Fighting between the lines

John Williams looks at the explosion of books nostalgic for the days of mass hooliganism

At West Ham in late September, a few away travel truths struck home a little more sharply than I can remember before. The District Line train eastbound at 2.30 was thinly populated. A number of passengers were Europeans, picking up a Premier League game between the Hammers and Liverpool while on holiday in London. Other Liverpool fans (and their kids) were openly wearing dispiritingly new team shirts.

I myself, a Kop season ticket holder and regular away fan was going with my LSE-attending step-daughter (who is ‘interested’, but not a mad Red; she goes to London games) and her (black) boyfriend who told me in the ground that, yes, he’d been to a game, once, he thought at Ipswich. He ‘supports’ Tottenham.

Going into the Lower Centenary we were searched (out of kilter this) and found ourselves sharing the end with Hammers’ fans (they looked like the family club). Two years ago we’d paid £17 and had the whole end; now it was two-thirds of the end and £24. This is known in the game as market forces. The Liverpool support was the by-now-usual mix of London Reds, people giving their kids a day out, and older Scouse accents. Plenty of female fans; some faces had been painted. There was no real singing (though the elephant-brained locals gave eight-years-away Ince the usual ‘Judas’ shit). At half time a female dancing troupe ‘entertained’ us; they were not abused (or enjoyed).

After the game a friendly older Hammer on the train couldn’t quite believe how upset my mate was that we’d lost. A couple of Asian lads wearing new West Ham scarves, looked busily for the next home fixture. We’d had a ‘good day out’, no messing, and no hassle, despite the defeat.

I wouldn’t have dreamt of taking my daughter and her fella in the away end at West Ham in the late ’80s, of course. For a start, he’d have got stick, and probably from Reds, too. She’d have been pissed off by not being able to see and by the intimidating trip to and from the tube and in the ground (I wasn’t too keen on that myself). For these things I’m thankful; I wouldn’t go back ten years. But at £24 a throw and with a theme park atmosphere in the away end, you can see the appeal of some current depictions of ‘80s culture.

Of course, the celebration of ‘70s and ‘80s football has been in full swing for a while now. Danny Baker has been doing the BBC TV version with some, heavily sanitized, commentaries on the pitch invasions and ‘offs’ at home and abroad which are presented as part and parcel of life on the terraces before the ‘luvvies’ and ‘anoraks’ took over. ‘Club’ histories of the decade by fans also tend to have enticing and nostalgic depictions of real life adventures for (male) supporters. Eddie Cotton’s The Voice of Anfield is full of this sort of stuff; bottle throwing mobs, robbing, and the occasional away coach gang bang to keep ‘the lads’ breathlessly entertained, before everyone goes home to their mum. Particular versions of ‘the truth’ are highly sacrosanct here; one lifelong Red was recently assaulted at the match for suggesting on a TV history of the decade that Liverpool fans rightly shouldered some of the blame for Heysel.

This kind of material is meat and drink, of course, for professional Mancunian Richard Kurt’s United We Stood: the Unofficial History of the Ferguson Years with its casual abuse of all things Scouse. Kurt’s troubled, too, naturally, by the struggle over modern-day Old Trafford between the day trippers and the die-hards. But, there is also a refreshing approach here to female fans who don’t, err, live in Manchester. For Kurt, the 1990s promise world domination; why dwell overmuch on the alehouse ’80s when the Mancs can now party in the Camp Nou? (Great diagrams here, as well, of Old Trafford’s fan base in transition; anthropology awaits.)

Nationally, Colin Ward led the hoolie nostalgia trip for a while, firstly with the racy Steaming In (‘I know this happened, but it wasn’t me guv’) and then the more transitional All Quiet on the Hooligan Front, a kind of European football travelogue in which a French speaking, Guardian reading ‘face’ (Colin) does much damage to press expense accounts on English football trips abroad as the ‘mobs’ slowly fade away.

Some of this is funny, but the tiresome Metropolitan flavour of Ward’s work – ‘John was as wide as the Thames’ – has also been picked up in the recent ‘high brow’ (sic) fiction of John King in The Football Factory and Headhunters. Presumably, this is meant to be Martin Amis meets King’s mate Irving Welsh, but it reads much more like the editor of Loaded ghosting tales of football lads for Brett Easton Ellis. Unreadable and pointless.

But all these pretenders must give way to the undisputed kings of this genre, the redoubtable Brimson brothers, Eddy and Dougie. These guys have got three (count them, but don’t try to distinguish between them) volumes currently out on the bad-old-good-old-days. These are big sellers, too. You can see why. The secret here is to print, largely with no editorial comment, fans’ accounts of their adventures and views of ‘good times’ past. So, we get just one, lengthy account of Hillsborough; from a Forest fan who blames ticketless Liverpool supporters for the deaths.

We also get a BNP member’s judgements on the plight of the sport, which seem to fit comfortably with some of the authors’ own views: they talk about “coloured” (sic) fans, the exaggeration of football racism, and the “do-gooders”, academics and social workers who defend minorities and oppose good old English culture (for more on which, see inside).

We get endless and mind numbingly repetitive tales of firms, fights, offs and scams. In 800 gruelling pages there is not one female or black voice. This is mob masturbation; testosterone time travel. I just can’t imagine who their readership is meant to be.

But the beauty of this is that Doug and Eddy now want to stop all this hooligan stuff (which is going on, just as it always has, as we speak). Their ‘insight’ is that men fight at football because they like fighting. If only the hapless FA could listen and understand this then we could do something about it (but what exactly?).

Contradiction then is heaped on contradiction; the new families are great for football, but ‘nuclear’ families are spoiling the atmosphere and they should clear off; fans will always be violent but we can solve the problem; organizations like the FSA are bollocks, but we need more fans’ say in the game; English fans are the toughest around, but hooliganism is (of course) much worse abroad. And so on.

For the Brimsons, and their gleeful publishers, and despite the ‘policy’ gloss, a day down at Upton Park is really incomplete without all the old attractions. They’re right of course; down in the netherworld the corpse of the hooligan ’80s still twitches and more. In some places, and for some games, it is still given the kiss of life by this sort of stuff (England in Rome has potential. There are Jurassic Parks for football firms all over the Midlands, for example). Otherwise, they just don’t get it. For good or for ill (mostly the former), going down the Hammers just ain’t what it used to be. The question now is not can we get back to the Land that Time Forgot; more, does the future have to be quite so depressingly manufactured and wholesome? And so expensive?

From WSC 129 November 1997. What was happening this month