With more time on my hands than is either required or healthy during lockdown, I often find myself trawling the internet searching for something to take my attention.
Facebook and its myriad of ‘interest groups’ is sometimes a good place to start, and so it came to pass that I stumbled upon a group set up to celebrate ‘Old Skool Hooligans of the ‘80s’.
This and other like-minded groups exist in order to give middle-aged men (and the occasional woman) the opportunity to relive past battles and to mourn the passing of a time when a Saturday afternoon wasn’t complete without indulging in a spot of casual violence, racism and mindless thuggery.
Therefore the basis for this article is the premise of ‘The Good Old Days (of football hooliganism)’.
Reading through the misty-eyed recollections of such individuals can sometimes be both an illuminating and disturbing experience. While there is no doubt a fair deal of collective yarn-spinning and exaggeration abound, the basic premise of glorifying in giving or receiving a thick ear seems, to me at least, rather incongruous.
Football hooliganism was perhaps at its peak in the 1970s and 1980s but had been around in one guise or another for much longer.
Reported outbreaks of fighting and vandalism were recorded as far back as the nineteenth century when players of Aston Villa and Preston North End were attacked during a friendly game between the two clubs.
However, one could trace the origins of such social disorder back more than five hundred years earlier to the time that King Edward III banned football as it was felt it led to social unrest whilst detracting the nation’s budding archers from practicing the more noble and sedate art of skewering subjects at two hundred paces!
The onset of the twentieth century saw football hooliganism sporadically appear from time to time, but by and large the lack of large numbers of supporters prepared to travel the length and breadth of the country to support their teams ensured that such outbreaks tended to be fairly localised.
Into the 1960s, however, and as the nation’s roadways and transportation infrastructures improved, so did the number of away supporters travelling to matches. The early 1970s saw the first sustained and regular outbreaks of fighting at football grounds and combined with an inordinate amount of petty and sheer bloody-mindedness vandalism, football hooliganism became a ‘real problem’ for the first time.
It was during this decade that English supporters started to get a reputation abroad. A reputation that many seemed to take pride in and thus do their best to live up to.
Barely a season went by without at least one major incident abroad involving either club teams or the English national side, and this, combined with the weekly disturbances occurring in the domestic game, quickly tested the patience of the authorities. It would be easy yet churlish to list here the clubs whose supporters were guilty of large-scale disturbances abroad, yet needless to say, there were a large number of them.
Back home, the authorities took action by introducing segregation as a requisite for every league ground. This was decreed after the first murder at a football took place at Blackpool in 1974 when a young male home supporter was stabbed to death at a tea kiosk.
Further steps taken by the authorities included making certain matches all-ticket, excluding away supporters from some grounds, banning orders, and in a move that was to one day prove fateful, installing perimeter fencing at the majority of grounds.
These clampdowns were seen by many hooligans as a challenge more than a deterrent, and so as the 1980s dawned they started to get themselves more organised. ‘Firms’ were established with such endearing and original monikers as, ‘The Inter-City Firm’ (ICF), The County Road Cutters, the Muckers, and The 6.57 Crew.
Fans would take pride in their firm and would rank themselves alongside their counterparts at other clubs. It was a badge of honour to be seen as a ‘top boy’ in a ‘top firm’ and acceptance into the ranks was very much sought after.
Supposedly run along military lines, these ‘firms’ existed for the sole purpose of creating and causing disorder on a Saturday afternoon with any interest concerning matters on the field being of secondary importance at most. Members of these organisations would supposedly plan strategies for match days. If their side was playing away, then travel arrangements would be made along with discussions and ideas regarding which pubs to drink in on ‘enemy territory’ upon arrival.
Then likely targets would be discussed. These would usually involve pubs and areas known to be opposing firm strongholds. Battle plans as to the best way to attack, or ‘take’ these places would be considered and finally agreed upon. If all went well, and their ‘information’ was correct, a seriously joyful punch-up would then ensue.
