Culture / Sport

‘As if to take the piss…’

This is extracted from Alwyn Turner’s Things Can Only Get Bitter: The Lost Generation of 1992, available only as an e-book.

At five past three on Saturday 15 August 1992, Brian Deane scored the first of his two goals that afternoon, securing Sheffield United a 2-1 home win against Manchester United, the team who were hot favourites to win the English league title after a quarter-century of under achievement. The significance of the goal – a simple tap-in from four yards – and the reason why Deane’s name is still revered by writers of trivia questions, is that it was the first goal scored in the newly launched FA Premier League.

It wasn’t immediately apparent why this was being billed as a glorious new era in English football. The twenty-two clubs in that first Premiership season included the less-than-glamorous likes of Oldham Athletic, Coventry City and, indeed, Sheffield United themselves, who finished in a creditable fourteenth place that year but were relegated the following season. Because there were still relegations; the Premier League did not represent a complete breakaway from the existing league structure, and in every respect but one was simply a rebranding of what used to be known as the First Division.

That one exception, however, was hard to ignore: the new organisation had established the right to negotiate its own television deal, and had promptly signed a five-year contract, worth a then-astonishing £305 million, with the satellite broadcaster BSkyB. From that change flowed the vast sums of money that poured into the domestic game at the highest level.

Concerns about cash corrupting football were nothing new. ‘They don’t know what it is to hunger for goals and glory,’ Arsenal manager Terry Neill had said of his players a decade earlier. ‘I think they just want to pick up their money and go home.’ The top stars were then on £1,500 a week. By 1997 wage inflation had become such that the Dutch player Pierre van Hooijdonk turned down a new contract at Celtic because, he insisted, the offer of £7,000 a week was inadequate. ‘It may be enough for the homeless, but not for an international striker,’ he was quoted as saying. With Scottish clubs struggling to keep their stars in the face of the Premiership’s new-found wealth, he moved south to Nottingham Forest.

If the money being made was soaring, it was not yet entirely at the expense of fans. In 1992 it was still possible to buy a standing ticket in some Premiership grounds for £8, though the following year the implementation of the Taylor Report, commissioned in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster, finally put an end to the terraces, and the cost of following your club started to rise rapidly. Complaints began to be heard that the ordinary working-class fans were being priced out of the game, supplanted by middle-class, fair-weather supporters, as the Premiership confirmed the social rehabilitation of what had become in the 1980s a reviled and beleaguered pastime.

This new-found respectability had first been noted in 1990, the year that the ban was lifted on English clubs playing in European competitions (imposed after the horrors of Heysel in 1985, when thirty-nine Juventus fans were killed as a result of rioting Liverpool supporters), and the year when Paul Gascoigne became overnight the best-known British player since George Best, following his lachrymose appearance at the World Cup.

It was a trend assisted by the most glamorous domestic club, Manchester United, claiming that first Premier League title, despite their stuttering start, and particularly by the arrival in Islington of the erudite Frenchman Arsène Wenger as Arsenal manager in 1996. When the comedy series The Fast Show created the character Roger Nouveau (played by John Thomson), an archetypal middle-class fan who sips chilled white wine from his picnic hamper at games, he was inevitably portrayed as an Arsenal supporter.

The gentrification of football was symptomatic of what was seen as a wider cultural colonisation. ‘As if to take the piss, aspects of traditional working-class behaviour became chic,’ wrote Mark Steel of the late 1990s. ‘Broadsheet critics effused over the hidden genius of Carry On films and 1970s ITV sitcoms. The most popular names for boys born into middle-class families were Fred, Harry and Jack. Football became a compulsory middle-class topic.’ This too was an old complaint. Back in 1980, in the movie Breaking Glass, the pop star played by Hazel O’Connor had similarly denounced middle-class encroachments: ‘Your lot have systematically stolen working-class culture, as you would call it, and tried to make it your own,’ she snaps. ‘You take over football and write about it as if it was grand opera.’

A decade on and the compliment was being reversed. After the BBC coverage of the 1990 World Cup used Luciano Pavarotti singing ‘Nessun Dorma’ as its theme tune, the recording went to #2 in the charts, the song became a firm favourite on the karaoke circuit and by the following year rock promoter Harvey Goldsmith was staging a Pavarotti concert in Hyde Park in front of 125,000 people, as well as a populist production of Tosca at Earl’s Court. Meanwhile, even as Tony Blair and Harriet Harman were striving to lose the accent of privilege, so John Prescott was declaring himself a proud member of the middle class. There was a convergence of culture taking place, and the leaking of football into the broadsheet world was merely the most visible symptom of the development, the distinction between white and blue collars concealed on a Saturday afternoon by the wearing of replica shirts.

