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