Of course, things didn’t always go as planned and as often as not great hordes of young men with more testosterone and money than sense would find their plans thwarted by bad timing, bad luck or the intervention of everyone’s favourite mutual enemy – the police. This would ultimately lead to feelings of frustration that would invariably inflame the situation further.
There would, however, still be the opportunity to ‘take the home end’. This merriment would entail travelling supporters entering the stadium in recognised home sections and standing mutely amongst the home supporters until their numbers had grown sufficiently large enough to encourage a sense of security. It was at this point that the away supporters would let their presence be known and scuffles would break out.
Such contretemps were usually brief and quickly contained by the police who would either simply throw the miscreants out of the ground, or else walk them around the perimeter of the field before tipping them into the section reserved for away supporters.
For the home firms, the day would invariably pan out in reverse. The day would be all about trying to find a way to ‘welcome’ supporters to their town or city, whilst ensuring nobody ‘took liberties on their manor’.
All in all, one might consider this to be a strange way to want to spend the Saturday afternoons of one’s youth, but there you go.
It is the rehashing of these tales that now keep men well into their forties and fifties busy on the myriad of Facebook groups set up to discuss such fun-laden days of past.
Apparently, unless you were part of it you couldn’t start to understand the buzz it created. It was, I gather from my intermittent scrolling, the sense of comradeship that made the occasional thick ear, concussion or trip to the infirmary worth it.
The sense of tribalism and belonging that came with standing amongst same-minded groups of young men and women whilst hurling both abuse and missiles at those on the other side of a dividing fence gave such ilk a reason for living for the weekends.
It was the passion, you see. The ‘letting off steam’ and the ‘banter’ that was the draw. It was the emotion of being on edge all day and not knowing what was going to happen that drew people back week after week for more.
There was in all of this an alleged unwritten code of conduct that ordinary fans, known as ‘scarfers’ were to be left alone and only those similar minded and actively seeking trouble would find it. The reality, however, was that many a time the totally innocent would be caught up in the mayhem
So, what happened, then? Why did hooliganism start to tail off after the dark days of the mid-eighties? Various reasons have been put forward over the years but there seems to be a consensus that it wasn’t any one factor that spelt the death knell for the day of the hooligan, but rather a combination of factors.
In the latter part of the decade, technical sophistication had increased to the degree that CCTV security was abundant in all grounds. This meant it was far easier to identify miscreants, and as the authorities and courts started handing out much stiffer sentences, some of the allure was undoubtedly lost.
There were also a number of large profile police undercover operations that had mixed results in the courts but did the job in as much as they forced many to rethink whether the risks outweighed the ‘buzz’.
Talking of ‘buzzes’, the latter years of the decade saw the onset of the phenomenon that was acid music and the accompanying seemingly compulsory taking of ecstasy. In some quarters it was felt that this shift in focus led to a more laid-back ambience and thus the nation’s youth suddenly became more likely to wrap their collective arms around total strangers whilst smiling beautifully than feeling the urge to ‘introduce them to Stanley’.
Whatever the reasons, the changes in society’s landscape coinciding with the advent of all-seater stadiums in the wake of the Taylor Report, led to dramatic falls in the number of hooligan-related incidents.
All of this came too late, of course, for the poor souls who lost their lives either directly or indirectly because of hooliganism. After the first death at Blackpool, further fatalities occurred in or around a number of other grounds as a direct of fighting and also due to fences being erected at grounds.
After the playing out in public of such awful tragedies it is fair to say that many a thug just simply lost the stomach for the battle anymore.
The current climate seems to be much more sedate by comparison. There is still unpalatable chanting and ‘banter’ hurled between sets of supporters but outbreaks of violence are relatively rare.
Into the present and if one wishes to spend an amusing few minutes or so, there are any number of videos of YouTube which portray the modern-day wannabe-hooligan. These guys are known as ‘Zebedees’ for their propensity to bounce up and down on the spot whilst pointing and shouting, “Come on then. Let’s have it,” at opposing fans lined up on the other side of the street whilst safely separated by rows of police in riot gear.
It is rather pitiful and comical at the same time.
A bit like reading the musings of those yearning for the golden days of ‘Old Skool Hooligans’.