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“Just this one afternoon started the whole thing off – there was no prolonged courtship ... In a desperate and percipient attempt to stop the inevitable, Dad quickly took me to Spurs to see Jimmy Greaves score four against Sunderland in a 5-1 win, but the damage had been done, and the six goals and all the great players left me cold: I’d already fallen for the team that beat Stoke 1–0 from a penalty rebound.”
- Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch (1992) on the origin of his lifelong love of Arsenal.
Fever Pitch is a wonderful memoir, the most influential football book ever written, and an important source for our image of the football fan. The fan, as most Britons have come to think of him, is a creature tied for life to the club he first “fell for” as a child. Hornby says his love of Arsenal has lasted “longer than any relationship I have made of my own free will”. But is Hornby’s fan found much in real life? Or are most British football supporters much less loyal than is usually presumed?
Let’s start with Hornby’s version, because it is the accepted story of the British fan. As far as life allows, the Hornbyesque fan sees all his club’s home games. (It’s accepted even in the rhetoric of fandom that travelling to away games is best left to unmarried men under the age of 25.) No matter how bad his team get, the fan cannot abandon them. When Hornby watches the Arsenal of the late 1960s with his dad, their incompetence shames him but he cannot leave: “I was chained to Arsenal and my dad was chained to me, and there was no way out for any of us.” “Chained” is a very Hornbyesque word for a fan’s feelings for his club. Often, the fan uses metaphors from drugs (“hooked”) or romantic love (“relationship”, “fell for”). Indeed, some adult Englishmen who would hardly dare tell their wives that they love them will happily appear in public singing of their love for a club.
Ideally, the Hornbyesque fan supports his local side (even if Hornby did not). This gives the fan roots, a sense of belonging. In a wonderful essay on fandom in the highbrow journal Prospect in 2004, Gideon Rachman quotes an archetypal declaration of faith from a Carlisle fan called Charles Burgess: “There never was any choice. My dad ... took me down to Brunton Park to watch the derby match against Workington Town just after Christmas 41 years ago – I was hooked and have been ever since ... My support has been about who we are and where we are from.”
Rachman is a commentator on international politics for the Financial Times, but his essay is a key text in the British debate about fandom. It is the anti-Fever Pitch. In it, Rachman outs himself as a “fairweather fan, an allegiance switcher”, who at different times in his life has supported Chelsea, QPR and Spurs.
He treats the passions of Hornbyesque fans as slightly bizarre. After all, in England one’s choice of team is largely random. Few clubs have particular religious or class affiliations, and few English people have an attachment dating back generations to any particular location. Some children become fans of their local team, however terrible it might be, but if you live in Cornwall or Somerset or Oxfordshire you may have no local professional team, while if you live in London or around Manchester you have many. As Rachman asks: “Why devote a huge amount of emotion to favouring one part of west London over another?”
And yet, against all evidence, the stereotype persists that the typical British football fan is a full-on Hornby. This is no surprise, because the tiny percentage of fans who are Hornbys dominate the national conversation about fandom – naturally, as they are most motivated to enter it.
However, there is a deeper reason the Hornby version of fandom remains so popular. In a country that is unusually rootless, this account of fandom tells a story of roots, of belonging – a lifelong love of the club your father or grandfather supported before you.
Britain was the first country on earth where peasants left their native villages to go and work in rootless industrial cities.
Today the average Briton changes his residence about once every seven years, more often than all other Europeans except the Nordics and the Dutch, according to a Eurobarometer survey for the European Commission in 2005. Many Britons emigrate. About 6m of them now live outside Britain, as do another 50m-odd people with British ancestry. It is hard for people this transitory to build up deep ties of any kind, even to football clubs.
And Britons have suffered yet another uprooting: as well as leaving their place of birth, many of them have left their class of birth, too. This upheaval began on a large scale in the 1960s. As the economy grew, and more Britons stayed on at school and went to university, a mostly working-class nation turned into a mostly middle-class one. For many people this was a traumatic change. Their fathers had been factory workers, and now they were managers/professionals. They lost touch with their roots.
Naturally, many of them began to worry about their authenticity deficits. In the 1990s, when football went upmarket and the proverbial prawn sandwiches replaced the proverbial pies, there were endless laments for a lost cloth-capped proletarian culture from people who themselves somewhere along the way had ceased to be cloth-capped proletarians. They yearned to be authentic.
All this makes the “true fan” a particularly appealing character to Britons. He is our version of a blood-and-soil myth. The fan has roots. Generations may pass, and blue collars turn to white, but he still supports his “local” team in what is supposed to be the “working man’s game”. Many Britons who aren’t Hornbyesque fans would like to be. The fan is more than just a compelling character. He is a British national fantasy.
this is an edited extract from the book ‘Why England Lose: And Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained’ by simon kuper and stefan szymanski... enjoy friends!! obrigado!!!!
