks, you could enjoy 90 Minutes, a magazine set up in a Blackheath bedroom by Dan Goldstein and Paul Hawksbee. The affordable weekly’s irreverent nature was somewhat akin to Harry Hill’s TV Burp, in which Hawksbee was also involved.

As the decade wore on, other magazines appeared and disappeared: Goal lasted from 1995 to ’98, Total Football from ’95 to 2001, Match of the Day from ’96 to 2001, while 90 Minutes bit the dust in 1997. That left just three monthly magazines remaining on the newsstand: FourFourTwo, World Soccer and When Saturday Comes.

Established in the mid-80s, WSC had adopted the punk movement’s use of fanzines: self-published mags and used as a platform for views unmediated by the journalism industry, frequently hyper-local in focus. Fans leapt upon the idea, and fanzines flooded in to fill the gap in the market: in-depth coverage of single teams, not all of it positive.

Previously, the only writing about many small teams had come from trite match programmes or local press coverage neutered by the need to nurture good relationships with the club. Now, fans could read – and write – honest opinions about their favourite bunch of idiots. As Peter Hooton – later the lead singer of The Farm, but before that the editor of influential Scouse fanzine The End – says: “Fanzines gave people an outlet which they didn’t have at that time. Nowadays everyone has a voice on Twitter.”

Previously, most fanzines looked like the amateur productions they were, having been put together using a process in which 'cut and paste' meant using scissors and glue

The increasing depth and breadth of fanzines could be determined monthly by one of the movement’s forebearers, WSC. Its circulation peaked at around 40,000 in the early-90s, though it played a vital role in the cross-pollination of ideas by the simple but crucial provision of a fanzine directory. In the back of every issue it printed a nationwide list of titles and addresses. That list then expanded from 22 in 1988 to a double-page spread, and as fanzines multiplied – by some estimates, 600 titles came and (largely) went – the list became so big that it was split over three consecutive issues. Visiting supporters could now hunt down the home side’s latest issue, or order via the postal service. An underground network was later established, with echoes of the independent music scene: indeed, issues were often available in non-chain record shops.

Having come to prominence in the 1980s and dwindled as print concerns in the post-millennial spread of the internet, fanzines boomed in the 1990s thanks to the proliferation of desktop publishing programs such as PageMaker. Previously, most fanzines looked like the amateur productions they were – often annotated typewritten pages reproduced on photocopiers, having been put together using a process in which “cut and paste” meant using scissors and glue.

By contrast, the affordable availability of slick computer software, and the improving processing power of home PCs, meant fans could produce content to match, or even better, official output. This democratisation of the means of production allowed thousands of frustrated creatives to excel – for Sunderland fans, A Love Supreme was leagues better than the official programme.

Even after the advent of DTP, many fanzine aficionados (readers and editors alike) preferred the rough-and-ready look, but this just created more choice. Clubs now produced more than one fanzine: an enviably glossy mag like The Gooner alongside a typewriter-and-Tippex affair like The Arsenal Echo Echo. And whatever the end product, the editors were grounded in the full gamut of production: writing, commissioning, editing, illustrating, typesetting (of some sort or other), design (ditto), reproduction, sales, distribution and planning. Fanzines created a new generation of journalists, including this writer.

The 2001 launch of the platform – which was swiftly aped by and among others – allowed fanzines to move online en masse, supported by centralised advertising revenue. Not long afterwards, Blogger and Wordpress arrived to assist anyone with a keyboard and a viewpoint. The golden age of print fanzines was over, but from now on fans would never be silenced.

Fever Pitch flings open the doors

If the ’90s witnessed football writing spreading ever further across the breakfast table, it also made the huge leap to the coffee table and the bookshelf. Before 1990, most football books were just pulp nonsense: quick-buck memoirs or Christmas cash-ins. Notably, of FourFourTwo’s 50 Best Books, just five pre-date the ’90s.

Among the literati and book publishers alike, football fans were not expected to read much. In reviewing Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs for The Independent on Sunday in 1991, Martin Amis described fans as: “a solid mass of swearing, sweating, retching, belching sub-humanity” who “all had the complexion and body-scent of a cheese-and-onion crisp, and the eyes of pitbulls”.

Amis’s hateful tirade was an unarguably prevalent public view. When Saturday Comes writer Ed Horton labelled the review “class snobbery” and “a poisonous display of ignorance and bigotry aimed at the scum of the earth – you or I, the football fan.” He was correct, but the Amis rant – published in a new Sunday paper that was aimed squarely at the educated middle class – showed how acceptable it was to demonise football fans, and how low opinions of them had sunk.

“Prior to Italia 90, football in England was perceived as a squalid and hooligan-ridden embarrassing sump of gormless violence,” says Pete Davies. “You did not talk about it over dinner. Now it’s hard to go anywhere without people talking about it. It simply wasn’t a polite topic of conversation, as it was an embarrassment. Therefore nobody ever wrote about it – there was no such thing as a good football book back in 1989.”

Davies knows whereof he speaks, as nobody did more to effect that change. His seminal book All Played Out covered a 1990 tournament at which he’d been granted a level of backstage access unprecedented before or since. Although he wrote it in 56 frantic days in order to hit the Christmas market, this was no rush job: he had spent the year before the finals speaking to the players and manager.