Review: Savage Enthusiasm, A History of Football Fans

One of the themes quickest to emerge from Paul Brown’s ambitious social history is that, when something goes wrong at a football match, football fans have invariably been the first to be blamed.

After the infamous White Horse FA Cup Final of 1923 — the first to be played at Wembley — when an estimated crowd of 225,000 turned up and had to be cleared from the pitch, Parliament was quick to denounce the “hooligans” involved. In 1946, after 33 people died at Burnden Park when a crush developed at the kick-off of an FA Cup tie between Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City, police claimed fans breaking down the gates were responsible. An inquiry later found that the unanticipated size of the crowd and the unsuitability of the ground were to blame.

At Glasgow’s Ibrox Park in 1902, 25 fans died and more than 500 were injured in what is regarded as football’s first stadium disaster. An inquest later found that heavy rain had weakened the wooden beams supporting the stand that had collapsed and a timber merchant was charged with culpable homicide, but subsequently acquitted. Newspaper editorials of the time concluded that the disaster had been “beyond the power of man to prevent”. But even then, before the blame game had been carefully honed, the press displayed its suspicion of the football crowd, with the Daily Telegraph observing generously that: “The margin of safety cannot be made too wide, for a swaying crowd is a blind mass, devoid of reason.”

Brown, who curates the Goal Post website that focuses on football before 1914, has uncovered some fascinating examples of the fear the football crowd has imbued in the establishment, a fear that dates back at least as far as 1314, when King Edward II issued a proclamation banning football because of the unrest caused “by hustling over large balls over which many evils may arise which God forbid.” By Victorian times, when Brown begins to trace the history of the modern crowd, such fear had donned pseudo-scientific clothes. He tells us that Scottish journalist Charles MacKay’s book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds contained the following gem. “Men, it has been said well, think in herds. It will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly.” And Gustav Le Bon’s 1895 study of crowd psychology, The Crowd: a Study of the Popular Mind, spoke of individuals succumbing to a “Contagion” when subsumed into a crowd, exhibiting the “special characteristics” usually observed in “inferior beings… women, savages and children, for instance”.

We have, of course, moved on from such ignorant nonsense. Today’s huge generalisations, refusal to see the individuals in the mass and willingness to blame the fans when things go wrong are far more sophisticated, and come with recognition of the contribution fans can make to the game’s appeal to television –and the money that comes with it, of course.

That extended drop introduction does open this review up to the observation levelled at Brown’s book in the review in When Saturday Comes, one of being guilty of “leftist orthodoxy”. But such an observation begs a response. For is not a history of ordinary people, rather than an account of how a few privileged individuals ‘shaped’ history, by definition “leftist”? Strange, then, to make the point. Time perhaps to revisit E P Thompson’s explanation of why he wrote The Making of the English Working Class, a book he said was intended to rescue ordinary people from “the enormous condescension of posterity”. Maybe the review line was less dismissive than it seemed to this reader, although the fact that it was made in the pages of a publication with the background of WSC served to raise eyebrows even further. If the “left” is not about recognising the role of ordinary people, what is it? And are we merely to categorise efforts to put the people centre stage as political dogma?

I labour the point to declare an interest as someone who has long written and spoken about the need for the role of the football crowd to be properly recognised, and for the understanding to be developed that crowds are composed of individuals. The latter point being, I would argue, a challenge to “leftist orthodoxy” worthy of engaging in.

Brown’s book is an important addition to efforts that seek to put a history of football fans on a par with the well-written histories of players, owners and administrators to form a complete picture of a sport that is so dominant in our culture. The first half of the book, as you would expect given Brown’s specialism, is well researched and throws up many original observations. If you’re interested in how football’s mass support developed, or in how traditions such as the singing of Abide With Me at FA Cup Finals and the wearing of rosettes developed, you’ll savour the detail and come back to these chapters as the body of work on the social history of fans grows.

One detail I’ll be following up with the author is his observation that the film of the 1901 FA Cup final at Crystal Palace was “entirely goalless”. When Alan Fisher and I were researching A People’s History of Tottenham Hotspur, we found reference to the disputed equaliser for Sheffield United being shown in cinemas for days afterwards and being the first moving picture refereeing controversy.

Researching that club-based people’s history also made me appreciate the challenge of the second half of Brown’s book. It’s a huge subject and, in contrast to the first half of the book, the second half from the 1950s onwards seems a bit rushed. That’s possibly because subjects such as the rise of hooliganism in its modern sense and the development of a football culture away from the physical environs of the stadium have been more extensively written about.

Brown’s book is a welcome addition to the social history of football support. It is more focussed on Britain and on the experience of English fans than it sets itself up to be, but it also contains the detailed observation and research that a truly international history of support could not hope to achieve.

The social history of football fans will not be told by one voice, one book, one set of experiences. It will be told by a multitude of viewpoints given the encouragement and inspiration to preserve experience, not for posterity, but for a living, growing body of work that influences the present. Paul Brown’s book is a welcome addition.