Beasts of England

Plastic chairs the weapons are the weapons of England’s most feared men. No tracking technology, just utilitarian furniture flung by arms either burnt red or clad in branded sportswear.

The English disease has returned and the seating is being aerially rearranged with malice aforethought across the country. One of this year’s League Cup Quarter Finals saw arrests, 27 injuries and a flare bouncing around between two sets of fans.

But it was no Battle of Rocky Lane.

On an evening in September 2002 150 Aston Villa fans fought around fifty Birmingham City to celebrate the teams’ first meeting in the Premier League. They fought across waste ground and dual carriageways, with fists and knives, with drainpipe and bottles, with each other and with Police.

 “Yet again Blues had to bring it to them despite the game being at St Andrew’s. They were the ones that were tooled up. They had bottles, knives, gas, bricks and sticks and they go on because one of our lot had a piece of car engine. If you watch the video (Set here to some banging grime ) you can hear the bottles landing before you see any of them. […] There were thirty of us against 150 and they call it a result as we didn’t turn them over—judge it for yourself.”

The quote from ‘Wally’ is from Caroline Gall’s book Zulus—Black, White and Blue: The Story of The Zulu Warriors Football Firm. The book itself is uncritical, trading tabloid outrage for access to the leaders and organisers of the gang. It’s part of a trend that came before hooliganism’s recent revival—a rewriting of the eighties that longs for a era grounded in working class life so much that it’s willing to overlook assault, battery and Sergio Tacchini.

Almost every large football club will somewhere have a hooligan memoir, they will be placed by the till in the local HMV around Christmas and feature expanding waistlines and expansive tales of great battles and trips away. It’s a major industry: satellite channels less secure in their sexuality will fill hours with this shit, and films keep getting made, The Firm, Green Street, The Football Factory, Green Street 2: Stand Your Ground. You can learn nothing of humanity and something about capitalism from these, all are without merit.  (ID is an worthwhile exception, despite starring Reece Dinsdale, but then its focus is the identity of the title rather than the game or the relationships.)

Part of the reason for the success of such dire tellings is popular culture’s inability to cover representations of brotherhood or comradeship—only that operating like war provides the easy skeleton for such stories. Football itself would work on less dangerous ground if filmmakers or authors could get to grips with the sport. They can’t handle the game itself, that much is certain, but they are seemingly unable to get a handle on the culture around the sport either.

Take centre-half turned old-lady-resembling Sunderland manager Steve Bruce’s Striker! which is an obvious attempt to create a Dick Francis-style franchise of murder-mystery novels around a sport. The novella is stuffed full of uncomfortable attempts to get across the mature camaraderie—that which binds all sorts of groups together in real life, full of nuanced relationships. It fails, but only in the same way that it fails with other aspects of the writer’s (proofreader’s, editor’s, cover artist’s, blurb writer’s) art—quality rather than effort or ambition.

Professionals can only feel the bonds of mercenary colleagues, fans form an ideological grouping and the casual gangs—however misguided—have the comradely togetherness of a militia defending their home. Zulu top man Cud can confirm; reflect how the phrasing could easily have come from one of football’s more traditionally British managers:

“There was a togetherness within the firm, like a family and every Saturday we were going to war. Others go to Iraq or wherever to fight for a cause they believe in, and defending our area was what we believed in.”

Special mentions, he says, are due to (amongst others) “the B.U.G. (Billesley Urban Guerillas) […] Rockarse, Lance, Smelly, Frog, Mong, Bear, Jed and the Jellies, Cranmore Boot Boys, Jammy, Ozzy, Slim, JJ, Kibs, Ize, Clive Warstock”.

To believe as strongly as to fight has a romance, when that means altruism even more so. If the cause was yours and the war was tomorrow, would you fight? Would you leave home and risk your life, travel to defend the people of another country just because of your belief? The Spanish Civil War offers me a chance to test that hypothetically for me. I would like to think I would have gone, but I can’t be sure.

Seeing the Spanish Civil as a trial run for World War Two is to play up political reasoning over economic. Britain’s politicians, and those of France, pursued policies of non-intervention in 1936 and appeasement up till 1939—the governments fought fascism but not until it was too big to ignore. Without the wealth of weapons or aid offered to the fascists by the Hitler and Mussolini lead states the Spanish republic relied on the sacrifice of individuals, and there were around 30,000 strong enough to do so by bearing arms.

