The Absolute Game Revisited – Part 46

September 6, 2010

Stop ! Hey ! What’s That Sound ?

The sound is of a barrel being scraped – I’ve pretty well reached the end of the line with my passably amusing TAG articles, and all that is left is a series of po-faced and not very interesting ‘serious’ pieces. Here we are after the 1994 World Cup in TAG 40 and I’m laying the boot into the plethora of football magazines which were then flooding the market.

Be warned – this article caused at least one correspondent to complain bitterly about the unrelenting drivel which I was writing – and reading it again now, I can see that he had a point.

PUBLISH AND BE DAMNED

Radiation fall-out is an inevitable consequence of a ground-burst nuclear weapon. Equally inevitable, it seems, is a glut of footie magazines flooding the market in the aftermath of a World Cup. Post-America ’94 has seen the usual avalanche of football-related publications jostling for space on the shelves of Menzies and Smith etc. All of them hoping to cash in on the heightened public appetite which allegedly follows the four-yearly Mundial.

Mad Mac made a quick raid on his local newsagent and sent me a selection to review. In view of the fact that Mac only turns to me for a review when he wants a total dismemberment job done, I’ve liberally interpreted his request as being a strict instruction to put the boot in mercilessly and repeatedly. The magazines to be reviewed herein are all new, with the exception of Scottish Football Today, which is included for no other reason than that it’s a soft target which can be easily sneered at and patronised. I’m also taking this opportunity to do a bit of self-indulgent navel-gazing at the whole world of football writing.

There’s only one “F” in Fanzine

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Up until about eight or nine years ago football had no authentic literature, unlike cricket for example which has always had a wealth of excellent writing devoted to it. Of course, there were odd exceptions, but they were very odd indeed. Newspaper football coverage was (and still is) mostly just an insult to the intelligence. Those magazines which did exist were usually merely worthy but predictable, and I, for one, just couldn’t be bothered with them. I suspect that many readers of TAG were, like me, crying out for some sort of publication which would cover the “football experience” amusingly, intelligently and with a much greater regard for those whose horizons stretched beyond McCoist’s groin strain and McStay’s alleged world-class potential.

PossiblyWhen Saturday Comeswas not the first (post-Foul) shining example of what “real” football writing could and should be, but it was certainly the first one to come to my attention, and I’m sure it proved invigorating for many. Suddenly, many fans found that, instead of sitting around waiting for professional journalists to “produce the goods”, they could do it much better themselves. When that realisation dawned, fanzine production went into overdrive.

Another of the earliest which I saw was, I think, a Hibs fanzine, which contained an allegedly true anecdote dating back to the days when the lines on the pitch were laid out in sawdust, rather than being painted. A wee blonde-haired winger was scythed down on the touch line in a flurry of blonde hair and sawdust, causing one of the spectators to shout in alarm,

“Christ, his head’s exploded”.

The early editions of Not The View were a revelation, particularly for the admirable ability to deprecate their own team revealed in the first ”They Embarassed the Hoops” which characterised Frank Munro as “the guy with the fat arse who scored an own goal on his debut “. Then there was the Meadowbank fanzine AWOL collecting it’s top 50 songs which included one to be sung when passing Torness Power Station on the way to Berwick, (to the tune of “Let’s Twist Again”), viz – “Let’s Radiate, like we did last summer “.

It would be unbearably smug and self-satisfied to mention TAG in this context, but that isn’t going to stop me. I didn’t see TAG until issue 6, and by then Mad Mac had already written some of the funniest stuff ever to appear in any fanzines (remember the “Tranny Men” in no 3 and Willie Johnston in no 6 – “Not for him the currently fashionable and faintly intellectual crime of dissent his mark was invariably made (literally) using those solid and trusty tools, the knuckle and the boot’ ‘.)

Reading stuff like this, I was hooked. But the fanzines weren’t just providing smart-arse one-liners. Many carried articles of real substance and interest.

