Left to right: Ffion Thomas (deputy editor), Richard Guy (publisher), and Andy Lyons (editor)
In the era of globally branded, all-pervasive super-clubs hogging the hype and dominating the honors, there's a certain kind of soccer fan who loves nothing more than an underdog. That doesn't just apply to the refreshing rise of clubs like Premier League new boys Luton Town, or first-time Champions League qualifiers Union Berlin in the Bundesliga. It also applies to the media. Beyond the bland narratives of cash-driven success perpetuated by TV channels pushing the products they've paid handsomely to transmit, there's an undercurrent of commentary and coverage that offers an alternative to the glamour and gloss of the modern game. Like the British monthly magazine When Saturday Comes (WSC).
Founded in 1986 by a group of bored record store clerks in London who were fed up with the way that fans were stereotyped and demonized by the media and the public, WSC offered a new perspective on the game that combined dissent with gallows humor. To their surprise, the record store clerks found that enough people were interested to let them quit their day jobs behind the counter.
Almost four decades later, the magazine is still running off the presses. More remarkably, it's still independent and beholden to no one in its examination of what drives people to watch sport, and how they're treated (and exploited) both by the clubs they follow and the game's governors.
If you're wondering what sets WSC apart from other soccer media, here's an example from a recent issue, questioning the universal media depiction of Tottenham Hotspur as a club "in crisis." Contributor Sean Cole laments how "a less-then-ideal state of affairs is all too readily portrayed as a complete disaster by both professional and armchair pundits desperate for attention. Although it hapens in newspaper columns, on radio and TV too, social media has become prime territory for strong opinions expressed with unearned confidence. Whether positive or negative, attention of any kind has become a valuable commodity."
This dogged resistance to soccer's seemingly unstoppable dominance and inflated sense of its own importance typifies the kind of content that it's still worth paying to read in an old-fashioned 48-page magazine (though you can also take out a digital subscription). To find out more about how WSC has survived a radically altered media landscape, Soccer America last week met up with editor Andy Lyons and publisher Richard Guy over a pint and a sandwich in a south London pub.
SOCCER AMERICA: WSC has survived as an independent magazine for the best part of four decades. What are some of the highs and the lows?
Andy: Very early on, I was always amazed whenever we did a new issue. One of our very first interviews was with [London listings magazine] Time Out, and we were asked, 'Where do you see yourselves in five years time?' I said, 'Probably back working in a shop.' So when we were eventually able to start working on the magazine full-time — two years after the first issue — that was a kind of triumph.
Then we had a period during the 1990s when the 'zine culture we'd been a part of became a mainstream thing. We were selling a lot of copies and there was a lot of media interest in us, which ultimately ended when sales began to fall as the media landscape started to change. But certainly, that sense that we'd not just survived but had been able to continue as a business, although we don't think about it on a day-to-day basis — but when we come to talk about it, even now I'm quite amazed that we've lasted this long.
Low points? I don't know how much we want to get into that ...
Rich: The low points have been business-related. Andy and [deputy editor] Ffion [Thomas] deal with the words and getting the mag out, and then we try and sell it. The worst thing was a massive debt we'd unknowingly built up with [London Borough of] Islington Council for unpaid business rates. Before I joined, the magazine moved into a new office in Clerkenwell, and no one told the council. They came knocking on the door in 1996 and asked 'Who are you? How long have you been here? You owe us 36 grand.' Time Out was distributing the magazine then and, on the basis of our distribution agreement, they helped us out. We could pay the amount owed over two years, but the council were completely inflexible and would have been quite happy for us to go out of business.
Andy: We started in an era where there were very few monthly football magazines, and we had a niche in the market writing about fan culture. But by the mid-90s magazines like FourFourTwo had started, which reflected a lot more the mainstream media interest in football, and tapping into the post-1991 changes in the football landscape [the founding of the Premier League, and the reforms to European club competitions], and maybe a widening audience for football after it had a bad time in the 1980s. So FourFourTwo came on to the market in 1994, and then another three magazines launched, all from big publishers and all very similar. The other three all folded because, realistically, no one was going to buy more than one magazine a month when they were copycat publications.
