Floating in A sea of staples, meandering font sizes and murky photocopies

From Can I Bring My Dog? to Never Say Dai, one thing unites all fanzines: love of the game.

By Neil Forsyth

This article first appeared in Issue 4 which was published in June 2017.

Discovering football fanzines as a teenager was an epiphany. Living in a pre-internet provincial city meant working hard to find subversion. Essentially, there was Viz and Channel 4, but then came football fanzines with their punk ideals, humour and a militant disregard for authority. They felt illicit, an image which was enhanced when so many of them were swiftly banned by their respective clubs.

I blew my paper-round money on fanzines from Dundee’s legendary Groucho’s record shop and AFN Distribution, the UK’s biggest (only?) fanzine distributors. AFN was run by a Welshman called Steve who edited Never Say Dai, the Newport County fanzine, and he introduced me to a world of delights. I loved them all, the more romantically titled the better – Fortunes Always Hiding (West Ham United), Wise Men Say (Sunderland), Always the Bridesmaid (Hearts) – but my favourite was the fabled Gillingham fanzine Brian Moore’s Head Looks Uncannily Like The London Planetarium. I still remember my delight in discovering the absurdist match reports of BMHLULTLP.

In Scotland, I distrusted the corporate feel of the Old Firm fanzines (there was a rumour in the fanzine community that a Rangers fanzine editor earned a full-time living from his endeavours), preferring the defiantly shit production values of the likes of A Nightmare On Terragles Street (Queen of The South), Walking Down The Halbeath Road (Dunfermline) and Over The Wall (Albion Rovers).

My team, Dundee United, had a healthy collection. Freakscene (by the Glasgow Arabs), The United Review (by the Edinburgh Arabs and later renamed One Team In Dundee), Can I bring My Dog? (titled after a fan’s query regarding a bus journey to Brondby in the UEFA Cup), UTD United (a Dundee United-West Ham fanzine, with all the logistical questions that suggests), and the Godfather of United fanzines, The Final Hurdle, which was funny, crusading, had amazing cartoons and a hilarious ‘Heard In The Shed’ section.

Then a scrappy outsider appeared, When the Hoodoo Comes, produced by the Falkirk Arabs and like The Final Hurdle titled to reference United habitually losing Hampden cup finals. I found the courage to write in and become a contributor. It was an indescribable thrill, even when my contribution largely meant cutting and pasting dialogue onto Roy of The Rovers strips. WTHC’s editors, Scott and Norrie, were good men who put up with my puppyish excitement and endless phone calls with endless ideas.

One day we stood in the Shed and watched in wonder as, in the nearby executive box, the injured Billy McKinlay read WTHC and laughed with abandon. Disaster struck when my Mum read one of my pieces, a profane-laden assault on Dundee FC, and said: “What is this?…” After emotional negotiations I was given a one-issue ban and forced to cancel my much-anticipated attendance at a school disco. It is a reaction to my output my Mum occasionally displays to this day, but fortunately she has been shorn of authority and I hardly ever go to school discos these days anyway.

Greater calamity arrived when WTHC made a retrospectively bewildering decision to enter the garden accessory market. It is hard now to determine what was going through our minds when we invested the fanzine’s entire financial reserves in a large stock of Dundee United themed garden gnomes. But that’s what we did.

We dutifully took up position outside Tannadice with the gnomes ranked multitudinously around us, seeking Arabs willing to not only buy a garden gnome but to hold it at the game, before ferrying it home via pub and bus. To my memory, we didn’t sell any. Certainly the stock seemed undented when we began the heart-breaking task of loading the gnomes back into Scott’s car. I often think of his journey back to Falkirk that evening with a car full of shattered dreams and several hundred garden gnomes.

WTHC was retired soon after, amidst poor United form and recession-hit crowds, after a glorious 10-edition run where we climbed to sales of 2,000. I have seen Scott and Norrie at United matches over the years, and can’t thank them enough for the life-changing experience of being part of WTHC.

Writing this article gave me a welcome excuse to retrieve my fanzine collection and spend a day in a sea of staples, meandering font sizes and murky photocopies. The unifying force in all of them is a magnified love of the game and a commitment which meant long nights of typing and stapling before standing, freezing, outside grounds with a box full of fanzines and the never-ending search for change of a fiver.

