Intervista: The Quiet Fan

Il romanzo di Ian Plenderleith ci propone la visione del tifoso normale e “tranquillo” lontano dall stereotipo creato da parte della letteratura sportiva. Ne abbiamo parlato con l’autore.

What inspired you to write The Quiet Fan?

In the 1970s and 1980s football fans were reviled – according to the media and the public, we were all anti-social hooligans. Then, after the decline of violence in stadiums, Paul Gascoigne’s tears at Italia 90, and the publication of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, the media and the publishing industry suddenly discovered this great new thing called football! Although Fever Pitch is not a bad book, it fostered a ridiculous stereotype of football fans. That is, you were only a true fan if you obsessed about football night and day and let the game control your life. You were only a true fan if you were ‘passionate’ about your team above all else. This may be the case for a minority of fans, but almost all of the hundreds of football fans I know actually lead a pretty normal life, largely independent of football. In The Quiet Fan, I wanted to present an alternative view of fandom. Yes, football has played a massively important role in my life, but I see the game as a bulwark of security in an uncertain world – I can always attach significant events in my life to certain football games. I also think that every fan experiences football differently, and this is what makes it such a wonderful game. You can not stereotype fans any more than you can stereotype any other group of individuals. For the media, though, it’s much easier to merely present the extreme case – the obsessive, or the hooligan – because then they don’t have to examine the complexities of what it means to be a football fan.

In other countries, ‘hooligan’ is a by-word for the English fan: how much has sport literature influenced this cliché?

Well, if other countries still see English fans as ‘hooligans’, then they are 30 years out of date! There is definitely a myth among certain fan groups abroad that the English fans are the most violent. In Germany, it always makes me laugh to see fan groups describing themselves as ‘hooligans’. In England, it was a word used by the media and the upper and middle classes to describe what they (inaccurately) saw as a threatening proletarian horde. There’s a great sketch by the late US comedian Bill Hicks where he lampoons the English for using this word: “I say, he’s a hooooligan!” It’s a comedy word that was already out-of-date in 1970. The substance of the cliché certainly has some basis in truth – a number of English fans were notorious for their violence in the 1970s and 1980s, although much of that was posturing, and any clashes were overplayed by a hysterical media. To answer your question – in the 1990s, there was a massive wave of literature by writers claiming to be ‘ex-hooligans’, like John King and Dougie Brimson. I found these books to be tedious, repetitive, dishonest, self-glorifying and ugly, and nothing to do with football – just inadequate men using bad literature as a platform to make fast money. Publishers also made a lot of cash out of this nonsense and, yes, it propped up the stereotype of the fan as an apolitical, selfish psychopath.

What do you think about so-called modern football? Is there still space for moral sentiment?

There is a lot to dislike about modern football from a moral perspective. The imbalance of wealth at the top of the game, for example. The immorality of teams that plaster betting companies across their shirts. The naked corruption at Fifa that allows sportswashing, and that allows human rights-abusing countries like Russia and Qatar to polish their images by hosting the World Cup. The bottomless greed of the Champions League regulars (Real, Juve, PSG, Bayern, the Manchester teams) that would love to form a European Super League and sew up all the revenue for themselves. On the other hand, there has been a revival in support for the lower end of the game among fans who are sick of the hype and commerce of modern football. I think that while the huge clubs become more globalised and impersonal, this community-based revival will thrive at the game’s bottom end. First, that is the only way these clubs can survive. Second, that is what it truly means to identify with football – to be part of a movement where you can see the effect of football on a daily basis in your own village, town or city. That is so much more important than cheering on a Champions League brand in a sports bar 5000 miles away. There has also been political activism across all spectrums of the game with initiatives against homophobia and racism, and individuals like Marcus Rashford embarrassing the British government by exposing its crass neglect of the poor. Fifa has tried to perpetrate the myth that football is a unifying force, as though football was some magical formula in itself. Football can not magically solve social and political problems, but it should be a positive agent – it would be great to see more players take a stance like Rashford. They could start by all agreeing to boycott Qatar 2022.

