Watford FC, Its Fan Culture And The Sense Of Belonging
(Geography Degree Research Thesis)
By Jamie Parkins ( firstname.lastname@example.org )
'You are my Watford, my only Watford,
You make me happy when skies are grey.
You'll never know just how much I love you,
Until you take my Watford away.'
Introduction To Thesis
In a recent telepole survey, it was discovered that 77% of callers said that they could not live without football (Teletext, 1998). To those that regard it as 'only a game' that may seem a staggeringly high amount, but to the many that got caught up in the national euphoria of 'Euro 96', it is of little surprise.
Since then there has been renewed interest in the role of the fan, as both a supporter and a spokesman at club level, and it is this form of fandom and the sense of belonging that it generates, which I am keen to explore. The ways in which one can show their support has changed in a variety of ways, and perhaps central to this is the manner in which the club recognises these new forms of expression, or fandom as I will term it.
Football teams are often reinterpreted as symbols for a town. They are seen to represent and hence promote the town. Therefore the key aim is to examine and identify the various forms of modern day fandom expressed by supporters, and to look at how this helps to install a sense of belonging to that particular team. The focus is on a local, community level because I want to explore the way in which new fans establish a sense of belonging and hence choose the team they do. In order to do this one must ask a number of questions that underpin the essence of being a fan in the 1990s. How does one become a fan and then how do we go about demonstrating our support? Does the sense of belonging that I have alluded to actually exist and if so, to what degree does it shape our cultural understanding of what the club represents?
The inspiration behind this thesis is on show for all in the following extract taken from Brimson and Brimson's breathtaking account of football hooliganism. It's poignancy identifies for me the very essence of what it is I am trying to tap into; primarily, that sense of collectiveness and belonging as induced by what constitutes the varying cultures of the modern day fan.
"It mattered not that we were schoolboys, mechanics, businessmen, shopkeepers, rich or poor, because for those ninety minutes we were all football supporters and that was all we were." (Brimson & Brimson, 1996, p.8).
Brief History Of Watford FC
Formed in 1898, the first indication of a form fan movement was when £250 was raised in order to "help establish the club in the top flight of the Southern League," (Phillips, 1991, p.24).
In 1920 the Football League was formed and Watford FC entered in to its structure in what was then the Southern League Division Three. The club continued to exist albeit with little on the pitch success until 1977 when firstly Sir Elton John became club chairman and then installed Graham Taylor as their new manager, a move that was regarded by many as the turning point in the team's history. Keen to build a club, not just a team, "Graham Taylor walked into Vicarage Road and promptly spoke of community spirit and "all pulling together", with fans committing themselves to the cause." (Phillips, 1991, p.193).
What followed was, in the eyes of many, a fairytale story of success. Pronounced the Messiah by many, Taylor took the team into Division One for the first time in the club's history. An F.A. Cup Final appearance followed in 1984, as did qualification for European competition; success that both the club and fans were not accustomed to. Attendance's rose to just under 20,000 for home games and soon Watford FC became labelled the "Family Club" as it pioneered the interaction of club and community at a time when fan-club relations were at an all time low in the aftermath of growing spectator hooliganism.
Today Watford FC are challenging for promotion in what is now the Second Division of the Nationwide League. Graham Taylor remains the manager after brief spells with Aston Villa, Wolves and England; attendance's are up and many would say that the current atmosphere resembles a throw back to the 'good old days' of the early 1980s.
Introduction To Background Reading
In order to fully understand the dynamics involved with belonging and the modes of fandom that it is encapsulated within, it is firstly important to situate my findings academically so as to support, query or confirm my conclusions. What follows is a scrutiny of what I consider the central themes connected to this sense of belonging.
The decline of hooliganism in the 1990s has seen a refocusing of football literature and hence new channels of academic thought and investigation within the discourse have emerged. The work of Williams, Dunning and Murphy (1988) is of particular significance due to their focus upon Watford FC, labelling it "the friendly club;" an endorsement which I hope to show still prevails. In discussion of the club's community policies, the paper also passes comment on the fan-club relationship; a bond that I will show is built on both physical and spatial platforms. They talk of Watford FC "establishing the sort of brand loyalty among the club's followers," that in turn sustains the clubs development of off the pitch activities (Williams, Dunning & Murphy, 1988, p.5).
Brothers Doug and Eddie Brimson are two Watford fans who have written a number of books focusing on hooligan activities of the late 1970s and 1980s. In 'Everywhere We Go' (1996) they include accounts from different fans from all over the country, regardless of the team they support, and although keen to avoid the culture surrounding hooliganism, their writings are particularly poignant when one considers the 'family' and 'friendly' themes that Watford FC evoke in football circles. Furthermore the insight into the culture behind their fandom serves as a useful analytical piece when taking into account the magnitude and expressionism in their support. "Since I was eleven," one of them writes, "my father and uncle had taken me on occasions to watch Watford, our local team, and I loved it…" (Brimson & Brimson, 1996, p.17).
In conjunction with findings by the popular football magazine 'When Saturday Comes' (WSC), papers such as Curren and Redhead (1991 & 1996) and Barber (1996) highlight the motivating forces behind fan allegiance. By far the strongest and most significant pull factors are the traditional elements of locality, pride and the influence of family and peers. Redmond and Curren (1996, p.1) write, "While a clubs support is no longer simply the traditional confined close area, the traditional pull of local pride is a strong motivatory factor in determining allegiance."
Understanding the concept of community allows us to link together the underlying themes surrounding modern day fandom. It's three aspects, as pointed out by Eyles (1985), allows one to identify the meaning behind the modes of support commonly expressed by tying them to a socially constructed space. The first of these, place, sees community in its purest and rawest form. The very geographic boundaries that define Watford from it's neighbouring towns and cities gives the town a shape and a sense of community that one can visualise and hence claim to be a part of. The writings of Massey (1992), Star (1995) and Shields (1996) will later show that in a time of increasing time-space compression the very idea of boundaries and limitations to our space are becoming ever challenged creating new networks of social and cultural interaction. The second of Eyles' aspects is institution. Here we see the author place value on a local resource around which themes central to community such as culture, understanding and of course belonging can be seen to interact. Secondly it can also be seen as a device for the promotion or protection of sectorial interests. Lastly Eyles talks of the sense of belonging which community constructs through the expression of collective sentiment. Although community can be alienating, it is mainly accommodating as Sussman testifies, "A community is said to exist when interaction between individuals has the purpose of meeting individual needs and obtaining group goals." (In Eyles, 1985, p.60). In regard to a communal institution such as a football club, it is a great deal more than just four walls and a grass pitch, as I aim to demonstrate. Football fans are quick to recognise within their society the source of their identity and the variety of ways in which it manifests a sense of belonging.
