Call yourself a football fan? – Mark E Smith

Time for a chat with Mark E Smith of The Fall, whose football experiences include encounters with a goalkeeping plumber and a controversial match against the Icicle Works

You grew up in Salford, which is more United than City. Is there a reason why you’re a City fan?
Not really, just to be contrary I suppose. Also you want to support the opposite team to your dad and my dad had been a United fan. Back in the 1950s he’d to go to away games on his bike – he’d cycle to places like Leicester. But I converted him to City. I had another United connection, though. I applied for a clerical job at the Edwards family’s meat factory after I left school. It was £9 a week. It might even have been Martin Edwards who did the interview. He said “Well the meat wagons come in, just sit there, fill in these forms and file them.” I said, “When would the job start?” and he said “You’ve started” and he left me in the office.

How long did you keep the job?
An hour. I was there all by myself. He’d locked the door. When he came back, I left.

Did you watch United winning the Champions League?
I was walking to my local pub just when they scored and this huge roar went up. There was a free bus into Manchester laid on half an hour after the game and they said “Come on, even though you’re a Blue, you’re getting on this bus” and I have to say it was a great night – all the clubs you could never normally get in had their doors open, free drinks and everything. And in a funny way it didn’t feel like it had happened to United, it was like they were a cricket team or something.

Did you used to see City regularly?
I used to stand on the Kippax but one of the reasons I stopped going was because of the moaning. Now, when you have to sit down, you can’t escape them. In the Peter Reid days, they’d be winning 2-0 and they’d be saying, “Oh, it’ll be 3-2…”  The thing about the moaners is you know they’re always going to come back. I remember talking to these young City fans before Joe Royle came and they were practically suicidal and I said, “Look, it’s always been like that.” When I started supporting them in 1965, they were bottom of the Second Division. But these kids think City’s history began with Colin Bell. Just about the only good thing Oasis ever did was to threaten to take over the club. That galvanised people into action and they got this new guy, Bernstein, in like a shot. Now Sky are involved and it could be the downfall of them. Does Murdoch know what he’s taking on – 30,000 miserable gets? “Live from Maine Road, it’s Man City v Hartlepool.” Try selling that in America.

Who were your favourite players?

Harry Dowd, the goalkeeper in the championship team in 1968, was the best. He still worked as a plumber part-time and my dad was a plumber too. We used to go behind the goal and Harry would wander over and talk about washers and copper joints. I remember being at a cup tie once and Harry was saying “Do you know if this goes to extra time today, only I’ve got a job on at half five?” then suddenly people are shouting “Harry Harry!” and the team we were playing are charging down the pitch and Harry rushes out, dives at someone’s feet, throws the ball up the pitch then comes back and starts again, “So, is this extra time today…?”  The local paper had a “where are they now?” feature recently on City’s team from the Rodney Marsh time in the early 1970s. There were a couple who just seem to have disappeared off the face of the earth. One was quoted as saying “If I wasn’t a footballer I’d be a tramp” and I think he’s done it.

Did you collect things like football stickers?
Yes, I had the 1970 Mexico World Cup set. The Romanians had been photographed in black and white then coloured in. You’d open a packet and it would be one of the east Europeans and you’d scream. And then when the World Cup came around, half of them weren’t even in the squad. The pictures were all from about 1962.

Did you go to see other teams in the area?
Quite a few. Prestwich Heys were the local non-League team and I went to see them in an Amateur Cup tie against Sutton United. I was on the pitch celebrating a goal and got arrested by my neighbour, who was a part-time policeman. At Bury you could get in for free if you went though the cemetery behind one end and jumped over the fence. They were always losing though, because they had the best pitch, this great lush grass that all the other teams liked to play on. We used to go to see Oldham when they had Ray Wilson from the 1966 World Cup team and he could hardly walk. You could see why he became an undertaker, because he was halfway there. They were bottom of the Fourth but they suddenly started winning every game and in three seasons they were up near the top of the Second.

Who was the first player you met?

Funnily enough, I met George Best a few times – first was in some drinking club in London in the early 1980s. He heard I was from Manchester and went into this big rant about how he’d used to get all this stick from the crowd at United when they thought he wasn’t doing enough. It was true he did used to stand around doing nothing for 80 minutes but I thought that was all right, given that he’d still win them the game. But he’d still get stick when he was going off from Bobby Charlton and the other players. He was the type who’d just walk into his local boozer and there will always be people wanting to have a go, if you’re like that.

The Fall did a song about football, Kicker Conspiracy, back in the early 1980s. What sort of reaction did it get at the time?
You couldn’t mention football in the rock world then. We were on Rough Trade and I told them “This is about football violence” and it was all “You don’t go to football, do you?” I remember Melody Maker saying, “Mark Smith’s obviously got writer’s block having to write about football.” About five years later, the same guy reviewed something else saying it was a load of rubbish and “nowhere near the heights of Kicker Conspiracy”. And now, of course, all the old music hacks are sat in the directors’ box with Oasis.

