Football Factory fodder

The response to a new film about hooligans suggests that while the soccerati might like football, they don’t like its fans.

Graham Barnfield

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Nick Love’s The Football Factory – the new British film about football hooligans that opens in cinemas on 14 May 2004 – has put film criticism on the back pages and got the game’s officials in a tizz.

Sportswriters have gone all Alexander Walker, spluttering with rage at the thought of Chelsea and Millwall firms rucking on screen. The UK Guardian’s Richard Williams claims that if it ‘encourages one idiot to transgress the bounds of civilised behaviour in Cardiff next week or in Portugal next month, the price of Love’s right to make such a film will have been too high’ (1).

‘Monkey see, monkey do’ is Williams’ account of how adults respond to movies; he pauses only to praise Leeds fans for being blubbing urchins rather than rampaging rioters when their leaky defence finally got them relegated at Bolton in early May. More sensibly, Bill Edgar of The Times (London) complained of the film being ‘slammed in some circles as a fetid miasma of immorality’, no doubt by folk who have yet to see it (2).

One surprise is just how many people have already seen it. A pirate DVD has been in circulation for some time, and the director has gone to great lengths trying to persuade punters not to rent, buy or even borrow it. (Mine cuts out before the closing credits – thank you, ebay.)

While this may be the greatest bit of guerrilla marketing since The Blair Witch Project (1999), the blaming of a rogue assistant editor for sourcing pirates with an early cut of the movie suggests it was not a particularly happy production. Internet gossip has been rife with speculation about the long pauses between periods of shooting the film, while the smart money would be on West Ham/Elijah Wood vehicle The Yank (aka Hooligans), released in 2005, turning a profit.

In The Football Factory, deputy yob boss Billy Bright, played by the evergreen Frank Harper, puts in a decent performance, but otherwise this seems like a storm in a teacup over yet more British geezer cinema. To make sense of the controversy, then, it is worth considering the changing role of football and football hooliganism in national life.

Nearly a decade ago, John King’s novel The Football Factory (1996) burst on to the scene to near unanimous approval. It was published by highbrow publishers Jonathan Cape, and its literary and sociological merits were widely touted. Twinned with Trainspotting, Danny Boyle’s film of Irvine Welsh’s novel, which was a big screen hit at the time, The Football Factory seemed to be part of a revival of fictional portrayals of the working class.

Centring on low life and lowlifes, such books were social realism without the socialism. My own review of the book, in Living Marxism magazine in October 1996, was grumpy and hostile, yet a rare dissenting voice. Others had high praise for what seemed to me to be a retro return to the Skinhead novels of Richard Allen, albeit without attributing credit to the original.

After Headhunters (1998), a romantic comedy populated by the kind of men who go on ITV1’s confessional daytime show Trisha to sort out their relationships, I warmed to King’s writing. But The Football Factory grated with me because of the peculiar niche it occupied. As was widely remarked at the time, football was in transition, as expressed in the growing gentrification of the game. Remember prime minister Tony Blair playing keepy-uppy with then-Newcastle boss Kevin Keegan? Remember the Paul Gascoigne special issue of the literary magazine Granta?

Yet the growth of the ‘soccerati’ led to demands for greater regulation of what ordinary punters did and said in their all-seater stadia. And creeping up behind the ‘new football’ was so-called ‘new lad culture’, in which a ‘bit of a row’ on a match day was somehow acceptable. In fact, Baddiel, Skinner, Loaded magazine and the rest were all pretty tame. Policing and legislation forced the real ‘firms’ to arrange their punch-ups hundreds of miles from football grounds. Paperback hooligans emerged once the real ones were retreating (3). Hooligan fiction was porn for the same jaded palates that had only recently stopped despising ‘grown men kicking a ball around’.

The Football Factory and its imitators thrived, thanks to a mixture of posh publishers slumming it and late arrivals to ‘football culture’ feeling they had some catching up to do. No doubt their sales and publicity played a role in the sale of the movie rights. Dig out the old quarterly ‘UK films in production’ supplements from back issues of Screen International and you’ll be able to measure just how long some of these proposed adaptations have languished in development hell. While inertia struck proposed screen versions of Kevin Sampson’s Awaydays (1999) and the like, the world into which they might eventually be released has changed further.

