Sunday, June 25, 2017

Bookable Offences: An Interview with Andy Lyons from When Saturday Comes

May 17, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured, Specials

By Paul Douglas Grant

Readers of 90 Minute Soccer are no strangers to the desire to read something other than the quotidian, dreary reportage of cut and copy sports journalism. While statistics inform any fan’s appreciation of the sport, rarely is it from such writing that we garner our pre-, post- or mid-match pleasures of the sport. The pleasure of reading about football—and certainly of writing about football—should hopefully serve the same function as other literary forms: to continue the pleasures of the world. It is for this reason that we might turn to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s writings on football, the French critic Serge Daney’s magnificent “sports criticism”, Eamon Dunphy’s classic Only A Game? or more Recently Philippe Auclair’s masterful Cantona biography to try and extend the pleasure of the match, the pleasure of sharing a passionate interest, and to find new angles (critical, political, cultural) from which the obsessed soccer-phile can reflect on the game . It is in some respect these very concerns and motivations that the British football magazine When Saturday Comes both springs from and satisfies.

WSC has been publishing on football for almost a quarter of a century from a perspective that is informed as much by pop culture and politics as it is by match stats and transfer costs. One of the great achievements of WSC has been its ability to maintain this kind of writing while being laugh out loud funny,  and yet never really dipping into easy postmodern cynicism. It is, for all its jabs, cartoons, and mockeries, an extremely earnest project, at the heart of which is a passion for football and its supporters. Co-founder Andy Lyons took the time to talk about WSC’s beginnings and the strained historical context from which it emerged.

Paul Grant : I’m wondering if you could sort of take us through the founding of When Saturday Comes, and maybe describe some of its guiding principals, i.e. what’s behind establishing a football publication that looked more like a punk fanzine?

Andy Lyons: The idea came about from myself and a friend with whom I was working at a record shop in London in 1986, and who had a music zine. We spent a lot of time reading things like NME and Melody Maker that were reporting on music and other forms of pop-culture. We had this idea that we could do something about football that would have a similar kind of sensibility. Besides there was already a kind of zine culture, or small press culture in existence, so we knew it was possible to do something. Even if you only sold a couple hundred copies you could cover your costs. So we did one issue which was printed in roughly 200 photocopies, but it was mentioned in one of the national newspapers (The Guardian), so after that it kind of snowballed. It did however take a couple of years for it to become a full time job for anybody or to be able to get it into newsagents. The other thing that was going on then, unbeknownst to us, was that there were a number of football related zines that were mostly related to specific clubs. The reason for this boom at the time was because in the mid -80s British football fans had a very bad public image in the wake of the Heysel stadium disaster[1] in 1985.

AL: With English teams being banned from playing in Europe, the general perception at the time, certainly of the government, was that football was a hooligan problem, a law and order issue to use the expression of the time. We really felt that in a small way we could redress the balance a bit and show that football fans were from all kinds of backgrounds and had all kinds of outlooks. It also happened that there was a similar kind of politicized fan movement at the time, a national fans organization that was seeking to prevent the government from introducing an ID card scheme for football fans. IDs did in fact get introduced at the time, but were scrapped after the Hillsborough stadium disaster in 1989. [2]

So there were two different strands going on, there was a kind of zine thing, and a kind of political fan movement, both as rather underground occurrences. It took a while for people around the country to become aware of them, and they developed really rather organically over quite a long period of time.

PG: The friend that you started WSC with was Mike Ticher, and over the course of the years his name goes on and off the masthead with some regularity. What has his relationship been to the magazine since its inception?

AL: Mike was involved for the first two years, and then moved to Australia. He came back in the mid-90s, ‘97 or so and then went back to Australia again about six or seven years ago.

PG: The music zine you mentioned was Snipe?

AL: Yes, Mike and I were sharing a house at the time and we worked at the same record shop, but I didn’t actually write for the music zine.

PG: But still, and I guess this is sort of a leading question, I’m assuming it was kind of a post-punk zine, and that the two of you weren’t indulging in long discussions about say Nik Kershaw or Paul Young?

AL: Right, the record shop we worked in was called Our Price and was part of a chain that was fairly mainstream but it sold a lot of indie stuff as well. But it wasn’t an independent record shop exactly. For sure our outlook was not a commercial one. Remember this is 1985, and in retrospect it was a really bad year in the UK for pop music. The whole  post-punk thing, as it has come to be known had really kind of finished by then. So I guess you can say that our sensibility had that independent outlook of small record labels.

