Hooligan Memoirs and Our Future

“By seeking help from a psychiatrist, I hope that I will be able to pack it in,” Andy Nicholls, Scally: Confessions of a Category C Football Hooligan, p. 286

Nicholls, a former hooligan supporter of Everton FC (primarily active as a hooligan in the 80s and early 90s) makes this claim right toward the conclusion of his memoir about that era of fanship.  While his hope to “pack it in,” like the hopes of a great number of his ilk, was aided in large part by prison time and a lifetime ban on his attendance at football games, the passion with which he discusses his struggles with his “addiction” to hooligan behavior is common to almost everyone who writes about their past days on the terraces of English football stadia.  

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I ran across Nicholls’ memoir, as well as a great many others (there was something of a cottage industry for these books at around the turn of the millennium) while working on a project researching the “imagined” past of hooligan behavior (the focus is on English football hooliganism of the last 20th Century as opposed to any of the more contemporary ultra movements around the globe).  There are indeed so many of these books that I basically contained my reading to one or two of the top lads, or major figures, in the firms of most of the major English clubs, in addition to classics like Bill Buford’s gonzo-work, Among the Thugs

When I first began my foray into this genre, I was warned by my friend Chris Axon that I was in for a long repetitious set of readings, as so many of the books covered the same material, the same themes repeatedly.  “Good for me,” I thought, “as I’m mostly interested in the themes that bind them together rather than set them apart.”  But, as I approach the conclusion of this project, I have to admit that Axon was right. Regardless of who they support, the narratives run almost exactly along the same lines.

Now that I’ve put in this brain numbing work, I invite you to share the spoils, or what there are of them.  So, I present the seven “truths” of hooliganism (keeping in mind that memory is always somewhat fiction):   

1. Hooligan behavior becomes, in effect, a drug, making the fan almost blameless in his behavior to a point (Note: I’m using the masculine because each of the memoir make it clear that this was a “man’s” hobby).  The adrenaline of the fight becomes an addiction from which breaking free is nearly impossible without jail time.  In his eponymously title, Cass, Cass Pennant observes early on that “Soccer violence was a buzz to us. A buzz so great it took you through every emotion: terror, fear, dread, excitement, elations, a sense of belonging, pride and above all a feeling of sheer power. It was a buzz that gripped you just like a drug” (ii).  This metaphor is pulled forth in almost every book.  Repeatedly, we are told that while hooligans didn’t do drugs (often), the battles were themselves an addiction.  Indeed, it is suggested, perhaps hooligans were safe from other drugs given this as a replacement.  Nonetheless, once addicted, it was nearly impossible to stop.  

2. Hooligan physical battles are not immoral given that the only people who fought were those who did so willingly.  Hooliganism, then, had its own ethics. Innocent bystanders and other non-hooligan fans were not to be bothered.  Jason Marriner tells us, “It’s an unwritten rule.  Believe me, no dad just taking his kid to watch the game has ever been in any danger, because those who know about this know one thing: you don’t accidentally get caught up in the trouble, you have to go looking for it” (Life as a Chelsea Headhunter, 17).  

3. Hooligans freaking love the clobber and style brought about by the casual movement.  Moreover, while there is some disagreement about the origins of the style, it is most often attributed to the Liverpool fans.  As Nicholls puts it, “Fact:  Scousers started the casual era” (14, granting more attribution to Liverpool more than to Everton).  Indeed, in Guvnors, Manchester City’s Mickey Francis figures the Scousers started the movement when they stole clothing while supporting their team in Europe (p. 60) and Manchester United’s Tony O’Neill suggests that Liverpool firms were likely to hold a knife on you and steal your clothes if you were dressed nicely (p. 9).

Regardless of its origins, I swear that none of these guys can go more than four pages without a discussion of their shirts, jackets, trainers and boots.  

4. Along with the clobber, the Scouse (i.e., Liverpool natives) were also the first ones to begin cutting other firms with Stanley knives (and were always the most likely to be carrying a blade).  While some authors espouse a “no blades” ethic, no one seems opposed to the use of blocks of wood, bricks or bottles as weapons.

5. Hooliganism has a number of causal factors, according to these authors:  A. The British “bulldog” spirit (see Jason Marriner), B. Working class boredom of the late 70s (see all of them), C. the need to belong (see all of them). Moreover, each author will note, none of the behavior can be understood or explained by the academics and scholars who attempt to write about it.  It must be lived.  More strongly:  it could not have been prevented because the impulse is so strong.

6. Despite all of the evidence of a racist element to football fandom during the era, we are told repeatedly that it was never that bad, and it was mostly the other groups (rather than their own) that were racist.  The authors note the “black friends” they had, the way people simply confused racism with the firms, and so forth. Nonetheless, bits of racism also leak through the discourse.  For example, after acknowledging that Everton had a few marginal issues with racism, Nicholls’ notes, without a sense of irony, “To the club’s credit, we now have a couple of coloured lads who work for the Everton in the community scheme, training the kids and visiting schools” (153-4).  

In short, racism was always bigger at other clubs, didn’t last as long as public memory recalls and was, ultimately, mostly in jest.  (And the National Front was, in the eyes of these books, never part of the movement to begin with).

7. One of the reasons the hooligan movement lasted so long is because the police were not serious about ending it as they made so much money off overtime (see both Marriner, O’Neill and Pennant on this point). 

OK, so this is an interesting project and all, but given my life in 2020 Nashville and my interest in contemporary soccer, what does this have to offer us?  

For most soccer followers in the U.S., hooliganism is either an odd distant memory or, at best, something we never quite got a handle on.  More, the supporters’ groups of most MLS clubs now seem almost the opposite of the firms in these books (gender balance vs. almost completely male, informally or formally tied to the club vs. seen as a problem by the club, politically progressive on social issues vs. regressive at best).  

Ultimately, I want to bring two points forth from this.  First, fan culture is our opportunity to define what kind of community we are going to be.  There will never be full agreement of course, but, as the memoirs illustrate, fans and groups tend to shape each other, talking a similar language, creating similar “unwritten rules” and values. It’s worth our time to reflect on that question.  Just what do we want to be?  What kind of community are we co-creating as supporters?  What kind of reality do we want this to be?

Secondly, and something of the other side of the same coin, the degree of repetition that is evident in these books points to the ways in which group think often overtakes each of us.  As a result, it behooves us, I believe, to reflect on the ways our lockstep behavior becomes a constraint rather than an enabler.  What are the stories that we are not imagining?  So, not just “What do we want to be?” but “How do we imagine the fan culture, the chants, the songs, the clothing, the decorations, the values outside of the box we’ve inherited?”

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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