The German philosopher Jürgen Habermas first theorized the notion of the ‘public sphere’ in 1962. His book, translated into English in 1989, referenced the Austrian city of Vienna’s coffee house culture in the formation of his ‘public sphere’. The café, or coffee shop, was essentially the location for impromptu citizens’ assemblies; well-informed people gathered to drink coffee, discuss the most pressing issues of society and, of course, read the papers. It was a well-received, solid argument – and applicable to almost any gathering or discussion between members of a democracy.
In football culture, the pub has played its own role as the site for a citizens’ assembly, and with significantly less scholarly attention. At the pub, well-informed fans gather to drink beer, discuss their team’s most pressing defensive issues and, of course, read through the matchday programme or fanzine. Pre-match or post-match, pub talk guided the direction of fans’ thoughts throughout the 20th century. If a half-intoxicated and highly enlightened guy at the pub suggested the new striker was dung after thirty seconds of his cameo appearance off the bench last weekend, it’s probably safe to assume that he was absolutely right, you should believe him and while you’re at it tell your mates, too. Some may disagree profoundly, and there lies the importance of the pub. The pub offered a sanctuary and safe (in the loosest sense of the word) space to debate the trials and tribulations of following a football team across the country.
In an age where it is possible to follow your team from the comfort of your own laptop or television screen, whether accessing the dodgiest of dodgy illegal streams to watch a run-of-the-mill third division mid-table scrap or logging into your club’s pay-per-view from ‘abroad’, the location of the football public sphere has changed once more. In the digital era, it is best represented by online football fans’ forums. ‘Football Twitter’ might grab headlines, positive and (mostly) negative, as the 21st century online community for fans, but somehow Habermas wouldn’t approve. No, it is the fans’ forum, ridiculously amusing usernames aplenty and wild overreactions in equal measure, which has both replaced and developed upon conventional pub chat – minus the alcohol.
To the mostly teenage users of ‘Football Twitter’, the forum might seem pre-historic. It takes place outside the boundaries of social media networks, whilst functioning in many similar ways, and is organized through topic threads of conversation. Fans’ forums are specific to football clubs and teams, traditionally created by the fans and completely separate from the club itself in ownership. Almost every professional club will have had a discussion forum created by its devoted supporters – it features regularly in Tim Parks’ excellent book A Season With Verona – and those same dedicated few maintain the forum for the many to enjoy. Online football forums are hardly a new invention – they often have the feeling of being around since the dawn of time – but can make the best claim to be the virtual football public sphere.
The pub still exists in all its glory, but markedly less so. Today, if not already permanently closed after the COVID-19 pandemic, the pub can offer a place to discuss the manager’s tactics between small groups of friends. The online football fans’ forum, however, provides a much wider base of likeminded individuals to engage with, 24/7 connectivity and the simplicity of online communication. Most of all, in a world in which so much of our social life is conducted on the internet, it’s the best place to give an opinion, feel involved and share news articles about your team. Everyone is there, and yet they’re also not; anonymity is the currency of online fans’ forums, affording users the opportunity to speak where they may not have spoken in real life without consequence.
With several similar traits, social media is arguably the hub of football conversation for fans of the English Premier League, and other top leagues. The sheer magnitude and distribution of global fanbases, as well as age demographics, make Twitter, Facebook and Instagram the fastest place to find snappy, meme-heavy debate on Manchester United or Real Madrid. For the rest of us, however, finding the perfect online community to talk about your football team lies elsewhere. Online fans’ forums are ideal and hugely beneficial for (relatively) smaller clubs across the world. With a website separate from the chaos of Twitter, it becomes your very own corner of the internet. It is highly unlikely to be infiltrated by fans of other clubs, giving way to what you would expect to be a far more reasoned, less confrontational online discussion. Surely, this is where football fans can settle down to chat calmly in a well-informed setting, investing themselves daily in the fortunes of football’s more closely-knit teams?
