“I fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring.” Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby
When Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch was released on September 12, 1992, few could have predicted it would be hailed as a cultural and football cornerstone all these years later.
The book resonated with a generation of football fans when the sport was going through something of an identity change in the wake of England’s heroic failure at the 1990 World Cup. Paul Gascoigne’s tears added credence to arguments that footballers - and football fans - were capable of being in touch with their emotions.
The Premier League was in its very early days, enjoying unprecedented hours of coverage with Sky Sports helping to give the sport a bright new look for the paying public - the majority of whom were sitting at home comfortably in their armchairs. New stadiums were being built from scratch while others were being redeveloped at great expense. Stadiums were no longer the preserve of working-class men but also children and women, who would soon be able to watch football more safely and probably sitting down. Being a football fan was suddenly fashionable, acceptable and almost a requirement for the up-and-coming celebrities of the day.
In that respect, Fever Pitch’s arrival could not have been better timed. A brilliant book which was sprinkled with just enough nostalgia to steer it away from being twee, it told Hornby’s story as an Arsenal fan but also contained elements of his growing up, personal life and pop culture. All themes that Hornby would revisit in his later work such as About A Boy, A Long Way Down and High Fidelity.
Hornby was told that “football books don’t sell” more than once when he was trying to find a publisher for Fever Pitch which could be reimagined as “football fans don’t read many books”.
In many ways, Fever Pitch felt like a validation for those fans who did not conform to the traditional stereotype of football supporters which was lingering from the 1980s. Fever Pitch won the Wiliam Hill Sports Book of the Year Award in 1992 and has been reprinted many times.
Hornby’s tone throughout is maudlin rather than congratulatory, even when his beloved team has pulled off a memorable result. His parents have separated and Arsenal filled an emotional void in his life. It’s the kind of superstition-heavy life that football fans can relate to. Hornby would bite the heads off sugar mice and throw them in the road for luck.
The book's emotional climax is Arsenal's Championship win in 1989 (pictured above) when Michael Thomas scored a late goal at Anfield in the most dramatic finish to a season imaginable, denying Liverpool another title.
A friend of mine would throw his chewing gum towards a specific grid near Bolton Wanderers’ stadium before every home game and its landing place would determine how the team would do that afternoon. Straight in the grid, home win. Hopeless miss - away win. Land on a grid bar? Draw. It’s this kind of nonsensical ritual which makes football fans such a rare breed and Hornby’s ability to nail this blind faith struck a chord with thousands of supporters.
The other aspect which lifted Fever Pitch above previous tales of football fandom were the tales about everyday life; rows with girlfriends; favourite records; what was on television. It was a much more “readable” book because of it and gave it appeal to non-football fans.
As Hornby grows up in the book, football is no longer the be-all and end-all. Life gets in the way and anyone of a certain age will relate with that transition into adulthood and responsibility. Its legacy was a shelf-full of first-person accounts of obsession with a variety of sports. Every subsequent book with a similar premise would be described as an “(insert sport here) Fever Pitch”, often using that tagline on the cover. It was publishing shorthand for 'first-person emotional sport book'.
In the 20th anniversary edition of Fever Pitch, Hornby wrote: “I wouldn't and couldn't write the same book now, but that is not to belittle it, because this inability represents loss, as well as growth. I miss the person who had the time and the energy for all that angst and passion, and if I were to write about him now, I'd probably pat him on the head and tell him that he would become older and wiser, and the whole point of this book would have been lost. I felt these things, and so did many others, millions of them. And though those millions might not recognise much about the game, nor the arenas it is now played in, my sons and millions of others, boys and girls, are just starting out on a journey that will bring them a lot of pain and, very occasionally, moments of transcendental joy. I don't suppose that will ever end."
Five years later, the book was turned into a film starring Colin Firth. The screenplay - adapted by Hornby - put more of a focus on the relationship between Firth’s character - a teacher called Paul Ashworth - and his girlfriend, also a teacher, called Sarah Hughes (played by Ruth Gemmell). In the film, Arsenal’s memorable late win at Anfield in 1989 is the culmination of the story.
An American take on the film was released in 2005, starring Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore. This time, the focus was on baseball not football and was renamed for British audiences as The Perfect Catch.
Twenty seven years on, Fever Pitch remains one of the greatest sport books ever written.