From having no football literature at all, we seemed to go overnight to having a super-abundance. Not all of it was good, of course, but much of it was genuinely inventive, and some of it positively brilliant. Best of all was the fact that the fans were speaking in their own language, and had the freedom and the wit to say what was unsayable in the mainstream press.

Of course, the main problem with any “new” form of anything is that when the novelty wears off it becomes progressively more difficult to match the vibrancy and impact of the original. My own mania in buying every fanzine I could lay my hands on eventually had to be curtailed by a combination of threatening letters from the Bank of Scotland and the fact that I just wasn’t getting the same buzz from many of them anymore.

Nevertheless, what had been clearly established by the proliferation of fanzines was that there was a huge market for what we could loosely call “alternative” football writing. Sooner or later that market was bound to be tapped into by persons whose primary concern was making a profit rather than just getting a kick from giving their pals a good laugh.

Which brings me to the magazines I’m supposed to be reviewing.

The Bland leading the Bland

Let’s start with Scottish Football Today. In the very first ever edition of TAG, Mad Mac lunged into SFT with a savage two-footed tackle of Vinny Jones proportions, saying that SFT ”stands for everything we’re against at TAG “. Although it’s been going for a long time, the August 1994 edition was the first one I’d ever clapped eyes on. It advertises itself as being “being crammed with ALL the news from ALL the clubs, from the Old Firm to the Highland League “. And right enough there’s oodles of the usual old tosh about Rangers and Celtic in the August issue. Curiously, however, it seems that August was a blank month, news-wise, above the Highland line, because there is not a jot about the Highland League in that issue.

Not a sausage.

Bugger all.

There is however yet another lavish two-page spread on Ryan Giggs. Precisely what a Welshman playing for an English club has to do with Scottish Football Today, Yesterday or Tomorrow is not divulged. On the other hand, it is full of marvellous insights like,

“Giggs is straining at the leash and is poised to explode upon the scene is a major way…A player of immense charm and talent “.

Who reads this shite?

Fuck, who writes it?

SFT is full of glossy pictures and anaemic writing. The only time when it ever departs from the party line is in a profile of Raith’s Julian Broddle who is asked what foods he hates. He answers

“All foods. They turn me into a right big fat pile of shite “.

Except that the last word is written s****, ­to avoid causing offence you understand.

I know this will be hard to credit, but they’ve actually got an article about Paul McStay which includes the phrase “a player gifted with lavish talents” and which goes on to pose the question “Has that potential been properly realised? ” without answering it at all, far less answering it truthfully.

I’m sorry, lads, but SFT is just a glossy version of the Daily Record sports section. It seems to exist in an alternative dimension where fanzines never happened. I can’t imagine that anyone would buy this junk to read it, and I can therefore only assume that the glossy paper is attractive to cocaine dealers for wrapping their powder in.

Piece of Crap

Next on to the scaffold is ‘C’mon Ref!’ which claims to be “the funny soccer mag that gives you cramp after 60 minutes “. Once you read it you realise that the word “cramp” contains a spelling error.

The letter “m” appears once too often in it.

In any case, nothing is more guaranteed to induce cramp than people who call the game “soccer”. The magazine is packed with lots of full colour photos, numerous off-colour puns, several unfunny cartoon strips, loads of adverts, and one or two jokes which I suppose would be passably amusing for young children with learning difficulties. Example – “Kevin Keegan is 5ft 1 inch without his perm and is 6ft 3 inches with his perm.

Side-splitting, eh?

A reasonable indication of where this magazine is coming from can be found in the “Practice your Soccer Skills” section. Lesson number one is “Trying a Chip” which is illustrated by a boy peeling a potato, with the text reading,

“No, stupid! Trying a chip does not mean you have to start peeling spuds’ ‘.

Hilarious.

Lesson number two is “Throwing the Defender a Dummy” which, by way of complete contrast, is accompanied by a picture of the boy tossing a baby’s dummy to his opponent.

Get it?

Next up is “Trying the Scissors” imaginatively illustrated by, guess what, the boy holding a pair of scissors!

