The first professional match I ever saw was West Ham vs. Cardiff City in Cardiff, 2003. It was at a time when the Hammers had been relegated.
The entire day, there was an enormous police presence throughout the city, with horses, water cannons, and police on foot. I was visiting a friend, and went to the match with his neighbour, a retired hooligan.
Before the match, we went to the Cardiff supporters' pub, home of the hooligan firm, the Soul Crew. There was a palpable adrenaline charge in the air. You could feel that these lads were ready to throw down at a moment's notice.
I asked my guide, J., if there was any chance the ICF would try to invade the pub. He replied that it wasn't likely, given our superior numbers and the prevalence of CCTV in the area. He said that if anything happened, it would likely be late at night on the outskirts of town.
We went to the ground as a group, and J. ran ahead to confer with some of his mates who were acting as spotters. We took our places on the terrace (at the time only Premiership stadiums were required to have seats) and saw the section of ICF to our left. They were chanting and throwing coins and batteries across at the Soul Crew, who happily returned the missiles.
I think the result was 2-1 West Ham, but I'll never forget the electricity in the air. People were staring at me, like, who the f*ck is he? Is he one of them? If I hadn't been with a former hool, I probably would have got my ass kicked.
I met my friend (not a football fan) after the match, and we went to a pub to meet some of his friends who are/were hooligans. They said there probably wouldn't be a fight, but that the Soul Crew were out hunting for ICF.
Personally, I'm not against football violence, as long as people don't kill each other. I know about the tragedies that have happened, and I make no excuse for the perpetrators.
I also disapprove of those who use weapons, especially guns, in hooligan fights. If grown men with a mutual desire to clobber each other wish to do so, fine by me. As long as they don't target innocents and keep the destruction of private property to a minimum, I think it's a great way to relieve stress and build camaraderie.
The truth is, with CCTV, facial recognition software, databases of known hooligans, travel restrictions, and all the rest, it's almost impossible to stage a mass brawl anywhere in the UK or Western Europe. The authorities in those countries have all but eliminated the hooligan phenomenon. The eastern Europeans can still get away with it, as can the South Americans and people in other parts of the world.
Hooliganism will survive as long as young men burn with the drive to seek status through strength in an organized group. It is a condition that has defined the rites of manhood for thousands of years, in every culture, much to the chagrin of our modern social engineers.
To read about what it's really like, check out:
- Soul Crew, by David Jones and Tony Rivers
- Hoolifan: 30 Years of Hurt, by Martin King and Martin Knight
- The Naughty Nineties: Football's Coming Home, by Martin King and Martin Knight
- Toronto FC (MLS)
- Liverpool FC (EPL)
- Cardiff City (EFLC)