BY WILL MAGEE
Before becoming a professional journalist and creator of really great sports content™, my ambling journey through the post-university wilderness saw me become a semi-committed blogger. Having tried my hand at writing about various topics, none of which were particularly satisfying, the ones which eventually held my interest were, perhaps inexplicably, lower-league and non-league football. While we need not go into the joys of non-league here – needless to say, it is still largely underappreciated – the upshot of this was that a significant amount of 2015 was spent trying to find my blog posts a modest audience. Though Twitter and Facebook are the traditional gatekeepers of online traffic in the modern day, there was in fact a larger and more appreciative following elsewhere. The hidden nirvana of online readership was to be found on fan forums and football message boards, down at the bottom of an HTML rabbit hole which one might otherwise have assumed had long ago been filled in.
Though most football message boards look hopelessly outdated, all rudimentary code and early noughties aesthetics, one doesn't have to spend long perusing them to realise just how vast they are. Almost every football club from the Premier League to the National League has an online forum, many of which are populated with thousands of fans following multiple threads at any one time. Some clubs have sufficient online presence to justify the existence of two or more rival forums, these often divided on behavioural lines. Back when the forums were first created, many were moderated in less than stringent fashion. Some have since split on account of moderation policy, with many threads now expressly prohibiting talk of politics, current affairs and indeed all non-football chat.
For an idea of how a forum might descend into unpleasant political and personal mud slinging, this post from the Life, Leeds United, the Universe and Everything blog is fairly illuminating. Whatever the rights and wrongs of what goes on within Leeds fan forums, the key point is that, left to their own devices, contributors will frequently transcend football and move on to topics which are even more controversial. This often makes for an anarchic experience, with a debate over an innocuous in-game incident capable of mutating into a fierce clash of ideologies. Resultant arguments can be problematic when moderators aren't on the ball, and it is hardly unknown for football forums to feature racist, homophobic and generally prejudicial abuse.
If this makes certain football forums seem like a microcosmic version of society in some sense, it also lends them political significance. They are places where debate and dissent are fermented, and show just how divided opinion can be even within a group of people who, when it comes to football, are meant to be singing from the same hymn sheet. In fairness, there are many forums which were previously lax in their moderation policy which have now improved on that point, with most now displaying a code of conduct which bans discriminatory language and hardcore antisocial behaviour. So, to pick out one example from many, the Independent Leyton Orient Forum has a comprehensive set of message board rules, after the official forum which preceded it was shut down owing to a variety of behavioural complaints (or what James McMahon in the New Statesman described as "years of problems with right-wing polemic").
Like British society more broadly, then, most football forums have made an effort to move away from discrimination and general chauvinism. Some have been more successful than others in this endeavour, and so message boards represent differing levels of political and social progress. When it comes to mixing politics and football, fan forums are often at the centre of things. Hence, Charlton fans have been known to use the Charlton Life forum to brainstorm protests against their notorious owner, Roland Duchâtelet, while the same might be said of Coventry fans on Sky Blues Talk or Blackburn Rovers fans on BRFCS.
As one might expect, attempts to formulate demonstrations on fan forums are liable to subside into factionalism and bitterly divisive arguments. Nonetheless, this is all part of the discourse within an embattled fanbase, and helps fans and prospective protesters to judge the collective mood. As well as having significance in terms of internal politics at a club, posts in fan forums can often end up having major legal ramifications. Fans sometimes tread a thin line between fair opinion and defamation, as exemplified by the case in 2016 of a Blackpool supporter who was successfully sued for libel by Karl Oyston, having claimed on the Back Henry Street forum that the club's chairman had threatened him with a gun.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Back Henry Street now has a pinned post which reminds fans of posting rules and the dangers of potential libel. Again, this is one example among many of how fan forums can kick up serious trouble, and even make regional and national news. That said, while there is always going to be a problematic underbelly to online forums moderated by football fans – with varying degrees of diligence and attentiveness – they also serve a vital social function for those who use them on a regular basis. Indeed, one could fairly claim they are the beating heart of football fandom, even if they are something of a throwback to a time when the internet was more like the Wild West.
Speak for any length of time to supporters of lower-league football clubs especially, and it soon becomes obvious just how important fan forums are. People use them not only to make up for the deficit in commentary and analysis relative to the top tier – debating points which might otherwise only get an outing on Football on Five and in local newspapers – but also to maintain relationships with fellow fans which have genuine significance offline. This can mean anything from organising away trips to keeping up close friendships away from the ground. With supporters often moving away from their football clubs or emigrating overseas, fan forums represent a way for the community to keep in touch even when it has been physically dispersed.
Prior to the onset of the internet, there would have been little to no connection between fans who had left the country and the clubs they left behind. Now, a Plymouth Argyle fan living in Australia can discuss a result on Argyle Talk the very same day. Were a couple of Brighton supporters on holiday in Outer Mongolia, they could still get the lowdown on the weekend's game on North Stand Chat, providing they could find an internet cafe somewhere. Even Ryman League sides have got in on the action, with a Dulwich Hamlet fan no doubt theoretically able to access the urban75 forum from space.
As such, football message boards not only keep communities in contact, they are communities in themselves. They are the only medium through which a club's global fanbase can come together in a distinct place. Where previously a fan who had moved far from home might have lost all connections to his or her club, forums provide people with an online grounding in the body politic of their favourite teams. That is why people still use sites designed around the turn of the millennium, replete with clunky widgets and pixelated emojis that would have looked dated on MSN Messenger.
More than just keeping people connected, fan forums keep supporters in touch with their heritage. More often than not, the most popular threads on football message boards concern recollections from a club's past. Fans of all generations and backgrounds reminisce over their favourite goals, greatest players and the seasons which stand out in their memories, for once united by the love of their club as opposed to divided on peripheral issues. In that sense, a fan forum is not only a social hub, but also a place where supporters can document much of their shared cultural history. For some, old-school football message boards are the last places the past is collectively rekindled, and so where the final vestiges of true football fandom reside.