Stop it, no please stop it, I’m laughing so much I’ve got cramp.

On the basis that this is supposed to be a “funny soccer mag”, it fails miserably, though no doubt the editors would say that I’m just a sour-faced, grumpy old bastard who’s had a sense of humour by-pass.

What more can I tell you? Well a whole page is given over to a colour photo of a blonde bimbo in black suspenders. At first I thought that this might be a sophisticated and subversive joke at the expense of sexist fuckwits. Au contraire. It is in fact sexist fuckwits who are writing the sodding thing. This is amply demonstrated by the fact that issue two has another scantily-clad lovely called Charity, complete with the caption “We’d all like to do something for Charity “. We’re promised that issue 3 will feature Miss Huddersfield “showing off her big pair of strikers”‘. Fnarr, fnarr.Christ, I’m not a prude and I’m not even a particularly vehement supporter of feminism. But everything has its proper place. The proper place for semi-naked young women is not in a football magazine. Is it too much to expect those responsible to realise the harm they are doing by reinforcing the notion of football fans as leering lager louts braying “Get ‘em off, dear “?

Let’s just say that this magazine is about one point down the evolutionary scale from the Sun and that it’s “funny” in that same way as Paul McStay is “world-class”.

Should sell well to professional players.

Notebooks Out Plagiarists

Another new “comedy” football fanzine is ‘The Onion Bag’, which claims to be the fanzine “that gives it some wellie! “. This is undoubtedly superior to C’mon Ref!, as it contains several genuinely funny jokes, you know, the kind that make you laugh.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingIn particular, the photo of Valderamma’s dad is amusing (you’ll need to buy the mag to see this one), and the complimentary season ticket for Man Utd, which turns out to be a TV licence, made me chuckle.

On the other hand, a lot of the humour is predictable, heavy-handed, derivative and thus not funny. For example, there’s a column in which Mark Hughes demonstrates how to wire a 5 amp plug. You just know that at some point this will involve him hurling himself to the ground and looking all hurt. (As a matter of interest, proof that this joke hasn’t been funny since it was first told about a hundred years ago can be found in issue 2 of C’mon Ref! where, this time, the self-same Sparky Hughes gives some DIY advice on putting up shelving, which ultimately involves him going down in the box clutching his ankle).

Elsewhere in Onion Bag, there are worthy articles on football programmes, the World Cup and famous footballing alcoholics. It’s all been done before, of course, and that’s the main problem for all football magazines. It is bloody difficult to keep coming up with novel ideas. The Onion Bag has launched itself on an unsuspecting public without a single idea that it can call its own. The Editorial expresses the rather pious hope that “the Onion Bag will become the fan’s mouthpiece “. Slightly more ludicrously the editor suggests that in 6 months time “Jimmy Hill and the rest of the footballing establishment will be calling us the unsightly blemish on the face of our beautiful game”‘.

Get real. After years of scabrous articles appearing in countless fanzines, why should Jimmy Hill, or anyone else, give a toss about what is said in yet another “alternative” football magazine. We can, however, just about give this one pass marks. It’s not a complete waste of money in the way that SFT and C’mon Ref are.

The Write Stuff

OK, that’s the essentially superficial material out of the way. Now let’s get really heavy. “Four Four Two” is a mammoth new monthly publication, weighing in at a hefty 130 pages and a wallet-busting £2.10. If we characterise TAG as the ‘Sniffin’Glue’ of football, then 4-4-2 is the Vox or Q of the market. This isn’t some stitch’n’paste job, nor is it aimed at anything like the same market as C‘mon Ref! or The Onion Bag. There is clearly some very serious money invested in this magazine and I would guess that the bulk of the target audience inhabits the upper socio-economic groupings, works “in the City”, lives in detached villas in Essex, watches football from executive boxes, and thinks, no I mean REALLY thinks, Jocasta, about, you know, issues and things.

