Fever Pitch and the rise of middle-class football

The publication of Nick Hornby's football memoir Fever Pitch 20 years ago is often seen as the point when middle-class interest in football began. How far has the game changed since then?

There is a school of thought that argues that watching top-flight football these days is a middle-class pastime, available only to those who can pay in advance for expensive season tickets.

For those who support that argument, one man's name often appears on the list of reasons the game has moved beyond its traditional working-class roots.

That man is Nick Hornby.

Twenty years ago, Hornby's book Fever Pitch was published to general acclaim.

It is often cited as the first intelligent football book to have mass appeal, telling of one man's lifelong obsession with Arsenal.

Fever Pitch was translated into 26 languages, sold millions of copies and was made into a major film. It is also widely viewed as having broadened the appeal of the game to the middle classes.

The reality is a "bit more complicated", says Hornby. "My feeling is football changed in the 1960s, not when Fever Pitch was published - when England won the World Cup and George Best was like a pop star."

He puts interest in the book down to youngsters from this time growing up, settling into middle-class jobs while still holding on to their football allegiances.

"Nobody had ever thought to ask them about it before," he says.

Former Arsenal player Liam Brady agrees with Hornby's view that the middle classes have been going to watch top-flight football for many years. But he says that they may have been more "covert" about their interest.

"I don't believe that's true that Nick Hornby brought football to the middle classes or the broadsheets, but [he] did give them an understanding of the obsession," says Brady, who played for Arsenal until 1980.

"The people who had the best seats at Highbury when I played there were not working-class people," he continues.

Since Fever Pitch was published, the Highbury terraces that Hornby once stood on are now part of a development of luxury flats.

And for many those changes were long overdue.

Image caption The cheapest adult season ticket at Arsenal now costs £951, the most expensive £1,944.

"The 1980s were defined by poor stadiums, hooliganism and the authorities' football angst - Margaret Thatcher had a low opinion of the game and was considering introducing ID cards for all football supporters," says Phil Dorward of the Premier League.

Seminal moments

John Williams, football expert at Leicester University, agrees.

"The game seemed to stumble from crisis to crisis. There was an inverted snobbery around the sport which challenged 'outsiders' to get involved and supporters had few mechanisms to get their voice heard," he says.

The Hillsborough disaster of 1989 and the Taylor Report which followed were seminal moments, according to Williams.

"Taylor ushered in seating and provoked the first major stadium modernisation programme in 30 years. The World Cup finals of 1990 and Gazza's tears were part of a wider cultural shift, eroding the inward tendencies in the English game.

"The other key change was the formation of the Premier League in 1992, marketing the elite cubs as a different, exclusive product.

"Now publicly claiming to be a middle-class football fan was no longer a social faux pas. New, more affluent older supporters were drawn in," says Williams.

The Premier League's Dorward says it is impossible to compare the socio-economic make-up of 90s football crowds with today's since the data doesn't exist.

"In the mid-80s we can say the crowd was white and male and that's about it," he says.

But far from shifting towards being a more middle-class game, Dorward believes that the changes in the match-day experience now means crowds are more diverse than ever.

"Football hasn't gentrified," says Dorward, "but the country has changed and football reflects that.

"We now have women making up 23% of crowds, 11% from black and minority ethnic groups and 13% of Premier League season ticket holders were under 16 last season."

The Premier League's annual survey of 45,000 fans suggests that those attending matches are not employed in elite occupations, with 10% working in manufacturing, 8% in financial services, 8% in construction and 8% in education.

"Football has become more accepting of all sectors of society," says Dorward.

Image caption Did middle-class interest in football coincide with England's World Cup triumph of 1966?

But Williams feels something has been lost with the changes.

"Lots of traditional working-class fans have stopped attending. The market is said to decide ticket prices, but it also excludes many poorer fans."

But Dorward disputes the view that many fans are now priced out.

"Lots of fans buy their tickets on good deals, not the £50 tickets you read about. Wigan Athletic recently had two tickets for £25, the last three home matches at Blackburn last season were £20 together.

"The clubs are alive to the needs of their fans, but many fans are prepared to pay more than 20 years ago for a better, safer experience.

"The £100 Arsenal tickets you read about are the exception," says Dorward.

Dividing line

For Hornby, it was the cheap, available tickets that helped create and feed his addiction. But he questions whether this is still possible.

"The thing about the really cheap prices, being able to decide on the day whether you went or not, is that it creates an addiction," he says.

"We made up our mind whether to go on Saturday lunchtime. You can't do that any more. Most kids see live football, like theatre, as a treat three or four times a year.

"Whether in 20 years' time those kids will still want to go, feels as though it will be different."

Hornby now sees the publication of Fever Pitch as a dividing line between the old game and the global product of today.

"I think more has changed in the 20 years since I wrote the book than happened in 100 years of professional football before that. I couldn't have guessed the profundity of those changes."

Fever Pitched: Twenty Years Onis on BBC Radio 4 at 16:00 GMT on Monday 5 March or listen again on iPlayer (UK only) using the above link.