Last week we got to know two of the staff at the UK's longest-running independent soccer magazine, When Saturday Comes. Editor Andy Lyons and publisher Richard Guy told us about the history of the magazine, and offered us their views on where a small, basically non-profit operation with dissenting views can fit in to the glorious mega-money spectacle of the modern game. We continue the interview by talking about how it feels to be fans of two long-standing top flight teams (Aston Villa for Rich, Everton for Andy), the knock-on consequences of the cash-sated UEFA Champions League, and then to the magazine's ethically driven decision to stop accepting advertising revenue from gambling firms.
SOCCER AMERICA: The system of promotion and relegation in Europe goes back almost to the start of football history, so there's an apparently meritocratic tradition of the best teams reaching the top. But clubs like Aston Villa and Everton — which were English champions in the 1980s, and who also won European honors — have now hit a glass ceiling. The best they can hope for is a domestic cup and a place in the Europa League. Mostly, they settle for having survived relegation for another year.
Rich: I've been following football a long time now, so I've seen everything. I've seen my team Aston Villa win the European Cup [in 1982], I've seen them get relegated and promoted again a few times. There have been so many false dawns over the years where you think, "This is it!" So you just become immune to disappointment. I'm not going to get excited now, even though we have a brilliant coach [Unai Emery] and very rich owners. Something will go wrong.
Andy: There's a perception that the wealthiest clubs have moved beyond the reach of the remaining teams, apart from the exception of Leicester City winning the Premier League in 2016. Out of the last 36 FA Cups, 31 have been won by just five clubs, while the other five have been won by a single club, including Everton [in 1995].
At no other point in football history have you had that dominance of a trophy. Some fans of a few clubs are getting used to multiple trophies all the time.
In previous times, a club like Everton would reasonably have expected, over the past 20 years, to have won one or two more trophies than they have. And that applies to other clubs, like Southampton or Norwich, say, who might have picked up an FA Cup or a League Cup in that time. So we have two levels of football now. The major clubs, 'the Big 6,' which Newcastle have now joined, and then the rest. There is a definite sense that the gap between the rich and the poor is getting wider.
I think the Premier League were pleased that Leicester won the league in 2016, because it was good for them — they don't want Manchester City to win the league unopposed every year. And they were pleased this year that for a while there was a battle with Arsenal. But they also don't want 'smaller' teams to be consistently successful, because that's not good for the league's global marketing. In reality, they want the major clubs with the biggest fan bases to win the most. And so do the media and the biggest newspapers — they prefer to cover Manchester United and Liverpool, because more of their readers follow those clubs.
SA: In the 90s I wrote a piece for WSC about how the reforms in the Champions League would lead to the dominance of a small number of clubs in domestic leagues across the continent. There are now numerous examples of a single or small number of clubs repeatedly winning their leagues because they are top-heavy with Champions League cash. Do you share my view that the Champions League has been the most pernicious development in club soccer over the past four decades?
Andy: The basic principles of European competition were threefold — one knockout competition for the domestic league winners, one for the domestic cup winners, and one for teams that finished close to the top. The format was simple, easy to understand, and quite principled — you win your league, you play in the European Cup.
Now the biggest countries, for commercial reasons, have three or four or even five representatives in the UEFA Champions League [formerly the European Champions Cup], so you cannot win anything for 20 years but still be in the "Champions" League. Personally, as a fan I'd prefer to finish 10th and win a domestic cup rather than finishing fourth, even though finishing fourth means you get to play Real Madrid, maybe, and you make more money. But playing against Real Madrid is not a trophy — I'd rather win something.
Maybe your perspective changes if you're supporting a Champions League regular team over a period of time. So that's a fundamental shift in European football, and unfortunately it isn't going to go back unless the major clubs leave [their domestic leagues] completely.
Left to right: Richard Guy (publisher), Andy Lyons (editor).
SA: Speaking of which, there were massive fan protests in England last year when the European Super League plans were announced, so even for fans of Champions League perennials there seems to be a point where commerce-driven change is too radical. [WSC was so ahead of the game on this issue that it produced a T-shirt with the slogan Stuff Yer Superleague! In the mid-1990s. The T-shirt is now available again.]