In the past, community based football research has focused on the role between the club and other local agencies. Examining the role played by the Watford FC staff will provide me with an insight into the politics at hand, but as Williams, Dunning and Murphy (1986) conclude, there remains on the club's part a need for a more pronounced community emphasis. Clubs are not only authentic symbolic representations of the local community, but must be utilised to promote the important underlying strands that constitute a strong and healthy community. Williams, Dunning and Murphy (1988) and Wheeler and Smith (1997) highlight the marvellous extent to which Watford FC have not only initiated several schemes that interact the fan and the community.
Belonging And Identity
Within the confines of a community, whether it be spatially marked or not, lies the common human desire for attachment. Within a group, and in this case the fan base of a particular football club, the phenomenon that is a shared identity can be seen as, Eyles (1985) argues, a social product that results in shared values and aspirations. Weil suggests furthermore that "to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul." (In Eyles, 1985, p. 72).
By bringing together the works of academics and renowned football writers, I hope to encapsulate the themes of belonging that the modern modes of fandom induce. This belonging of course does not always come naturally although it is formulated in a number of ways. Hall (1990) says that the main ingredient to belonging is the sharing of common experiences and the understanding in and generating of shared cultural codes. These codes, that in the case of football make up much of what many call the culture of the terrace, define our modes of behaviour and sense of belonging by telling us in both direct and subtle ways how certain things are and why they are so. In respect to the game of football Hall shows that this shared cultural identity shows "a sort of collective 'one true self', hiding inside the many other…artificially imposed selves, which people with a shared history hold in common." (Hall, 1990, p.223). Likewise the brothers Brimson take us into the close-knit world of the common football fan where colours, knowledge and strength of support define one's position within the immediate community (1996). One of the brothers alludes to this discovery of community and the belonging it rewards when recalling his first visit to Vicarage Road. "After about six or seven matches," he writes, "I started to recognise some of the faces on the way to the game." (Brimson & Brimson, 1996, p.18). From here I shall illustrate how one recognises the essential norms that constitute belonging and how today these sentiments are reinforced and reinforced constantly in a variety of alternative and rapidly expanding ways.
If culture is to be seen as a social attribute then it's also worth looking at its organisational structure with regard to the formulation of ideas and meanings. Canter et al (1989) were among the first set of academics to explore the environmental psychology of football grounds. Suggesting a two tier structure consisting of the formal management and informal supporters, they identify four levels of organisational culture which can be described as "a set of common understandings for organising actions and language and other symbolic vehicles for expressing common understanding," (Canter et al, 1989, p.80). These four levels are namely, as outlined by Lundberg, artefacts, perspectives, values and assumptions (in Canter et al, 1989). The significance of these will be tested when I look at the creation of identities and that sense of belonging that football fandom can produce.
Not only does culture serve to interpret the world around us, so that we can draw some form of meaning and understanding from it, but as Hall claims, the very maps of meaning that culture draws lets us know 'who' and 'what' we are (in Massey & Jess, 1995). In respect to 'where' we are, he talks of symbols that landscape our identity, but it is interesting to see that in cyberspace this sense of where takes on new properties. These boundaries mark off those who belong and those who don't.
Both Kenyan and Loy (1969) and Hargreaves (in Hargreaves, 1982) believe that sport has been largely ignored as an integral component within the fabric of society. It's participant in or observation of, Kenyan and Loy (1969) argue, allows one a rare and unsolicited insight into the behaviour of man, and conversely the way in which society reacts in response to his actions. John Hargreaves (in Hargreaves, 1982) suggests that because of widespread academic ignorance of sport, we at times have missed a vital chance at visualising the manner in which sport, and in this case football, can help to establish and then shape separate identities, as well as encouraging the mediation of ideas. Furthermore he writes; "…sport is part of a common cultural tradition of collective experience and shared, easily understood meanings and values, internalised by way of unique ritual and dramatic qualities and powerful symbolic characteristics," (in Hargreaves, 1982, p.16). It is these values, rituals and symbols that I hope to prove are a primary factors in the moulding and development of support at Watford FC.
The 'information superhighway' suggest Nguyen and Alexander, allows the modern day, computer literate person to "flit about the universe" and so inevitably the common understanding of what constitutes our boundaries have changed (in Shields, 1996, p.117). The goalposts have changed you might say! The advent of computer-mediated communities (CMCs) over the Internet has led to the emergence of a new form of footballing debate and in turn expression. Massey (1992, p.7) has likened this to a "fragmentation of local cultures and a loss, in its deepest meaning, of a sense of place," yet she recognises that communities don't "necessarily have to be spatially concentrated." (1992, p.8).
Her papers act as a good base around which to situate the literary works of Jones (1995), Star (1995), Turkle (1995) and Shields (1996). These works are central to this thesis as a fundamental part of my research homes in on the growing use of CMCs as a medium through which fandom can be openly expressed, organised and spread. The culture of the net, or cyberspace as I will commonly refer to, is a new medium, rapidly becoming a substantial part of the lives of many. Baym (in Star, 1995) picks upon the notion of identity creation, but also adds to it the social issues of exclusion, marginalization and behaviour across cyberspace. These, as you will see, are important points to consider and it is hoped that I can relate these topics to the primary forms of community and social space that have been previously mentioned. The papers of Jones (1995) and Shields (1996) are of particular relevance when examining the emergence of community in cyberspace. Declaring that CMCs pose cultural implications "regardless of social and cultural boundaries," Shields (1996, p.1) alludes to my ambition to demonstrate that cyberspace is very much a free thinking phenomenon that with its apparent ease of entry, allows for the construction of new or alternative communities and cultures. I shall then turn to the work of Jones (1995) who examines the ways in which cyberspace fosters community groupings; firstly by breaking down socially constructed hierarchies and then establishing bonds through mutual understanding and the use of common behavioural characteristics.
