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How the 1990s saved English football

Paul Gascoigne Italia 90
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Pete Davies had quickly earned Bobby Robson’s trust when the talkative boss blurted out that he was possibly going to drop Gary Lineker. This was tabloid gold ("You could get fifty grand for that,” Robson told Davies) but the author’s silence earned him the trust to gain all the access he wanted: pre-match, post-match, at hotels and training camps.

The players, too, trusted him enough to openly discuss the need for Robson to change his tactics. He also mixed with the press pack and their alter-egos, the hooligans. Lesser hands would have mixed those ingredients into a shock exposé, but Davies had higher ideals in mind.

“I wanted football to have a proper place in popular culture. I thought someone should say, ‘Not all of us are lunatics. We’ve got legitimate reasons for watching this game, which is incredibly important culturally and matters to everyone in the world.’”

Fever Pitch was a pivotal reference for the non-believers, a book that took the game from the pub to the coffee table and helped millions to understand how we fans function

Albeit helped by circumstance – Gazza’s tears, England’s heartbreak and Robson’s dignity – he succeeded brilliantly through his ability and, crucially, empathy. Not bad for a book that Davies had only started researching as an explainer for the American market, in an attempt to get a publisher to pay his way around USA 94. “The biggest sport on earth was a complete and utter mystery to them – I thought: ‘Let’s explain it to them’.”

That desire to elucidate the reasons for fandom drove the book, which in turn turbo-boosted football’s crossover into acceptable coffee-table conversation. Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch was a pivotal reference for the non-believers, a book that took the game from the pub to the coffee table and helped millions to understand how we fans function.

Fever Pitch sold a quarter of a million copies within three years. John Gaustad, the former owner of the much-missed Sportspages bookshop in London’s Charing Cross Road, once said: “It transformed the game and persuaded a lot of publishers, who’d previously not been convinced, there was a market for an intelligently written book on football.”

In fact, the market already existed before Hornby or Davies. In 1983, Simon Inglis managed to convince a publisher into a 4,000 print run of stadium-architecture investigation The Football Grounds of England and Wales. Four years later, it was updated with Scottish additions as The Football Grounds of Great Britain. The two versions sold more than 120,000 copies – not bad for a fairly academic study published at the nadir of attendances: back in 1985/86, the average crowd among the 92 Football League clubs was 8,130 – a little over a third of the post-war peak of 22,333 in 1948/49.

New opportunities

But the crossover success of Fever Pitch flung open the doors, and as publishers scrambled from looking down their noses to looking at the possibilities, they found writers who were capable of contextualising football in everything from intelligent sociology (Simon Kuper, Football Against The Enemy, 1994) to vibrant local humour (Harry Pearson, The Far Corner, 1994).

Publishers could repackage the heritage works of supremely talented writers such as Hugh McIlvanney (McIlvanney on Football, 1994) and Eduardo Galeano (Football in Sun and Shadow, 1997). They could also commission new takes at legendary tales (The Robin Friday Story, 1998) and they could confidently distribute some niche works, such as Joe McGinniss’s The Miracle of Castel di Sangro (1999). Come the end of the decade, they could even pay Alex Ferguson a seven-figure sum for his autobiography. As usual, not everything they pushed to market proved to be gold or even good, but at least we crisp-faced, swearing, belching sub-humanity had the choice.

The Observer said that Fever Pitch caused “the emergence of a new class of soccer fan – cultured and discerning”, but that’s a somewhat arrogant dismissal of the fans who went before. Kuper was an Oxford alumnus roughly a decade after Hornby had attended Cambridge. Football had never been simply for the thicko plebs. It had always attracted followers of all intelligences and backgrounds – it just ceased to be a dinner-party bete noire.

As Kuper puts it: “Hornby didn’t get the middle classes involved in football, but he allowed them to talk about football in their books and newspapers.” Even so, the somewhat sudden embrace by society’s middle orders caused some resentment in the working-class bedrock. Kuper had noticed an attitude of “‘People shouldn’t write literate stuff about football, football’s an honest working-class game and all these Johnny-come-lately middle-class poseurs should get out.’ Nick Hornby got a lot of that, but it’s gone away now.”

Phone-ins fill the void

At the beginning of the ’90s, the radio played a prominent part in the travelling supporter’s life. Every Saturday teatime, faced with miles of mirthless motorway and an annoying wait of a few years before cars habitually sported CD players, away fans would religiously listen to as much of Sports Report as was left when they reached the motor from the terrace, and then… well, to start with, that was pretty much it. For the first year after its launch in August 1990, the new Radio Five (not yet known as “Five Live”) was a mongrel beast that covered the news, sport, education, children’s programmes and, from 6pm on Saturday evenings, The European Chart Show.

Clearly this was madness, and in ’91 they made an inspired signing – or rather, a tactical switch. A chatty Millwall fan called Danny Baker was proving popular on the lunchtime phone-in Sports Call, and so got asked to pop back from The Den in time to reprise the show just after the six o’clock news. Thus was born 606.

