Jim Keoghan is the author of Punk Football: the rise of fan ownership in English football, which is published by Pitch Publishing. He writes of “a tale that might not have the glitz or the glamour of the Premier League, but the rise of supporter power and that change in what it now means to be a ‘fan’ is still a story that needed to be told.”
Everyone knows that football in this country, just like anywhere else in the world, can rouse strong passions and a fierce sense of loyalty. But for much of football’s history in England, this love never extended to supporters wanting to become involved in the running of the clubs they followed. Unlike in other parts of the world, such as Spain and Germany, the average fan in this country was happy to see him or herself as little more than a customer, albeit one whose loyalty verged on the pathological.
Whereas our continental cousins immersed themselves in their clubs by becoming stakeholders, members with a say in how matters were run, over here supporters were content to pay their money at the gate, watch the game and go home, without any thought to getting involved behind the scenes. Punters might have ‘lived and died’ for their team and chipped in money now and then to get the club through hard times but that didn’t mean they ever wanted to run it.
Over the past few decades though, things have begun to change. No longer content to merely be enthusiastic customers, some football supporters in England have started to view their relationship with the club differently. Although the initial stirrings of change were first felt back in the late 1980s, it was from 1992, when a handful of fans of Northampton Town bandied together to form England’s first football supporters’ trust that the re-defining of what it means to be a ‘fan’ in this country began in earnest.
The aim of those pioneering fans was simple, to unite the collective strength of the supporters to raise as much money as they could to help the club out financially. Fans across the country had been doing this off-and-on for decades but this time it was different. This time the supporters wanted something in return. This time they wanted a share in the club. That they got one proved that together supporters could be something more than customers. It was a lesson that more and more fans began to heed and over the decades that followed the supporters’ trust movement blossomed.
It is a movement that’s adopted the catchy moniker ‘punk football’. But its adherents don’t have mohicans, lacerate their clobber with safety pins or gob on people. And you won’t see the fans of AFC Wimbledon, FC United of Manchester or Exeter City hanging around the King’s Road attempting to subvert the system by slightly unsettling passers-by. In fact, punk football only shares one thing in common with the music scene from which it derives its name; and that’s the embracing of the ‘do it yourself’ aesthetic.
Above all else, beyond the fashion, the songs and the effin ‘n’ jeffin on live TV, what set punk apart from the rest of the music world (a quality that would inspire musicians for years to come) was the scene’s DIY approach. Eschewing the established music industry system, punk bands produced their own albums, distributed and promoted their works independently and put out their own merchandise.
And it’s this DIY ethos that lies at the heart of punk football; ordinary fans eschewing the established system and deciding that there is nothing stopping them from getting together to run the clubs they support or to establish new clubs of their own. Over the past few decades, right across football, from AFC Liverpool in the North West Counties Football League to Swansea City in the Premier League, ever increasing numbers of fans have been bandying together to do things themselves. And through this growth, punk football has redefined what it now means to be a supporter. No longer is fandom confined to the terraces. In English football today passion and loyalty can take supporters all the way to the boardroom.
Looking back it’s easy to see 1992 as a watershed moment in the domestic game. It was the year when the Premier League first kicked off. Since then the story of what’s happened at the top has been told again and again, to the point where the tale of the Premier League’s impact has woven itself seamlessly into the tapestry of the game’s history. But the revolution that started at Northampton Town has often been overlooked.
It’s an oversight that inspired me to write a book on this change, a book that tells the story of supporter activism, from its humble beginnings in the 1980s to the point today where fans have become a recognised group within the game capable of running and owning clubs.