Having touched upon the idea that culture indeed shapes the response that belonging evokes, I want to turn to it's more recent popular formats, namely the shifting cultural texts and relations that I best feel formulate the modern experience of fandom.
Central to this are the works of Rowe (1995) and Redhead (1997), writers who are keen to underline the link between popular culture and associated forms of football fandom. They include looking at the emergence of fanzines, "an informal sports publication inherited from the punk independent rock scene," and alternative forms of expression such as music, theatre and art (Rowe, 1995, p.145). I am therefore to investigate the way in which popular forms of culture "stresses the significance of symbolic expressiveness, the construction of identities, the production of texts and the principles of pleasurable and aesthetic discrimination." (Rowe, 1995, p.13).
With particular insight given to the democratic expressionism of football fanzines, I'll examine the ways in which cultural forms of representation motivate, inspire and give voice to a rapidly growing army of football followers. The work of Redhead (1997) represents an early recognition of the increasing connection between the fanzine buying fan on the terrace and the cyberspace aficionado who logs in to the computer in order to access some form of contact with the club. His ideas concerning the position of the fan is worth noting because he notes a demise of the "mainly male terrace soccer culture," in the explosive wake of the mainstream cultural media, allowing the post-fan to watch and support from the comfort of his armchair or desktop (Redhead, 1997 p.29). He goes on to tell us that "The male dominated 'passion of football'…is perhaps most clearly expressed by the multitude of soccer fanzines, a publishing explosion since the mid 1980s which in many ways is a low 'literaturisation' of soccer culture even extending into electronic publishing on the Internet." (Redhead, 1997, p.91). His work demonstrates how an increasingly wide circle of expression is being warmly accepted as acts institutions and artefacts that further project this sense of belonging.
'Elton John's Taylor made army'
What Are The Forces Behind Fandom?
Before focusing in on the forms of fandom commonly expressed nowadays, I am keen to explore the forces behind fandom and in particular what it is that constitutes 'becoming' a fan. There is no set rulebook that helpfully defines and measures the level and intensity of one's support. Therefore, I will consider the idea of support as an action that sees a fan realising a sense of belonging through the pursuits of loyalty, fantasy, enjoyment and identity.
The game of football has long been a game for the masses, a pursuit rooted in the working class system with the power to evoke varying forms of social and cultural stimulation. Yet how can we measure, indeed recognise, the role that football plays in the construction of specific cultural identities? Boyle argues that football clubs, as institutional pillars of a society, can provide "a focus around which specific identities are actively shaped," and whilst this thesis aims to explore the forms of this shaping process, for the moment it is interesting to note the ideas of identity and allegiance, (in Giulianotti & Williams, 1994, p.73).
50 % of fans replying to the 'WSC' questionnaire reported that they saw their first game with their father and a further 6.8 % said they went with an older, male relative (Redmond & Curren, 1996, p.1). These figures would suggest that initial support for a club such as Watford FC is primarily attributed to the overwhelming influence and guidance of close family quarters. Furthermore, parental and family influence was significant for 43 % of the fans surveyed, second to the significance of local pride which was recognised by 46 % of the respondents. The locality of a club inspires many to support that club and it would appear, as Curren and Redmond (1991, p.8) suggest, that "fans are attracted to clubs for more traditional reasons rather than the attempts by club marketing departments to recruit them."
By forming and announcing one's allegiance to a club in effect an identity is formulated by the spectator. Likened to a form of cultural configuration, Boyle (in Giulianotti & Williams, 1994, p. 76) suggests that this support can embody the local traditions of the area as well as socio-economic factors linked to person, place or time.
Tradition is of course a vital element when we consider culture as it demonstrates how the past has been formed and articulated. Boyle (in Giulianotti & Williams, 1994, p. 92) states that "culture issues of territory and collective identity are particularly important," because for football fans it cements the sense of belonging that tradition actively seeks to inspire. At club level the tradition builds and reinforces "a tribal library," from which fans can "put together aspects of their footballing identity." (In Giulianotti & Williams, 1994, p. 85). That said, it is very difficult to put ones finger on the reasons behind the appeal of football as Mr. Fincham told me on Radio 5;
"When you grow up supporting football, when you go week in week out and you stand on a cold terrace 300 miles from your home in the wind and rain on a Tuesday night; then you realise the love you feel for that club and you can never ever try and justify why you're there. You just can't do it!" (After Hours, 1998).
Introduction To Methodologies
It goes without saying that to fully investigate the sense of belonging between fan and club, my methodological approach in the collection and interpretation of information would require a number of different angles. A simple fan based survey, perhaps taken outside and inside the ground on matchdays, I felt was not the correct manner in which to go about unravelling the dynamics involved. I felt that a lack of funding and researchers would result in a poor level of responses on which I would be forced to substantiate my findings.
So alternatively I sought to tackle the issues at hand in a variety of ways. By tapping into the consciousness of belonging in an assortment of ways, I hoped to realise a widely encompassing set of findings around which I could confidently mould my own conclusions. The following is a chronological introduction to the research methodologies adopted, for the time being they serve as a simple interpretation behind the thinking and intent of my thesis.
'Open Day' Questionnaire
In order to gauge the state of the relationship between the club and the families that it professes to show a great concern for, I attended a 'Family Open Day' on the 2nd August 1997. These are carefully orchestrated affairs where the club unveils the current squad in front of a freely admitted audience of fans, before the new season begins. Although anyone is allowed to attend there is a definite onus on the creation of that family feel, as much of the publications advertising the event testify to.
With the permission of the club, I used this opportunity to handout some questionnaires to a randomly selected group of fans, both old and young, male and female. The response rate of about 70 %, although not enough around which to base any cogent argument, was more useful in that what arose were a number of themes and disscusional points that I could later use to establish a framework for my research.
At the open day I met Mr. Kirk Wheeler the "Football in the Community" officer at Watford FC. He agreed to an interview, would later take place on the 22nd August 1997 at the club's ground, Vicarage Road.
Once again, I used the interview as a chance to test a number of issues relating to the club's community based schemes as well as touching upon a host of other topics such as; the expected behaviour of fans, the importance of club identification and the marketing of club colours, and the extent to which Watford FC has become a symbol for the town.
