Yes, it’s a return to the dark ages of football…

...when hysteria about hooliganism was rife, anti-working class prejudice was widespread, and there was a clamour for authoritarian solutions.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

We all thought this kind of ugliness had come to an end in the 1980s. That the ‘dark ages’ of football – the poison, the prejudice, the violent-mindedness – were a thing of the past. Yet this week they returned in all their unglory, as a warped minority of society used the opportunity of the Millwall-West Ham game at Upton Park in East London to let off steam and vent their pent-up fear and loathing. Lurking in newspaper editorial offices and the Palace of Westminster, they hurled insults at football fans, openly labelling them ‘scum’ who sport ‘beer bellies, tattoos and snarls’ (1). Yes, the people who so often ruined the beautiful game in the past are back: the snobbish, hateful, hooligan-hysterics.

The irony about the media and political reaction to the outbreak of violence at Upton Park – where the phrase ‘return of football’s dark ages’ has been used in virtually every headline – is that it wasn’t the relatively mild skirmishes that echoed earlier events in the 1970s and 80s; it was the overblown response to them. The clashes between Millwall fans and riot police, and between Millwall fans and West Ham fans, were fairly small beer compared with some of the larger violent episodes at football games in the 1970s and 80s. Yet the elite response almost exactly mirrored the elite response of earlier decades, complete with hysterical discussions about ‘war zones’, ‘the worst football thuggery seen in 30 years’, and a layer of society twisted by ‘prejudice, frustration and mob rule’ (2), alongside demands for more police heavy-handedness, CCTV cameras and banning orders to deal with this ‘cancer’ in football (3).

This reveals an essential truth about the football hooligan panic in British public life: it is driven less by the facts or intensity of what happens inside and outside football stadiums, and more by the fear and prejudices of an increasingly cut-off elite. That the hatred of so-called ‘hooligans’ has remained constant over the decades, despite the many ways in which football has changed and the fact that violence at games has virtually disappeared, reveals the elite’s already-existing loathing of the lower orders and desire for more authoritarian control over society – sentiments which, in our PC times, can increasingly only be expressed in relation to one section of society: fat, ugly football fans.

It is true that things spun out of control at Upton Park on Tuesday. There was a very tense stand-off between some Millwall and West Ham fans and tooled-up riot police, and there were clashes between the two sets of fans in which, tragically, one man was stabbed. Yet reading the coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking there had been 13 deaths rather than simply 13 arrests. ‘A WAR ZONE’ screamed a headline in the Mirror. It was a ‘brutal, bloody battle’, said the London Evening Standard, with ‘blood [streaming on] the pavements of East London’ (4). The fans behaved like ‘wild animals’, we were told (5). The UK sports minister said he would not ‘tolerate any return to the dark days of the 70s and 80s’. One newspaper even glimpsed in the marauding behaviour of the Millwall and West Ham fans the potential rise of fascism in Britain: apparently the recent electoral successes of the far-right British National Party have ‘given a licence and respectability to some very unacceptable views and behaviour [amongst football fans]’ (6).

The hysteria of the reaction can be seen in the way in which both the pitch invasions and the violence outside the stadium were discussed as if they were the same thing: an outburst of ‘wild animal’ behaviour (7). Fans invaded the pitch three times, largely West Ham fans celebrating when their team scored and when the final whistle was blown (West Ham beat Millwall 3-1). Pitch invasions by overexcited fans have long been a part of football, yet this week they were labelled, in the words of the Guardian, as ‘chaos’ (8). Bizarrely, one celebrating West Ham fan who ran on to the pitch with a ‘boy of about four’ on his shoulders was even accused of child abuse. The mysterious man’s actions were described as ‘sickening, absolutely disgusting… very disturbing’ and there were calls for him to be banned from football for life. The BBC asked the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to comment on the ‘shocking incident’; it hasn’t done so, yet (9).

Most disturbing of all is the way the fans have been discussed: effectively as Untermenschen who need to be locked up. Across what passes for a political divide in Britain today, in both the liberal and right-wing media, there has been uniformity about the need to re-educate football’s filth. The Daily Telegraph branded them ‘society’s scum’. ‘Everyone knows their type, we see them goading police in English city centres on a Friday night or Mediterranean resorts in the summer’, the paper said, making clear it was talking about the working-class ‘type’ (10).

