The English game has been historically marked with a name of violence, we thought it had disappeared, but is modern day hooliganism as different as we thought?
For many fans looking back at the 1980s, it’s impossible to separate the football from the hooliganism. Football violence was at the highest the country has seen. It was obvious it would be this way from the start of the decade, when at the Italian 1980 European Championships, in England’s first game against Belgium, the referee had to stop play for five minutes due to riot police having to use tear gas to control fans.
1985 proved to be the darkest year for English Football, with major clashes happening regularly across the country. On the 11th May following crowd violence between Birmingham and Leeds, a 14-year-old boy was killed at St Andrews stadium when groups of both fans were forced by the police into a supporting brick wall which then collapsed. Just 18 days later, 39 Juventus fans were crushed to death during their European Cup Final appearance against Liverpool. The “Heysel Disaster” led to English Clubs being banned from all European competitions until 1990, with Liverpool being banned for an additional year. A damning report from the “war cabinet” committee stated that “football may not be able to continue in its present form much longer unless hooliganism is reduced, perhaps by excluding away fans.”
However as the 90’s dawned, several big changes led to a massive decrease in hooliganism. The Taylor Report is the report of an inquiry into what caused the Hillsborough disaster, it changed things for British football such as stadiums must be all seated, it got rid of fences around the pitch as some Liverpool fans were crushed to death. It also stopped the sale of alcohol at the ground. So this is definitely one of the reasons hooligans faded away in the 90’s. Another reason would be the increase of raves. Working class men had started to take ecstasy instead of cocaine, they were hugging each other instead of fighting each other, people were having fun in a nonviolent way. It’s not to say football violence completely stopped, but it definitely didn’t get as much media attention when it was happening, this is to do with English clubs being banned from Europe so our clubs’ fans couldn’t go over and cause havoc anymore so they couldn’t get a bad name for themselves on the big stage.
And yet fast forward to a decade ago, and something that many thought almost eliminated from the game had once again reared its head. In a 2009 game between West Ham and Millwall in the second round of the League Cup at Upton Park, the pitch was invaded several times during the game, and in one incident outside the ground a Millwall fan suffered multiple stab wounds.
So what caused the return of football hooliganism? In an interview with The Sun, Cass Pennant, a well known former football hooligan, said that the rise in football hooliganism was the result of rising unemployment, poverty, and social discontent in the aftermath of the recent recession. It’s impossible to see past austerity as one of the main reasons as to why football violence is back, as the country has returned to the state it was in back in the 1980’s.
But perhaps the biggest driver behind the rebirth of hooliganism is social media. There are now pages on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter made especially for football violence. The Instagram page “UK Firms” posts pictures and videos of hooligans fighting from all over Britain. Public comments on these posts show members praising the fighters or abusing fans from rival teams. Instant messaging allows firms to get in contact with one another to arrange a meeting before games. The violence is more organised than ever.
Football hooligans tend to come from a working class background. With many of them working 5 or 6 days a week, they feel like “wage slaves” – stuck in pointless jobs and barely scraping by for it. For them, fighting at the football is seen as a relief, a chance to get all your anger out and a chance to feel something, whether it’s from the cocaine of the adrenaline you get when in the fight. Being part of a firm also would give them a sense of belonging, knowing that no matter what happens, there will be a big group of lads with them watching out for them at all times.
But being a Football hooligan has never been about just the violence. The 80’s also saw the start of the fashion trends that came to be the iconic hooligan look, all mobs wanted to look the best and dress in the nicest clothes. Brands like Stone Island and CP Company have always been well known within the hooligan community, as well as the trademark three striped Adidas trainer. As well as a specific clothing style, hooligans in the 80’s had distinctive music tastes. Bands like The Stone Roses and other Manchester bands from the time were all very popular within the scene, and later on Britpop became the main choice of music for a hooligan. At live gigs by bands popular with hooligans, trouble would often happen within the crowd – for example, Cockney Rejects often had fighting at their shows as West Hams hooligan firm would go to most of their gigs.