But if there was one defining moment in football’s move from the public bar to the dinner party, it was the publication in September 1992 of Nick Hornby’s memoir Fever Pitch, recounting his love of Arsenal and how it had shaped his life. It had long been possible to appreciate from afar the aesthetics of the beautiful game, and recently even hooliganism had acquired an edgy allure in some quarters, as seen in books like Bill Burford’s Among the Thugs.

But Hornby went much further and made fashionable the idea of being a fan, of embracing the whole of football culture. He articulated the wit, warmth and absurdity of being a supporter in a way that Match of the Day had never even considered. (The only place on the BBC where this cultural embrace could be found was on Radio Five’s phone-in show Six O Six with Danny Baker, who was named Radio Personality of the Year in 1992. So alien a world was presented here that The Times described the show as ‘quintessentially postmodern’.)

Fever Pitch was a major critical and commercial success and inspired dozens of other everyday autobiographies by men in their thirties, reflectively filtering their lives and times through the medium of a single subject, from politics (John O’Farrell’s Things Can Only Get Better), through rock and roll (Giles Smith’s Lost in Music) to comedy (Mark Steel’s It’s Not a Runner Bean). A late but fine entry in the field was Robert Elms’s The Way We Wore, which came with a quote from Tony Parsons on the cover: ‘The Fever Pitch of urban street fashion.’ That comment could have served, mutatis mutandis, for a shelf or two of similar volumes self-chronicling a generation.

Hornby’s passions were not confined to Arsenal, as he hinted when recollecting the first time he encountered the football fanzine When Saturday Comes. Not only was this the first publication that seemed to be written by other obsessed fans, he noted, it also took its title from a 1981 Undertones song: ‘How did these people know that football and pop music were two of the most important things in life?’ wondered Hornby.

When he came to write his first novel, High Fidelity (1995), he explored this latter fascination in similarly obsessive detail. His narrator, Rob Fleming, had given up on his college course at the end of the 1970s and opted out of the suburban future that lay before him, seduced by a cultural rather than political opposition to the mainstream. He’s made progress since, setting up his own record-shop that caters to the more discerning rock and roll collector, but now aged thirty-six and approaching middle-age, he’s aware that something has gone wrong, that the long years of Tory rule have been spent in some kind of suspended animation. ‘We got to adolescence and just stopped dead,’ he reflects; ‘we drew up the map then and left the boundaries exactly as they were.’

By this stage Hornby was being acclaimed in the press as the ‘chief British iconographer of the 1990s’, which was overstating the case a little, but his work did open the way for other novelists – David Baddiel, John O’Farrell, Tony Parsons – to tackle similar themes of the lost boys of the anti-Thatcher generation seeking to re-engage with society. By the end of the decade, there was a host of books suggesting that it was finally time to slough off the arrested adolescence evident from Men Behaving Badly onwards. The hero of John O’Farrell’s The Best a Man Can Get finds a literal metaphor for the process as he looks back through a twenty-year collection of copies of the New Musical Express. ‘I flicked through a few of the interviews with my boyhood heroes – snarling punks spouting nihilistic notions of no future and anarchy, postures I’d once adopted myself,’ he records, before deciding: ‘I’d better drop all these newspapers off at the recycling depot.’

High Fidelity struck a chord with men of a certain age because Hornby’s detailed account of the trivia of rock and roll was so accurate (even if his own taste was decidedly orthodox), and was widely read by women seeking to understand the male psychology laid bare in its pages. Its success would once have seemed slightly at odds with the indie ethos that motivates its characters, but that too reflected the world outside, as British guitar bands began to return to the charts. There was a sense that an era was ending, a time that had celebrated underachievement as a virtue in itself. If society couldn’t be changed, then at least some space should be found within it where creativity could express itself.

In one of the novel’s key scenes, Rob goes to a dinner party with people of his own age who have, unlike him, followed the middle-class path mapped out for them, and he feels adrift in a world where ‘they have smart jobs and I have a scruffy job, they are rich and I am poor, they are self-confident and I am incontinent, they do not smoke and I do’. He broods, silenced and dissatisfied, until he identifies the point where it all went wrong, the year when he dropped out of college and, coincidentally, when the Tories came to power, and he concludes: ‘I want to go back to 1979 and start all over again.’

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.