In 2017, with fan involvement largely limited to the anti-creative, disposable irrelevance of social media, the fanzines appear as relics. It can’t only be nostalgia that makes them seem a glimpse into better days.

 

The Absolute Game
By Archie McGregor

Folks involved in the football fanzine movement got there by very different routes, sometime less than scenic, but it’s generally accepted that it owed its origins to the DIY publishing phenomena that accompanied the emergence of punk in the mid-70s. The oft-cited exemplar was Sniffin’ Glue, which featured random content, was randomly written and had an even more random layout. It was a template that was enthusiastically embraced by early pioneers of the football version such as When Saturday Comes.

I was besotted by WSC; it genuinely felt like Christmas Day every time a new issue dropped through the letterbox. Duly inspired, it wasn’t long before the thought came along that it would be worth trying to start a Scottish equivalent, looking at our game from an irreverent and, importantly, a general perspective. Thus The Absolute Game was born.  Due homage was paid to punk by adopting a Skids song as the title. We also got into glue sniffing, albeit in this case it was Pritt Sticks as we consumed mountains of them laboriously pasting down inky typed articles into, yes, randomly laid-out pages ready for copying and printing.

So far so good. Except if you were applying a bit of sane analysis to the undertaking you might have queried the, um, business model. If TAG was about anything it was about exploring and enjoying Scottish football outwith the mind-numbing Old Firm prism that the established print media in particular thought was more than good enough for their readers. For those born from the early-90s onwards it might seem scarcely credible that the only source of news and discussion on Scottish football was a couple of pages at the back of a daily paper and Saturday afternoon commentaries and phone-ins. By all but shunning all things Celtic and Rangers, except for poking a bit of ridicule and ire, we were offering something decidedly different. However with limited means of distribution we were also targeting a widely scattered and sometimes elusive audience.

Sales got to about 2,700 copies at TAG’s peak in the late-80s and we flogged them through a combination of subscriptions, hardy ground sellers and a variety of independent book, record and programme shops. The latter were occasionally even more disorganised than we were in their administration, some piloting the concept of ‘the paperless office’ a good couple of decades before it became trendy among management consultancy geeks. Disputes over copies sold and returns became part and parcel of the routine of fanzine multi-tasking.

Not being a club-based publication it was harder to win over the sceptics when trying to shift TAG outside grounds. Some grumpy Private Fraser-types even adopted outright hostility to the thought of handing over 50p to some weird bloke trying to flog something promising a look at Scottish football that didn’t have the Daily Record masthead on it. I recall one particularly crushing experience before a Scotland-France World Cup qualifier at Hampden 1989. We sent over a platoon of willing street sellers and printed an additional 500 copies in anticipation of a bumper sale. It being Glasgow the evening was a shocker, we got drookit, and the Tartan Army were far more interested in scurrying to find a corner of the old stadium offering some semblance of shelter. The vast majority of our extra copies were left as unsold porridge-like mush. But, hey-ho, at least Scotland won.

In the end we even created a cartoon strip to recount such tales of self-deprecation. A few days later having consumed the contents of a family-sized Lemsip packet even our very own Hampden debacle seemed like a good laugh. And that in essence was what running TAG was about: having fun.

 

The Northern Light
By Chris Gavin

The Northern Light burned bright in the firmament of football literature for a mere 23 issues before we switched it off for the last time. It was great while it lasted, starting in the Porterfield era – a gift to any bitter and twisted scribes, and enjoying momentum with Alex Smith in charge of the Dons. From surreptitious beginnings (on the terraces of Parkhead in December ’87) with a hand-coloured sheep’s scarf, the rag of choice for Dons’ fans reached sales of about 4,500 copies per edition – all we could get in the car and handle without turning it into a business.

It was a time when there were so many sitting targets all around Scotland’s great and glorious game, and before long we were reviewed by Stuart Bathgate as being “very even-handed, they hate everybody”. Fair enough, there were certainly no holds barred nor quarter expected and the group of people who got together had a wonderful capacity for barbs and potshots in all directions. Some of these guys went on to work in the press – they know who they are – and have done okay after a grounding in football’s gutters. So successful were we, along with many of the other Scottish zines, that it was inevitable that the tabloids would jump on the bandwagon, hoovering up ideas and pretty much pinching our turf.