Have you ever watched a game from the directors’ box?
My worst experience at City, actually, was when the agent we were with at the time got us into the directors’ box for a David Bowie show at Maine Road. And it was a disgrace. They had pennants on the wall, like the European Cup-Winners Cup, all creased up in plastic. They hadn’t changed the photos since 1968, they still had black and white blow-ups from the Manchester Evening News and the trophy cabinet hadn’t been cleaned. The bar itself was like a kiosk – it was worse than anything on the Kippax. Alex Higgins was there too and he sort of collapsed into it.  I’ve been to United’s, and of course that was like something on Concorde. 

What is your favourite football book?
The best one I’ve read is Colours of My Life by Malcolm Allison, which covers how he turned City around. When he came back in the late 1970s he was totally broke. He’d go into all the best clubs in Manchester like it was still 1968 and take a load of mates, like an Oliver Reed scene. He’d be asked to pay at the end and he’d just say, “Pay? What do you mean, I’m Malcolm Allison.” But sometimes it didn’t work and they’d have to have a whip round, he’d go around collecting fivers and loose change in his hat. As far as football writing now, the newspaper coverage here is terrible. I was looking at one paper during Man Utd’s games in Brazil and I thought, “Am I reading the financial pages?” It was all about Man Utd haven’t got a press guy and what a disaster it was they were the only club who didn’t have one. And I’m reading it, thinking “Yeah, but what was the score?”

Have you kept in touch with football when you’ve been abroad?
Going to Germany in the early 1980s got me back into football when I was going off it a bit. In places like Hamburg there was an avant garde rock scene among fans at some clubs, something that wasn’t there in Britain. And you get big pints of beer at German matches for, like, 25p, and a nice clean sausage. I saw Germany v Bulgaria at the 1994 World Cup. What a day out that was. The German players were limbering up like an hour before the game, doing leap-frogging and gymnastics. Then they showed an interview with someone from the Bulgarian staff on these massive screens around the ground and he said, “I’m just glad we’ve all turned up. We only had nine men half an hour ago.” In the stadium they were trying to be nice to everyone and they brought in these guys with red caps all dressed like Michael Jackson as extra security. We were in the German end and in the middle of the game this South American film crew come and sit in front of us, and I’m asking them to move. This red cap comes up and asks me what’s wrong, then a policeman comes over and he brings over this guy from the US soccer federation who looks like Ronald Reagan with white hair and he’s saying things like “Is your seat not comfortable sir?” And I’m saying no, it’s fine, it’s just this film crew. Then he says “Ah. You’re not German are you sir?” I think they had this idea that football was like some germ from Europe that might infect them.

Do you play yourself?
I’ve started playing again. I’m a central defender. I like tackling, but when I play I walk.

Like Franz Beckenbauer…

Similar. I trip people, tap them on the shin. But I don’t like the niggling little fouls they do now, all that shirt pulling. The annoying thing about that Beckham foul in the World Cup, when he got sent off, was he hardly even kicked him. If you’re going to kick them, kick them. The Fall used to have a team, we’d play university teams before gigs. We played the Icicle Works when we were both in this hotel in London. There were eight or nine in our team, the group and  couple of roadies. This guy called Big Dave from Lincolnshire, who was like the fattest lad you’ve ever seen, went in goal. And they turned up in replica Liverpool kits with “The Icicle Works” on the front and they’ve got this mock European Cup with them. It was 20 minutes each way and we went 5-4 in front in injury time and their tour manager’s the referee, so it went on and on until they won 6-5. It’d gone dark by the time we finished and in the bar they’re telling all the music journos they’ve won and passing the European Cup around…

Have you had any encounters with football hooligans?

It seems to me that the fascination with rough lads we’ve got now is a very middle class thing. They’re from small places, but not impoverished places either – stockbrokers who can forget about being new dads for a day and have a fight. It’s a sado-masochism thing, wanting to be hit. It’s like the kid at school who was always hitting people, you just knew he was a closet case. I used to get it on trains coming down to London. They get on at Milton Keynes and they’re staring you out and all this.I remember Man City had this group called The Main Line Service Crew. We were on a train on a Saturday afternoon going down for a gig and they were asking us if we were City or United and all that. And I said, “Hold on, it’s three o’clock, City are at home today. What are you doing here?” And they were going to Spurs or somewhere to try and cause trouble at half time, then they’d be back up on the train to get to Maine Road when the away fans are coming out. That’s the sort of mentality they’ve got.

From WSC 157 March 2000. What was happening this month

Comments (5)
Comment by stuart77 2009-12-28 18:04:51

Class, funny, especially the goaly, Harry Dowd.

Comment by Webbie 2009-12-28 18:07:22

Quality. Good interview.
Thank you for the post.

Comment by danielmak 2009-12-30 01:19:10

I don't know if it gets much better than mixing The Fall and football. Here's more on that front:

Comment by madmickyf 2010-01-04 00:43:13

Kicker Conspiracy is the best song written about football ever. Mark E Smith is a genius.

Comment by Jongudmund 2010-01-05 15:59:22

Time for a catch up with Mark E Smith, surely. I'm guessing he'd have plenty of interesting things to say about the current state of Man City.