My own experience of attending games in England is one of a very unique level of emotion: what are the main differences between the atmosphere in English stadiums and elsewhere?

I don’t think atmosphere is something unique to any particular nation. I am a fan of Eintracht Frankfurt, which is now my home town for the second time in my life, and the atmosphere there is fantastic – better than any I’ve ever experienced at any other club, including Rangers and Celtic in Scotland, including Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham. It’s generally the right combination of noise and positivity – joy when we play well, encouragement when the team falls behind. I hate fans who consistently shout at and abuse their own players. I have been to many games in England where the atmosphere was dead. It depends not just on the club, but on the action, maybe on the referee, or a particular opposition player. I was at a game at Kickers Offenbach in the German fourth division a couple of years ago – rainy night, 0-0, terrible football. One of the opposition players made a gesture at the Offenbach fans after they’d cursed him for a foul, and they seized upon it. For the rest of the night they cursed and abused this one player – it was very, very funny, but also spontaneously created atmosphere out of nothing during an otherwise utterly forgettable game of football.

Do you think the Taylor Act achieved its main goals?

In one sense, yes. It has made stadiums safe for football fans. It was long overdue – football fans in England had been treated like cattle for decades. Stadiums should always have been safe for fans, and it’s a disgrace that it took so many deaths and disasters for that to happen. The negative consequences have been a sanitisation of the atmosphere, and horrifically high ticket prices. Take Arsenal as an example – I used to sometimes stand at the Clock End in Highbury when I lived in London in the late 1980s. There was a terrific atmosphere there, and it only cost £6. Now you can go to The Emirates Stadium and pay ten times (or more) than that, just to sit in a generic bowl that’s like an American NFL stadium. All you hear are fans screaming at the players for every tiny mistake – when they’ve paid so much money to get in, they feel that they are automatically entitled to success.

Has your experience as a referee shaped your attitude towards referees as a fan? Have you ever screamed at the referee during a match?

You should ask my daughter this question. She comes to Eintracht games with me, and sometimes when I yell at the referee, she looks at me and says, “The quiet fan, huh?” Usually, though, I try not to blame the referee. Quite often I’ll point out to a screaming fan why the referee just made a perfectly correct decision against our team. “Really?” they say, and then they sit down. I actually feel sorry for anyone who has to sit next to me – I can take all the fun out of shouting at the referee. I sat beside my dad at hundreds of games and he was always very fair and neutral in this respect – I think that taught me to try and see the game more objectively. Also, as an amateur referee, I love to watch the best referees and pick up tips on positioning and how they handle conflict.

How much has Sincil Bank’s environment forged your passion for football? Does football at the lower level translate into better values and more loyalty?

My parents still live close to Lincoln, so going to Sincil Bank for me simply means ‘coming home’. My relationship to the club and the stadium has less to do with ‘passion’ (I dislike that word when used in connection with football – it’s a Sky-era cliché), and more to do with memory. Sincil Bank is an anchor in my own personal history. I don’t think a smaller team attracts more loyal fans. Five years ago, Lincoln were in the fifth division playing on front of 2000 fans. Now they are top of League 1 and – before Covid – were attracting 8,000-10,000 fans for home games. Success breeds higher crowds, that’s true for all clubs. Failure means that fans start staying away, and I think that’s natural, if regrettable. What a small club needs to do in times of success is to make the football experience attractive enough that some of those ‘new’ fans will stay when the team hits a bad patch. They mustn’t feel exploited. At Lincoln, they’ve learnt this lesson – the club has become very involved in the city and the community during the past five years, so that the city’s identity has become intertwined with the football club. That way, hopefully we will still have 10,000 home fans if we drop back down to the fifth division…

What are your coming projects? Have you any other ideas concerning football?

I write a weekly blog about my experiences as an amateur referee in Germany although it’s dormant right now because of the lockdown. I would love to turn that into a book about refereeing, amateur football and sporting values. I am fascinated by the way that behaviour in football – be it from players, coaches, fans or even referees – reflects the human condition as a whole.

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