Not that the TNL’ers cared much, and even after the last edition was put to bed, the seeds of new directions were germinating. The Paper Tiger was first to surface with the bitterest and most creative faction of wahoos, who kept it going for a couple of years before losing interest, apparently. Not too far behind it came The Red Final, which struggled into life with a free edition that was a battle to give away, but which continues to this day.

The end of the 1980s was a period when “cut and paste” meant cut with scissors and paste with Pritt, until the blessed Pagemaker came along – and then I was accused, in one of the constant bickers that went on, of “owning the means of production” by my fellow founding editor.

The fun wasn’t so much the putting it together as in seeing the results. Frankly the best thing for me was the selling side, the interaction with punters on the streets around Pittodrie or at away grounds. It was a bit of a thrill to add to the street theatre surrounding a match, yelling out the wares, getting mimicked by kids and blethering with those bright enough to buy copies of the rag. We knew that some of the senior players were buying copies at a local shop and coming back for more. What could be better than that? The biggest thrill of all? Legging it down the street pursued by a half dozen punters hoping to get a copy after the last one had been sold.

We decided to kill off TNL at its zenith rather than face its nadir, which would have been inevitable, and went out at the top of our collective game. It was the best issue and still well remembered by everybody who had the good fortune to read it, from the manager of Marks and Spencer to the lad who swept the streets in Seaton. The fanzines that came after were fun, but nothing’s quite the same as the first-born. Just how many jokes can you make about Dundee United and their passbacks or referees and their masonic regalia? Hmmm.

 

It’s Half Past Four…And We’re 2-0 Down
By Alan Pattullo

The first issue of It’s Half Past Four…And We’re 2-0 Down, or HPF for short, was a crudely put-together production that broke that golden rule of publishing: choose a photogenic cover star. We featured Davie Dodds on the front.

“We cover the good, the bad and the [pic of Dodds] side of Scottish football” was the weak and actually bogus gag.

By the time issue two of HPF appeared an editorial decision was taken to join the burgeoning ranks of Dundee FC fanzines, because, well, Dundee were the team occupying most of my waking moments.

I remember something Nick Hornby wrote when reflecting on this era and how he felt guilty for worrying more about Arsenal’s form than the escalating Balkan Crisis. I was the same with Jim Duffy’s knees.

Issue two came out at the start of the 1989/90 season, which ended with relegation from the top flight. While the fanzine’s Dens Park association was now firmly established, there were still occasions when the contents seemed rather random to say the least.

The first big interview we secured was with the late Don McVicar, then skipper of St Johnstone. The reason? He was going out with the local joiner’s daughter (McVicar was at least Dundonian, and, I seem to recall, grew up a Dundee fan).

We stuck straws – “to sook up your Dens Park peh grease” – on the front cover of issue two, a laborious chore involving Sellotape and lots of teenage tantrums. But it helped catch the eye of Dougie Donnelly, who held up the front page on Sportscene at a time when they featured a segment on fanzines every Saturday night.

The next issue had “Arab Ass-kicking” badges Sellotaped to the front to mark a win over United. That’s right, a win. That’s where we were at the time.   

With eight issues, probably around 8,000 sales in total, there was nothing for DC Thomson to be concerned about – though plenty for my dad, who fretted about libel laws which I blithely ignored.

Dundee were beginning to struggle again in the late-80s so it was a fertile time to be a Dundee fanzine editor, which perhaps accounted for the proliferation of DFC-associated fans’ publications.

At one point Dundee had more fanzines than any other club – off the top of my head there were at least six. Angus Cook, the easily-caricatured Dundee chairman, was trying to force a merger with Dundee United. Then along came Ron Dixon, the self-styled, charismatic but ever-so-slightly dodgy Canadian moneylord, to kind of save the day by buying the financially ailing club.

He also bought a copy of HPF. He thrust a tenner in the hand of one of my sellers outside Dens and drawled: “keep the change”.