PG: Right, and I guess what I’m sort of getting at is that growing up in the US in the 80s and 90s, there’s no way I can imagine, say, an American Black Flag fan, or even a Smiths fan for that matter, coming up with the idea for writing articles or starting a fanzine about Baseball, Hockey or American Football. Organized sports was so entirely the nemesis of anything smacking of, for lack of a better term, counter culture. So I’m wondering if there is anyway you can address how these two tendencies manage to coalesce in the UK?

AL: You know the thing is I don’t really think that they were divergent tendencies so much until the last few years. These days the Premiere League is very much a part of global corporate culture, but football in the UK in the early 80s and early 90s, which had only been around for a hundred years or so, was really quite small in business terms. There wasn’t as great a sense of dislocation between people who were interested in it and people who ran the sport, the amount of money they made, and so forth. It was a much smaller industry than it is now. Bear in mind, people like John Peel, a DJ who championed a lot of independent music, had also been a football fan as well, even when he was a hippy in the 60s. I remember talking about this very subject once, and asking John Peel if there was any point when he was working on the pirate radio stations or playing early psychedelic music, that he saw anything odd about being interested in that and football, and he said quite simply that it had never even occurred to him at the time that the two wouldn’t go together.[3] Obviously, football culture, like most professional sport cultures, is fairly conservative in its outlook, even though there is a strong team ethic, there is also the aspect of striving for individual attainment, and its not uncommon for sports figures to be conservative, which is understandable given the amount of money they make. But you know it just didn’t seem like such a big deal at the time. To a certain extent it was also the case that we felt that although football was part of popular culture, it had never really be written about in the way that other cultural forms had been written about, like film, literature and music.

PG: What about the example that you guys were quick to pick up on Foul? [4]

AL: The difference with Foul, was that the people who were doing it at the time were students at Cambridge University, all of whom went on to get jobs in broadcast or mainstream media. So Foul was slightly more media oriented, it was done by people that were moving into sports media. In fact the reason they were closed down was something over being libelous, something they had said about a sportswriter[5]. They were writing about the press from almost a more semi-insider position than we ever did.

PG: Going back for a moment, earlier you brought up a national supporters organization, were you referring to the FSA (Football Supporters Association)?

AL: Yes. The FSA started in Liverpool in 1985, and Mike and I actually went to the first meeting of the London branch which was just before WSC launched, so 85/86. And for a few years it kind of gradually built up and eventually merged a few years ago with a more mainstream organization called the Football Supporters Federation. There was a period when it seemed possible to get football fans involved and active in protesting in general about how fans were being treated around the country,  poor facilities at stadiums, etc. Gradually that impetus got lost a bit, and what happened was, understandably, that people got involved in things relating to their own clubs, protesting the ownership of their clubs, or about ways the teams stadiums were being redeveloped etc., so fan protesting became very localized.

AL: The FSA does still exist but it doesn’t have quite the same position that it once had. The other thing that has happened is that there are these things called supporters trusts which are things that try and enable supporters to gain control of their clubs by acquiring shares in the clubs. The movement that runs that is partly government financed, and it has become a more directly practical way for fans to get involved with their clubs these days.

PG: Wasn’t there a moment when the FSA became Supporters Direct?

AL: That’s still the name of the organization, which is government funded, and then the supporters run the supporters trusts, but the organization itself is called supporters direct.

PG: So when you see something like the anti-Glazer campaign at Manchester United do you think of that as in keeping with the sort of early mission of the FSA?

AL: Yes, I think it does, but they are sort of protesting about different things. One of the ways in which football has changed over time here is that the people who go to the matches no longer have the same degree of influence over what transpires with their club. It used to be that most people who watched, for example, Manchester United, were the 50,000 people in the stadium 20 years ago. Now, they have millions of people around the world who watch them on TV. The clubs know that the supporters who are physically present in the clubs are no longer as important to them as they once were. So, the anti-Glazer campaign, while its been effective in terms of publicity and so on, from the Glazers point of view its hard to imagine how much they really care, provide people are still buying the replica shirts and still tuning in to watch from Japan and South Korea. In that sense, while the protest has been good and very well organized, its probably not going to affect the clubs as much as it might once have done.