Section 1: Talking about nothing?
I am a long-suffering fan of Kilmarnock Football Club, the oldest professional club in Scotland and current Scottish top flight side. It’s what I would immediately describe as a community club: you sit with the same regulars at every home match, you see the same familiar faces on away days and, crucially, you rarely see your team win. From the outside, it seems completely unattractive – successful spells are few and far between, never mind trophies, and the highlight of a Saturday matchday is the pie which often brings greater satisfaction than the on-pitch entertainment.
But I am utterly convinced that Killie’s mediocrity is the drug fuelling my addiction to the club. The good days always feel better as the underdog, and there is something wonderful in attending every match with the view that a 0-0 draw would probably do us just fine. Watching your team hoof, hoof again and occasionally do something half decent to put the ball into the back of the opposition’s net is unquestionably more fulfilling than sitting through 90 minutes of tiki-taka every week. Most importantly, when you follow a struggling football team, you are involved. You support the team that nobody else wants to support, so you go to greater lengths to support them.
It creates a world of its own, in which you can be an active participant. Simply attending matches is never enough – the temptation to discuss and vent frustration at every fine detail of your club’s activities is irresistible. The Killie Kickback, the ‘general discussion forum for all things related to Kilmarnock Football Club’, provides that essential platform, where opinions mix and rumours swirl ferociously. As a mostly silent observer of the forum, it’s both engrossing and mind-numbing, addictive and off-putting at once. Unbeknownst to many football fans, the online fans’ forum is an intricate virtual world unto itself.
In this report, I aim to examine the trajectory of communication on football fans’ forums with Kilmarnock Football Club’s unofficial fans’ forum as my case study. The Killie Kickback, and more broadly its host web page killiefc.com, can be considered an online community due to the way in which its users maintain their online connections with fellow Kilmarnock diehards. Primarily, the website allows users to create a profile, including profile picture and username, start new threads of discussion or join in with pre-existing debates, comment and like or dislike others’ posts. Having used the forum for a few years, the overlap between mundane discourse and the characteristics of a fully functioning public sphere is its greatest achievement. Both features of fans’ forums are considered in this report, as well as a brief comparison with another football forum, to demonstrate the many emotions expressed in an online community of football fans.
When every member of the forum is so committed to Kilmarnock Football Club, it often feels like the most important place to be on the internet. However, if viewed without that emotional connection, the Killie Kickback could be seen as a completely meaningless hub of online communication. After all, it serves a highly specific audience brought together only by their common support for Kilmarnock.
In the grand scheme of things, it does appear inconsequential; incessantly debating the manager’s choice of formation, or even clothing, has no effect on real events. The sole purpose of this form of communication is sociability, maintaining bonds with online users and perhaps providing your topic of conversation when stood awkwardly in the stadium toilets with thirty other likeminded fans. When first published, topics on fans’ forums are ‘firmly rooted in private experiences, needs and concerns’. For example, a fan might have trouble accessing one of Scottish football’s antiquated online ticketing systems and request help from other forum members, or simply wish to voice an expletive-ridden opinion about the new left-back. The moment replies begin flying in signals a ‘movement from private, interpersonal, group to public discourse’, where conversation between a few friends becomes relevant and worthy of response for an entire community.
Every Saturday, the Killie Kickback truly comes alive. During the 90 minutes of football, the forum serves ‘to establish bonds of personal union between people brought together by the mere need of companionship’, particularly in the case of forum members living abroad or watching on television. The Kickback is an opportunity to react to everything on the pitch as it happens, affording users the ability to contribute to a discussion they otherwise might not be part of. The match in question, or ‘mediated event’, presents a focus for this online crowd of football fans to congregate around. In the heat of the moment, and particularly in defeat or poor performance, the conversation is highly emotionally charged, without adding any real insight. Opinions are shared out of frustration and with the desire to validate your fury with fellow users, as in Figure 1 following Killie’s 3-1 defeat to Raith Rovers in October 2021.
