A guide to English hooligan culture, and how Rupert Murdoch killed it
One of the less edifying trends currently surfacing in British pop culture is a kind of warped nostalgia for the days of rampant football hooliganism.
In much the same way that America’s Italian hoodlums have become lionised in celluloid, time seems to have diminished the genuine feelings of fear and loathing the football ‘firms’ of the 1980s inspired, and replaced them with a romantic notion that these were merely loyal gangs of Merrie Men expressing their masculinity. And a key myth is that hooligans only ever hurt each other, leaving innocent bystanders alone.
To see what I mean, read John King’s Headhunters or The Football Factory (now a movie), or Martin King’s (no relation, I think) Hoolifan.
And even Liverpool fans, who were never among the worst hooligans, have this nostalgic terrace anthem occasionally aired on away-days:
Those were the days my friends
We took the Stretford End
We took the Shed
The North Bank Highbury
We took the Geordies too
We fought for Liverpool
We are the Kop of Liverpool FC *
All nonsense of course, but here's a rough guide to how hooligan culture worked:
In the late 1970 and throughout the 1980s, football crowds were almost exclusively white, working-class men.
Within those crowds were pockets of bored, disaffected youths who gradually got themselves in gangs ('firms') with the intention of engaging in tribal warfare with firms from other teams.
It was particularly a problem in London, where you have lots of top-flight football teams who regularly met in Division 1, and plenty of opportunities for fights in tube stations etc. The most notorious London firms were Chelsea’s ‘Headhunters’ and West Ham United’s ‘Inter City Firm’ (named after the BR train system on which they got around the country).
Firms took themselves seriously, with initiation rules and ‘bases’ in pubs (one of the frequent aims on hooligan battles was to ‘take another firm’s pub’.)
Although it’s a myth ex-hooligans like to propagate that they never hurt innocent by-standers, in actual fact it is true that the core gangs’ original idea was to only fight ‘volunteers’, ie, those who were in opposition firms. And far from going on random rampages, they were extremely organised - opposing firms contacting each other to arrange times and places to fight where the police wouldn’t be expecting it.
The problem was that around the fringes of the firms were hundreds of idiots who took every opportunity to run riot in neighbourhoods, kicking anyone that moved, smashing windows and scaring the bejesus out of all and sundry. These oiks are conveniently forgotten in the current climate of myth-making.
How Rupert Murdoch killed hooliganism
Anyway, that all stopped in the early 1990s, and it’s no longer a problem in Britain.
What killed it? Partly better police intelligence, but the main reason was a cultural shift.
The old days of the terraces – firm breeding grounds where you could stand where you liked and get yourself into little gangs to sing abusive songs, have gone. Big grounds are required to be all-seating. Football is now, in very sense, ‘multicultural’. Sky television bought the rights to football coverage in 1992, called Division 1 “The Premiership” and glammed it up like the NFL. There are more women, children, middle-classes and ethnic minorities going than ever before – a football match is basically much more like an American sporting occasion.
Chelsea FC – once home of the Headhunters – are now owned by a Russian billionaire, managed by a Portugese coach and have only two or three English players, and their fans are the richest and poshest in the country.
And the few remaining pockets of hooligan culture in England are now in the backwaters and the lower divisions, where the glamour and gentrification has yet to penetrate (Cardiff, Millwall and Stoke are the worst).
Meanwhile, the very worst football hooliganism in Europe now occurs in mono-cultural countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, and with the ‘Ultras’ in Italy.
*Translation of football song for US readers:
Those were the days my friends (A hit in the 60s for folk singer Mary Hopkin - the song is a parody sung to the same tune)
We took the Stretford End (we fought and defeated the inhabitants of the 'Stretford End' - the terrace that houses the standing home fans at Manchester United's ground, Old Trafford)
We took the Shed (The Shed was the notorious, now demolished, home fans terrace at Chelsea FC's ground Stamford Bridge)
The North Bank, Highbury (the terrace at Arsenal FC's ground in North London)
We took the Geordies too (Geordies are inhabitants of the North-Eastern city Newcastle, and thus, supporters of Newcastle United)
We fought for Liverpool
We are the Kop of Liverpool FC (Named after Boer War battlesite the Spion Kop, the Kop is the famous home end at Liverpool FC - reknowned for the breadth and creativity of its singing repertoire)