Andy: That was encouraging, and even a lot of younger fans of, say, Manchester United and Liverpool, didn't like the prospect of their teams forming a breakaway European league, even though their clubs hoped that they would retain their places in the Premier League as well. So, they'd have a second string playing in the Premier League, while the first team played more matches in Europe.
Club rivalries within England do still matter. Even though Liverpool and Manchester United are playing Barcelona and Real Madrid on a fairly regular basis, there's still much more feeling in terms of rivalries at home than there will ever be, I think, on an international level. However much the media like to make a big deal of it, that's never going to have the same resonance for fans.
SA: What are the trends in football that you view more positively than the Champions League?
Andy: One thing that's quite noticeable — and we have an article about it in our current [July] issue — is the big public increase in interest in lower level football [third and fourth tiers] and non-league football [fifth tier downwards]. Across the board and across the country, a lot of smaller clubs are attracting more fans, for various reasons.
It's too expensive to go to watch the big teams for many younger people. The 24-hour promotion of football in the media has perhaps had the positive effect that a lot more younger people are interested and want to go and watch games now, and so a lot of people — even if they support Manchester United and live in London, say — also like to go along and see a game every weekend.
Which is another thing about our magazine's readership in general — although we think of them as followers of football as a whole, they tend to be people who physically go to games, they're not a TV audience. So there seems to be a new generation of fans that's getting used to going to a stadium. There are a lot of positive aspects connected with that, that football clubs at a lower level are still a community enterprise. Younger people going to their local team enhances their connection to their area — that's definitely a positive development.
Rich: The improved quality of the facilities has been a massive influence since WSC started. Yes, you're paying for it, but the general match day experience is better than it was in the 80s when the fan behind you pissing down your leg on a crowded terrace was not an uncommon experience. That has contributed to a broader audience watching professional football as well — there's been a change in the profile of your average fan, for the better.
Andy: There are definitely more women watching, and not just watching men's football, but women's too. People in general are a lot more aware now of women's football, even though at the top level women's teams are now heading the same way as the men's, with teams like Manchester City and Chelsea dominating.
That's kind of a shame because they're just replicating the business profile of men's football, and it would be nice if it could be distinctively different. But we'll see how that goes.
SA: The men's clubs used to take criticism for not putting any of their cash into the women's game, so it's hard to slate them now for doing that. Although in the German women's game there's a certain amount of sadness that it's gone the same way. Turbine Potsdam, the last women's team independent of a major men's pro side, has just been relegated from the first division ...
Rich: We have something about that in our latest issue too!
SA: But in terms of lower league football thriving, my team Lincoln City regularly drew crowds of 8,500 this past season in the third tier, despite a mediocre campaign. They've largely been able to hold on to the fans they picked up in their successful seasons in tiers five and then four over the past few years. In the past, their fans have tended to disappear as soon as they've stopped winning. You mentioned the value of clubs in their community, and that was something Lincoln made a big effort with over the past few years, knowing that at some point their rise upwards would reach its limits on the field of play.
Andy: The clubs themselves have realized this, and that's been another positive development of various 'football in the community' schemes that a lot of big clubs run as well. Everton have a good one in various parts of Liverpool, and smaller clubs have realized they have to work on new ways to promote themselves to build on local interest. So there are a lot of non-league clubs, for example, who used to attract a home gate of around 300, and are now pulling in a thousand fans every weekend, and that's an extraordinary improvement.
SA: There's also been a romanticization of lower league football in recent years, with a certain fascination for obscure stadiums and clubs with old stands, or a quirky history. It's embodied in a magazine like Groundtastic that's entirely devoted to football stadiums - many of them at the bottom of the game.
Andy: With around 130 years of professional football history to draw on, there's a huge amount of stuff to investigate, and a vast hinterland of things to discover if you want to. There's a whole eco-system.
Rich: It's also easier to find out about it now, and it's easier to go and document it as well. All you need is a smartphone and a train ticket or a car. So if I want to go and find an obscure team in Lincoln, apart from asking you, I can go and look for it myself after a quick search online. In fact our colleague [deputy editor] Ffion [Thomas] does exactly that, and you can follow her adventures on instagram [@canaryffion].