While The Onion Bag and C’mon Ref! carry adverts for “Bovril”, beer, video-tapes and the like, 4-4-2 is awash with adverts for state-of-the-art hi-fi systems and high performance motor cars etc. The sheer size of the magazine means that topics can be covered in exhaustive and exhausting detail. The first issue devotes eight pages to profiling Terry Venables, six to Barry Fry, six to Julian Joachim and another six to Bobby Charlton. And all that is just the merest fraction of the contents. There are TV, book and fanzine reviews, an examination of safety at football grounds, a review of the World Cup, an interview with Martin “Purple” Hayes, 4 pages on Maradona, several pages on English league clubs who’ve never won anything, a big colour spread featuring Jimmy Hill trying on a variety of new club kits, and much much more.

Do you see what I mean about it being exhausting?

G K Chesterton once said that joumalism consists in saying “Lord Jones is dead” to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive. There’s a bit of that in the sheer information overload which 442 inflicts on you. There’s bugger all about Scottish football, though, which is a bit of a pisser. There are yuppies up here as well you know.

If you were to read the whole of this magazine every month then you definitely wouldn’t have time to read any other football publication. In fact, I doubt whether you’d even have time to go to any football matches. While the writing doesn’t contain any inflammatory pyrotechnics, it generally steers reasonably clear of the dull, plodding, bland style usually associated with traditional professional sports-writing. In short, it’s bloody good. There’s no point in me trying to pretend otherwise. But…………….

If 442 had existed eight years ago then fanzines probably wouldn’t have needed to be invented. On the other hand, 442 only exists now because fanzines have blazed the trail, and demonstrated that the market exists. The one trouble which afflicts all of the magazines I’ve reviewed here is that they are professional productions. People are being paid to write them. It’s a job and not a hobby. There are deadlines to meet, and that will inevitably mean that much of the content will be forced rather than spontaneous (ie the compulsion to write will precede the spark of invention, rather than vice versa). The demands of publishers, advertisers and stockists is bound, even subliminally, to impose parameters on the kind of things which can be written. For example, as far as I can tell, no sweary words beginning with “f’ appear in any of these magazines. I’m not suggesting for one minute that there’s anything hard or clever about using such words, but since they are common currency at every football ground in Britain, it’s rather peculiar to read a handful of football magazines which eschew them entirely. A few “bastards” creep in, right enough. That word doesn’t appear to be so offensive to the marketing men, presumably because the Prime Minister has endorsed it.

However, the essence of the original fanzines was that the contributors could, and did, exercise complete freedom of speech, because they simply weren’t answerable to anybody. The amateur writers of fanzines got involved because they had an overwhelming desire to communicate with their peers. The professional writers of the magazines reviewed here are simply doing it because it’s their job. The amateur doesn’t have to establish or maintain any sorts of standards, and can freely blunder on offending anyone he feels like. The professional’s approach has, of necessity, to be much more stilted and restricted.

Which one do you think is more likely to produce, even accidentally, something which is truly inspired?

Scottish Football Today has obviously found its own level and will no doubt continue to blandly go where so many have gone before, indefinitely. I’d be surprised if C ‘mon Ref! manages to see out the season. I’ll give Onion Bag about the same time as Liam Brady lasted at Celtic.

Given the obvious level of serious commitment by 442 it will either become the most popular football magazine in the country, or else crash spectacularly amidst executives throwing themselves from high buildings.

In all the time I’ve written for TAG I’ve tried never to be critical of other fanzine writers. Firstly, because the very fact that they’re writing for a fanzine means that we have the common bond of (unpaid) passion for the game, and secondly because it would be all too simple for them to retaliate by trashing anything which I’ve written. However, I feel no shame whatsoever in attacking these “fanzines” for the simple reason that none of them are fanzines at all. The “passion” is plastic. It’s fake. It’s phoney. These are fanzines in the same way that U2 are “punk”.

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The clip-board men have finally arrived. Expect all the best bits from all the fanzines you’ve ever seen to be ruthlessly plagiarised and rehashed.

Now, how do I go about applying for a job on the 442 staff?

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