The expert take
About Dr. Martha Newson
Dr Martha Newson is a cognitive anthropologist whose research has featured across the BBC, as well as on Sky and Discovery. Her work with football fans spans four continents and she is currently leading research with the UK Ministry of Justice to investigate how major football clubs can help reduce reoffending rates by offering football training to people in prison or on probation.
What defines a traditional football fan? And how has fandom changed since the advent of social media?
The idea of a traditional British football fan still rings true for many people. These fans have a lifelong, unflinching loyalty to their club, likely a loyalty that they share with close friends or family.
Social media has given some football fans the opportunity to connect where they wouldn’t normally. Firstly, this seems to have resulted in the rapid emergence of multiple fan subcultures, identified by their behaviour (branded clothing), values (political or social issues), or knowledge of the game (football stats or player backgrounds). Secondly, international fans have opportunities to forge social connections with local fans like never before. Thirdly, social media is a platform that can be used to facilitate mass crowd rituals – be it gathering before a game or for football groups engaged in protests.
Do you think that players’ attitudes and behaviours have changed through the ages?
Due to the cult of celebrity in wider society, we see and hear more about players’ attitudes and behaviours than ever before. After several decades of players’ lives being relatively private, due to the high risk of public scrutiny via print media, social media has offered players the opportunity to share their own stories, for which there is a huge appetite. As people, players are probably not much different today than they were the last half a century. However, their lifestyles have changed drastically leading to a greater divide between fans and players. Equally, charitable giving among players is on the rise, partly reflecting societal trends for socio-political activism.
With such huge social media followings, do you feel that football players and clubs have a responsibility to behave in a certain way?
While I’m in support of clubs taking social responsibility and encouraging societally positive behaviours among fans, I’m not keen on moralizing players as individuals. Football players are there to do a job: play football, well. While they need to use their platforms responsibly, not all players have the personality to live up to being a role model beyond their sporting achievements.
Clubs, as money-making operations, on the other hand, have a social responsibility to ensure that no hate is generated on their platforms, that there is opportunity for diversity and engagement, and that they showcase positive role models from diverse backgrounds, communities, and levels in the game.
Do you think football fandom differs between generations?
Football fandom is both culturally stable and highly variable. Generationally, the game has seen big changes to fan culture. In the UK, current football lad cultures often emulate that of their grandfathers (the hooligan culture of the 1990s) so even though fandom is felt to change, the trends are recurrent.
Why do you think teams such as Spurs and Newcastle United receive so many tweets of a negative sentiment vs. teams like Wolverhampton Wanderers who receive much more positivity?
Cultures of hostility or positivity build rapidly on social media. It wouldn’t take much for a small group of fans to come up with a hashtag that could swiftly turn things in a different direction. One reason for extensive tweeting on a topic is that fans are looking to effect change and, in the British system where fans have little say over club management, posting on social media might feel like the only way to get their message across. Additionally, perennially low-ranking clubs, like Wolverhampton Wanderers, will have the most highly bonded and loyal fans due to the transformative nature of dysphoric matches where the team has lost or been relegated. This means that fans won’t be put off by losses.
In the aftermath of the EUROs final, do you think English football fans feel wrongly portrayed by the media?
Some fans will feel the media portrayal is fair and some will feel that it’s entirely inaccurate. There is, however, a theme of shame among England fans - of the national team losing, or fans behaving badly, or fans losing against other fans in international fights. This reputational concern around being seen as ‘good fans’ seems to be quite consistent among England fans. Overall, and in relation to this, there seems to be relatively high levels of consensus among fans that the image portrayed by the media captured only a small minority of England fans, a fan group that is otherwise co-operative and peaceful.