Luke Chapman says two new hooligan documentaries show the viewing public's appetite for violence is undiminished, especially if it has a good soundtrack
It was the adverts that gave the game away. The usual parade of booze, car and financial services promotions, clearly aimed at the programme’s target market: males, 18-45, high disposable income – with perhaps a penchant for a bit of fisticuffs. Welcome to Football’s Fight Club, where viewer and subject were perceived to be one and the same.
Channel 4’s mini-series charting the exploits of a certain type of middle-aged man is just one recent example of a burgeoning industry. Football hooliganism – particularly of the old school variety – appears to be very sexy again, a phenomenon speaking volumes both about its representation in the media and the seemingly voracious demand of the consumer.
For those who missed it, Football’s Fight Club was an unintentionally amusing but ultimately depressing celebration of violence. Masquerading as serious analysis and comment from the “men who were there”, it was instead more of a glorified wallow in nostalgia, imbued with a whiff of Guy Ritchie-like fascination for all things proletarian and geezerish. Hooligan porn, if you like.
This was football hooliganism meets I Love The 1970s with a bit of The Rock and Roll Years thrown in for good measure. To a soundtrack of Sham 69, The Clash and New Order, we were offered clips of blokes sporting flapping flares and sideburns running down a street. Or, by way of variety, blokes sporting Pringle jumpers and wedge haircuts running down a street. You half expected nostalgia-fest regulars Stuart Maconie and Lisa Rogers to pop up, wistfully recalling the glories of Harry the Dog, but instead it was left to various veterans to offer their sage-like comments on what “really happened”.
According to one contributor, for example, mass punch-ups were simply “good”. For most of the others it was the “buzz” that compelled fine, upstanding citizens to become weekend psychopaths, while there was a general consensus in support of that much cherished but still dubious notion that ecstasy and dance culture temporarily turned rabid nutters into flowered-up summer-of-lovers at the start of the Nineties. In truth, there was little new that seasoned hoolie-watchers could learn from the programme. Betrayed by repeated use of the same clips, this was a tired rehash of familiar tales about taking ends, standing your ground and how it was all just a bit of fun, really.
Really? Those who witnessed the “heyday” of football violence might disagree. The programme’s contributors might have nobly spoken of their code of honour and “fair fights”, but anyone who has witnessed the kind of pack savagery that characterises such violence knows the less than honourable truth.
The same goes for anyone who saw the stomach-churning footage of dozens of Millwall fans bravely attacking a lone Portsmouth supporter in BBC2’s contribution to the genre, Hooligan. The premise of this three-part series (only episode one had been screened at the time of going to press) is that, far from being consigned to yesteryear, football thuggery is still very much with us.
Not exactly earth-shattering news to regular supporters, admittedly, but the programme did at least seek to condemn what it portrayed. While Football’s Fight Club offered only rare moments of perspective in exposing the lie (notably a former police officer emotionally recalling how a supporter once died in his arms), Hooligan’s roll call of disorder stripped away any delusions of respect its practitioners like to assume.
Filmed undercover in the midst of actual incidents across Britain and Europe, Hooligan had a vivid immediacy that Fight Club lacked, leaving the viewer in no doubt that being a football fan in 2002 can, on occasion, still be a hazardous pursuit. Its contributors also had more telling things to say about what makes a hooligan tick. One bemoaned the fact that the game was being ruined because, horror of horrors, families were now attending regularly. An ex-Stoke City desperado, meanwhile, provided moments of pure comedy, almost breaking down in tears as he blubbed that “we all like football and a good row”, while confirming that the “top boys” like to dress up in fancy clothes to impress one other.
The problem with both programmes, to varying degrees, was that too much was left unsaid. Neither offered much in the way of context, particularly in terms of precedents on the international stage. From Agincourt to the Falklands, Britain has got a series of “results” by sending the flower of its youth abroad to beat up Johnny Foreigner and, as many protagonists would claim, hooligans are simply carrying on that tradition.
Neither Football’s Fight Club nor Hooligan (at least in its first episode) really considered the issue and only briefly looked at the racism and rightwing politics followed by some exponents. They also failed to ask of their subjects what seems the obvious question: why do they get their kicks from the kind of confrontation which most other males grow out of by the time they leave school?
The programme makers are not alone, however, in taking the issue at face value. Newspapers feed off the same passions that contribute to the phenomenon of hooliganism, hyping games to a frenzied degree as “showdowns” and “battles” yet expressing surprise when their self-fulfilling prophecies come true – Sol Campbell’s acrimonious return to White Hart Lane this season being a case in point. And yet, whose fault is it that football hooliganism has such a hungry audience? For those of us who avidly consume this stuff – and I count myself among that number – our attitudes create the demand. Newspapers stoke the fires of confrontation but we avidly read them; producers make exploitative TV programmes, but we watch them.
Catharsis has always played a big part in sport and watching men try to kick lumps out of each other has long been a part of football on or off the pitch. Indeed, anyone who likes boxing (me again) is arguably on dodgy moral ground if they object to hooliganism. But nothing in today’s market would suggest our appetites for such spectacles are on the wane. For example, though industry representatives are curiously reluctant to divulge information, sales figures for videos featuring hooligan content are high. One company reports that one of its videos on Manchester United in the 1990s was outsold by their hooligan video by almost ten to one.
Football’s Fight Club concluded with footage of the infamous James Shayler proudly displaying his beer gut and tattoos in Marseille during France 98, with the narrator repeatedly citing the “embarrassment” that it should come to this – England’s finest as personified by “a middle-aged overweight drunk”. The inference obviously being that you got a better class of thug in the old days. It was left to a clearly distressed young mum, filmed at the end of Hooligan, standing with babe in arms outside her home in the middle of yet another disturbance around the New Den, to provide the damning criticism the whole subject deserves: “Sort your fucking selves out,” she screamed. You have to admit, she’s got a point.
From WSC 185 July 2002. What was happening this month