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ESLJ Book Review

ISSN 1748-944X

An Ethnography of English Football Fans: Cans, Cops and Carnivals

By Geoff Pearson

Manchester University Press: Manchester and New York. 2012. New Ethnographies Series, hardback,

ISBN 978 -0-7190-8721-9

In the latest book in the ‘New Ethnographies’ series from Manchester University Press Geoff Pearson has provided us with a much needed fresh perspective on football fan research. It should become a leading text in the field. There are three excellent participation observation studies presented here, all conducted by the author, from a period of fifteen years of fieldwork. They focus on fans of Blackpool FC, Manchester United FC and England; in Pearson’s words ‘the loud and noisy subculture of wider football fandom’. I have argued for many years that sociology of sport should produce better and more rigorous ethnographies of football fans to counter the litany of misinformation and fantasy which abounds on this topic, often stemming from tabloid journalism, the hooligan memoir books and internet sites and the ‘media hooligan wars’ that have been created. Geoff Pearson has certainly answered the call. The book is outstanding. Max Gluckman, and his colleagues, who founded the Department of Anthropology at the University of Manchester in the 1940s and created ‘the Manchester School’, would be proud of Pearson as one the new practitioners of that ethnographic work in a book series explicitly building on their fine legacy.


Pearson has already a strong record in this area of research. His important previous book from 2007, Football ‘ Hooliganism’: Policing and the War on the ‘English Disease’, written with psychologist Cliff Stott, was published by Pennant books, one of the publishers of football hooligan memoirs. Cass Pennant himself is an ex-football hooligan and through his company Urban Edge films made the notable social history documentary film Casuals released in 2011, directed by Mick Kelly and narrated by Peter Hooton, singer in The Farm and Justice Tonight. Urban Edge films, through their YouTube channel Top Boys TV, also produce informative short videos on the history of specific football hooligan ‘firms’; for example, films on Chelsea, Millwall, Nottingham Forest, Birmingham City, West Ham United and Hartlepool have already been made and uploaded. I have elsewhere maintained that the popular hooligan memoirs industry, off and online, can, if used properly, add to a ‘rough’ popular memory around sport subcultures and identify ‘crews’, ‘faces’ and ‘top boys’, however partially, so that eventually sustained ethnographic, participant observation and historical work can be undertaken with ‘hooligans’ in various contemporary firms. Pearson’s latest book under review here is a good example of a rigorous ethnography of football fans which did in fact make use of ‘fan confessionals’ or ‘hoolie-lit’ (Pearson, 2012: 9-10). It is a subtle, engaging account of the interaction of fans who sometimes become involved in what the media call ‘football hooliganism’, a notoriously difficult concept to pin down, floating as a signifier between legal, criminological and moral discourses in a media still obsessed with such ‘folk devils’. Pearson is especially good in recreating the way what we describe as racism and violence at and around football matches emerges in fact from social situations and is not always attributable to organised right wing political organisation or even formally organised football gangs.


Pearson’s original theoretical contribution is highlighted by his identification of a distinct subculture of football spectator – what he calls the ‘ carnival fan’. He follows this theme throughout the book and it frames the reporting of his fieldwork, from Britain and abroad. He begins by setting this notion of the carnival fan in the context of previous research into hooliganism and fandom, especially that smallish group of researchers using participant observation and ethnographic accounts. His next chapter is exemplary: a discourse on ethnography, theory method and practice in general which sets the reader up for the subsequent chapters where we are introduced to the carnival fans of first Blackpool, where his original, riveting research was conducted in the 1990s, and then fans of Manchester United and the England national football team, drawing on his research mainly from the 2000s. There are many fascinating tales of the trials and tribulations of a participant observer in a public realm where ‘ football violence’ - although often ritualistic, as Pearson cleverly demonstrates - is real enough in its consequences. Pearson was, over the years, headbutted, witnessed numerous violent incidents, heard hundreds of instances of racist, sexist and anti-social chanting and experienced serious run-ins with the ‘old bill’, all in the call of duty.


Pearson has produced a fine book, persuasively reworking Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of ‘carnival’ to encompass (mainly) hardcore ‘lads’ at play following their beloved football team, local or national, home and abroad. Sitting in our armchairs lazily watching Premier League matches in glorious HD, we should be eternally grateful that Geoff Pearson did the hard yards and embedded himself within these fan groups for so long and produced such an accessible, thoughtful and innovative book.


By Professor Steve Redhead
Adjunct Professor of Sport and Media
School of Human Movement Studies
Faculty of Education
Charles Sturt University
NSW 2795

Volume 11




Pedro Fortes
Mike Hally


Bruce A. Carroll
Sven Preiss
Ian Lawrence


Steve Redhead
Fred Motson