The primary function of this forum post is social, aiming to connect with others intending to contribute to a discourse of abrupt backlash over the team’s performance. It was only the team’s second defeat of the league season, but perhaps the beginning of the end for manager Tommy Wright. In this instance, the Killie Kickback’s up and down voting tools to show agreement or disagreement with posts demonstrate that ‘online communities provide a highly accessible and efficient source for evaluating and adjusting one’s own thoughts and actions in light of input from socially relevant peers within a community’. This allows commonly held views to be established on the forum, generating an overriding sense of discontent in the stadium which came to a head in December 2021. With Killie again trailing Raith Rovers, this time by a 1-0 scoreline, the fans chanted for the manager to be sacked. Wright duly responded with a rude gesture, and was dismissed a week later. Maybe he was an avid forum reader.
In these circumstances of minor social interactions on football forums, some value is present. Ongoing problem-solving is one of its more advantageous functions, attending to ‘both their individual and their collective welfare’ as a fanbase. These topics of conversation on the forum usually begin with an individual’s question which is relevant to other forum users and hence engages further discussion between Kilmarnock fans on collective matters, as in Figure 2.
The accessibility of the forum in asking questions creates a ‘vast repository’ of advice for users. In this example, fans trade individual information for the benefit of the online community as they plan their journey to Arbroath for an away match in January 2022. This user interaction builds up an environment of trust online, as various questions are answered on the thread. In this setting of an online forum made up entirely of Kilmarnock fans, small bonds are made between members which can take effect in real life: ‘Half day booked off. Leaving East Lothian about 3. Straight back after the game. Anyone wanting a lift DM me’ (User 3 posted 25/01/22).
Therefore, while discussion may begin as seemingly irrelevant chat on whether or not it’s time to get the woolly hat out for an away day on Scotland’s east coast (the answer to that is a firm yes), the online friendly exchange of this information between fans allows for forum members to feel comfortable meeting in person, if required. This demonstrates the care that users have for their forum, organizing fans to easily offer help to one another. As such, the simple connection of supporting the same football team on an online forum is beneficial, virtually connecting fans to comment with relevant information and offer solutions to real-world problems. That’s all in an ideal world, of course – I can’t count how many times I have stumbled upon tense Kickback arguments which have begun on the forum, with anonymous users then offering to meet up in person to ‘sort out’ their online issues with other fans. And you can probably blame Tommy Wright’s choice of substitutes for starting that fight too. My only conclusion is that the forum is a buzzing hive of all-things-Killie activity – the good, the bad and often the ugly.
Section 2: The shift to politics and activism
Except when it’s suddenly, all too quickly, not all-things-football. A quick scan of old thread topic titles reveals the speed with which minor online interactions about Kilmarnock become intertwined with just about everything. Most evidently, patterns emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic where government-imposed restrictions on stadium crowd numbers became highly relevant to the forum. On several occasions, news articles would surface on the Killie Kickback regarding the continuation of the ban on spectators attending football matches in Scottish stadiums. This dramatically accelerated the overlap between football and political discourse, largely due to fans’ disappointment at being shut out of the stadium.
While the comment from Figure 3 is from a conversation thread which was removed from the Killie Kickback due to its political nature, instead placed on the website’s ‘Political Arena’ sub-forum, it’s easy to forget the discussion probably started with Kilmarnock vs Dundee United chat when you’re dozens of pages into the spread of conspiracy theories and their counterarguments. Things get messy quickly on a football fans’ forum, because football can’t not mix with politics somewhere down the line. The Kickback’s ‘Political Arena’ is a product of the rapid shift between specified football chat and divisive political issues which should probably be discussed in a real citizens’ assembly, not this makeshift one. Many routine topical discussions on football have political undertones – any mention of the Scottish national team can be a sure-fire way of finding out if a user is pro-Union or pro-Scottish independence. Concerns about politics, identity and ethics are all here, constantly lumped back and forth between forum members like a football.