These men formed the International Brigades, they came from across the World—from Germany and Italy exiled socialists and communists fought not just for a brotherhood, but for hope of a country to settle in. Esmond Romilly, a British member of the Thälmann Battalion, wrote of his comrades (Quoted in Preston, P. A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War):

“For them, indeed, there could be no surrender, no return; they were fighting for their cause and they were fighting as well for a home to live in. I remember what I heard from them of the exile’s life, scraping an existence in Antwerp or Toulouse, pursued by immigration laws[…]by the Nazi Secret Police. And they staked everything on this war.”

But the British, in essence, fought for their beliefs. Bob Cooney, a folk singer who became part of the renowned scene around Birmingham’s Jug of Punch Club, became Political Commissar with the British Battalion, returning with songs and a conviction that led him to join up to fight again at the start of the Second World War.

Jason Gurney left England to fight for “the chance for a single individual to take a positive and effective stand on an issue which appeared to be absolutely clear. Either you were opposed to the growth of fascism went out to fight against it, or you acquiesced in its crimes and were guilty of permitting its growth.”

He was wounded so that he couldn’t work again.

Loach’s Land and Freedom—despite suffering severe Finlandization alongside Homage to Catalonia—succeeds in capturing the certainly of a cause and the complexity of relationships between comrades-in-arms. It borrows heavily from Orwell’s account of the conflict, but immerses the viewer in motivation and that motivation includes the power that comes from a union.

In Bloody Casuals: Diary of a Football Hooligan (I could swear I first read this in an edition titled “Diary of an Aberdeen Soccer Casual”, but no evidence of that exists) Jay Allen gives a plausible version of just that feeling: “Whenever your mob gets off a train, out of a bar or out of the ground it always looks so much bigger.[…]walking in a mob of 200 or more is a fantastic feeling—it’s probably the security and the feeling of power. ”

Lack of power both societally and over the game that unites them has to be seen as a catalyst. The rise of the English hooligan in the eighties came as political power was drawn away from the electorate and placed firmly in the hands of the rich and the corporations. It was also the dawn of the distance in the game itself, while players hadn’t started earning the millions they do now the money machine had started and the clubs that were once part of the communities were packing consumers onto crumbling and dangerous terraces.

Control had left, and by the time of the Football Spectators Act (1989) the very liberty to attend games was under threat—membership requirement and travel restrictions joined fences and contempt as tools for the powerful to use on the powerless. It became more difficult to connect with the game, except through the increasingly regulated media. Football itself was a political football.

Jorge Luis Borges was no fan of football it’s popular-opiate role, and as an Argentinian under the junta that used the World Cup in 1978 to distract from all sorts of human right abuse one can see his point. One of his Bustos Domecq short stories reveals everything to be a sham:

“There’s no score, no teams, no matches, […] The bogus excitement of the sportscaster—hasn’t it ever made you suspect that everything is humbug? The last time a soccer match was played in Buenos Aires was on June 24 1937. From that exact moment soccer […] belongs to the genre of the drama, performed by a single man in a booth or by actors in jerseys in front of TV cameras.”

That casuals took what power they could over their lives, applied organisation to the business of ‘a ruck’, created uniforms shouldn’t be a surprise. A small army needs manoeuvres to gauge itself, and as Mussolini used Spain as a testing ground the casuals used European tournaments. No face could be lost, the enemy wasn’t organised as well.

It may seem further removed than authors, sculptors, and singers taking up arms but Aberdeen were somewhat of a force in Scottish and European football in the eighties. Under Alex Ferguson the team won the Cup Winners’ Cup, beating Real Madrid in the final in Gothenburg. The ‘Aberdeen Trendies’ traveled across the continent stealing Fila tracksuits, and drinking themselves unconscious. The trouble they wanted wasn’t really there, however, as they couldn’t in the end find anyone to fight with.

“A Mark McGhee cross and a John Hewitt header made it 2-1. Everyone exploded—we all leap the fifteen feet down to the standing terrace below. […] When the final whistle went, some of us tried to scale the fence, but it was a really high barbed wire fence. Hundreds of police in white jackets and big clubs put us off a bit as well.”


No such problems in at home, the fights were much easier to come by. “God knows why we loved to fight Motherwell so much […]  Just after 2.15pm someone ran in and told everyone that 70 of the SS [Motherwell Saturday Service] had just got off the 11.05, someone shouted the signal “come on Aberdeen!”.