Nick Love claims that The Football Factory gives voice to the disenfranchised. Back in the mid-1990s, Trainspotting and other such novels could be marketed as articulating underclass grievances, backing up the forgotten, semi-skilled blokes of John Major’s Britain. In a not entirely unrelated development, New Labour became preoccupied with such folk and what in the jargon was their ‘social exclusion’. Going to football, or at least talking the talk, allowed politicians and journalists to express their common touch, even as they demanded legislation to exclude the undesirable elements. Supporting England in Euro ’96 or the 1998 World Cup provided short cuts in the search for new moral certainties.

As in football – ask any Leicester City fan – eight years is a long time in politics. New Labour has continued to bounce ideas off both sides of its 1990s footballing formulations, playing each against the centre. Thus the government poses as being for law and order and against social exclusion (or tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime). Yet outside Westminster’s corridors, things have moved on. Social inclusion has been a handy rationale for wrecking traditionalist arts and education bodies, but virtually useless for building meaningful relationships with wider sections of society.

By constantly berating ‘yob culture’ and proposing legislation to make happy hours miserable, New Labour has turned the promised inclusion of menacing, council estate Goliaths into little more than an irrelevant sideshow. At worst it fuels a backlash against ordinary people – expressed on websites like – from their fellow citizens who resent the alleged sectional privileges being awarded elsewhere.

Such sectional divisions resemble the politics of the ‘rough estate’: everyone in the surrounding area criticises the estate, while everyone living there talks of a rougher estate elsewhere. Lifestyle choices may have triumphed over class distinctions (and class politics), but ideas of the ‘undeserving poor’ live on in new forms, fuelled in part by the failure of social inclusion.

The recurring panics over hooliganism are not a return to the past. Whereas the Thatcher government deliberately sought to isolate ‘slum people in slum stadiums watching a slum game’, those flapping over The Football Factory seem unsure of what they are doing. Mixing an aimless quest for a shared national experience with fear and loathing of the Burberry-clad hordes leaves little more than a prickly hypersensitivity to anyone threatening to rain on the pre-Portugal parade. This snobbish combination of drift and a heightened sense of menace led many commentators to start bristling at the movie with such venom as to forget that it’s only a movie.

In the gormless world of whiners like Richard Williams, the distinction between the cognitive and behavioural effects of fictional violence goes out of the window. It would be daft to deny that entertainment enters our minds – otherwise why would we bother with it? Yet a belief in copycat behaviour goes hand in hand with a low opinion of proletarian chavs, seeing a thug lurking under every baseball cap. One screening at the local multiplex is enough to light the fuse and ignite the aggro loved by voyeuristic SkyTV documentaries but feared by respectable commentators.

Getting all worked up about Love’s film is pointlessness personified. Aside from the fact that the violence is fictional – despite the marketing rhetoric of Vertigo Films – the hostile pundits have lost sight of the way the issue of football hooliganism has changed. ‘New Labour, new football’ meant championing a virtuous game at the expense of disreputable hordes of nutters and racists. But a season of roasting, dogging, la Manga and ‘obscene amounts of money’ leaves the same pundits without a moral compass. In its place is a set of unthinking reflex grumbles, where the players are portrayed as being worse than the hooligans (who, by any objective measurement, went into retirement in the late 1980s).

As Duleep Allirajah has suggested on spiked, the countless articles accompanying ‘the pictures that shame football’ could have been generated by computer software. (And don’t get me started on the way ‘innocent until proven guilty’ vacated Fleet Street vocabularies, or the weird assumption that Keith Gillespie and Frank Sinclair are somehow ‘soccer superstars’.)

This year the unrealistic expectation that football could provide an ethical framework for society has taken a battering; even ‘role model’ David Beckham was caught playing away. Cynicism about the game means that hooliganism becomes yet another crime scare, rather than the pariah in this particular morality play. Arguing that a mindless minority spoil it for the rest of us makes no sense, given the widespread assumption that the game is hopelessly corrupt.

Nevertheless, numerous journalists keep going through the motions. Berating The Football Factory for encouraging violence is an empty ritual, an opportunity to vent some spleen and express a conviction that society is circling the drain in a whirlpool of lager, crime and Burberry. The apparent intensity of this backlash masks the real emptiness of such complaints. That the film has emerged from development hell to an almighty row is testimony to this. There’s clearly no substance in the belief that football can heal the divisions in society if it crumbles in the face of a B-movie marketing campaign.

Graham Barnfield is a Leicester city supporter and a former associate editor of Offence.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) The Football Factory: irresponsible, ill-timed and risible, by Richard Williams, Guardian, 12 May 2004

(2) Film now in the grip of the hooligans, The Times (London), 10 May 2004

(3) See ‘Highbrow Hoolies’, by William Field, Offence 3, 1998

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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