Participant Observation On The Watford Mailing List
The Watford Mailing List (WML) is a computer-mediated communication (CMC) site that can be accessed via both the Internet and an e-mail system. I came across it whilst surfing on the net looking for Watford FC related sites back in June 1997 and promptly joined for free. This entailed me receiving approximately 2 e-mails a day, which consisted of the days 'mail' as sent in by the members of the list. As a subscriber I could read the various messages at my own leisure, yet because of my silence the list remained an excellent means of observing what I shall term a number of Watford FC devotees. Everyday fans from around the world discuss a host of topics; ranging from team selection and match reports to where some fans will adjourn for pre-match drinks, and so such an opinionated communicative forum was to provide a most influential source of material. Such was the significance of the WML and it's power to shape and influence the identity of many a fan, that it became the central focus for much of my research.
Watford Mailing List Questionnaire
After several months spent on the WML observing and noting the listees and their styles of entry, I felt confident enough to submit my very own discussional point. Choosing to talk about the recent performances of one of the list's favourite player, it was hoped that this would instigate and encourage widespread discussion. It worked to a degree and as a result I established some rapport with some of the mailers. Noting down the different e-mail addresses of all the members who wrote in over a period of about 6 months I then set about devising a questionnaire that I could pose to them. E-mailing each fan individually so as to appear direct yet friendly, I explained that I was a member of the WML and then I politely invited them to answer my questionnaire. All the answers required a choice of five responses, which meant I could model the results obtained. This method proved to be highly successful and buoyed by that success I got permission to post the same questionnaire on the WML in attempt to catch the eye of the few silent subscribers out there. In the end I collected responses from over an eighth of the list's total membership.
On the 15th March 1998 I appeared on the Radio 5 show 'After Hours' as a live phone-in guest. In the studio there were several prominent figures from the world of football fandom and research, including amongst them Mr. Fincham, a particularly 'vocal' member of the WML and a widely recognised and self professed Watford FC 'nut'. I asked Mr. Fincham and the members of the panel their views on the emergence of fan power and representation over cyberspace, with particular reference to the WML.
In this section I will examine three different aspects of fandom concerning Watford FC, that I feel best demonstrate how a notion of belonging can be created and fostered by those who follow in the fortunes of the club. Looking at the roles played by the club, fans and the local community I aim to highlight the manner in which the responsibility for creating this collective spirit, lies with a number of agencies and not merely with the club itself.
The Role Played By The Club.
Although every professional club in England now has a 'Football In The Community' (FITC) officer, it is generally agreed by many football academics that Watford FC pioneered such a scheme during the 1980s; a time when families were staying away from the game due to the heightened fear of hooliganism. Williams, Dunning and Murphy (1988, p. 17) pay tribute to this fact, stating that the club is "generally lauded for what is certainly a progressive approach to club-fan relations and for the good behaviour of the club's support." Meanwhile Graham Taylor proclaims that it is not "overstating the case to say that without Watford FC's efforts in the 1980s there would be no national 'Football In The Community' scheme." (In Wheeler & Smith, 1997, p.1). But what actually does the scheme involve and how has it helped to create this sense of belonging that I hope to show prevails?
In the widest sense of the term, the programme aims to bring football to the wider community and in particular to local organisations such as disability centres that could do with the additional help. Mr. Wheeler told me that at the heart of such projects was the aim to establish "helping the club to have positive links within the community locally," and that by expanding the schemes through local ventures, they hoped "to touch as many people as we can." Those touched in the last year alone include:
(Wheeler & Smith, 1997, p.10).
- 9,000 children coached in a combination of school visits and soccer courses.
- Visits to 40 local schools in the county by staff and players.
- 30,000 free match tickets offered to children attending courses.
- A girls 'only' course that gives "many young girls the chance to experience football as well as to raise their awareness of football opportunities available to them."
- Attendance at Watford Council's 'Racial Advisory Group' meetings in conjunction with the national 'Kick Racism Out Of Football' campaign.
- Free match tickets given to the local racial equality group in order to encourage the participation of those who might often feel excluded.
- Highly populated ethnic areas are targeted for specialist coaching sessions in order to bring football to new socially diverse groups.
Figures 1 and 2 show a phamplet distributed by the club, advertising their 'FITC' programmes and figures 3 and 4 highlight the lengths to which the club goes in establishing good community links.
The thinking behind such initiatives is implicitly simple. Their very success means that the club becomes widely recognised and as a result a form of association between club and community develops. This bond raises awareness of the club's position within the community, which in turn is hoped, initiates a snowballing affect as Mr.
Wheeler illustrated. He told me that hopefully "the children that come on the courses then come along to the game and take up that area of support and see Watford in a positive light." An institution, around which the themes of culture and belonging radiate, the role played by the staff mirrors much of the academic thought I concentrated upon earlier.
Eyles (1985) idea of centrality and interaction can be seen in the manner in which the club stands in the eyes of the many that I met during my research. Far from alienating people, the 'FITC' programme is actively encouraging the participation of all people, white or black, old and young, mobile or impaired. The realisation of group goals can be seen in the way in which schoolchildren and the disabled get to meet players, hone their footballing skills, attend open days at the club and participate in half-time shoot outs on the hallowed turf itself! Taking an element of Watford FC to those who might not normally seek out such interaction, sees the club rewarded with acknowledgement and support from the very people that it actively represents week in week out.
Encapsulating the idea of collective understanding, it is good to see that the club does not abuse its position for it's own gain. Instead the encouragement by staff for others to respect alternative communities and their cultures is crucial to the continued involvement of ethnic minorities, the reduction of the hooligan element and anti-social behaviour that would cast the people of the town in a negative light. Williams, Dunning and Murphy (1986, p.15) tell us that such a stance will establish the club as an authentic symbol which "is likely to be both desirable and beneficial from a local community and a societal point of view."
Curren and Redmond (1991, p.1) reminding us of "…the need for football to attract more children into participating and spectating," show how the club by their visual participation can install and evoke feelings of local pride. Not only does this increase the support and allegiance for the club itself, but also in establishing a strong communal bond, widespread belonging offers long term stability and hope for the community as well as the club. Mr. Wheeler in our interview likened this to a continuing extension of the past work done. Highlighting the scope of their work in a national perspective, he told me that "Watford is the 'likeable' club." He went on say that "…it does help if there is that familiarity," because as not only are good lines of communication between club and fans alike important, but they should be seen to be, as Graham Taylor explains, "…a natural function of a football club." (In Williams, Dunning & Murphy, 1988, p.9).