Today these fashion trends are still the exact same. Lads still want to dress the nicest and they still go to the games with the intention of fighting. There aren’t as many older men who go to games to fight nowadays as there was back in the heyday of brawling, but there are still quite a lot of youth. In recent years we have seen some worryingly reminiscent altercations. When Everton took multiple coach loads of trouble makers to Millwall at the end of January for an FA Cup 3rd round tie, they walked straight through the parts of Bermondsey which were known for confrontations, and they got exactly what they came for. In these acts of violence one Everton fan is seen dropping his knife, a Millwall fan then picks it up and slashes him across his face leaving him with life changing injuries.
Beyond the fighting, many people associate hooliganism with far right politics.The two often go hand in hand, and fans are often stereotyped to be right wing, pub-loving fascists. In fairness, this can often be the case, but is it true that football hooligans are all far-right thugs? A look at two different football-associated groups, the DFLA and the FLAF, show that whilst both may share the same interest in football, fashion and fighting, they stand for very different things.
Since it started, football hooliganism has always had strong links to right wing politics from the old National Front to the more modern EDL. The DFLA have been getting increasing coverage in recent months, both positive and negative. They claim that they are fighting for a united working class, having split from a group called the FLA after the negative attention they were getting because of racism within the group. They state that they are completely against racism but when you look at some of their members, it would suggest otherwise. Many of the group have previous convictions for racist crimes, and have even been pictured making nazi salutes. Many of the group used to be in the well known EDL and would seem they are trying to make the DFLA a second version of it.
We reached out to the DFLA to hear their account of why they formed. An anonymous spokesman told us that they came together after the 2017 terrorist attacks in London and Manchester. He went on to state: “The DFLA objective is plain and simple – to combat terrorism and extremism.” He frames the organisation as “A working class voice against social, economic and political injustice.”
“The DFLA shuns failed extremist politics, particularly far-left and far-right groups with hidden agendas”, stated the spokesperson. This would suggest they wouldn’t allow any members from these far-left or far-right groups into what they are trying to build, but investigations suggest that The DFLA is full of ex-EDL and Britain First members, some of whom have even served prison sentences for racist harassment. The spokesperson also asserted that the DFLA “Are anti-racist and anti-violence”, but cursory research would suggest otherwise. Plenty of members have been sent to prison for football violence crimes, such as kicking someone when they were on the floor or attacking people with large numbers.
Whilst the spokesperson insisted that the DFLA “Will continue to call out and condemn people for their white supremacist agendas and racist tone.”, the evidence is just not in their favour. One of their head members of the Sheffield area is quoted in 2015 as saying “We should send [all Muslims] back to the sandpit that they came from, and then turn that sandpit into glass” – a shocking quote which reveals a violent level of Islamophobia within the group.
The majority of football fans don’t want to be associated with the DFLA, leading some to even start their own left wing political groups, like the FLAF. There are also plenty of Antifa fan groups all over the world, but the main one in England comes from one of the smaller clubs, Clapton F.C. Clapton were set up in 1878 and are one of the oldest teams in the UK, who had very little fans from the 70’s through to 2010, but for some reason a few passionate left wing football fans and anti-fascists started to reclaim the club and make it arguably England’s most Antifa club. They took on the continental style of ultras, by making banners and making sure they were heard, the use of smoke bombs and flares are very common in their demonstrations.
So why is football violence on the rise again? It’s a complex question, but perhaps the lion’s share of the blame can be placed on the sorry state of the country’s economy and the results of austerity politics. Working class men are working ridiculous hours on a low wage, making them feel a need to do and feel something at the weekend to stop them from going insane. The rising level of unemployment also means there are people doing nothing all week so when they reach a certain level of boredom, how do they take the boredom away? Go out on a Saturday and look for trouble at the football. As for the right wing football fans and racism in the game, I think it reflects from society. As sad as it is, as long as there are racist people and organisations in communities, then racism in football will always be a thing. So until these groups and people learn to respect humans no matter where they come from or what skin colour they have, then racism, whether on the pitch or from the stands, will continue to happen in football.