I grew up in an era when the t-shirt was a powerful means of individual cultural expression. The iconic image of Brando or Dean in a plain white tee gave way to the sixties counter-culture and revolution, at least at weekends, and the message shirts of the late seventies and eighties.
These days they are mostly mobile advertising for companies who convince punters to actually pay for the privilege of parading the latest brand name down your local high street. Recently two symbols of my glory days, Che and the Ramones, appear on mass-produced shirts available in Peacocks and Madhouse and thence to the chests of young people who may dimly who they are but certainly have no sense of what they stand for. The perfect sign of the times, perhaps, a post-modern appropriation of counter culture symbolic of our politically neutered society. Or mindless cheap tat.
However, some time ago I slipped back into t-shirts after finding one that expressed exactly how I feel. On the front, ‘The game is about glory, doing things in style’, on the back, ‘Blanchflower 4’. It’s torn and faded now but I can’t bear to part with it. Blanchflower’s quote has become a classic to the point of being over-used but I make no apologies: this is the absolute essence of being a Spurs fan and the first time I ever saw it was on this shirt, made by Philosophy Football. Not surprisingly the co-founder, Mark Perryman, is a Spurs fan.
“Blanchflower was the second or third shirt we ever did,” he told me. “He had sadly passed away and that great fanzine the Spur ran a feature that included
that extraordinary quote.”
These days Philosophy Football has over 40 designs but the company came from humble origins. Like many of us, Mark and couple of friends came up with a fanciful idea after a match. The difference is, he did something about it.
“In October ’94 after a particularly dull home nil nil draw with QPR, we invited a Rangers friend of ours to White Hart Lane and took him out for something to eat afterwards. After the game we had 10 or 20 minutes to kill. I’d videoed a programme about the philosophy of goalkeeping – Eric Thorsvedt was on it and quoted Camus: ‘All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football.”
He continues, “Somewhere over Stamford Hill a blinding flash of inspiration found its way into our back bedroom. Someone said to turn it into a t-shirt, my instant response was, it’s got to be a goalkeepers jersey.”
A few shirts for friends became 150 that sold out by Christmas by word of mouth only. Other designs gradually followed but it remained a hobby. I imagined I was dealing with a professional concern, then I spotted the address was a residential street that I cut through on my route to the Lane. Mark chuckled at the memory: ‘It paid for my season ticket and away trips. Friends were coming round and packing them in the back garden on a Saturday morning. We stored them in the bath! At Christmas we would nick a Tescos trolley and make 20 trips a day to Stamford Hill post office. We gave the staff a shirt each by way of thanks.”
These days their annual sales run to 5 figures but Mark stays close to his roots. “It earns us a living but we do it because we love it. If Philosophy Football wasn’t selling me shirts, I’d have to go and find a company where I could buy shirts like this. Go into the Spurs Shop, they have hundreds of products and nothing I would ever want to buy. It’s commercialised and tacky, I’m not walking around advertising a company I’ve never heard of where the logo takes up more space than the club badge.”
Remaining playful rather than po-faced, many of the shirts show the significance of football in society, and do so with a concise wit and intelligence.
Class consciousness (“Emancipation of their class appears to them a foolish dream. It is football which moves them and to which their material means are devoted.”) sits alongside a diverse group of philosophers, footballers, Monty Python and Bob Marley: “Football is a part of I. When I play the world wakes up around me.” Cricket has recently taken its place alongside a number of contemporary political causes, plus shirts that just look tasteful.
The latest offering, from Bobby Smith, is timely not only because it ties in with the 50th anniversary of the Double but also as it addresses the concerns many of us have about the modern game. Under the Double team line up runs the quote: ““Today they play for the money. We played for the glory.”
There’s no doubt these shirts do make connections. People have a story that goes with them. Mine is when I was in London about 15 years ago, when football apparel was not the huge industry it is now. A woman asked why I was wearing a Brazil-style shirt with Pele on the back and the slogan on the front: ‘Football – it’s the beautiful game’. I replied that in Britain we loved Pele and Brazilian football. The woman was close to tears, ‘I am from Brazil I travel all this way, you know my country and my country’s football.’
Mark added that a recent shirt celebrating the role of Polish airmen in the Battle of Britain brought similarly tearful contact from a young Polish woman, amazed and grateful that her countrymen were remembered. Their most high profile affiliation is with the Hope Not Hate campaign against the BNP. “If we lose a few racist customers for our football shirts, then I’m not particularly bothered to be honest,” Mark firmly concludes.
Like many of the sources of his quotes,Mark is himself a deep thinker about the game and its place in contemporary society. He’s a West Stand season ticket holder and also represents England supporters abroad. I wondered if the Philosophy Football approach led to charges of over-intellectualising the game. The image comes to mind of the Fast Show character, sitting delightfully in Highbury, where else, with his hamper and wine. Mark shrugs this off and quotes Cryuff that ‘football is a game you play with your brain’ (available on a t-shirt, naturally), citing Van der Vaart, Klinsmann, Modric and Ardilles as examples of the benefits of a cosmopolitan approach to your football.
He warms to his theme. “I resolutely reject the whole idea of the bourgeoisification of football. If you go to any away game, Spurs or England, it’s resolutely a working class culture. That’s not to say tickets aren’t more expensive than they deserve to be. Much more serious is the corporatisation of football. I sit in the West Stand listening to the accents, the people spending 1k plus on their season ticket are from an upper working or lower middle class background. It’s obvious people are making sacrifices.”
He’s right. As prices rise, I cut back on other things because the club is so much a part of my life. Football accounts for over 90% of my expenditure on leisure – I just don’t do other things in order to get to Spurs. Exorbitant prices contribute to the rise in the average age of fans. Young fans attend a few games a season, watching the rest on Sky. Mark does not fully agree. “The problem of who does and does not go to football is not so much the price, although that is an issue, it’s access to tickets. New fans can’t get one for the big games that everyone wants to go to.”
The increased capacity of the new stadium would help in this respect but, speaking before the Stratford bid, Mark presciently identified the worrying issue of how the club is drifting away from its roots and its locality.
“I’ve lived in Tottenham since 86. I cycle to the ground and I’m home in 15 minutes but the club doesn’t address the fact that it’s no longer a north London
club. There’s no real obvious presence there from people from the locality. In fact when I hear people chatting about Tottenham where I sit it’s pretty obvious most people don’t particularly like the area. They’ve moved away to Herts or Essex or Kent or Sussex, moved away and moved up in the world, in life.”
This phenomenon isn’t unique to Spurs, rather, it’s the case throughout London. “West Ham as an east end family club, bollocks, it’s a club of south Essex”.
I mention Spurs interest in the community – they do a lot of work in my field, social care- but Mark remains unconvinced: “I like to see Spurs take more seriously work in the community but most is selling half term coaching courses to middle class children in Essex. They don’t actually do anything in the borough of any significance. I fear that if they get the new ground that connection with the locality will become even more distant.” He cites our Islington neighbours as an example, where more people than ever before come from outside the locality and which he describes as ‘becoming a destination rather than a team.”
From a tasteful way to cover up your manboobs to the sharpest critique of a club’s place in its community that I have heard this year, the last word firmly takes us back to our roots. Mark needs the help of TOMM readers. “We would love to do a Dave Mackay shirt to tie in with the Double. Years ago I read a quote, maybe about the football being a diamond, but I can’t find it anywhere.” Over to you.