Siding with Hall's (1990) ideas of belonging through cultural identity and the sharing of common experiences, I therefore think the 'FITC' programme should be held up as a shining example of a how a plan can instigate such sentiments. A matter of 'becoming' as well as of 'being', Hall (1990, p.225) underlines how Watford FC have not only got the ball rolling so to speak, but instead of resting on their laurels, they have kept it going, fuelled by their ambition and commitment to see that the town and local communities are properly represented and encouraged. This can be done in a number of ways, as the 'FITC' schemes demonstrates, but there is also the process of cultural identity forming which Hall alludes to. Common cultural codes make up much of this process. While Vicarage Road stadium can be seen as a visual example of the clubs commitment to the town, as well as a space where fans can meet, interact and share in ideas, the presence of the players and staff in and around the community also serves to reconfirm this connection. Contact with the players, who in the eyes of many are akin to demi-gods, allows fans to 'touch' their team in ways perhaps they never thought they could. Graham Taylor made it known when he first came to the club that all players were expected to give over a set amount of time per week to 'community activities'. Not only did this serve to promote the club off the football pitch and help to establish strong local support, but secondly it also led to a closer communal feel amongst the club. Players are asked to live in the immediate area so as to ensure that they were seen in the community. Williams, Dunning and Murphy (1988, p.11) report that "The Watford approach produced a greater collective responsibility among players as well as a visible commitment to the town." One fan writing on the WML told me that he "remembers one day walking past the ground and Luther [a famous past player, now youth coach] came out just for a chat. I certainly felt part and parcel of the club and that the players were real rather than distant icons." (Per com, 1998) The club should therefore be applauded for its reduction of the them and us mentality. If we are to support a team, surely the relationship should be a two-way thing. Clearly the examples seen at Watford FC confirm the beliefs of Eyles (1985) and Hargreaves (in Hargreaves, 1982) who talk of the need in society for there to be an open form of common good available to all and at the expense of none. Eyles (1985, p.62) underlines the steps taken by Watford FC when writing, "It is possible that people recognise in 'their' communities a source of identity which is manifested as a sense of belonging."
To conclude, one fan replying to my questionnaire aptly summarises the roles of both parties involved. He told me:
"Now Graham Taylor and Elton John are back I hope the community responds with greater support as I'm sure Watford FC will once again put Watford on the map and that can't be a bad thing can it!" (Per com, 1998)
The Role Played By The Fans
Computer mediated communication (CMC) is among the most popular uses of the Internet, because as a socially produced space, "it appears to foster community, or at least the sense of community, among it's users." (Jones, 1995, p.18). The ease of entry means that few people are marginalized hence it's global appeal and widespread growth, yet of particular importance here is it's ability to extend the limits of human capacity (Baym, in Star, 1995 & Shields, 1996).
"The WML was the first slice of Hornet life to find its way onto the Internet," and currently it boasts a membership total of over 500 people (BSaD, 1998, p.12). A medium for open debate, the list appeals to both the exiled fan as well as the members of the Watford community who "are able to extend that all important matchday banter beyond Saturday afternoon." (BSaD, 1998, p.12). Today the list is organised by Leo Mindel who "has overseen a period of extraordinary expansion." (BSaD, 1998, p.12). Figure 5 is shows a recent advertisement that encapsulates the global appeal of the WML; note also my inclusion as a fan based in Southampton!
I will now present to you some of the results that my questionnaire produced and how these relate to topics such as community and belonging.
Unsurprisingly the response to this question was very positive. Whilst 35 % polled strongly agreed, a further 39 % simply agreed with the statement, telling me that there can be no doubting the ability of the WML to induce the sense of belonging that characterises being a football fan.
- The WML has established a sense of belonging between the club and it's supporters.
Figure 6 (WML, 1998)
Not only does cyberspace, and in this case the WML, allow people the chance to fully express themselves without revealing their entire identities, but it demonstrates how engaging this format of interaction can be. Constantly reinterpreting and re-acknowledging the cultural artefacts that go hand-in-hand with supporting the club, I found that one becomes intensely drawn into the world of Watford FC via the WML. Figure 6 would suggest so, and furthermore by disengaging oneself from the list, it is possible to lose that sense of belonging as Adrian, a member of the WML spelt out for me. Describing the intensity of belonging amongst users he told me that "lower division football fan's mailing lists have the same characteristics as victim support groups, such as cancer sufferers and people who have been sexually abused." (Per com, 1998). This analogy is interesting because it underlines the communal bond on the WML that my second question tackles.
Again the response I received in respect to this statement confirms for me how successful cyberspace can be in generating a sense of community. The lack of sanctions to limit debate (Shield, 1996) and its ability to combat different hierarchies (Jones, 1995) certainly facilitates the emergence of personalities in space and with it, the feeling that all involved are essentially involved together. Nicknames, jokes and cheery banter constantly punctuate chat on the WML and hence lead one to believe that everyone had met each other, when in most cases they hadn't. The relaxed atmosphere coaxed users to ask for favours, such as lifts to games or advice on which pubs to avoid on away games.
- There is a distinct communal feel amongst the WML users.
Figure 7 (WML, 1998)
Figure 7 shows how close the listees feel, leading me to confidently claim that the WML constitutes a legitimate community, albeit a virtual one, that embodies the dynamics of a physical community. Respect for fellow fans, effective ruling (there is a ban on swearing and racist remarks), constructive criticism, friendship, humour and most importantly belonging are all evidently present in cyberspace and so the WML must be acknowledged as a community that can foster belonging. The following example from Adam serves to confirm this. He writes, "…the WML has also provided me with a sense of belonging…I have met many other supporters through it…the list gives me a place to vent my frustrations after a bad game. Watching Watford FC is a way of escaping the pressures of work and the family, and the mailing list is an extension of that." (Per com, 1998).
