Which tribe are you?

From an­cient spec­ta­tor to in­ter­net snob, FFT charts a his­tory of foot­ball fan­dom

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS - Words Paul Brown Il­lus­tra­tions Lo­vatto

From an­cient Ro­man fan­boys to stat-wield­ing in­ter­net snobs, FFT presents a run­down of foot­ball fan­dom’s wild and var­ied tribes – but to which do you be­long?


As foot­balling spec­ta­cles go, tra­di­tional vil­lage matches would have taken some beat­ing. Th­ese chaotic and of­ten vi­o­lent folk (or “mob”) en­coun­ters brought havoc to the streets of com­pet­ing towns and vil­lages across Bri­tain for hun­dreds of years, from me­dieval times through to the Vic­to­rian era. Matches in­volved hun­dreds of play­ers and lasted for sev­eral hours, and there were nu­mer­ous ac­counts of bro­ken legs, fa­tal­i­ties and full-scale ri­ot­ing. No won­der all of those straw-chew­ing yokels were en­thralled.

Vil­lagers would line the streets, hang from win­dows and clam­ber onto roofs to gain de­cent van­tage points. They in­evitably sup­ported friends and neigh­bours from their own vil­lages and the at­mos­phere was fiercely par­ti­san, cre­at­ing some tasty ri­val­ries. Fans would hurl flow­ers at their favourite play­ers and chuck mud at their ad­ver­saries. The lo­cal chil­dren would chant for their favourite teams and, as the games stretched on and on, the sup­port­ers would re­vive ex­hausted play­ers with re­fresh­ing tankards of ale.


Work­ing-class foot­ball fans emerged from the fac­to­ries, mills and foundries dur­ing the 1880s. Changes to work­ing hours leg­is­la­tion meant they now had Satur­day af­ter­noons off, so they washed off the fac­tory dirt, changed into their lounge suits, pulled on their flat

caps and went off to the foot­ball. The newly-pop­u­lar game pro­vided a wel­come es­cape from work­ing life and rep­re­sented cheap, ex­cit­ing en­ter­tain­ment at a time when there were rel­a­tively few al­ter­na­tives.

The typ­i­cal ad­mis­sion fee for an early Foot­ball League match was six­pence. The ma­jor­ity of fans would stand on ter­races, where they’d sing and smoke and sway in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the game. More af­flu­ent fans might pay ex­tra to sit in the pav­il­ion, or up in the gallery above the re­fresh­ment booth. And fans look­ing for the tra­di­tional match­day drink of Bovril would find that, in the late-1800s, it was mar­keted – rather un­ap­petis­ingly – as “John­ston’s Fluid Beef”.

The blue-col­lar work­ers were among the first gen­er­a­tion to re­ceive a com­pul­sory el­e­men­tary ed­u­ca­tion, mean­ing they were able to read – and they were all very keen to learn about their new favourite sport. They would de­vour the news­pa­pers’ ex­pand­ing foot­ball cov­er­age and cir­cu­la­tions be­gan to soar. Sup­port­ers would gather in their hun­dreds out­side news­pa­per of­fices to find out up­dates from the away games. Th­ese were ini­tially sent via car­rier pi­geon, be­fore the in­stal­la­tion of tele­graph poles at grounds al­lowed for faster, less-feath­ery bul­letins.

In 1888, the year the Foot­ball League was founded, one news­pa­per de­scribed the rise of the work­ing-class foot­ball fan. “A few years since, foot­ball was con­fined to a par­tic­u­lar class, and the games only proved of in­ter­est to the play­ers and their friends,” wrote the North­ern Echo. “Now, all classes are rep­re­sented, and the games af­ford amuse­ment to thou­sands of spec­ta­tors through­out the coun­try.”



“There must be mil­lions of them!” ex­claimed the Daily Mail in 1901. No, they weren’t get­ting up­set by more for­eign­ers, but were in­stead at­tempt­ing to get a han­dle on the re­mark­able rise in the num­ber of foot­ball sup­port­ers around the coun­try. This fol­lowed the then-record gate at the 1901 FA Cup Fi­nal at Crys­tal Palace of al­most 115,000. Dur­ing the match the bois­ter­ous crowd, all hats and mous­taches, shouted, “Play up!”, and filled the air with hoots and cheers. When a goal was scored, fans “broke out into a delir­ium of wav­ing hands and hand­ker­chiefs, of tossed hats and twirling sticks”.

Grow­ing at­ten­dances peaked in 1923 at the “White Horse Fi­nal”, named af­ter pho­to­graphs and news­reel footage dis­played a white po­lice horse and its rider at­tempt­ing to clear the Wem­b­ley Sta­dium pitch of thou­sands of spec­ta­tors. It was the first foot­ball match to be played at Wem­b­ley and the of­fi­cial ca­pac­ity was 125,000, although some es­ti­mates sug­gest that up to 300,000 fans were packed in­side.


Although the pho­to­graphs and videos we’ve got of them are black and white, the post-war fans of the late-1940s and 1950s were the most colour­ful in foot­ball his­tory. The dark suits and over­coats that had been worn by gen­er­a­tions of pre­vi­ous fans were now dec­o­rated with scarves, hats, rosettes and more foot­ball “favours” in a swarm

of club colours. They were noisy, too, swing­ing rat­tles, ring­ing bells and parp­ing on trum­pets. A re­porter at the time de­scribed “colours fly­ing, rat­tles rack­et­ing in the air, bu­gles blow­ing, klax­ons hoot­ing and even saucepan lids clash­ing to­gether – any­thing to make a din”.

Fans had been singing since the early days, lustily hol­ler­ing hymns such as Abide with Me and more pa­tri­otic ef­forts in­clud­ing God Save the King/queen. Sev­eral out­fits had spe­cific an­thems which would be heartily sung be­fore kick-off. Portsmouth fans had been singing The Pom­pey Chimes since the 1890s, while Nor­wich sup­port­ers had been belt­ing out On the Ball, City since the early-1900s. Af­ter the pre-game sing-along, as matches got un­der­way, the an­thems would be re­placed by loud cho­ruses of cheers, boos and bel­lows. And dur­ing the post-war golden age, sup­port­ers be­gan to adapt pop­u­lar songs into en­dur­ing chants such as 1956 ditty Que Sera, Sera, which went on to be­come “We’re Go­ing to Wem-ber-ley”.

Foot­ball’s colour­ful and noisy golden age saw the at­ten­dances peak at an all-time high. The ag­gre­gate gate for Foot­ball League games in the 1948-49 cam­paign was more than 41.2 mil­lion. The av­er­age First Di­vi­sion at­ten­dance in that sea­son was 38,792 – the high­est in his­tory and an av­er­age that has never quite been beaten, even in the era of the Pre­mier League. The ad­mis­sion prices were go­ing up as well: the Foot­ball League’s min­i­mum charge for match en­try was a shilling and three­pence back in 1948, but had in­creased to two shillings by 1955 – equiv­a­lent to about £3 to­day.

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