“Here you are son, don’t tell your mother I let you read it.”
And that was the moment I felt I’d taken the next step on the well-trodden path to football fandom, when my Dad passed me his copy of Queens Park Rangers’ fanzine, ‘A Kick Up The R’s’. I must only have been eight or nine, but I instantly felt like more of an adult, and was more than happy to forego the glossy programme, with its pen pics, for the punk and spirited pages of the photocopied, stapled fanzine. A true labour of love with its finger firmly on the pulse of what it felt like to be a supporter. I would have to wait a fair few years for my first pre-match pint, but for now, at least, another central part of match-day culture had been revealed.
From then on, match days would never be the same. Shouts of “QPR fanzine, brand-new issue” would add excitement as I rushed to buy a copy and pore over the trials and tribulations of fellow fans. I’d pick up an opposition fanzine at away games, and soon trips to the much-loved (and, sadly, lost) Sports Pages in London’s Charing Cross would see me bringing back piles of fanzines from up and down the country – Sunderland’s ‘A Love Supreme’ and Arsenal’s ‘The Gooner’ to name just two. Different teams, different landscapes and different production values, but all with the shared goal of providing fans with a voice, an outlet to rant or rejoice.
These pieces of A4 paper, so often photocopied, folded and stapled while the boss wasn’t looking, may have been low in production value, but more than made up for it with writing that captured the heartbeat of the football fan in times of joy and despair.
I soon got the writing bug myself, and have been regularly contributing to ‘A Kick Up The R’s’, which recently published its 300th issue, ever since. In an age of forums and blogs that offer countless opinions at the click of a mouse, a triple century of issues is a phenomenal achievement – but one which pales in comparison to Bradford City’s ‘The City Gent’, the country’s longest-running fanzine, which first went on sale back in 1984.
The ease with which anyone can now launch a website or forum has posed the biggest threat to fanzines’ continued publication, and has sadly meant that their number has dropped considerably in recent times. In some cases, they have chosen to move online to save money.
Certain organisational aspects of the modern game haven’t helped, either – as in the case of Everton’s ‘When Skies Are Grey’, which moved online to combat the effects of variable kick-off times (introduced for television audiences) on printed sales.
Just last month, the long-standing Manchester United fanzine ‘Red Issue’ published its 295th and final issue after 26 years. It was a decision taken not due to a lack of sales or finances, but because they simply ‘can’t stand the stench’ of football any longer.
On this evidence, it might seem as if the very things football fanzines were created to stand up against have ultimately got the better of them. But for every fanzine which has closed or been forced to adapt in recent times, others have emerged – Barnsley’s ‘West Stand Bogs’ and ‘Stand’, for example. The modern game may look vastly different, in some respects, to when fanzines were born, but at its core it is still very much the same – rogue chairmen, rising ticket prices and the marginalisation of fans are all as much a topic of conversation and debate now as when the publications rose to prominence in the late eighties.
The roots of the fanzine – as a general medium of expression – can be traced back as far as the 1940s, when the term was first coined to describe a science fiction publication put together by fans of the genre. The passion on which these subcultures were built heralded a self-publishing movement that took in anything from film to music, comics to fashion – each could rely on dedicated souls expressing their thoughts and opinions on their beloved scene.
It was only a matter of time before football had its own dedicated outlet, and soon the same counter-culture spirit evident in punk fanzines like ‘Sniffin’ Glue’, or terrace tales from music and culture upstarts The End and Boys Own would be replicated up and down the country. When Saturday Comes saw the fanzine go national, and exerted a profound influence on football fans with a D.I.Y. attitude and something to say.
Anyone seeking out the fanzine sellers come rain or (rarely) shine would be rewarded with talented writing, creativity, passion and plenty of wit. Well, with names as imaginative as ‘War Of The Monster Trucks’ (Sheffield Wednesday) and ‘Brian Moore’s Head Looks Uncannily Like London Planetarium’ (Gillingham), wit has to be in abundance. But historically, when called upon, they have also played an important role in questioning the status quo.
‘A Kick Up the R’s‘ was born out of the proposed merger with Fulham back in 1987, and offered fans a channel through which to voice their concern. In the end, it went some way to making sure Fulham Park Rangers never came into existence. ‘Red Issue’ was a staunch campaigner against BSkyB’s attempted takeover of Manchester United, and was behind the green and gold movement which came about when the Glazer family arrived on the scene.
It’s no secret that the game is changing; television money continues to bloat the coffers of the top clubs, and rising ticket prices are altering the demographic of those coming through the turnstiles. It might be a cliché to brand oneself ‘against modern football’ – after all, it’s often bandied around as a simplistic way of criticising anything remotely different – but one read of ‘Stand’ proves that there’s still very much an undercurrent of unrest among fans, and issues that are well worth standing up to. With no affiliation or club loyalties, ‘Stand’ brings to light issues many fans are unaware of outside of their own club, and has been a staunch supporter of getting fans a fairer deal, whether through their work with the Football Supporters’ Federation or the ‘Twenty’s Plenty’ campaign. It’s proof, moreover, that fanzines are still at the forefront of challenging the game’s injustices.
There’s something special about holding a fanzine in your hand – whether you’re an editor, receiving the first copies back from the printers, or a fan purchasing it at the ground. Call me an old romantic, but without a ground without a fanzine seller just wouldn’t feel right. The sounds of the latest issue being touted is as much a part of a match day as the smell of frying onions and the hopeful optimism imbued by a pre-match pint. These are the things that shape the narrative of a match day – not selfie sticks or half-and-half scarves.
Despite the obvious challenges, fanzine culture is still alive – thankfully, plenty of the people behind them still have that desire to spend late nights for little financial reward, stand in dreadful conditions and miss late goals in order to provide an alternative view of your club. If you’ve never picked one up, I encourage you to give it a try – you’ll not be disappointed.