This idea of fantasy is one that crops up a number of times. Clearly, watching football on a Saturday afternoon offers fans the opportunity to escape the humdrum realities of normal life. Shedding one's responsibilities for ninety minutes seems to be a major reason for the intensity of support for some fans. Similar to Adam, one fan at the Open Day told me that "Watford represents part of my roots and also an enjoyable afternoon out when I can forget other worries." (Per com, 1997).
I wanted to measure the true importance of the WML so I asked if without it, whether or not one's support would decline. Unsurprisingly, such is the strength of fandom, most polled strongly disagreed with my suggestion as figure 8 shows.
- Without the WML my support for the club would decline and the WML is helping to consolidate and strengthen the hard core fan base who follow Watford FC.
Figure 8 (WML, 1998)
The 16 % who strongly agreed with me do however demonstrate that how crucial the list can be to some. Kyle from New England, USA told me "That thanks to the WML…I've been able to actively renew my interests in the club." (Per com, 1998).
What is clear is the regard with which overseas fans hold the list. It has the power to reattach them in a way that perhaps those living in and around Watford who come into contact with the club on a weekly or even daily basis, can never properly appreciate. Ronnie sums this up saying "I have been an exile in Canada since 1968 and in all that time the WML is the best thing to come along for a die-hard supporter." (Per com, 1998). I also discovered further evidence of such belonging, through longing, in New Zealand where there exists a group of fans that meet once or twice during the year. This coming of together ensures the continuation of their support. It's almost as if by doing this they are keeping the club alive in their eyes, and hence continuing their perceived sense of belonging with an institution that exists on the others side of the world. They of course belong to the club just as much as the fan who lives in Watford, but by their very nature they are extending the boundaries of Watford FC's community, and so increasing it's ability to draw upon new support. The friendship that the list exudes is truly astonishing at times. I was constantly let into the hearts and minds of fans, who all felt that by belonging to the same cultural institution, there exists a common bond that transcends all legitimate defences that we normally put up in the face of the unknown. Baym (in Star, 1995, p.42) has also noticed this behaviour, describing how "…fandom provides resources of shared practices and shared knowledge on which participants draw to create community." A beautiful example of how the WML can promote belonging comes form Charlie in Mexico. He writes;
"Last year, Drew...an American list member visited Puerto Rico, and he and his wife and young daughter visited myself, my wife and young daughter at our home. If this isn't community interaction from the WML, I don't know what is!" (Per com, 1998).
To conclude this section I want to remind you of the human desire to be rooted to a place. There can be no doubting the ability of the WML to foster belonging amongst it's users, but currently it represents only a very small percentage of the fans who would claim to follow Watford FC. Its potential to share and spread information is extraordinary, and I hope that as a result it helps to generate even wider communal feeling, but it is important to put the WML in some form of perspective. Because one can log-in to the Internet, that doesn't necessarily make that fan anymore loyal or important than one who can't. At the same time it's users shouldn't be stereotyped as "young, socially inept and thus culturally marginalized male computer addicts," because that is to do the fans of the WML a great injustice (Shields, 1996, p.4). I found them to be hospitable, welcoming people who genuinely loved their club. For every moan and argument, there were countless stories and anacdotes that showed how the club had managed to touch them in ways that are often hard to express in words. In agreement with Redhead (1997, p.32), I would say that the WML successfully reproduces the "pub culture of communication;" a culture in which belonging is an essential component. Massey (1992) I believe is wrong to say that cyberspace fragments culture at the expense of a sense of place. For people like Dennis in Canada, cyberspace rekindles the sense of place, allowing man to interact in a space that he might not normally consider. He wrote to me saying:
"The WML permits me to keep current with the fortunes of the club and it creates a feeling of belonging to the community. Though I'm not there I can create visions of what has happened in my minds eye…I may be a long way away, but the WML makes me feel like I'm part of what's happening." (Per com, 1998).
The list chooses to embrace society, so installing a feel for community. I was welcomed to the WML, without even being a fan; the implications of which, in a decreasingly technophobic world, are enormous. As a result I don't think it will be long until Watford FC start to recognise the potential and worth of the list as a means of establishing even better links with the community that supports them.
Its ability to strengthen, encourage and maintain support for the club has been instrumental in the renewed sense of belonging that I found to emanate within both the physical and spatial environments of Watford. On a similar theme Minor and Greer (in Eyles, 1985, p.61) suggest that "at the root of human community lies the necessity of social organisation which requires shared perspectives, or a culture." In this case the culture is the experience that is, following Watford FC, and the social organisation is the form in which we express our support. This proliferation of indirect relationships nicely underscores the heart of communal belonging, for the WML not only recreates the cultural artefacts that fashioned the club, but furthermore it engages man, challenges power structures without violence and develops moral understanding. To sum up Mr. Fincham explained the importance of the WML stating,
"I think its very, very crucial because instead of us previously in Watford waiting for the "Watford Observer" on a Friday, we now know whats going on [at the club] on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, because we…get information fed out to us, and I believe its bringing the whole football community closer together…I think its some testimony to the fact how cyberspace has been developing and how the Watford interest around the globe has been absolutely polarised." (After Hours, 1998).
The Role Played By The Community
In this section I aim to show how the link between culture and football is used by communities to create a construction of identities, which in turn lends mores strength to my arguments pertaining to belonging. With that in mind I am keen to explore the variety of ways in which the community of Watford have focused their identities in relation to the presence of Watford FC. We will see how cultural artefacts and traditions such as commonly understood meanings, rituals and dramatic qualities can be used to shape our relationships with local institutions; allowing us to touch and come into contact with a whole host of feelings and aspirations that ordinarily we would consider beyond us (Hargreaves, in Hargreaves, 1982). As a result what I hope to demonstrate that what we are left with is "a set of common understandings for organising actions and language and other symbolic vehicles for expressing common understandings." (Canter et al, 1989, p.80). Because then, and only then, can we tangibly comprehend the belonging that such a cultural institution inspires.
