It can be hard to remember that football fans used to be all but invisible. The vast crowds have been a feature of the game for over a century, but for most of that time they were just the backdrop to the game, albeit one that helped place the sport in its place in the national psyche. In the 1970s and 80s things began to change, with fans beginning to find a voice amidst the sound of the crowd. Fanzine culture and independent supporters groups established a tiny outpost that tried to show that football fans were diverse and intelligent individuals, challenging the image of “mindless hooligans” that, along with lousy British Rail sandwiches and lazy trade unionists, informed the popular narrative of the age. Then Gazza cried and Nick Hornby wrote Fever Pitch and suddenly everyone was a football fan. It was something you could admit in polite conversation. And maybe that’s where it started to go a bit wrong.
As a product of the fanzine culture I feel a bit dirty even making the suggestion that perhaps we hear too much of the fans these days. I still argue passionately that Hillsborough would not have happened if fans had been recognised as the ordinary human beings they were, but I wonder if some perspective has been lost. Fans dish out all manner of abuse, but squeal with outrage if the players stick it back to them. Radio phone-ins are full of people with nothing to say taking a long time to say it. We’ve moved from self-deprecation (Danny Baker-era 606) to self-importance (David Mellor-era 606 on). In Issue Six of football quarterly The Blizzard, Jonathan Wilson wrote that the assertion that “there’s nobody more important than the fans” was “one of those truths that is held to be self-evident, but it isn’t true, not really, neither in theory nor in practice. It’s important always to remember that crowds are secondary. The game itself must come first.” These days, the assertion that there’s nobody more important than the fans is a falsehood peddled by football’s marketeers. They don’t believe a single word of it, and nor do most of us. But it’s a necessary conceit in the era of the commodification of fandom. Stand by your brand, and all that.
But while fans are not as important as many like to think, they are undeniably part of the fabric of the game. I found out just how much while writing a new official history of Tottenham Hotspur in European competition, The Glory Glory Nights, alongside co-author Adam Powley and designer Doug Cheeseman. The story of Spurs and Europe is one of football’s great romances, and the tradition of glory glory nights at White Hart Lane is something that was sparked by a group of fans. When Bill Nicholson’s Spurs went into the European Cup in September 1961, they did so as standard bearers of the English game.
There was enormous excitement that the side that had become the first to win the domestic Double in modern times was going up against the best mainland Europe had to offer. Only six years before, English league champions Chelsea had been prevented from entering the European Cup by a Football League hierarchy that was affronted by the very notion that an English side should need to prove itself against Johnny Foreigner and Manchester United’s Mat Busby took his side into Europe in the face of opposition from the football authorities two years later. Like Busby, Spurs manager Bill Nicholson was a visionary who knew the future was in international club competition. So Tottenham Hotspur’s European cup campaign was daring and new and exciting in an age whose spirit was defined by the fascination with achieving more and better.
Spurs’ first opponents were the Polish side Gornik Zabrze and, as is so often the case in sport, expectation did not match reality. The Poles won 4-2, and the tough tackling of the visitors prompted the Polish press to observe that Spurs “were no angels”. This incensed a group of Spurs fans, Peter Kirby, Dave Casey and Mike Curly. For the return leg in north London, they dressed as angels, replete in sandals, false beards and white sheets, and paraded around the touchline carrying placards bearing slogans such as ‘Rejoice! This is the night of vengeance’ and ‘Glory be to shining White Hart Lane’. On a tumultuous night, the crowd bought into the humour, striking up a chorus of the old hymn Glory Glory Hallelujah. And so one of the most famous traditions in football was born. Spurs won 8-1 that night and, over half a century later, ‘Glory glory hallelujah, and the Spurs go marching on’ is still belted out from the stands.
The campaign also saw another group of fans make their mark, and in so doing change the face of football support forever. Aubrey Morris was a Spurs fan who, in 1961, became the first person to fly football fans to a match when he took a planeload of Spurs fans to Sunderland on a Viscount jet for an FA Cup tie. Morris was an extraordinary character. Born into a Jewish family of bakers in Bethnal Green, he’d fought the Blackshirts on Cable Street, organised support for Republican Spain and been evacuated from Dunkirk. After the war, he became a licenced cab driver. Using his contacts from his war years and the Communist Party, of which he was a member, he began to organise trips abroad for taxi drivers and their families. Tottenham Hotspur’s foray into Europe gave him the chance to take the fans along too at a time when the official supporters club did not want to take on the responsibility.
Operating from an office in Billingsgate, Morris’s firm, Riviera Holidays, regularly took large numbers of fans to watch their team play all over Europe. It was groundbreaking stuff and Riviera’s activities laid the groundwork for Morris to pioneer the concept of the package holiday. In 1963, Riviera took 2,500 of the 4,000 fans who went to Rotterdam to watch Spurs become the first British side to win a European trophy, mobilising an astonishing 33 aircraft and 60 coaches. When I interviewed Morris shortly before he died in 2008, he spoke warmly of the times when he, like many of those who travelled, were encountering new experiences. In Lisbon in 1962 for the European Cup semi-final he recalled “you could sit down to eat at 10 or 11 in the evening and I remember it was the first time I could choose live fish, including lobster, from a tank in the middle of the room”.
Riviera went on to organise the England travel club, Morris striking up a friendship with Bobby Moore in the process. In 1965, Riviera was bought out by Thomson Holidays and Morris – still in the CP – became managing director. He’s still recognised as a pioneer of the charter holiday business and it all began from what Geoffrey Goodman described in Morris’s obituary as “the brilliant idea to pioneer a cultural revolution in the old-style world of football”. Morris, who continued to debate politics fiercely in the monthly meetings of his Anjou Lunch Club at London’s Gay Hussar restaurant until his late 80s, put it more simply at the time, saying: “All those fans travelling abroad. Ordinary working people. Think what this can do for the future. Just imagine.”
That European trophy win in 1963 also got the Tottenham angels into a spot of bother, in a row which has some parallels with current controversies over what people read in to the crowd’s expressions of support. The angels turned out on the victory parade down Tottenham High Street, with new placards urging the assembled throng to ‘Praise them for they are glorious’ and declaring ‘Hallowed be thy names’. The Reverend Clifford Hill of High Cross Congregational Church declared their activities “an outrage to Christians”, going on, “The idolisation of a football team by taking quotations from the Bible is wrong’. He wanted the Home Secretary to use the blasphemy laws, but the fans decided on a dignified retreat. “It’s back to civvies for us,” said Kirby. “We have apologised to people who feel offended. We have been appearing for two seasons and against the few who object there are thousands who have welcomed our little performances without taking them in a way in which they were never intended.”
Every club will have stories like these. The passion and attachment of fans to their team was not created as something to be sold or traded on, it grew organically and was valued because it came from all of us, from a thousand and one accumulated experiences that could not be set up and were probably not made sense of at the time. It’s a long way from the self-regarding, commodified notion of fandom we’re peddled these days, and it’s valued because – in the truest sense of the phrase – fans really do know their place.