Asia Institute, The University of Melbourne
Studies of football fandom have often privileged the position of ultras and activist fans. These fans are vehement and violent in the politics and actions in and out of the stadium. Their agency is evident through the way in which they create the cultures of the club’s identity and shape their own trajectories, interactions and life courses. A persistent theme throughout ultra (football) fandom is the resistance towards ‘modern football’. That is, the contemporary form of the game is against its original spirit. ‘Against modern football’ is a catchcry of ultras from Manchester to Istanbul to Jakarta to Melbourne. Oliver Brooks in Football, Fandom and Consumption (2019) takes umbrage with this glorification of ultras, hard core and self-proclaimed ‘real’ or ‘true’ fans, and instead bases his research and arguments around fans from some English clubs which are often the target of the ultras’ vitriol.
A key starting point for Brooks is that football has always had a broad demographic and has developed with the investment of a wide range of stakeholders. The working class can’t claim ownership of the game or its identity. ‘Richard’, who Brooks relies on for his representation of a disgruntled ‘traditional’ fan, “creates opposition between consumer fans and traditional fans [which] emphasises the centrality of both capitalist and traditional discourse to contemporary football culture […] indicating that he has an understanding of the cultural developments that have happened within the game [while privileging] the aura that continues to be associated with traditional football culture and the identity of the traditional fan” (p. 3). Richard dismisses Brooks’ research being based solely around engagements with fans who go to games: “real fans don’t go to matches any more” (p. 2). Brooks seeks to critically position the discourse on traditional fandom through recognising the agency of ‘consumer’ fans, rather than positioning them as a kind of ‘other’ to be feared (p. 7). He takes Richard up on his assertion and uses the pub as a his site of ethnography in his final chapter (pp. 122-148).
Brooks’ book is structured around three clubs, each representative of a different trend in modern, consumerist football culture. Norwich City FC is chosen as being representative of a ‘family club’, Milton Keynes Dons FC as a ‘community building club’, and for it being an example of a ‘franchise club’ (so common to the US), and Chelsea FC for its positioning as ‘an entertainment club’. These are tendencies or traits which are common throughout professional clubs, but Brooks is positioning these clubs as being particularly emblematic of such tendencies. Through attending a Norwich City v West Ham game, Brooks outlines the tensions which frame Norwich as a family club and thus ‘soft’ and West Ham as being an authentic and real football club by virtue of its traditional identity which is wrapped up in its rough and macho image. Brooks argues that fandom needs to be analysed with ‘a consumer oriented cultural studies approach’. Both the family-oriented fans and the Snake Pit fans ‘engage in similar processes of identity formation in which they substitute their identity by negotiating the hegemonic discourses surrounding the culture, capitalism and tradition’ (pp. 68-69).
Richard dismisses Brooks’ research being based solely around engagements with fans who go to games: “real fans don’t go to matches any more”.
The contestation of fandom and football’s tension between capitalism and traditionalism is played out in a different way in the chapter on MK Dons. Brooks draws on the narratives of the MK Dons supporters as a means to elucidate how they negotiate their identities as consumers (‘not real fans’) and as supporters of a club which is condescended to by traditional football fans. Brooks’ interviews reveal that MK Dons engage critically with their own position as consumers, while also recognising the fostering of a community of fans of the club, with its particular embracing of women and families. MK Dons fans appropriate the chants of both the old-Wimbledon as well as Millwall in acts of ‘retaliation’ against a discourse on fandom which rejects their legitimacy. The song ‘No one likes us and we don’t care’, for Brooks, is used ‘as a tool of communal resistance [through which] fans actively position themselves both positively and negatively as consumers [to] emphasise their incongruity as fans of a franchise football club’ (p. 93).
Chelsea Football Club is one of the clubs in the Premier League which has undergone significant transformation over the better part of the last two decades. Roman Abromovich’s ownership has seen the club become a ‘team for winners’, and a ‘tourist attraction’ for visitors to London. The change in the club’s identity has seen its ‘traditional’ fans priced out of attending games. Brooks uses the idea of ‘cheering for self’ (Vass 2003) to articulate how Chelsea fans ‘financially and emotionally invest in their team’ to experience reflected glory (p. 97). The regular cycle of sacking and appointment of coaches throughout the Abramovich era is problematic for Chelsea fans who seek to identify with the club’s position as ‘winners’ as well as with something that is consistent with its long-term identity. Di Matteo’s appointment is welcomed, while Benitez’s appointment is regretted for his affiliation with Liverpool and his condemnation of the club (p. 117).
Brooks’ volume is a welcome addition to studies on football fandom. It presents a clear argument regarding so-called consumerist or non-traditional fans. The case studies are neatly chosen and provide a compact articulation of the state of play in the contemporary sporting culture of the UK. Brooks writes in an easy and readable style and there is a persistent sense that he enjoyed his research and writing, which is light on for jargon. The inverted commas around his fan informants are a little gratuitous: readers no doubt well understand that the names are pseudonyms. The generous quotations from the laidback footy conversations provide gentle evidence for his arguments about fan discourse. Brooks’ conclusion, in part, states that ‘consumer fans’ are not ‘trapped within discourses of representation [but are able to] engage in processes of complex discursive negotiation [and construct] their identities at the juncture of the hegemonic discourses that surround the culture, consumerism and tradition [and] also to their individual understanding of how they are expected to enact fandom” (p. 151). The aura of football clubs which Brooks seeks to shatter (p. 153), is being thoroughly shattered by the clubs themselves. Relatively new leagues such as the A-League in Australia are also a part of this shattering process.
Copyright © Andy Fuller 2019