PG: When you started the magazine it was in the shadow of things the Bradford disaster, Heysel, and then not too long after the magazine’s inception Hillsborough occurred. I’m curious to know what sort of impact these events had on fans, and more specifically how you approached writing about football and directing it towards an engaged spectator.

AL: The thing about Hillsborough is that really it led to the creation  of the Premier League, in that it led to clubs being obliged to have all-seating stadiums, which in turn led to clubs finding new ways to generate income because the stadiums became more expensive places for people to go, and there was a kind of gradual social change in the make up of people that went to matches, which also happened to coincide with the spread of TV coverage, especially satellite TV coverage in the wake of Sky’s involvement with broadcasting the Premier League. These things all kind of went hand in hand. Some things that came up as a result of Hillsborough, that certainly people were in favor of, were that stadium safety in general was improved, but people also felt that there was an over-reaction, that there wasn’t a need to make all stadia all-seaters which is pretty much what happened. That in turn affected the way that supporters behaved in stadiums. The spectator these days is much more like a consumer, they are no longer active participants like the way they once were. This is still something you notice when you see coverage of football matches in other countries, like Italy and Germany where spectators can still stand, the crowd is really like part of the event. Whereas here in the UK, certainly in the Premiere League, the spectators could just as well be at home, or at a bar watching it on tv. The match is really just being presented to them as an object to be consumed, they’re no longer directly involved.

PG: Its funny though, because it strikes me that in early issues of WSC there was a resounding critique of precisely the stadium experience you’re describing, and that in fact it was often a miserable experience. [6]

AL: No definitely, there were certainly lots of bad things about what you might call old football, pre-1990s football, and we certainly wouldn’t want those to come back. But I think in general there’s a feeling that there didn’t need to be quite so many changes, particularly the increase in admission prices, which had a negative effect on how people experience the games. A lot more people these days have to watch their team at home or in a bar because quite simply they can’t afford to buy season tickets, because clubs these days are very inclined to try and fill their stadia with season ticket holders, rather than paying for them the day of the match. There has also broadly speaking, been a decrease in fan violence, but that kind of stuff was going away anyway in the wake of Heysel. I mean it does still go on , but it’s not so much around the stadium and rather in these sort of pre-arranged bouts.  The other strange thing that has happened, and I think this just comes with the passage of time, it that there is a nostalgia for, and even a kind of industry surrounding football violence.

PG: That’s something that I was going to bring particularly things like Danny Dyer’s Real Football Factories or Nick Love movies.

AL: Well, I think that it is linked also to a kind of fascination here with books about gangsters and gang violence, and also memoirs of former members of the SAS. Stories about the Gulf War, or just basically stories about men fighting. Some of the football hooligan stuff, as we’ve said in WSC before, is really a kind of porn. Rather than people having sex its people fighting.

PG: I guess in wanting to bring that up I was thinking about something like Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs, which came out in 1990 or 91, so right after the Hillsborough disaster. The book is on the one hand certainly a cut above a Milo Press history of some grade z football firm and its hyperbolic exploits, but on the other hand it  really participated in a dominant media discourse that equated football and football fans with football violence, a position that didn’t need any more publicity at that time. I’m curious to know if at the time you had any thoughts that book or its thesis in relationship to the attempts on your part of kind of reorient the perspective?

AL: You know I have to say I never read it. But it did seem to me that the book was kind of like an anthropologist going in to observe some strange alien tribe, and coming back to report to his London club in the 19th century, like some sort of geographical society. There is a type of cultural commentary that’s popular here on what you might want to call low-life activity, but its not something the reader is actually participating in, they’re reading about it from some distance and finding it exciting. The thing with that book is that it was wallowing in that to some degree. The other uncomfortable factor in football violence in general though, is that, and newspapers recognize this, when newspapers claim to be outraged by supporters fighting, they know very well that people enjoy reading that and they find it exciting. No one will admit it obviously, but until people are no longer turned on by that stuff there will continue to be an industry for those books, and those films.

PG: In terms of writing about football you have always championed, and for a long time listed, other football zines. There was a kind of “casual” fanzine of note from Liverpool called The End, was there a relationship between The End and WSC?

AL: No, but I know that one of the guys from The End recently said something to the effect that he thought The End subsequently had an effect on Football zines, but if that’s the case it certainly had no direct influence on WSC. Their thing was more about casual culture, which was in some ways related to hooligan stuff, it had a lot to do with music and clothes as well.