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The second element of our model is the “loyal fans”: those who come back from the previous season. Loyal fans are estimated as the difference between the total attendance for the season and the new fans entering the game. Of course, the difference between the loyal fans plus the new fans and last season’s attendance is the “lost fans”. These lost fans also fall into two groups: those who were lost to the club because its performance declined, and those who were lost for other random reasons that we cannot measure – they got back together with their girlfriend, took up DIY, etc.
This model provides an estimate of the fraction of new fans that a team can expect to attract as a result of the position it achieves in the league.
We found that spectators are only mildly sensitive to a team’s performance. Annual changes in attendances implied that the club that won the Premier League would attract 2.5 per cent of all new spectators entering the league the next season. However, a team that finished at the bottom of the Premier League, or the top of the next division down, the Championship, does almost as well: it attracts 2 per cent of all the league’s new spectators. Indeed, judging by the ebb and flow of crowds over the 61 years, most people seem to go to a plausible club playing near their home.
These are the newcomers. But how many of last year’s crowd do they replace? The data reveal how many spectators each club lost or gained, season by season, for 61 years, as well as how many spectators the league as a whole lost or gained. So for every club we can calculate the average percentage of last season’s fans that did not come back for the new season. And the percentage that fits the data best? 50. Yes, on average in the post-war era, half of all spectators in English football did not take their seats again the next season. The long-term devoted spectator of the kind that Hornby described in Fever Pitch, far from being typical, is a rare species.
Of the 50 per cent who do not show up at their club the next season, the largest group may well continue to be monogamous fans of that club. They just can’t afford to go any more, or are busy raising children, or have moved away, or simply care less than they used to. The object of their love might not have changed, but the intensity has. Many of them may once have been Hornbys who fell for a team as an eight-year-old when their father took them to their first game. However, by the time they are 28 or 88 they are no longer the same fan. For many people, fandom is not a static condition but a process.
Other fans will have lost interest altogether. Others still might be shifting their allegiances to another club.
Then there is a dirty secret of English football: many fans support more than one team. Hornby himself, in Fever Pitch, supports Cambridge United while he is attending university in the city, as well as Arsenal. In fact, whereas the usual analogy for football fandom is idealised monogamous marriage, a better one might be music fandom. People are fans of The Beatles, or The Cure, but they generally like more than one band at the same time, and are capable of moving on when their heroes fade.
Nonetheless, the Hornbyesque fan is a widely admired figure in Britain, at least among men. But how true is this model of fandom? Does it really describe the way most British fans feel about their clubs? Hornby himself recognised the existence of casual fans in football. Many of the people who pop up briefly in the pages of Fever Pitch enjoy the game but are not wedded to a particular club. Hornby calls this type the “sod-that-for-a-lark floating punter”, and speaks of it with admiration: “I would like to be one of those people who treat their local team like their local restaurant, and thus withdraw their patronage if they are being served up noxious rubbish.”
Broadly speaking there are two types of football fan: the Hornbys and the sod-that-for-a-lark floating punters. The sod-that-for-a-lark people are heavily represented among foreign fans of clubs such as Manchester United and Liverpool and even seem to be pretty common in Britain. No doubt a club such as Hartlepool has a higher percentage of devoted Hornbys among their fans than, say, Chelsea, but then clubs such as Hartlepool – which last season had an average gate of 3,835 compared with Chelsea’s 41,588 – don’t have many fans full stop.
One might carp that the sod-that-for-a-lark lot are mostly just armchair fans, and that “real” fans tend to be Hornbys. However, it would be wrong to dismiss armchair fans as an irrelevance. The overwhelming majority of football fans in Britain are armchair fans, in the sense that they hardly ever go to games. In a Mori poll in 2003, 45 per cent of British adults expressed an interest in football. But the total average weekly attendances of all professional clubs in England and Scotland equal only about 3 per cent of the population. In other words, most of the country’s football fans rarely or never enter football stadiums.
If we want to unearth the Hornbys, we need to concentrate on the elite of fans that actually go to games: the spectators, the fanatical few, those who presumably support their club “through thick and thin”. At least, that is the theory. But we studied attendances in English football over the past 60 years (Paul in ’t Hout’s marvellous website, www.european-football-statistics.co.uk, has statistics on attendances and league performance for all clubs in the top four divisions of English football from 1947 through 2008) and found that even among the actual spectators, a startlingly high proportion appeared to be sod-that-for-a-lark types.
Using this data on attendance, we can find out (a) the annual mortality rate of football spectators – that is, how many of the people who watched last season don’t come back the next, and (b) the sensitivity of new spectators to the success of teams – do most newcomers flock to Chelsea when Chelsea win the league?
To do so, we constructed a very simple model. It consists of two elements. First, there are the “new fans” coming into the game. These are estimated as the difference between the total attendance for the season and the number of loyal fans left over from the previous season. New fans divide into two groups: those who come to watch the team depending on its success, and those who come for random reasons we can’t explain – a friend invited them, a girlfriend left them, etc.