From the off, Baker was determined that this would not be a boring dissection of tactics. One topic on the maiden show, signposted ‘Just How Crooked Are Referees?’, attracted a call from Chelsea’s midfielder Andy Townsend, who was only too happy to reel off a few decisions from that afternoon’s match that he believed were questionable. As Baker notes: “Andy’s remarks made the Sunday back pages, and 606 was instantly declared to be the only place to go for all football fans when in transit each weekend.”

Baker’s bubbling stew of offbeat topics and rabble-rousing roped in a huge audience, who somehow were not put off when he stood down after a season to be replaced by David Mellor, a Conservative MP best known for a lurid tabloid splash detailing (falsely) how he’d persuaded his mistress to let him wear a Chelsea strip during sex.

In came the mega-franchises (Championship Manager first appeared in 1992, FIFA in 1993) and a variety of other games such as the popular Sensible Soccer

The phone-in format was hardly new – one is mentioned in a 1925 edition of the Radio Times, and BBC Radio Sheffield had been hosting the football-themed Praise or Grumble for four years – but supporters flocked to put their two pennies’ worth across. The 1995 launch of Talk Radio (later refocused and renamed TalkSport) offered an alternative, and across the dial phone-ins proliferated – a prototype social media. As with any social medium now, at worst it can end up becoming bar bores shouting at each other, but at best it can provide some genuine insight and entertainment.

The ’90s also gave us video games that weren’t bobbins. Yes, some existed before – Dino Dini’s deathless Kick Off 2, various management sims – but in came the mega-franchises (Championship Manager first appeared in 1992, FIFA in 1993) and a variety of other games such as the popular Sensible Soccer.

Games also helped to broaden the minds. FourFourTwo contributor turned Blizzard editor Jonathan Wilson has suggested that the growth of supporters’ scope from parochial insularity to global awareness can be partly ascribed to the massive success of Football Manager. Sports Interactive studio director Miles Jacobson notes how: “When Hatem Ben Arfa signed for Newcastle and Alan Shearer said on Match of the Day that he’d never heard of him, loads of people went on Twitter to say: ‘He obviously doesn’t play Football Manager’.”

Ceefax, Ceefax, what's the score?

If anyone ever says to you that “snackable content” is a new-media development, typical of a new generation’s short attention span etc, feel free to smack them over the head with a remote control. It’s now more than 40 years since the UK’s TV broadcasters started sending out 80-word bulletins – which told you all you needed to know.

Stumbled upon when technicians were trying to find a way to send subtitles over the airwaves, the BBC’s Ceefax service had launched in 1974. ITV’s service Oracle (Optional Reception of Announcements by Coded Line Electronics) was replaced in 1993, having been outbid for the franchise by Teletext. The limitations of the platform were obvious: no pictures, apart from ones laboriously formulated from alphabetical characters like a full-screen emoji. No video: a maximum of 24 lines on each screen, with a maximum of 40 characters per line.

If it sounds rubbish, that’s because it was, but if it was the best way of keeping in touch, that’s what you did. At the beginning of the ’90s, a phone was something that sat on a side table in your house and the internet was something you may have heard fleetingly mentioned on Tomorrow’s World. Though Radio Two might carry match commentary sometimes, sports stations didn’t exist on the radio, let alone TV.

So the best way to keep up with developing sports stories – like, say, latest scores – was to watch Teletext. On the BBC, you’d tap in 303 for the First Division matches and then be presented with alphabetised latest scores, split up over three pages (more as the pages clogged with the goalscorers and sendings-off). If your team’s score didn’t show up on that page, you just had to wait while the technology scrolled through, like a vindictive Vidiprinter. This mute, pixellated, bare-bones information was the way that millions of armchair fans discovered their team were going to Wembley, or getting relegated.

As the decade progressed, so did fans’ ways to keep in touch. Along came the internet, with the stuffy old Daily Telegraph becoming a surprise early adopter by founding the Electronic Telegraph (no, really) in 1994. Soccernet, set up with assistance from the Daily Mail, launched for the start of the 1995/96 campaign, and others soon followed suit, including the BBC’s website, the Mirror/PA joint venture Sportinglife.com and Football365, helmed by the former NME editor Danny Kelly and at one point valued at half a billion quid. And these sites began to reach wider audiences later in the decade, particularly around the time of the 1998 World Cup with the advent of minute-by-minute coverage.

But while primitive browsers such as Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator might connect you to cyberspace via a dial-up modem, the information trickled towards you at a maximum theoretical speed of 56 kilobits per second, which was, in practice, usually more like 20kb. (For comparison, service providers now provide up to 300 megabits per second). And that was until someone wanted to use the phone, which shared the line with the modem: you couldn’t call someone and surf the Net simultaneously. And obviously there was no such thing as the mobile internet. What a time to be alive.

No, in the mid-to-late ’90s the average fan was more likely to keep abreast of football scores with a pager. Much more cheaply available than a mobile phone (which would not supply scores anyway, unless you expensively rang someone who was watching Teletext), a pager featured a single-line screen, across which would scroll score updates and latest news, provided for a subscription fee.

It was a very different time, and it brought rapid, seismic changes – football would never be the same again. Not everything new was to be applauded or welcomed, but the vast majority of it was. We had never had it so good, and to be alive in that time was heaven.

Its like may never come again, but its influence lives on forever.

A shorter version of this feature originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!

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