There’s something about Nick Hornby’s nonfiction that brings me joy. His writing is so conversational. It’s never stuffy, and there’s an intensity and unabashed honesty to it. I can read old “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” articles from Believer magazine for hours. Thankfully they’ve made them available online. Fever Pitch is no different. I enjoyed every word of it.
Fever Pitch is Hornby’s memoir about his lifelong obsession with and commitment to Arsenal Football Club. (That’s a British soccer team for those of us in the United States). I thought it was the perfect time to read the quintessential book on Arsenal fandom since Arsenal’s manager for the past twenty-five years stepped down at the end of the 2017-2018 season. This coming season is a momentous new beginning.
Hornby’s love of Arsenal begins when he’s eleven, September 14, 1968 to be exact. His dad takes him to the match versus Stoke City. He writes:
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 with it.
1968 was a traumatic year for Hornby. His parents separated. He had to move to a smaller house and change schools. He got jaundice. Obviously, some of this played into what would become a full-blown obsession requiring counseling later. The book chronicles key moments and reflections through his life up to 1992— each chapter marked by a soccer match. That’s how important the team was to him.
Arsenal won the league and the FA cup in 1971. They call it the Double year. After that they had a lot of mediocre seasons through the 70s and 80s. They would be out of the running for the league title and out of all the cup competitions early. Hornby notes that the games were meaningless at that point, yet he felt the need to be at the home games, miserable in the cold. He remembers most of the games in detail. He can recount who scored, when, and how. And he didn’t keep a journal. It’s impressive.
There have been several movie adaptions of the book. The only one I’ve seen was an American romantic-comedy that didn’t resemble the book at all. Does Hornby discuss his relationships in light of his obsession? Yes. Is it funny and sad at the same time? Yes, but it seems to be such a small part of the book to me.
Spoiler Alert: One memorable story is when he was at college and followed Cambridge United. They had to win their last game to get promoted to the next division. Hornby went on a double-date to the game with his girlfriend. When the opposing team scored in the last twenty minutes, Hornby’s girlfriend fainted. Did he help her? No. He prayed for an equalizer while his girlfriend’s friend took her to see the medics. Cambridge did score and was promoted, but he writes:
Thirteen years later I am still ashamed of my unwillingness, my inability, to help, and the reason I feel ashamed is partly to do with the awareness that I haven’t changed a bit. I don’t want to look after anybody when I’m at a match; I am not capable of looking after anybody at a match. I am writing some nine hours before Arsenal play Benfica in the European Cup, the most important match at Highbury for years, and my partner will be with me: what happens if she keels over? Would I have the decency ,the maturity, the common sense, to make sure that she was properly looked after? Or would I shove her limp body to one side, carry on screaming at the linesman, and hope that she is still breathing at the end of ninety minutes, always presuming, of course, that extra time and penalties are not required?
Fever Pitch not only covers Hornby’s life, but also discusses football hooliganism though the 70s and 80s, social class in the stands, the Hillsborough tragedy, racism in football, and the sense of belonging you get from consistently being in the stands at home games. Ultimately, that’s what Hornby’s obsession is about.
When Arsenal pulled out a heart-stopping, miraculous win against Liverpool in the last match of the season to win the league in 1989, Hornby writes, “After twenty-one years I no longer felt, as I had done during the Double year, that if I hadn’t been to the games I had no right to partake in the celebrations; I’d done the work, years and years and years of it, I belonged.” Isn’t that what we all want— to belong?
You can get a copy of Fever Pitch here. You can watch the documentary about the amazing game against Liverpool in 1989 on Netflix. It’s called 89.