An additional by-product of this online gathering of Kilmarnock supporters is activism. On the fans’ forum, users often criticize the club to their heart’s content whilst also helping out with stadium clean-ups after matches. It’s an essential tool for a club the size of Kilmarnock to mobilize its small but devoted fanbase, and the forum deserves praise for providing the best vehicle for this self-organization. Figure 4 shows the Killie Trust’s (the club’s fan-led movement which succeeded in giving supporters a voice at boardroom level) call for volunteers to help clean up the stadium after a match.
This communication implies a need for ground-level activism to support the running of the club, which relies entirely on its fans to survive. In this way, it’s clear that at one level fans will always enjoy the ability to pour their anger into the abyss of the Killie Kickback after a particularly bruising defeat, while at the same time the forum introduces an opportunity to directly influence and assist with Kilmarnock F.C.’s daily operations. Users are not simply moaners and eternal grumblers, but also activists safeguarding their club’s future in a way which would not be necessary for football’s richest upper class.
Both examples offer just a couple of the consequences of meandering mundane football chat on online fans’ forums. It demonstrates the limitations of a forum as a place for reasoned debate – I certainly don’t envy the job of forum moderators – and its possibilities for collective action.
Section 3: A comparative analysis of the Kilmarnock fans’ forum and Pie & Bovril forum
In the world of Scottish football fans’ forums, there is one behemoth: Pie & Bovril. It is a huge forum for fans of the national team and clubs alike. From the perspective of the Kilmarnock fans’ forum, it’s where you go to find out what fans of other teams think about your team, or alternatively how rubbish their team is. The key difference is that you can also have a good old fashioned internet brawl with the fans of your team’s most hated rival. In its outset, the wider-reaching Pie & Bovril forum shares similar traits of standard communication with the Kilmarnock fans’ forum as users engage with topics like transfers, players and matches, as is presented in Figure 5 in which rival Raith Rovers and Dunfermline Athletic fans argue over the ability of footballer Joe Cardle who last played for Dunfermline in 2018. This brief spat took place on the forum four (yes, FOUR) years after Cardle had left Dunfermline.
Pie & Bovril is perhaps even better than the Killie Kickback at fostering online hatred, because, as above, it can’t help but pit fans against their enemies. Conversations about corner kick takers or managerial changes spiral out of control at lightning speed, descending into disputes rather than discussion. While it operates in the same way as the Killie Kickback, quick analysis of the Pie & Bovril forum suggested an absence of the maintenance of social bonds and co-ordinance amongst users. Online exchanges between followers of any number of Scottish football teams on Pie & Bovril were briefer and rarely resumed with the same user for any social benefit.
It does, however, provide more clearly defined access to the contemporary political issues on everyone’s mind. As a forum for followers of every Scottish football team, it produces a genuinely national debate chamber. Where the Kilmarnock fans’ forum’s political discourse is mostly reactionary and short-lived, Pie & Bovril’s dominant political forum threads are long-lasting (several hundred pages, in some cases) and reflect social concerns which are prevalent in the nation’s public sphere for many years.
Comparing analysis of both fans’ forums clearly shows the Killie Kickback’s inevitable capacity to be a community. No matter how many pages of transfer speculation or raging political chatter, it is a hub for a shared experience: following Kilmarnock Football Club. Firstly, it is the Viennese coffee house, providing a place for discussion and information on any number of issues concerning Killie (where do you think the papers’ transfer stories come from?). And secondly, it extends beyond this definition – friendships can be established and long-running feuds continued in such a close-knit online community.
If you join your club’s fans’ forum today, I can guarantee a few things: entertainment, knowledge (well, that’s if you believe the anonymous poster who claims to have seen the new signing in Tesco) and, above all, feeling part of something terribly boringly brilliant – like following Killie.