Around four years ago, two mates from north London came to a stark realisation. Arsenal’s official merchandise is naff. But as lifelong supporters, filmmaker Ed Fenwick and art director Max Giles had an idea – to vamp up what had become a club identity they couldn’t quite align themselves with, inspired by the glory heydays of the club’s ’90s merch – which Fenwick and Giles would kit their rooms out with as baby Gooners.
“We wanted to make things that we would actually want to wear,” says Ed. “That’s part of the general feeling amongst fans.” What came was Eighteen86 – an online shop stocking T‑shirts, jumpers and scarves bearing slogans like Victory Over Harmony, Gunner 4 Life and, of course, 1886 – the year Arsenal became, well, Arsenal. Soon after, the duo collaborated on a documentary, Whose Game Is It Anyway?, charting the football fanzine movement in the ’80s during a period when The Beautiful Game was set upon by a disastrous year: 1985’s mass brawls between Millwall and Luton fans, the Bradford City stadium fire killing 56, and the Heysel Stadium disaster in Brussels, where Liverpool and Juventus played, which saw 39 killed and 600 injured. In the years that followed, football – and its fans – were vilified by negative tabloid media coverage, equating them with violent hooligans.
What came out of this period, though, was the emergence of football fanzines uniting fans – DIY publications like Off the Ball and When Saturday Comes pushing against the violent fan image of the time. Instead, the fanzines – often printed at home – reflected togetherness, the love for your club and debunking the hooligan trope through poetry, imagery and essays written by fans.
“The football fans turned into a network which unified them, giving them a collective voice at a time when it was all about fans fighting each other,” says Ed. “In a way, it’s about fan culture as opposed to football itself – what being a supporter is all about,” Max adds. “That is what interested us and what we wanted to document.”
From speaking to some of the original fanzine editors of the ’80s, Ed and Max felt like there was a place for it today. With a focus on their team, Arsenal, they produced Poison Lasagna last year, (taking its tongue-in-cheek title from the Spurs-Arsenal food poisoning scandal of 2006) an 80-page football-oriented zine uniting fans with art, photography, fashion and writing, like an interview with Arsenal double-winner Christopher Wreh, a piece on ‘the biggest Arsenal fan in the world’, Keith Martin, and photo stories by Harry Mitchell, Theo Cottle, Chris Read and Jamie Stoker.
Four years later and their online store, Eighteen86, now stocks rare, vintage Arsenal clothing, ‘100% unofficial Arsenal merch’ and is now onto its third issue, with Issue 2 expanding by 50% and coming with a snazzy sticker.
“It can be a logistical nightmare with just us two doing it,” Max says. “But it’s a labour of love.”
Below, we catch up with Ed and Max on all things Arsenal.
How are you both finding not being able to attend games at the moment?
Ed: For me, it’s like the main thing I enjoy about football, way past anything else. Some people’s relationship with football is slightly further afield and they support clubs by keeping up with it online, which is still a completely real way to support a club. But for me and Max, going to the game has always been a cornerstone in our social lives. I’m massively missing it!
Max: But it’s also forced us to take the time, get together and watch the game rather than just going to the match. Either way, it’s the most important thing about football for both of us – getting together with your mates.
It’s weird watching the match without the crowd sound isn’t it?
Ed: It’s really disconcerting.
Max: It goes to show the importance of fans!
Where did you watch Arsenal’s FA Cup win in August?
Ed: We watched it in my garden, it was so good. We had a BBQ, we kitted the garden out with flags and bunting, had some friends round with their babies, some dogs… It was great! That was the highlight of my year.
You went all out. Bunting!
Ed: Honestly, it was so good.
So Poison Lasagna is bringing together Arsenal fans. Similar to those ’80s and ’90s fanzines you documented for your film, do you feel like you’re shifting the narrative of what a modern-day football fan is, and what they are into?
Ed: For us it’s about supporter culture and celebrating all of the people you see at the games and their stories, and having the focus on the fans rather than players – the relationship in between.
Max: Yeah, that’s what interested us and what we wanted to document and talk about in the zine. Which is set slightly differently to what old fanzines we came across were about, which was more about football itself.
Ed: There’s a documentary strand to it, but rather than one made by someone looking in, we’re both supporters, looking around the club that we support.
I feel like you both have an affinity for Arsenal’s ’90s glory days. How do you think today’s club merchandise measures up?
Ed: We both really hate the new identity of Arsenal, and the crest. Without being overly nostalgic, the merchandise in those days was when we were really enthralled by it. The club has kind of twigged onto that now, so they are actually reusing the old gothic lettering, and reusing the old crests in the casual merchandise.
Max: It was the period where we grew up with the club, and some of our most successful years, so we wanted to factor in those glory years, too.
Ed: And it was about concentrating on the legends, rather than players that may come and go. But also not wanting it to be a nostalgia-fest – it was just the era where we had the posters on our bedroom walls…
Max: It was also about repurposing elements and making it relevant for today. We never want to be an obscure, nostalgic zine.
If you had to pick anyone to replace Mikel Arteta, who’d it be?
Ed: I’m totally happy – I wouldn’t want it to be any other way!
Max: I can’t help but feel like Jürgen Klopp would have been amazing, for the way he reacts with the fanbase… He’d be an easy manager to love, wearing his values on his sleeve. But we’re happy with Mikel!
What are your views on VAR?
Ed: Not a fan.
It takes out the spontaneity of the game, doesn’t it?
Max: Exactly that! We both noticed that, when in the stadium or even watching at home, we watch football for that moment of spontaneity where you score and have that single moment of explosive joy. The fact is that now it can suddenly be for nothing, or they can review it…
But do you reckon, traditionally, Arsenal have been on the end of more bad decisions than other big clubs?
Ed: I think all fans think that, but we definitely have it more.
Max: It does level the playing field somewhat…
Which away trip were you most gutted to miss this year?
Max: I was going to say the FA Cup final, because we would normally have gone, but the day in Ed’s garden turned out so well – it was a completely different experience. Maybe these upcoming European away trips?
Ed: Yeah, in the places you’d never consider going to.