They moan about the ex­cesses of mod­ern foot­ball and ob­sess over ex­pen­sive train­ers and An­drea Pirlo, but foot­ball hip­sters – in their St Pauli jer­seys and Dul­wich Ham­let scarves – are now con­sumed by the game. They have helped to shape an al­ter­na­tive fan cul­ture, fu­elled by fash­ion, mu­sic and nostal­gia for foot­ball’s past, and pro­moted it on blogs and in glossy rein­ven­tions of the fanzine. And many of them have played an ac­tive role in pro­mot­ing and im­prov­ing the over­all fan ex­pe­ri­ence.

Foot­ball hip­sters have made non-league foot­ball trendy, help­ing raise its pro­file and boost at­ten­dances. They’ve also es­tab­lished Euro­pean foot­ball week­ends as a re­fresh­ing change to Pre­mier League Su­per Sun­days. In­spired by the Ul­tra move­ments in Italy, Ger­many and else­where, they have made ef­forts to im­port con­ti­nen­tal ideas, from tifo dis­plays to safe stand­ing sec­tions and fan own­er­ship of clubs. They aren’t all “against mod­ern foot­ball”. And some of them don’t even have beards.


The Pre­mier League era be­gan in a gar­ish rush of shiny polyester with all-seater sta­di­ums crammed with banks of replica kit-wear­ing fans. Kits had ac­tu­ally been around since the ’70s. Ad­mi­ral in­tro­duced the first one – a branded Leeds United top – dur­ing the 1973–74 sea­son, and back then the jer­seys cost less than a ten­ner. By the 1990s they were £35, but fans still bought them and also sub­scribed to Sky TV as the grand­est shake-up in mod­ern foot­ball his­tory got un­der­way.

Replica kit fans rep­re­sented a bright new and highly com­mer­cialised fu­ture. Foot­ball sta­di­ums be­came safer and more com­fort­able, but im­prove­ments came at a cost. Ticket prices in­creased, from £3.50 for the cheap­est First Di­vi­sion tick­ets in 1989-90 to £16 for the cheap­est Pre­mier League tick­ets in 1999-00 – more than four times the price. In­evitably, some fans were priced out.

The shift to all-seater grounds squeezed ca­pac­i­ties and damp­ened at­mos­pheres. The game was in­creas­ingly ca­ter­ing for the arm­chair sup­porter, and this move to­wards a more pas­sive and less en­gaged spec­ta­tor fil­tered into foot­ball are­nas. Fans were now turn­ing up at their new all-seater homes ex­pect­ing a seden­tary Tv-type ex­pe­ri­ence, and at­mos­pheres suf­fered as a re­sult.

As the tra­di­tional match-goer was re­placed by a more af­flu­ent fan, the hum­ble match­day pie was re­placed by some­thing more re­fined. The new breed of fans were known as the “prawn sand­wich brigade”, based on a rant from Roy Keane dur­ing which the Manch­ester United cap­tain crit­i­cised sec­tions of the Old Traf­ford crowd. “They have a few drinks and prob­a­bly the prawn sand­wiches and don’t re­alise what’s go­ing on out on the pitch,” he slammed. “I don’t think some of the peo­ple who come here can spell foot­ball, never mind un­der­stand it.”


They sit in back bed­rooms, in cof­fee shops and on pub­lic trans­port, their faces bathed in the blue glow of elec­tronic screens. They fol­low foot­ball on smart­phones, tablets and lap­tops via streams, live­blogs and so­cial me­dia. They watch games, post opin­ions, share sta­tis­tics and in­ter­act with clubs and play­ers. They click “like” on gifs of funny own goals and gnarly in­juries, and retweet memes of Sam Al­lardyce de­cid­ing what to have in the chippy. Th­ese are the su­per-gen­er­a­tion of in­ter­net foot­ball fans.

Dial-up in­ter­net ac­cess ar­rived in the UK in 1992, the same year as the Pre­mier League. Now, 25 years later, the in­ter­net has com­pletely trans­formed the foot­ball fan ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s now en­tirely pos­si­ble to be a foot­ball fan with­out go­ing to a match and with­out own­ing a TV. Tra­di­tional match-go­ing fans from pre­vi­ous eras might not recog­nise their mod­ern smart­phone-thumb­ing de­scen­dant, but in­ter­net fans are foot­ball’s new nor­mal.

Paul Brown’s book, Sav­age En­thu­si­asm, re­views the his­tory of foot­ball fan cul­ture and is out now

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