A lot of the things we've talked about today are technology-driven. The number of cameras you get at a match now, how you cover it, how you disseminate what you've documented or recorded. Clubs don't really need a local newspaper any more, they've got better equipment themselves, and they can get eager fans or hungry interns to work for nothing.
SA: This 130 years of tradition you referred to is like the game's moral infrastructure in a way, and has been there to catch the fans who don't feel like paying, or who can't afford, a £60 ticket to watch a Premier League game.
Andy: I mentioned earlier how in the early days of the magazine we were defensive of football because the 1980s were a bad time to be a football fan —people who didn't follow the game might, understandably, have had a very negative impression of what football was like and what fans were like. We felt that football had been an important part of popular culture at that point for 100 years, and that wasn't always reflected in the media at the time, whereas now — for good or bad — it is reflected, and that broadly has been a positive change.
SA: Let's talk about the magazine itself again, which in many ways is still recognizable as the one that first appeared in 1986. Many favorite features have been and gone, while some, like The Season In Brief, have been brought back by popular demand. What were your favorite parts of the magazine, and is there anything you regret having axed?
Rich: I used to really like the Diary, which looked at the previous month's events with a certain detached tone. It was spread across the first few pages of the magazine, and it really showcased WSC's point of view and the quality of the people we had writing for it. I know why it stopped — it became redundant because of the internet. There would still be stuff in there that people hadn't heard about, which had slipped under their radar in the days of lower coverage and print media dominance, and that of course changed. After you'd finished editing the magazine, it took a week from deadline before the magazine was on the newsagent's shelf — by the end of the magazine's sales cycle, you had a product on the shelf that was trying to sell information that in some sections was already two months old.
SA: Though as your readership gets older, people like me actually forget what happened two months ago, so a news section like that could be a nice reminder ...
Rich: [laughs] Maybe we overlooked that factor.
Andy: There were also football fan culture things we used to write about that we gradually stopped doing. There was Great Own Goals, which was someone sending in their recollection of a spectacular own goal, and which would only be a couple of paragraphs long. We did maybe about 40 of those.
And we had a photo-feature about a notable weird shirt, which we actually brought back — those sort of things, you can do them for a while. We had a feature called Positive Touch where people would write in about a favorite player. Again, you can do something like that for four or five years, and then it gets a bit old.
A Season In Brief was unusual in that we do a readers' survey where we ask people what they like about the magazine, so we did bring that back on demand. I think the photo-features are popular, where we send a photographer every month to document a lower league or non-league game — people do like those features and they're part of our thing where we're presenting lower-league football.
SA: I really like the feature Object Lessons because it's something you don't see in any other football media.
Andy: It's a nice feature because it's a personal history with football, and hopefully a funny story around something you wouldn't think of. We've done the occasional one with something quite well known, like a Panini sticker, or a match program, but also lots of weird things you couldn't imagine people have kept. Somebody wrote an article about how they'd kept a lump of concrete from Charlton Athletic's ground when Charlton were forced to move out of their stadium for a few years in the 1980s. Someone from the Charlton Athletic Museum called us and wanted to contact the author and ask if they could get the lump of concrete. It's now on a shelf in the club museum. It's just a lump of concrete, and you only have the guy's word that it's from the Valley.
SA: I used to like The Bloke Behind Me feature, because annoying people at games is something that's never gone away ...
Andy: That was something people used to mention more in letters, and our columnist Harry Pearson still reports conversations that he overhears at football games in the North-East, so in that respect it's still in the magazine.
Rich: The Athletic have started doing something similar.
SA: That was going to be my next question. What are the most outrageous cases of the mainstream media ripping you off without attribution?
Rich: I think it's been a case of ripping off our staff more than ripping off our stuff. We've been a feeder club for The Guardian for a few years. I don't think we're arrogant enough to say 'This is ours' — everything we comment on exists already, anyone can find it.
