The English Football Hooligan Is Alive And Doing Very Well, Thank You

Duncan MacDowallCorrespondent IMarch 18, 2009

It is commonly accepted that the English are the founders of the modern game of association football or soccer.

In 1863 in a London tavern, representatives met and formulated the rules and regulations governing the game and the Football Association was formed.

The next forty years saw the organised game spread round the globe, associations were formed in numerous countries, some would later become pre-eminent, others would not.

In 1930 the first World Cup took place in Uruguay, for various reasons only thirteen nations competed. The hosts won and the World Cup was born.

England did not win a World Cup until 1966, a year etched in every Englishman’s memory when the final was played at Wembley stadium in London.

By the late 1960s a new phenomenon had entered the English game, the rise of violence in football stadiums around the country. It wasn’t entirely new, there had been sporadic disturbances at football matches for forty years in England and around the world, notably in South America, but the scale was different.

Fuelled by the skinhead youth cult and based upon tribalistic, working class areas of the country, violence regularly flared up in grounds around the nation. The common desire being to take over the standing end of the ground usually associated with the home support.

The years passed, street fashions changed, hooliganism or football violence increased. Terms like “aggro” and “bovver boy” were joined in the national consciousness by the “Stanley knife,” a sharp tradesman’s blade now used for cutting rival supporters.

The original skinheads were long gone. By the start of the 1980s a new image for the football hooligan had appeared. The football casual was born; he wore designer labels like Burberry, Pringle and Lacoste, jeans and training shoes.

No longer did the cropped hair or the laced up Dr Martins boot mark out the troublemaker, now he was harder to spot.

By the mid 1980s football was in crisis, a British football match was a dangerous place for a fan to go but things had got worse. The football hooligan was now regularly travelling abroad and taking his violence with him.

In 1985 at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, hosting the showpiece of European Club football, The European Cup Final. Liverpool fans charged at Italian supporters of Juventus of Turin who whilst trying to escape were crushed to death as a wall in the stadium collapsed. Thirty nine died and English clubs were banned from European football indefinitely.

The ban lasted for five years but the violence continued at home and with the followers of the national team, in Europe.

Far-right groups had been involved for some time, the British National Party openly canvassed at football grounds and black players had been routinely abused for years, but the game was changing.

Black players were becoming more prominent, the kick racism out of football campaign was initiated. Stadiums were designated all-seated. Policing tactics improved, banning orders, CCTV. The football hooligan firms reorganised. The violence continued, more often than not, took place outside.

Big money came into the game, oligarchs and international cartels took over clubs, satellite TV poured money into the top-flight game for rights, ticket prices went sky-high. Football became big business. The game became a global marketing phenomenon, and so did the English hooligan.

World football fans mimicked the English, copied their behaviour, their tactics, their clothing. Rioted and fought across the European Union, in Eastern Europe, in Argentina and Brazil.

The English hooligan firms and crews could now be challenged; supporters were stabbed in Italy, murdered in Turkey, ambushed in Holland, the national team players racially abused in Spain. The hooligans responded, both with violence and with something new; with celebrity.

The last few years have seen an amazing rise in films and books telling the tales of the football hooligans from their own perspective. There are over fifty books currently in print. Among the thugs, Barmy Army, Want Some Aggro, Bovver, Who wants it? being just a few of them.

While the ‘Soul Crew,’ ‘Naughty Forty,’ ‘County Road Cutters,’ ’Zulus,’ and ‘Headhunters,’ are some of the more exotic names of the firms.

 Four recent films have explored the genre; The Football Factory, Green Street, The Rise of the Foot Soldier and Cas.

The Football Factory had two spin-off documentary series aired on Bravo as its star Danny Dyer, visited and interviewed real hooligans around the UK and then, in the Real Football Factory International, around the world.

In a move designed to attract the US market, Lord of the Rings lead Elijah Wood starred in Green Street. He played an American football violence convert, deftly switching from fighting the Dark Lord’s forces in Mordor, to doing the same in South East London against the Bushwacker’s of Millwall.

Cas Pennant former West Ham ICF member and subject of his own book and film has set up his own publishing company dealing prominently in the genre, supplying the seemingly insurmountable demand for all things in relation to the British hooligan.

With the steady demise of the top-flite English footballer, only eight out of forty four starting players in the top four clubs in European football this week were English, it remains to be seen if posterity will view England as the country who gave the world football or whether it will be better known as the country that gave the world the football hooligan.

A sad legacy in a changing world.