Confessions Of A Football Hooligan

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CRIME | Terrace culture

The enemy within? Liverpool fans before the incident in Brussels.
Photo: Charlier & Coppens / Camera Press
Confessions of a football hooligan
The deaths of 38 soccer fans crushed during fighting before the European Cup Final
in Brussels shocked the world - and they have plunged English football into a crisis from
which it might never emerge. Danny Kelly looks back at the ‘hooligan’ he once
was and tries to explain the boot-boy phenomenon.

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Football is not a matter of life and death
- It’s much more Important than that!’
(Bill Shankly, Manager of Liverpool Football Club in the 1960s).

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Years ago, to my eternal retrospective shame, I was a football hooligan. Reluctant and passive - I never started a fight and just ran with the pack, ran away with them mostly - but a hooligan nonetheless. Then, it all seemed such a laugh...

I remember following Spurs, the big boys from London, out of town. We’d swagger into places like Oldham, Leicester or Stoke, a blue and white army intent on drinking like lemmings and baiting the locals.

I remember hours following a vanload of fans, crushed like cattle, up the motorway. Their Dr Marten boots all had a layer of concrete caked on the steel toecaps; a mark of identification, and a statement of intent.

And I remember waking from boot-induced unconsciousness in an infirmary in Wolverhampton, my torso an action painting of bruising, the exact purple and blue of a West Ham scarf.

I recall other, more general, things too... the shouting, the jeering and the tribal chanting . .. the endless abusive sign-language - mostly the rhythmic, masturbatory waving of half-closed fists; and the insult ‘Wankers!’ - aimed at nobody, aimed at everybody.., the rush as the strange, often ritual, ballet of violence took shape, a blinding flash in the natural slow motion that fear brings.. . and the running - always the running - in narrow streets, on bleak terraces, to somewhere, at someone, but usually, in my case, away; anywhere, just away. Some hooligan!

That was a dozen years ago - it seems like two million - and I was so stupid, so utterly blinded by the drive to conform, the need to be one of the lads, that I thought it was all a bit of a giggle, battered ribs and all.

But all the laughing had to stop; it simply had to, because, long before the corpses started piling up in Brussels, it was plain that something was going to have to be done about the bootboys. As a Belsen- style electric wire was strung atop Chelsea’s eight foot high perimeter fence, that much was obvious...

By this summer, Britain’s media, late as usual and sensing a classic moral panic in the gap between AIDS and heroin, had decreed that the national game had reached crisis point. Day after day, torrents of words and images depicted Britain’s football stadia as battlefields occupied by thugs wielding carpet knives, with beleaguered bobbies (police) and innocent bystanders trapped in the whirlwind.

So why have Britain’s football grounds become crucibles of violence? What makes the weekend warriors feel undressed for football without that most unambiguous of accessories, the Stanley knife?

The sociologists, the psychologists, the criminologists, and, well, anyone with a theory and a Xerox machine, have had their say. Floods of notions - territoriality, innate and instilled aggression, youth culture, crowd behaviour and meat-heavy diets - have poured forth, but for me the key to the phenomenon must be sought in the relationship between the football clubs and the (working-class) community that they have traditionally catered for.

For most of this century that relationship was clearly understood and remarkably stable. Men - not, you’ll note, the current rose-tinted adspeak ‘families’ - finished their Saturday morning shift, sunk a couple of beers and went to the match. Football, the club and the game, allowed expression of courage, fighting skills, group loyalty and control of territory, all qualities highly prized in male, urban working-class culture.

Equally, players were poorly paid. They thus tended to live near the people who watched and idolised them.., and as little as 25 years ago you’d bump into Saturday’s heroes in your local pub or fish and chip shop. The clubs and the fans held hands.

But change came.. . In the late 1950s the Saturday shift was phased out, making the football club less of a focus for local passion and footballers’ lifestyles altered dramatically. The clubs were increasingly bought up by big business, which greedily eyed the prime inner-city sites on which the Victorian stadia elegantly crumbled ...

The bond between the fans and the clubs became strained, uneasy. The increasing embourgeoisement of the traditionally working class game - a process later exacerbated by internationalisation - left the fan with only two possible forms of protest:

desertion or hooliganism. And the former, of course, goes completely against the loyalty so highly prized in working-class culture.

So the unconscious choice was, inevitably, hooliganism. As that hooliganism was, and still largely is, ritualistic in nature (how many real combats could you survive?) there is a fair case for seeing football ‘aggro’ as the same gesture of anger and defiance against the undermining of traditional working-class values as was made in the 1950s by Teddy Boys), the 1960s (skinheads) and the 1970s (punks).

This may read like a sociologist’s dream of neatly-tied ends, but my experience of hardcore football yobbos is that they know what they’re doing, glorying in their shocking of those they see as effete, those who’ve tarted up the game and those who’ve acquiesced in that process, the ‘wankers’.

Since the 1970s a series of changes in the pattern of aggro has led to the problem being spotlit. In this crescendo of public outcry hooligans have ceased to be viewed as rowdy teenagers - in a deviant phase - and been seen instead as out and out criminals.

There has been, for instance, the muchpublicised emergence of a highly organised elite of hooligans, the most notorious of which is the Inter City Firm (ICF). The ICF attend selected games with the express purpose of becoming involved in violence. They are organised, calculated, narcissistic - loving their infamy - and terrifying. Their lack of allegiance to a single club and their wilful desire for real violence set them worlds apart from the ordinary hooligan.

But what has really induced panic is the exportation of British hooliganism to our EEC trading partners. Cheaper travel to the Continent and the drift, exemplified by the ICE, away from individual clubs has led to massive waves of fans - draped in British flags, faced splashed red, white and blue, drunk to the verge of unconsciousness - restaging D-Day for England matches. The yobbos themselves call these expeditions, simply, ‘flying the flag’. That the National Front is active in organising at least some of this mobile mayhem is well known, and one wonders also to what extent the naked nationalism of the New Toryism - The Falklands Spirit, with all its wop-bashing overtones - has fuelled this particular fire...

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‘I’d turn flame-throwers on these scum.’

(Bobby Robson, Manager of the England team).

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So what chance does Thatcher’s Government have against her newest Enemy Within? They want, naturally, increased security (policing, video surveillance, all-round fencing and the like) but all that costs prohibitive amounts of money which the Government shows no inclination to provide. Besides, increased security, like alcohol bans and compulsory ID cards, change again the traditional nature of football, making watching the team of your choice an experience akin to visiting a relative in a top security prison. All these measures were as likely to drive away the peaceful supporter that football relies on as they were to discourage the violent fringe. And, despite the very real efforts made by the clubs on and off the pitch, they have done just that.

Social and economic upheavals have meant that football could never have survived this century as the mass entertainment that it once was in Britain. The football hooligans, initially railing against that very reality but latterly using soccer for more general protest or deviancy, sped up a process which was already inexorable.

Some kind of football will survive, rowdies or not. But whether it will be the wondrous thing that’s caused me to travel the highways and backstreets of this country, to risk frostbite in horizontal November hail, to paint my face navy and white and - often - to cry like a huge baby, is open to doubt. Before the events of this May I still believed - football, like religion and socialism, allows hope to spring eternal - that after the necessary metamorphosis, the spell would be unbroken, the magic still intact. But now I’m not so sure...

Danny Kelly is Deputy Editor of New Musical Express

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