Looking at aspects of maleness and football, Joyce Woolridge explains why the New Lads beloved of the media have little in common with the lads who actually go to watch matches

A few weeks ago at 6am I began a solo train journey from Bristol to Manchester to watch Manchester United lose to Chelsea. I’ve never been to a match alone before, but it happened that this time I was the only one with a ticket. As a solo traveller, I thoroughly expected to observe at first hand some spectacular displays of laddish boorishness, given that football is where the ‘new lads’ are most at home; where they gather to worship the cult of curry, boozing and birds whilst rejecting all standards of decent behaviour. 

It wasn’t until Birmingham New Street that I saw my first group of what can, according to the media presentation, be clearly be identified as lads in the uniform of button down collar shirts, 501s, no coats and bollocks-to-baldness shaven heads, boarding the train.

I didn't have any illusion that, as a middle aged woman, I could establish some sort of bond with these fans à la Bill Buford, even before I discovered they were Leeds supporters. However, I was included in their conversation by default as they were talking at the exceedingly loud volume learnt by men after years of bellowing at each other above noisy music in pubs. Hooliganism, or rather, “fucking hooliganism”, was their main topic. But the slant was not macho braggadocio about taking ends or violence, but allegations about how obsessed the police have become with tracking down generals and non-existent firms as if the law had swallowed the lad stereotype whole. “I had me picture took more times than Pamela Anderson at Arsenal,” one moaned.

This harassment was seriously interfering with some of their friends’ drug use, because the police’s alleged latest ploy was to find someone carrying a small stock for “personal use only” but not to charge them for possession if they revealed where things were “kicking off” (loud snorts here). “You might as well be in fucking Russia.”

The best opportunity for a display of collective laddism came at half-time out on the pitch where Ulrika Jonsson was drawing the Cashdash lottery tickets. Keith Fane, the public announcer, whose delivery makes KY Jelly seem dry, was introducing her in a fair approximation of Eric Idle’s obsequious Northern compère, putting an ‘a’ on the end of every fourth word or so. “Behave yourself there in-a K Stand-a,” he oozed. “I’m-a sure all you lads-a will want to sing along to this-a next record for Ul-er-reek-a,” introduced the strains of Baby Bird’s ‘You’re Gorgeous’, which boomed deafeningly around the ground, but only a few lads-a warbled the chorus half-heartedly. Keith has obviously never paid very close attention to the pervy lyrics, as they would certainly take some explaining in the Family Stand.

The sexism was strangely muted. The lads were only going through the motions. This was institutionalized sexism, an attempt to instruct the assembled how “lads” should behave, and they weren’t really having any of it, in contrast to the days when the appearance of anything remotely female on or near the pitch would have had the Stretford End baying for hours.

For the rest of the game the rather nice old man next to me tried to engage me in a debate about whether Karel Poborsky should get his hair cut. As I’ve remained unshorn since 1973 I couldn’t give him the answer he wanted. At the final whistle my egress was blocked by a man who appeared to be dancing with rage, but turned out to have stood in a pie and was trying to scrape it off his trainers.

In the queue for the Metro, some Bolton Reds staged a loud protest at the lack of atmosphere, largely caused by the feverish activities of stewards busy stifling any signs of excitement or attempts to get some singing going by committing the treasonable offence of standing up. No amount of orchestrated lechery in the interval will compensate real lads for not being allowed to do what they have come to matches for. They regaled us with, “We only sing when we’re winning,” quickly modified to, “We don’t even sing when we’re winning.” “All the fucking crowd now are upper-class or from fucking Scandinavia,” they opined.

Packed into the tram like something from the Tokyo rush hour, our euphoric Chelsea friends responded with ‘Knees up, Mother Brown’, ‘Kung Fu Fighting’, and when one announced, redundantly, “Lads, lads, we’re getting a bit predictable here!” “Fuck off, Eric Cantona”. This was probably the nearest I got to the stereotypical laddish behaviour, but they were obviously playing to the gallery, the self-conscious banter accompanied by scrupulous care that no-one was pushed or crushed.

Piling onto Piccadilly station, the male travellers flocked to the off-licence and burger bar with the determination of men who knew just how to prepare for a four hour journey. There were a number of drunks staggering around the platforms, but they weren’t throwing up, harassing women or following the script in any other way. Even when two plastered Welsh United fans shouted at me it was only to ask if they were on the train to Cardiff. As it had “Hazel Grove” on it in at least four different places I was able to disabuse them and this convinced them, with a logic that I couldn’t follow, that my name was Jennifer.

I ended up in a seat surrounded by the hardcore drinkers. Surely now I would see ‘laddism’ par excellence. But the result of four hours drinking in a highly dangerous manner served only to confound expectations. As the levels in the bottles of vodka got lower and lower, various blokes staggered alternately between the one functioning toilet, where one or two even manage to use the bowl, and the doorways, where they smoked.

One by one they slumped into fitful sleep, until one of my Welsh friends, with the elaborate courtesy of the inebriate and a painful concern not to give any offence, announced, “I’m awfully sorry to trouble you, Jennifer, love, but can you keep an eye on my mate for five minutes?” He added, “He’s fucking gone, you see,” somewhat unnecessarily, as his mate slumped into the aisle.

After two and a half hours on a seemingly endless journey I appreciated the need for a stiff drink myself and flagged down the trolley for some gin, which I don’t even like. As it went straight to my head the one conscious Welshman mournfully crooned, “You’re pissed, and you know you are,” at no-one in particular, an anthem for the lot of us. At this point, I managed to achieve one criterion of ‘laddism’. Inadvertently, the bubbles in the tonic made me burp softly, definitely an audible noise from a part of my body. I looked around proudly, but sadly, no-one witnessed my effort. They’d all passed out to await their monstrous hangovers, and had been doing so on a Saturday in their own quiet way long before it became fashionable.

What I observed on this lone trip served merely to confirm what I had already seen on many other visits to matches. ‘Laddism’ as it is relentlessly promoted in the media and earnestly dissected by the intelligentsia, is a crude stereotype that reduces the huge heterogeneous male football audience has been reduced to a group of leering belchers in love with their own crassness.

From WSC 119 January 1997. What was happening this month

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