Now, we'd decided to go full color at this time, so we'd committed to spending more money on production just before this issue with the council. Really, that was the biggest single low-point. Although it was a business deal for Time Out, they did in effect bail us out, and they didn't have to do it.
Rich: We're completely independent, we own the magazine, and we're not part of a big publishing group — we live by our own decisions, which has its advantages but also its downsides. We're basically a break-even business, which does mean that when something like that happens [with a one-off major expense], then it's a big problem. We had another problem in 2010 when our distributor — who gets the magazine from the printers to the shelves — went out of business, owing us a five-figure sum of money. We were very, very lucky — it was just before the 2010 World Cup, and our World Cup preview issues are always our biggest seller along with the preseason issue, it's huge for us. We'd got that issue out of the printers and into the shops the day before the distributor went under. If we hadn't, the issue would have been swallowed up as part of the administration [bankruptcy] process. So again, just when you think you're doing OK, something comes along.
Andy: That's been one of our traditions. Whenever we think we're getting back on an even keel, something always happens. I think the key thing is that during the first couple of years, when no one was working full-time on the magazine, we ran it kind of organically, knowing we had a bit of an audience. If it had started out as a business run by a bigger publishing company from the outset, it probably wouldn't have survived. We would have had sales and advertising targets to achieve, which we probably wouldn't have done. It needed to develop very slowly and gradually become a full-time thing, and I think that was a key factor in our survival.
SA: Wasn't there a major publisher interested in buying you out at some point?
Andy: That was IPC, who had been told by their management they had to produce a rival to FourFourTwo. We could have just moved WSC over to them, which in effect would have meant us becoming a more glossy magazine. They took us out to lunch but we said no, because we weren't the right people to talk to Michael Owen or do features on David Beckham's 20 Greatest Goals. We also felt there would be no point in using the name of the magazine, because by that point we had a particular ethos our readers felt connected to — if the magazine had changed, we'd have lost most of those readers. So IPC started Goal, which lasted a couple of years but then closed down because all those mags were too similar to FourFourTwo, which had had a head start of about a year. We had a particular niche, and still have, which means we sell less than those kind of magazines, but we have a more loyal audience.
SA: The magazine has never really done interviews aside from a brief phase a few years back when you chose some really interesting people to talk to, like The Fall singer Mark E Smith. Do you think there's a niche for talking to people outside of the superstar spectrum?
Andy: Some of our features do incorporate interviews, but we don't present them as Q&As any more. We do a readership survey every year, and it did seem that the interviews weren't especially popular. And because we have a limited amount of space we can't give a huge amount of space to interviews, which tend to need three or four pages — a lot for a 48-page magazine. We're quite text heavy and always have a lot to fit in to the issue, so we gradually stopped doing them as Q&As.
You have to assume that our readers are people who follow football closely anyway, and obviously watch it on TV and read newspapers still. You're always wary of telling people things they'll have already read, so we're always looking for a different way of presenting something. That also applies to the way we write about the major clubs. There's no point in writing a standard article about Manchester United, you have to have a different angle on a club like that.
SA: When you talk about the niche and the ethos of the magazine, how would you broadly sum that up?
Andy: I would say the typical WSC reader is someone interested in football as a whole. Even if they support a particular team, they're generally aware of the rest of the game, they're not just focused on being a Man United or Chelsea fan. All these clubs have their own magazines and their own TV channels, so now you can just follow your own team and not necessarily take a wider interest, whereas we've always felt that even if our readers support a major club, they have a broader sense of the whole of football.
When we started out we were defensive of the whole culture of football — in the 80s the game had a bad image because of hooligan problems and so forth. Now we've gone the other way and we're a little bit skeptical about some of the ways that the game is promoted, and the way that clubs have become part of this global, corporate business. Obviously all our readers are still interested in football, and the game's doing well as a whole, it's flourishing. But there are things you can be critical of regarding how the game is run from a business point of view, and to do with the way that fans are treated.
