It takes some people an entire career to make their name. For some, it might never happen. But for Nick Hornby, it took one book. When Fever Pitch was released, football was changing from the working man’s, hooligan-teeming brawl that it had always been, to the more inclusive and open game that we know today. As the game spread and the terraces changed, Hornby’s autobiographical book documenting his life as a football fan and the concept of fandom in general was not only perfectly timed, but also captured the spirit of an entire generation of match-going fans. It will go down as one of the best sports books ever written. We were lucky enough to have a quick chat with the man himself for STILES Issue 2.
STILES: Had you always wanted to be a writer growing up?
Nick: I didn’t think seriously about it until I was in my late teens. I didn’t know anyone who wrote, and it didn’t seem like a realistic ambition. I didn’t actually write anything until I was in my mid-twenties – by then, the urge had become too strong to ignore.
Most people don’t write memoirs as their first publication. What was it that inspired Fever Pitch? And what do you put its enormous success down to?
There were a couple of American memoirs that inspired me, particularly Tobias Wolff’s ‘This Boy’s Life’. The subtitle of the book, ‘A Fan’s Life’ was a mix of Wolff’s book and Frederick Exley’s ‘A Fan’s Notes’. It took me a while to find these books, but they were very important to me. And they were debuts, kind of, so I could see how it didn’t matter whether you’d written anything before. A lot of first books are memoirs now.
How do you look back on Fever Pitch now?
I’m still proud of it, but I don’t think about it very often. It’s settled back into being a book, I think – there was a time when it was a touchstone for all sorts of things, most of which seemed silly to me.
How do you find football has changed since Fever Pitch? And is it necessarily for the better?
Well, everything has changed. The season before Fever Pitch was published, many of Arsenal’s home attendances were somewhere between 22-30,000, when Highbury still had terraces and could hold a lot more than that. It was three years after Hillsborough, which we knew would change the game, although we didn’t know how. There were very few foreign players – the odd Scandinavian. And the level of media interest was nothing like what it is now. The game is better technically now – and there’s no room for drunks on the pitch. People are safer. There are more women watching. These are the good things.
“My generation was sold an addiction cheap, and then they jacked the price up – classic drug-dealer tactics.”
Has football arguably lost something over that time?
Yes, of course. I would still probably argue that the plusses outweigh the minuses, but not many people of my age seem to agree. Nobody dying trumps everything, I think. And despite all the snootiness about the kinds of people who now watch football, I’d rather more people were at the stadium than fewer. I worry more about what it will be like in twenty years’ time, when my generation begins to die out. Kids won’t have the same link with the clubs that I had, because not many of them can go regularly to see Premier League games, and they certainly can’t go independently. And they’re much less interested in lower league and non-league football, because they can stay at home and watch Barcelona.
My generation was sold an addiction cheap, and then they jacked the price up – classic drug-dealer tactics. I had to pay exactly the same to get into Arsenal as I paid to get there on the underground when I was a teenager. This generation isn’t getting hooked. Fans laugh at the half-and-half scarves, but there’s a market for them – because so many people want a souvenir of their one visit to a Premier League ground. And very few players are going to stay in any one place long enough for a testimonial – another thing that breaks the links between fan and club.
Does football’s journey over the past thirty years say a lot about the way society has changed as a whole?
The commodification, certainly, and the way money has come to dominate the distribution of trophies. The Leicester story is barely believable, even from this distance – we know more or less who will win the Premier League this season, and next season, and the season after. There was a time when you reset the clock in the summer, and a smart manager could put together a championship-winning team – Forest and Derby in the ‘70’s, Aston Villa at the beginning of the 80s. Now we’re in a position where even Arsenal will struggle to mount a challenge in the near future.
What is about football that, over every other sport, inspires such obsessive fanaticism?
It’s interesting, I think, to compare our devotion to our clubs to US fandom. The Americans have several sports they tend to be interested in, and they either play a lot of games (baseball) or not very many (football.) In baseball there’s a saying: you win fifty, you lose fifty – it’s what you do with the other fifty that counts. It’s weird for us to contemplate that. Nobody can see every home game, and away games can be thousands of miles away.
In football, more than five or six losses and you know what sort of season you’re going to have. So every game matters – and of course every goal matters. A goal is a big deal. This results in an outpouring of feeling you’re not going to get very often in basketball or cricket. And in most European countries, there are a sizeable number of people who never miss a match, home or away, so there’s a unique atmosphere. Our countries are the right size, and our season is the right length.
As a prolific voice in both fields, what do you find is the main connection between football and music?
A lot of my friends are fluent in both languages. But for me, there isn’t much of a connection, especially as I’ve gotten older. One provides only pleasure, and one is still capable of driving me up the fucking wall.
This interview first appeared in STILES Issue 2. All our gratitude to Sam Harris for providing the illustrations. Check out his Instagram here.