Shortly afterwards I received a summons to Dens. He seemed taken by the entrepreneurship involved in the venture. But I could have told him it lost a lot more money than it made, in fine Dundee FC tradition.

“I see a lot of you in me,” he told me, which I wasn’t sure was something I wanted to hear – and I’m still not, given the mysterious circumstances of his death in Mexico in the late 1990s.

We sat in the boardroom together at Dens and he said he’d always remember my name because there was a Pattullo Bridge in Vancouver, his hometown. I still have the tape somewhere of the interview he gave me. I always mean to go back to listen to it because his answers never appeared in the fanzine.

One of the reasons for this was the arbitrary publication schedule. It was hinged initially around school holidays but then became a lot more free and easy when university, and its extracurricular delights, formed a new and exciting distraction.

Dixon bought a copy of issue seven, which was on sale when Dundee did what Dundee do and lost to Montrose on a day when they were supposed to be celebrating winning the First Division title in May 1992.

The next edition did not come out until December 1995 – and it was the last one to date, rushed out to record for posterity our, erm, League Cup final defeat to Aberdeen.

I actually relish the thought of doing one more issue and might if Dundee ever get round to winning something. Or, as is perhaps more likely, as part of a fund-raising initiative to help with… well, let’s not even go there.

 

The Web
By Iain Campbell

The Web was the supporters’ magazine of Queen’s Park and produced by the Queen’s Park Supporters Association.

The first issue came out at the start of season 1980/81, which was a great time to start as Queen’s won their first promotion for 25 years by winning the Second Division Championship. I became the third editor in February 1983 and managed six-and-a-half seasons at the helm.

The original editor Hector Cook gave me a hand with my first effort and showed me how to keep all the text straight, how the pages lined up when sending them for printing and introduced me to cow gum. It all seemed straightforward and I sat back waiting for all the letters and articles to flood in but I soon realised that I had to provide the ideas and find “space fillers” for each issue.

I also discovered that articles didn’t write themselves and so “borrowed” an electric typewriter from work, which saved an awful lot of hassle. One article which always arrived typed was The Sharpened Stud, undoubtedly the most eagerly-awaited read for our regular buyers, and this could be about anything to do with current football and/or QP.

As The Web was a QPSA production we were supportive of the team, although not necessarily the club, and a typical issue would feature the QP supporters team, indoor Carpet Bowls Team, a gossip column revolving around supporters who travelled on the away buses and basically anything anybody wanted to send in.

Despite our pro-QP outlook we still managed to get banned in 1988. I was called to the boardroom, along with QPSA supremo Keith McAllister, to face the club secretary Jim Rutherford and club president George Geddes. It all seemed quite amicable until “Wobbly George” started ranting about how despicable the magazine was and a disgrace to the club etc etc. Obviously he was unhappy with our jokes about The Vicar, Ian the Alky and Pat “Piss Stop” Gallagher in the gossip column!

The ban meant heehaw as it was sold outside the ground just as before and we still obtained interviews with players and committee members when we wanted.

As well as our regular Webs, we also produced a Christmas special, Off The Ball, which contained more interviews with players and supporters and photos than The Web. As I was never good at picking a good cover I asked Alick Milne of Cheers/Awol (Meadowbank Thistle) to draw a cartoon and he always produced the goods.

One of the Off The Balls came to 48 pages so my bedroom was covered in paper and it was 3am before I finally glued down the last article and straight text had long been forgotten about by this point. Three hours sleep then up to check everything again before getting the finished magazine to the printers, then off to work!

Such was our relationship with the team that I took one of the Christmas editions to the hotel where the team were leaving from for an overnight stop in Elgin prior to a Scottish Cup tie. Fearsome club coach Eddie Hunter watched as I handed over the magazines and I left before he could give me his critique.

For a magazine that only tried to focus on all things QP and was filled with in-jokes I was surprised that people wanted to swap their own club’s fanzines to get hold of copies, but there is still a strong bond with Leyton Orientear and Dial M For Merthyr to this day, as well as with the Meadowbank guys. 