Rich: There are fans who don't care about anything besides their own team, which is fine, but there are fans who have a broader interest in the politics that surround football — and that's us, that's who we talk to. We hear some people saying that the magazine's become too political over the last couple of years, which is really odd because it hasn't, it hasn't changed.
Andy: It is a strange thing because people occasionally complain about something we've said about politics, and it's always expressed in the context of: 'I've been a reader for 20 years and this time you've gone too far.' They can't just say, 'I didn't like that article.' It's very theatrical. I'm always amazed when people tell us to steer clear of politics and 'just stick to the soccer', but if you have been a reader for a long time, I can't understand what you think you've been reading.
SA: It's like when readers write in to the satirical magazine Private Eye complaining about satire.
Andy: We actually printed a letter two months ago saying, 'If I want woke, I read The Guardian, I don't expect to see it in WSC.' We'd been defending Gary Lineker, and one or two people didn't like the fact that Lineker was 'getting political.' That is, he was saying something they didn't happen to agree with.
SA: When the media landscape is so dominated by the Premier League, the Champions League and all the hype around the Big Clubs, do you sometimes wonder, 'Are we the insane ones here?' It's kind of a testimony to your courage and independence that you've persevered. I suppose I'm asking — do you ever feel like you're pissing into the wind?
Andy: I think it's also a sense of partly we can't do anything else, like we mentioned before about not moving the mag over to IPC. There are certain things we wouldn't be good at doing, so we know what our parameters are, and fortunately so far we can survive within those parameters. Hopefully there are enough people who get our perspective still.
From very early on, and much to our surprise, we discovered there were a lot of people around the country who shared our outlook, and that was partly because a whole sub-culture of fan dissent was developing. Most of our readers probably do watch the Champions League final, and do have an interest in the Premier League or the English national team, so you can continue to watch football as a game, while being critical of what's going on behind the scenes. Some people absorb football entirely uncritically, but personally I don't really understand how you do that, but some people evidently do.
It helps that I'm not a supporter of Arsenal or Chelsea, say, so maybe you have to regard the game from a different perspective if you follow that kind of club. Rich supports Aston Villa and I support Everton, which is the most played fixture in the history of the English top flight — they're the two teams that have spent the most seasons there, even more than Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. So although our clubs have achieved in the past, they're currently not part of that Champions league group — but there is a sense of history, with fans hoping that one day things will get better again. It's not like we've never achieved anything, but we're slightly distanced from the leading pack.
Rich: I think there are fans in their 20s now, and they see soccer purely from a 'Big 4' or 'Big 6' perspective, and why wouldn't they? That's the way the game is marketed, the bigger teams are the ones constantly being pushed. I wouldn't necessarily blame someone who got into soccer in 2008, say, but that's just a different game to the one I grew up following in the 1970s.
Certainly when I used to go to Villa when I lived in Birmingham, football took up a few hours on Saturday, maybe from 1 p.m. until 5 p.m. You’d do something in the morning, meet your mates at the match in the afternoon, then go home in the evening and live your life. You’d read a match report in the local paper, maybe a smaller one in the national paper, and that was it. Now there's so much media space to fill it has to be accentuated. To meet all this demand for 'content', for want of a better word, you have to create all these stories to fill the media demand.
Andy: I used to be amazed that some countries, like Spain, Italy and France, had daily sports papers. I used to wonder how they filled an entire newspaper every day with sports stories, but now we're kind of finding out here how that's possible — they just fill it with crap, every day. There's always stories about Arsenal or Manchester United, there's always something you can talk about, for people who are absolutely fascinated by Arsenal and can consume Arsenal several hours a day. That never used to be possible, so I wonder if that content has been created by an audience which has decided that's what they want.
SA: I have a vision of you two sitting down to watch Aston Villa vs. Everton and each one criticizing your own team and praising your opponent.
Andy: That's a very accurate picture of how things would be.
In Part 2 next week, Rich and Andy explain why the magazine stopped accepting advertising from gambling firms, as well as their views on the more positive trends at the lower levels of the professional and non-league game in the UK. You can subscribe to WSC HERE.