Which tribe are you?
From ancient spectator to internet snob, FFT charts a history of football fandom
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.”
ANCIENT FORMS OF FOOTBALL WERE PLAYED 2,000 YEARS AGO – THE ROMANS WATCHED A VERSION CALLED HARPASTUM
“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.