Fanzines can be the perfect form of expression for football fans. Not only do they have the power to motivate fans, but also most importantly they give the supporters of a club a medium through which to vent their feelings; albeit good or bad. The Watford fanzine is called 'Clap Your Hands Stamp Your Feet!' (CYHSYF) and has been publishing issues since the beginning of the 1989/90 season (see figure 9). Written by the fans and for the fans, it normally consists of a variety of voluntary written articles, tackling a range of subjects from player performances to jokes about their much despised rivals, Luton Town FC. Despite the lack of tangible achievements in respect to wide-scale changes in and around the club, more
importantly it has helped the "gradual, long term process of the emergence of the spectator voice." (Barber, 1996, p.5). Although 'CYHSYF' seeks some recognition from the club, that in no way undermines it's independent stance, which as a result has seen it vie with the official matchday programme for spectator attention.
Ultimately a fan driven alternative to more commercialised forms of information exchange, 'CYHSYF' has demonstrated how such a publication can strengthen this sense of belonging through sheer inspiration. A forum through which many of the forms of football culture is explored; 'CYHSYF' strongly emphasises the values and perspectives that Lundberg alludes to. Socially shared rules such as expectations of good behaviour by fans and what constitutes disorderly conduct on the terraces are often discussed, albeit in a language that thrives on "using puns and clichés to convey a multiplicity of meanings," as suggested by Hayes (in Rowe, 1995, p.160). The fanzine should also be noted for its influential nature. The manner in which it passes judgement on a host of topics ranging from the style of football played to what ticket prices we should pay, leads to a set of values becoming enshrined in the make up of the terrace culture. Of more scope are the artefacts surrounding the club that the fanzine cherishes and hence helps maintain. Actively encouraging the singing of songs and the attendance at away games, 'CYHSYF' goes to great lengths to reconfirm the good points about belonging to a football club. Stories of past triumphs are interspersed with jokes and stories about individual fan experiences (in issue No. 43, one fan wrote in about his travels around Lithuania following the team on a pre-season tour!). Lastly are the assumptions that the fans are expected to "hold about themselves and others, and which form the underpinning for the other three levels." (Lindberg, in Canter et al, 1989, p.81). These assumptions serve to underline the very opinions that the fanzine projects and so must be properly considered by both club and fan.
Harking back to the efforts of Graham Taylor and his backroom staff, 'CYHSYF' fully supports the work done by the club in catching the support of the future generation. One fan wrote in complaining that "we should also campaign for regular coverage of local non-premiership matches on TV, so that the next generation of supporters can identify with their local teams, otherwise sad people all over the country will be hero-worshipping Giggs, Shearer, etc…" (CYHSYF, 1995, No.34, p.18). In the same issue another fan wrote in championing the 'Lets Kick Racism Out Of Football' programme, because "all football fans who truly love the game and their club will be eager to eradicate much of the disgraceful element that blights it." (p.19).
So what can we conclude from this? For a start, fanzines are now so well established in the niche markets alongside mainstream commercial press, that they have led to the facilitation of what Barber (1996) and Redhead (1997) see as the post 1990s fandom movement. Ultimately I consider fanzines, and in this case 'CYHSYF', excellent mediums through which belonging can be initiated and then cemented. Their collective one for all, all for one spirit embodies exactly what Rowe (1995) regards as the use of popular culture as a means of creating societal change and increased communal belonging.
The most obvious form of identification with Watford FC that a fan commonly perceives, must surely be the use of club colours. By buying into the clubs identity, a fan can declare his love and dedication to the team; a shining example of what Hall recognises as a "symbolic guarantee of belongingness." (In Massey & Jess, 1995, p.180). Inside the ground come matchday when 10,000 odd are wearing their colours in the form of scarves, hats and flags, it is easy to see how such collectiveness can be inspired through the grouping together of symbolic fandom. Curren and Redmond (1991, p.12) report that in the 'WSC' survey a substantial 75 % of 16 to 18 year old fans identified 'strongly' with their club colours, hence lending weight to my belief that the fans are the first to extract some sort of value from the colours by the very fact that they represent the identity of their team. One fan at the Open Day told me that the wearing of team colours "…gives my children a sense of belonging, although to my jaded eyes it's funny to see adults in the kit." (Per com, 1998).
The use of colours in and around the community is also deserving of some attention. On walking around the town I found a number of examples of local businesses tapping into the conscious belonging of the Watford fans through the manipulation of club colours and club terminology. Many shop fronts use the colours yellow and red as if they are trying to say that they too are a part of Watford FC. A form of Hall's (1990) cultural coding, these designs say to the Watford fan that this establishment can be trusted to produce a quality service. Figures 10 and 11 are both good examples of this; the first shows a local fish and chip shop with some Watford fans outside it. I believe that the proprietor hopes that the use of these colours will entice the fans to spend money there, by way of the fact that he inspires some mental form of loyalty. Similarly in the second photograph, we see a local tattooist, who not only employs the club colours for his shop front, but also aptly titles his business 'Taylor Made Tattoos'.
Elton John's Glasses
Between the 30th May and the 21st June 1997, a play called 'Elton John's Glasses' played at the Palace Theatre, Watford. Focusing on one man's obsession with the club it is in the words of it's own advert, "A funny, frank and perceptive look at love, rivalry and the dominance of a football club in a small town." (See figure 12). More importantly David Farr, the playwright, uses Watford FC as a metaphor around which he constructs the very ideas of belonging and identity that I'm so keen to impress upon you. It is Bale and Moen (1995, p.12) who state that if football is the new religion, then the stadium is "a new opiate for the masses." Comparisons can be drawn to this line of thinking in much of Farr's screenplay. At one stage in the play, the central character Bill likens the home of Watford FC to a church, saying:
Bill: What's Florence got that Watford hasn't got? Nothing. Look out the window...Can you see it?
Shaun: See what?
Bill: The cathedral.
Shaun: All I can see is a row of terraced housing.
Bill: You're not looking properly! Look again. You see it now? The four spires over the top of the houses? At night they glow in he darkness. That's the cathedral. And people sing in it just like in any cathedral in Florence except in this cathedral they don't sing "Hallelujah, Lord my Shepherd, ding dong merrily on high", no they sing "who's the wanker, who's the wanker, who's the wanker in the black". But it's a beautiful sound. And in this cathedral, instead of hymn books there are programmes and instead of a pulpit there's a dugout, and instead of a Sermon on the Mount and a loaf of bread feeding the five thousand, there's a half-time talk with a plate of oranges and a cup of Bovril. But this cathedral has real gods, and all over this beautiful town, there are thousands of people worshipping those gods in little shrines. (Farr, 1997, p.15-16).