That violence is sometimes premeditated and orchestrated between firms in the UK is a given, but abroad with the national team such control isn’t so possible. England fans have been involved in trouble during every major finals the team have got to since 1990, but it’s small numbers that will go prepared to fight, and larger numbers that are to stupid not to. It’s even the case that the reputation of the English—those beasts, the disease, the physical representation of imperialism—provides an excuse for attacking travelling fans.

In 1998 I had my first experience of being caught up in trouble abroad, and the overriding feeling was of powerlessness. Less secure, or braver, men may have fought back but it didn’t occur. I’d gone to watch England play Romania. A thirteen hour drive to Toulouse from Birmingham we barely slowed down until we got there and enjoyed a thoroughly drunken evening, and a throughly drunken morning in the centre of a town with some beautiful trompe l’oeil and a very poor Chinese buffet.

We’d had a great time: seeing no trouble, getting a mate into the game without a ticket (but with a wooden sheep) after his was pick-pocketed, and attempting French. Talking more loudly in English wasn’t working as if there was a second language it seemed to be Spanish.

But leaving the stadium, the feeling of the town had changed, the steeply-banked streets were dark, the noises no longer the voices of brotherhood but of harsh recrimination. It was getting cold, we were in the Englishman’s most vulnerable attire, lose shorts, the replica shirt and flip-flops. The sound of thick shattering glass shook you each time you started to relax, like a noise you hear while sleeping and pray has stopped. We made our way back in a concentrated silence not commenting on the we felt, making it obvious that we weren’t looking at the groups of men who gathered in corners and pockets.

There had been no real warning, the pre-game euphoria and 90th minute devastation—coupled for us with what was the end of our tip—could have marked a blackening of mood, but the whole city now seemed dusty, dangerous and shadowy.

Two other fans joined our group of four, showing no shame in fear they asked if they could walk with us; safety in numbers. They reminded us of the reports of skirmishes between England supporters and local Algerian men, something we hadn’t seen as we’d stayed the night before in a village some miles away.  There were missiles thrown, the only protection was to hold souvenir programmes over our heads—we hurried without breaking stride. We weren’t going to react, but then we weren’t looking for trouble.

Leaving them at their car found our way back to the bar we’d be happily shouting “bis” for Vindaloo in a few hours earlier, forgive us that; it was new, it was very much an absurdist reaction to the fake takes on national passion that big culture had offered before. The shutters were down almost to the ground, but there was activity inside. To prevent trouble, we were told, bars had been instructed not to open after the match; however the landlord’s quest for custom overrules these ideas worldwide.We banged, not urgently but insistently, the metal rattled and undulated and after establishing identity we were let in. We settled in to have a calming beer, meet the other guys and wait out any trouble but the barman was most insistent that we didn’t leave alone. Whether the locals were more or less attuned to the threat, I don’t know—but he made it clear we were to stay as long as we liked and then he’d arrange for us to be driven to the car park we’d used.

When we left it was to find the easy truce between English clubs had broken, there was apparently at least one bunch of Birmingham City fans on the hunt for Villa on whom to take out their frustration. Lennon and McCartney’s masterpiece Shit on the Villa forced itself off tiled walls and floors. We left.

Recriminations for just this sort of behaviour were long rumoured to have been the reasoning behind the unexpected levels of fighting around a game against Wolves in 1999. The firms of much smaller teams who command less fans, and so less hooligans, but often see the wider England team as something more important had arranged to teach the Zulus a lesson. This was the ruck at which a “homemade rocket launcher” apparently made an appearance, although what that would do, look like, or how it would be constructed are questions the whispers don’t answer.

Groups, factions; internal strife is seemingly inevitable. The fall of the Spanish Republic may be blamed on the non-intervention of European Governments, but it was characterised by the splintering of the Left—anarchists were sidelined, striped of responsibility in battle and eventually blamed for all manner of ills. George Orwell watched as honest men were imprisoned and persecuted for fighting for the cause under the banner of one group rather than another but for a glorious moment  her “had been in a community where hope was more normal that apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.”

The more strongly you believe the greater chance of you believing something different to the next man. The stronger the motivation the worse the fight.

And if you have no real motivation the fight may be all you have.

¡No pasarán! Keep Right On.

First published in Dirty Bristow Issue Two.