 

Cheers / AWOL / The Thistle
By Alick Milne

For a small club Meadowbank Thistle had a disproportionate influence on the fanzine era. Cheers was probably the first single-club supporters’ publication. The Brake Club’s AWOL blended football, music, humour and lifestyle with great success, while The Thistle, concentrating more on football, evolved into a campaigning fanzine which made some people very uncomfortable in the run-up to the move to Livingston.

The founder of Cheers and the leading voice in AWOL was Alistair Hay, a.k.a. Angry Al. Inspired by the niche music publications of the punk era, and more directly by Shug Hanlan’s pioneering Sick As A Parrot, Cheers first appeared in 1978. Angry’s scathing humour appealed to many, and supporters were happy to help sell the magazine inside the ground.  That changed to outside the ground following a cup tie with Hibs at Tynecastle, when the club claimed people were ‘conned’ into buying an unofficial programme. The subsequent ‘BANNED’ issue also sold out.

The word ‘niche’ is relevant. Before the days of the Monday morning football pull-outs, media coverage of lesser clubs was abysmal. The Edinburgh Evening News restricted Thistle news to a couple of sentences, while the programme could be read in 30 seconds. The first supplementary publication was Jim Leitch’s Meadowbank Review from 1977, created in protest at lack of coverage of supporters’ affairs. Sadly, Jim died at the end of the season, and the Review did not continue.

Cheers’ editorial policy was emulated by subsequent Thistle publications. It never indulged in destructive criticism of players past or present, it did not antagonise or demonise supporters of other clubs, the editor’s own political preferences (hard-left Labour) were only hinted at – but, above all, it held that football was fun and no reason for fighting or sulking. Unrelenting Pollyanna-ism doesn’t maintain the interest, though, and there were regular targets for Cheers in the club board, who didn’t show concern for poor league positions, and football columnists, especially the bumptious Alex Cameron of the Daily Record, who had declared his contempt for Meadowbank Thistle before they had kicked a ball.

Angry Al’s increasing interest in music led him to resign after 17 issues, and I moved from cartoonist to editor. In those days I had time and energy; but my salary couldn’t support up-front printing costs, and Cheers folded in early 1982 after issue 21.

Meadowbank Thistle’s fortunes turned, and in 1982/83 they came from nowhere to win promotion. With higher status the fanbase mushroomed, and in a repeat of a 1977 coup the younger members took control of the Supporters’ Club. Faced with the appalling prospect of coaches which left little time for pre-match drinks, the older fans hived off to become the Brake Club. Both organisations produced their own fanzines: The Thistle and AWOL.

By this time supporters approaching the turnstiles no longer needed the concept of a fanzine explained to them. The Thistle, edited by David Baxter, was precise and knowledgeable, and while by no means anodyne did not rattle too many cages – it reflected the feel-good atmosphere at Meadowbank at the time. AWOL, on the other hand, was sprawling and irresponsible and produced by an editorial junta headed by Angry Al.  Written in a haze of alcohol and only lightly edited before publication, it broke away from the design restrictions of Cheers and combined Thistle with jokes and satire and anything which took the editors’ fancy. Sales soared, the magazine got thicker and moved to A4 size. Free vinyl records were given away with some issues. Sportspages in London increased their order each month and soon most sales were in England, with the profits subsidising Brake Club coaches.

But cracks appeared in the camaraderie. Proposals to drop the Meadowbank content of AWOL and continue as a general fanzine caused big disagreements, and personality clashes made the final issues uncomfortable reading. Bill Hunter’s increasing involvement in the club, and the prospect of a move to Livingston, spurred The Thistle into critical editorial mode, but AWOL was indifferent at the start and had ceased to exist by the time matters really started moving.

Copies of AWOL, The Thistle, Cheers and some other short-lived Thistle publications – Mr Bismarck’s Electric Pickelhaube and Roll on 4:40 – occasionally appear on eBay. Meadowbank’s Wikipedia piece was removed long ago, and statistical websites now call the 1974-1995 club ‘Livingston’ with a ‘then known as Meadowbank Thistle’ footnote, but artefacts such as fanzines are a pleasant reminder that ‘Fisul’ hasn’t been entirely airbrushed from
history.

This article first appeared in Issue 4 which was published in June 2017.

Issue 12
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