The play was met with great critical success as figure 13 shows. So much so that it has earned an extended run in the West End during this summer's World Cup. Thus, not only has the play demonstrated how the club symbolises more than just simply a place where one is entertained, but as Mr. Wheeler explains, Watford FC become accepted as an institution in the community that has the power and influence to shape the lives of many.
"I think a football club gives a town an identity. Even people who know very little about football will say, 'Oh Watford, yeah that's Elton John's club'."
Finally I wanted to delve into a rather unusual form of representation which I came across when reading past copies of the Watford Observer. Every Friday in the paper in and amongst the latest Watford match report you will find a short cartoon by Terry Challis. I found them to be great illustrations of how one can go about expressing strong feelings of belonging and identity without necessarily having to sit in the terraces. A keen Watford FC follower, Challis usually uses the cartoon as a means of making a point about a recent event concerning the club; say for instance a controversial match or a new signing. However the delight in his work is that they genuinely come from the heart of a dedicated and thoughtful supporter; a man in fact that many other fans can therefore relate to. Although by no means the voice of the fans, Challis like the WML and CYHSYF, regularly encourages a feeling of communal belonging and pride in respect to Watford FC, as figure 14 highlights. Similarly figures 15 and 16 show how being a Watford supporter is not always the easiest job in the world!
Two other drawings by Challis stand out in my mind as underlining what Lundberg (in Canter et al, 1989) considers the values and assumptions of organised culture. They both demonstrate in their own unique way what it must feel to be a Watford FC fan and the expectations that you carry. The first, figure 17, is a painting that Challis presented to Sir Elton John back in 1976 when he had just joined the club as chairman. It depicts the club emerging from the mire of lower league nothingness, striding purposefully forward to realise a number of dreams. Sir Elton John is seen leading the club forward to better times upon the back of the club mascot, a hornet, and as Graham Taylor claims, I think the intent in that picture is "stronger than all the words and stated ambitions." (In Challis, 1997, p.3). Figure 18 meanwhile is of a cartoon published at the end of Graham Taylor's first reign as club manager. Encapsulating the momentous times under his stewardship, this stands as a perfect illustration of the connection between club and community. "You could," the character claims, "come out of the closet and proudly announce…I'm a Watford fan, you know." (In Challis, 1997, p.20). A rags to riches story of Watford's metaphoric rise in stature under Taylor, here Challis' finger is unerringly on the pulse of what it is to belong to Watford FC. So much so that he was recently bestowed an honour by the members of the WML for his services to the fandom that is following Watford FC. As I write, there are negotiations underway to publish his weekly cartoons over the Internet so those fans outside of Watford can chuckle along with him at home.
'We're on the march with Taylor's army,
We're not going to Wembley.
But we don't give a fuck,
'Cos the 'Orns are going up,
And Watford are the greatest football team.
It was when a fan at the club Open Day encapsulated the experience of following a football team, that I first fully became aware of the extent to which a social institution, and in this case a football club, can touch and shape the lives of ordinary people. "I started going to Watford age twelve with a group of school friends by train," he explained, "…each game was a great adventure and a feeling of growing up." (Per com, 1997). To me that characterises the strong feeling of belonging that this investigation has unveiled. Watford FC, a social institution in it's own right, has time and time again shown how it creates, for the social groups that it inspires, a sense of belonging that I have found to be beyond measurement.
Fandom is like a form of cultural osmosis. The traditions and cultures that permeate a club allow fans to form identities and communities of their own, from which the sense of belonging can be drawn. The obvious comparison to draw is that this sense of belonging accommodates people in the same way that religion is said to do. An analogy that Taylor and Ward (1995, p.363) draw upon when describing the social stature of football clubs. They suggest that people don't "sufficiently realise the vital importance of the club in the community." To them, "…the football ground is the cathedral church of a local community." In the case of Watford FC there can be no doubting their commitment to the community. The 'FITC' programme has gone some way to, not only establishing a fan base for the future, but also demonstrating the club's commitment to the town that it represents. Williams, Dunning and Murphy (1988, p.6) thought so when they concluded that as a result of the extra community schemes, a large core of fans "will continue to associate themselves with the club through bad times as well as good." Mr. Nash speaking on the radio show told me how essential it was for club's like Watford FC to continue their interaction with the local community. To sacrifice these links would mean that "…it doesn't matter how much success you have on the pitch; you actually won't be a successful club in the rounded sense of the word." (After Hours, 1998). It is therefore particularly refreshing to see a club like Watford striving to maintain such links at a time when money and greed seems to drive the national game. We should be openly applauding these clubs as they represent the very grass roots of the game. Roots that I should remind you develop as a result of nurturing from a young age.
The WML has taken this process one step further by allowing those outside of Watford to form contact with the club. For others cyberspace permits the fan to fully express the emotions that are part and parcel of being a fan. These range from the venting of frustration, the organisation of future support, the discussion of club policies and the mot importantly the sharing of experiences. It is these slices of football life that so neatly produces a stronger sense of belonging. The cultural codes that Hall (1990) refers to are present in a variety of guises; ranging from songs and jokes to the use of colours and tradition, all of which I feel actively help to create within the mind of the fan a strong sense of communal attachment.
There is plenty of scope to finely tune this dissertation, so as to examine a number of different social issues. Racism although on the decline in no small thanks to schemes like 'FITC', still persists on the terrace and I think that would have proved an interesting alternative angle of investigation. Similarly, one could examine how strong this sense of belonging is amongst female fans. Does the male dominated nature of football culture exclude them in any way? There were a few women on the WML but I purposefully avoided categorising the fans from the very beginning.
To draw my findings to a conclusion I would like to reiterate how it is the culture of the club that makes one belong. By identifying, through various forms of cultural expression, a sense of fandom, one can be seen to be part of the very culture that shaped them. Likening the club to a large family with one wants to join is not to over simplify the situation at hand as Heather of the WML testifies;
"I explained to my son that he was actually born in Vicarage Road and surely that they should be his 'team'. My husband then agreed to take him and his friend that week to an evening match. He was sold on Watford from then on." (Per com, 1998).
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Bibliography No. 2
1. The Herald Express, (1997), It's the big kick-off as girls go for goal, 12/06/97.
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Television and Audio
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