PG: But to the extent that articles might have occasionally been named after a Fall song title, you guys never directly wrote about cultural aspects of football such as fashion?

AL: No, not at all. Personally I was never really interested in being involved in any kind of youth group, even when I was interested in music, I never really understood the casual thing. Again, its kind of about people enjoying fighting, there was certainly a strong element of that in The End. The slight difference maybe with The End was that it wasn’t a pro-England hooligan thing, it didn’t have a right-wing outlook, which perhaps it would have had if it had been somewhere else in the country, maybe in London. From that point of view it had a bit of a distance from that kind of England hooliganism. There has been the occasional interesting article about that sort of stuff, but really its just descriptions of what people were wearing when they ran up against someone else, pretty tedious really.

PG: I read somewhere that WSC has some sort of relationship with the French football magazine SO FOOT.

AL: Only that we exchange magazines. They reprinted some of our stuff, I don’t believe we’ve ever actually reprinted any of their articles. There are a couple other magazines in Europe that are similar to ours, there’s one in Germany called 11 Freunde. But we don’t have a commercial relationship with them, they’re done by a publishing company that does a design magazine, so I imagine that they are a bit glossier than us.

PG: In terms of zines, something that I find really exciting today is the emergence of these online football forums that have say a blog, a discussion forum, an amateur news feed and then the kicker really being the ability to share match highlights, if not entire matches, football documentaries, PDFs of books or other zines, so its almost a complete media outlet and entirely fan based. But as print media it must be difficult to keep up with this.

AL: We have been trying to figure out ways over the last few years to develop our online site. We have some daily content on the site, we have a newsletter and we also have an archive, and we are gradually putting our back issues up online as well. So while we’re keeping on with the print format we are conscious that we need to put a bit more into that side of things. While its true that there is a lot of football content online, whether blogs or writing on football culture, much of it just isn’t very good. Talk of citizen journalism is all great, but anybody can write anything, and usually when you have something in print, it has been checked and at least gone through to some degree. So I think that there will always be a place for print media, but I think here newspapers and magazines are trying to build up their online presence. We are conscious also that over the years our readership has gotten slightly older, and that we need to try and appeal to younger people that have gotten into football in the last ten years or so, and that we need to expand our online presence to do that. But we’re not going to consciously pander to a younger audience, we feel that they will come to us. In general when people feel pissed off about something that’s happening in football its probably quite good for us. Its not  so good if everyone’s happy, we want people to be kind of disaffected.

[1] The Heysel Stadium disaster occurred in 1985 during a European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus. 39 fans died when a wall collapsed before the game started. The disaster was largely blamed on supporter aggression, but subsequent investigation proved that much of it was up to long overdue stadium repairs and poor security decisions. One of the most controversial aspects of the disaster was the fact that the match took place as scheduled, and certain players were singled out for celebrating at the end of the match. One of the results of this event was that British clubs were banned from playing in Europe. For more info see Chris Rowland’s From Where I was Standing: A Liverpool Supporter’s View of the Heysel Stadium Tragedy (GPRF Publishing 2009) and the special edition of Soccer and Society on soccer and disasters.

[2] Again involving Liverpool FC, the Hillsbourough Stadium disaster saw the deaths of 96 Liverpool supporters making it the deadliest stadium incident in English history. And again, while supporters were blamed in the media the investigation afterwards again pointed towards poor security efforts and stadium organization.

[3] John Peel was a British DJ who championed underground, alternative bands and who was well known for his “Peel Sessions,” in which bands would come in and do live recordings at the BBC studios.

[4] Foul was an independent football paper that ran from 1972 to 1976. In 1987 Mike Ticher of WSC edited a collection of Foul articles that was published by Simon and Schuster. See Foul: Best of Football’s Alternative Paper 1972-1976. Simon & Schuster Ltd. 1987

[5] The sportswriter was Michael Langley of the Sunday People.

[6] In issue 35 Harry Pearson wrote a minor treatise on how to have the stadium experience at home in his article Match of Dismay. He suggests, for instance, that you tape a length of railing across your TV screen or watching the match from inside a rabbit hutch. He also suggests that if your team is playing you should ask your partner to shout out “Here’s a goal!” every time the opposition gets the ball.

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