That's the first thing. Fever Pitch is 20 years old now, old enough – and good enough – to become a Penguin Modern Classic. But Nick Hornby's vision of being a fan chained to the club you support for life (in Hornby's case "boring, boring Arsenal", in mine Spurs) hasn't aged. It's still insightful and true, painfully so at times. Do you worry about when the best time to die will be? Before a season kicks off when you don't know how bad things will get? In mid-season when you already know that your team's not going to win anything again? Hornby did and wrote about it. I read it and realised I'd thought incessantly about that very question. Both now and back then when I first read it.
I was working in a bookshop in Stirling at the time. Every other Saturday I'd head up to Annfield to watch Stirling Albion play while wishing it was White Hart Lane (it took me a while to come to terms with Albion's colours frankly). At work I'd meet publisher's reps to buy books for the shop. I'd talk movies with the Penguin rep and football with the Gollancz rep. One day he came in raving about a new book Gollancz were soon to publish. A football book. A good one. This seemed unlikely. No-one back then published good football books. You could count the good ones on the fingers of one hand. But he gave me a proof copy and I read it and the shock of recognition was instant. Someone had written about the wallowing misery and fleeting ecstasy of being a football fan. And he'd nailed it. Even if he was an Arsenal fan, he'd nailed it. It rang true to me reading it in central Scotland. And it still does now, two decades on.
But then, you could argue, fans are the only things that haven't changed in football in those 20 years. Everything else has been transformed. Arsenal for a start. What Hornby called "Arsenalesque" 20 years ago – typified by Willie Young's ridiculous, stupidly ugly professional foul on West Ham's teenager Paul Allen in the 1980 cup final – is ancient history now, rubbed out by the brilliance of the Wenger years (brittle though that brilliance has been in recent seasons; not brittle enough for me obviously). Football literature too has been transformed. Good football books happen on a regular basis now.
More than either of these, though, football has changed. Dramatically, seismically. It is not the same game any more. Hornby had the luck to be writing about the end of an era at the start of a new one. The football world he describes in Fever Pitch is, frankly, a broken world, a world of casual racism, of football hooliganism and of the horrors of Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough. The world the book emerged into was a post-Italia 90 one, when the combination of Paul Gascoigne and Rupert Murdoch were changing English football forever.
"Nick tapped into the obsession for football at the right time," admits Ian Ridley, whose first book Seasons In The Cold, about the last season in English football before the Premier League, had the misfortune to be published in the same year as Fever Pitch. Ridley went on to co-write Tony Adams' biography Addicted and author an account of his life as chairman of non-league Weymouth. His latest book, There's A Golden Sky, now out in paperback, reveals how much the English game has changed in the 20 years since Fever Pitch. "You can trace the modern game to 1992 and the arrival of the Premier League," he says. "After the dark decade of the 1980s, football wasn't a dirty word in the 1990s."
If Gascoigne's tears watered this new bloom, it was Murdoch's money that made it grow. Both Hornby, in his afterword to the latest edition of his book, and Ridley agree on that. "Murdoch saw in America that the NFL sold," says Ridley.
The Australian didn't care about the game's shop-soiled reputation and was willing to pay over the odds to grow his satellite business on the back of football. "It took someone with a lot of dosh because they could have folded at any time in the first few years," Ridley says. "It needed a businessman to come from the outside and a businessman with nerve as well."
The result is the most popular and most cash-leveraged league in the world of course. In 1989 Martin Edwards was ready to accept £20 million from Michael Knighton to purchase Manchester United. Ten years later, as Ridley points out in There's A Golden Sky, Murdoch's satellite station offered £680m for the club before the Monopolies and Mergers Commission blocked the bid, leaving the way open eventually for the Glazers to buy United and load it with the borrowings they used for the purchase.
The gains for the game in England have been obvious enough. Better facilities, increased capacity at grounds and a safer match-day experience all round for fans. Players are now rewarded financially for their athleticism and contribution to the game. The game itself is ubiquitous. But there have been downsides too.
"The experience can often be sanitised," says Ridley. "The players are often overpaid to the point where they're remote and we're in danger of the gap between the spectator and the people that play it being so wide that there's a lack of respect between them.
"There is this curious mixture of hero worship and contempt. One of the things about the Olympics is the people who got gold medals are grounded human beings. That's what shines through, whereas footballers are in their gated communities. That's a bit of a stereotype and it's not always true. But it's the perception."
Football is also more expensive for fans and the money isn't filtering down to the lower levels – a fact that Ridley in his role at Weymouth is all too aware of. But the Premier League remains a cash cow. It is looking forward to a 70% jump in its TV money this season, while worrying about where that income's going to go (Ridley suspects we're not too far away from a salary cap being introduced).
There is a shadow narrative to all this, of course, and you don't have to look to the English lower leagues to find it. In October 1992 Leeds came to Ibrox for the Battle of Britain in the European Cup. Despite an early goal from Gary McAllister, they left 2-1 down thanks to a ludicrous own goal from the Leeds keeper and a typical Ally McCoist goal for Rangers.
McCoist then scored at Elland Road to seal the victory after a sumptuous 30-yard volley from Mark Hateley had already silenced the home crowd. You could argue over which of those clubs has fallen further in the years since. Both have tried to live the dream and are paying the price.
The problem for Scottish football is that while Rangers may have had the furthest to fall, all of Scottish football has suffered in the last 20 years. While TV money has inflated English football (and snagged a number of billionaire owners in the process), the lack of it in Scotland means the game has been suffering from a slow painful puncture.
Football has changed in the last 20 years. For all the improvements in stadia and safety, it would be difficult to argue that it has changed for the better north of the Border. And yet fans keep going. Some clubs might see fewer of them (Ridley points out that last season even Manchester United and Arsenal were having to send text messages and make announcements about future games to promote ticket sales) and it remains to be seen whether Rangers fans will not walk away as the club trek through the lower levels of the Scottish game.
But so far they haven't. That's fans for you. We ally ourselves to a club and we keep going. No matter how poor the team, how inept or even corrupt the management of that club might be. From the outside you might call that gullible. Fans call it loyalty. But anyone who has thought about it knows it's both. That's the key to Fever Pitch's success, really. Hornby saw the flaws in being a fan and spelt them out. Didn't stop him going though.
l Fever Pitch is published by Penguin, priced £8.99. Ian Ridley's There's A Golden Sky is published in paperback by Bloomsbury, priced £8.99. Teddy Jamieson will be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to talk about his book Whose Side Are You On? tomorrow night.
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