Andy: We do a side-feature of quotes from prominent figures in the game, and all those quotes have already appeared in newspapers, so it works both ways. One of the most extreme examples I can think of us getting ripped off was an article in The Guardian that used some quotes from an article that we'd printed on the same subject, which was presented in such a way that you'd think The Guardian journalist themselves had talked to the same person. But they hadn't, it was a cut-and-paste job. The writer of our article had noticed it, but didn't want to make an issue out of it because he was also writing for The Guardian. So we just let it go. But I did remember the name of the person who committed the deed ...
Rich: There were certain things covered in the early issues of WSC like footballers' haircuts or the poor standard of food in football grounds at that time, and as coverage of football started to snowball, those aspects of the game took on a life of their own. So you'd get some publisher putting out a half-arsed book about footballers' haircuts. It became grating when you saw our regular features published in book form, but it wasn't like we'd 'invented' the idea of talking about footballers' haircuts or bad food in stadiums. Anyone who went to football knew that the game had its own characteristics with comic potential.
SA: What about the future?
Andy: Who knows? We're survivors. We've had various ideas of things we could try and do. The media landscape is changing all the time. We've been doing a podcast for four years now, and that's generated some regular income. But the key thing is our subscriber base — we have around 10,000, and they're crucial to the magazine. Post-Covid, it's difficult for everybody in print media. There are far fewer people who get their information now from print media, and that's a problem for everyone, especially if you're appealing to the younger generation.
Rich: Printing is a very expensive process. Ink is wet off the printer and it has to be dried in an oven as big as this room — you can imagine the electricity needed to do that. Paper and ink are imported into the UK, so post-Brexit those costs have gone through the roof. We're battling a lot of things, and much of what we need to buy has become very expensive over the last couple of years, so that is a big pressure.
SA: Has there been a noticeable shift toward digital subscriptions?
Rich: Maybe from our overseas subscribers, because international post has also gone to the dogs the last couple of years. We've run a digital edition for over a decade, and numbers of that shot up at the start but have remained pretty static. We tried to ramp up our web presence for a while, offering exclusive online content, but there was just no money in it. At the same time, we no longer take advertising from gambling companies, a decision we took about five years ago. And that's another principal advertiser on sports-related websites.
SA: Tell me about that decision. The ethics of taking money from betting firms was a major topic of discussion among the readership.
Rich: We realized it was becoming a much more encompassing presence in football through sponsorship. SkyBet sponsored an entire league. Up until then we took plenty of money off gambling firms, so I'm not going to say we've never done it. We had long-term arrangements with loyal advertisers. It just all went a bit too far with the presence of online gamblers too, and all the problems of addiction documented with that.
As it became so closely associated with football, we felt that we needed to say something about it. It's difficult to be critical of gambling in an editorial when there's a full-page ad for a betting company on the opposite page. It cost us about half of our ad revenue, but our business model is based on our magazine sales, not ad revenue.
Andy: Gambling's a problem for football because increasing numbers of people are becoming addicted, especially to online gambling, including football players such as Brentford's Ivan Toney, who's just been banned for it and evidently has some kind of addiction. And then around Europe over the past few years, and connected with online gambling, there have been a lot of accusations of match-fixing, so football itself has been adversely effected by overseas syndicates making arrangements with players to fix matches.
And it's not that the gambling companies who advertised with us were involved with match-fixing, but around the subject as a whole there is a lot of corruption and questionable activity. We can't be seen to be in any way endorsing it whilst also being critical of it. But we can be critical of it, if we're not taking money through it ourselves.
SA: Do you have anything to say to potential North American readers of WSC?
Andy: We have a huge online archive now for all subscribers, that's 37 years of articles — including all of yours, Ian. If you like, you can trace the development not just of the magazine, but of UK fan culture from 1986 until now.
Rich: Half of our overseas print subscribers are based in the U.S., so there is an appetite in North America for our magazine. Clearly, football in the U.S. is becoming a bigger deal all the time, what with the upcoming World Cup and Lionel Messi turning up in Miami. The men's team has some very high profile players now, and the women's team is still at the forefront of the international game. Those are developments that nobody's going to ignore.