BY CRAIG CAMPBELL
January 1985: Middlesbrough manager Willie Maddren cuts an angry figure as he leaves the dugout. He’s just seen his side lose 2-1 to local rivals Darlington in an FA Cup replay. It’s a game that Boro should have performed better in but that’s not the sight that has really disturbed him. It’s something else. The antithesis of everything he’s ever stood for as a football professional. It’s the subculture that has seemingly made a comeback of late in a decade known for its vainglorious excess. Football hooliganism, the tribal poison of the game in the mid to late seventies, has just announced itself on the pitch and terraces of Feethams and frankly it disgusts him.
By the end of the day police will have made seventeen arrests and many more will have been caught up in the unrest. The incident has caught them off guard. Middlesbrough and Darlington aren’t known as rivals, and as such, the level of violence seemed unprecedented. It’s surprised the Darlo lads too, if they’re honest. There had been a few skirmishes at the original cup tie at Ayresome Park but nothing major. They are no Trappist monks either. They have witnessed the outbreak of violence before, particularly with their arch rivals down the road, Hartlepool United. The two sets of fans have traditionally kicked two bells out of each other outside the entrance of Darlington’s main train station or in the confines of Church Street. In a weird way it isn’t based on maliciousness. It’s about oneupmanship. Tradition. A rush and push of a violent pantomime that’s swiftly laughed about with black eyes and grazed knuckles in the pub back home.
This has been different. Shocking to even those who have been cornered in pubs and train stations on occasion as football fans. Lines have been crossed. Rumours of slashings and ordinary supporters being dragged into it. Kids as young as sixteen being battered senseless all in the name of a nihilistic reputation. The Frontline. As their name suggests, a group of shadowy figures whose allegiance to the Boro lies way beyond football results. Their interests are in creating interference on a grand scale. For them football hooliganism is the last subculture to mean anything, a victory of social protest and individualism over style, despite what the press says. They hang on to their tribalism because in an increasingly materialistic world, that’s what indentifies them.
Tribalism in football is a multi faceted thing. It doesn’t just suggest an allegiance to colours, but an allegiance to community, especially to lower league fans. In the pubs and clubs around Darlington in the following weeks, their grudge over the incident will become like a slow burning fuse. They all seem to have a nephew or a mate who’s been kicked senseless by the Boro faction.
They all feel a connection to it. In corners away from girlfriends and those whose with loose lips, they whisper the same refrain: if Boro ever show up like that at Feethams again, they’ll be ready for them.
Nearly eighteen months later, a meeting point is occurring. At a pub in Darlington, the door keeps revolving to a cross section of individuals who aren’t exactly there to buy a pint and a packet of pork scratchings. It’s an eclectic bunch really. Football lads in their latest Adidas trainers and casual wear. Old skinheads sporting Doc Martens and Trojan t-shirts and various town nutcases whose darting eyes betray a cut off point to reality. There are even a smattering of Hell’s Angels who don’t take too kindly to when one asks where the toilet is and someone quips ‘right turn Clyde’ in their direction. With so many disparate groups in one place, it actually has the potential to go off even before they reach their main objective.
They do, however, manage to keep a lid on things and wait as the first smattering of Boro fans pass their way. They’re back at Feethams for a league game. It’s a group of faux hooligans really. Nothing to do with the Boro Frontline. Young lads who like the clothes but don’t like the brutal reality. They’ve arrived in Darlington like away fans do to start their drinking early. As they get to the door they’re suddenly surrounded by a mob who don’t care about their innocence or authenticity, primarily they just want their physical souvenir of Teesside to take away as a trophy.
The incident will be repeated in flashpoints all over the town centre by mid morning. Small groups of Boro fans being picked off and attacked with regularity. It takes a while for the news to travel back to Boro’s hooligan fraternity. These are the days without mobile phones or the internet but slowly and surely the word reaches them. It’s met with a strange sense of jubilation rather than anger. The Frontline are used to this and with bigger teams than their local neighbours. They arrive mob handed on cue but even they’re surprised by the sheer scale of what they’re faced with in the town centre. An army of rabid townies waiting to greet them.
So it begins. A day of pitched battles, that despite a heavy police presence, the authorities don’t seem able to put a lid on. For every fight they separate, another one breaks out. It ends up being one of the biggest mass football disturbances of the entire 1980s. A local camera crew even refuse to go into the area to film it. Shop shutters are bolted down en masse for their own security. It seems a necessity as the sound of breaking glass is more akin to a controlled explosion than Saturday afternoon drinking. Things hardly improve in the ground either – sporadic fighting breaks out from the off. When the massive police presence inside the ground stops that, Middlesbrough fans then take to ripping up advertising hoardings and launch a constant barrage of missiles into the Darlington end. Pleading for calm, a Middlesbrough player actually has a half set of pool balls launched at him for his troubles. From the first minute to the final whistle the sense of menace is palpable. It’s absolute mayhem.
Middlesbrough will eventually win the game 1-0 but the result will become an obscure footnote as the news breaks nationally about the mayhem. In the Grandstand studio as the presenter reads out the number of rising arrests at the fixture, he will glance down at his sheet to make sure he hasn’t read it wrong. In all there will be a 103 detained and a number of people treated in hospital after the match. The number of weapons recovered will be mind boggling too. Pick axe handles, Stanley knives and even antique swords are pictured in the local press on the following Monday. The condemnation from both clubs typically rings out in the media shortly thereafter. For those who have organised and carried out the violence, they pretty much see the two legged mayhem as a 1-1 draw. A riot of two halves in fact.
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