In the Guardian, Peter Preston preferred to use codewords rather than the s-word: he denounced ‘the brawny, beery blokes with their stomachs hanging out’ who had a ‘dysfunctional education’ and are consumed by ‘prejudice’. Preston described certain unrespectable working-class fans as an alien invasion in football; they are not ‘supporters of anything much (apart from the BNP)’, he argued, but rather are ‘ad hoc gangs out for a rumble’ (11). (Interesting aside: Preston’s son produced the Nick Love film, The Football Factory, suggesting there is a thin line between the old-fashioned fear of hooligans expressed by someone like Preston Snr and today’s anthropological, salacious celebration of working-class hooligan ‘tribes’ as typified by Preston Jnr’s movie.)

What many of today’s NuFootball commentators are really saying is that they love the beautiful game but hate the ugly people who have traditionally watched and enjoyed it. Whisper it: people with tattoos; people who have not been to Oxford Brookes, far less to Oxford; people who down lagers before kick-off and sport beer bellies. The widespread clamour to have such individuals banned for life from football is an attempt, finally, to make the modern-day stadium the preserve of polite NuFootball aficionados only.

The return of the overblown fear of football hooliganism is history – or perhaps hysteria – repeated as farce. Trouble at football is as old as the spectator sport itself; what has changed over time is officialdom’s view and reaction to such trouble. The handwringing about ‘football hooliganism’ has long been a classic moral panic, motivated more by elite fear of the strangeness, unpredictability and volatility of the lower orders than by any measurable reality of organised hooliganism. As an important study published in 1978 argued: ‘Football hooligans are the folk devils of our age. Few other groups hit the headlines with such force and consistency; few other groups arouse such strong feelings of outrage or terror or lead to such cries for retribution.’ (12) A more recent study of the public depiction of football, published in 1997, pointed out that even in that so-called ‘dark age’ of hooliganism – the early 1980s – ‘the arrest rate at football matches was at the very low level of slightly less than five per 100,000’; even back then, ‘hooliganism’s prevalence was certainly overstated’ (13).

Yes, there was violence – sometimes quite large-scale violence – at games in the 1970s and 80s. But some critical voices have argued, convincingly, that this violence was a reaction against the elite’s already-existing obsession with football hooliganism and the authoritarian measures that sprang from it. The UK authorities problematised football hooliganism, as a specific form of hooliganism, in the late 1960s. Following a few minor skirmishes at games around the country, a 1968 parliamentary report into the ‘rising problem of football hooliganism’ hysterically described ‘spectators carrying knives, hammers, sticks and spikes’ and even sought to demonise the way football fans spoke: ‘There is also the problem of singing or chanting bawdy or obscene songs and phrases, some of which are threatening and provocative…’ (14) The parliamentary report represented a new turning point in the authorities’ attitude to football fans, argues one author, where ‘football hooliganism’ became transformed from an ‘irregular disturbance into a definitive social policy arena’; the elite’s ‘traditional celebration of the amiable boisterousness of the English crowds [gave way] to a rather panicky condemnation of terrace culture’ (15).

The elite’s decision to make football fans’ behaviour into a new ‘social policy arena’ gave rise to numerous new authoritarian measures at stadiums, including massive police presences, forced segregation between fans, enormous fences to keep fans off the pitch (the kind that caused such horrors at Hillsborough in 1989), and various new petty rules about how much fans could drink, when and where they could stand up, and what they could and could not chant. In the 1970s and 80s, much of the violence at football games was an instinctive reaction against this top-down brutalism; in short, the elite obsession with ‘football hooliganism’ came first, and was followed, inevitably, by some actual violence. ‘Like all moral panics, “hooliganism” became a self-fulfilling prophecy’, as one author puts it (16).

So it was this week. One thing that has been almost completely ignored in the coverage of the minor-by-comparison Upton Park disturbances was the provocation of the police. The Met decided that the game on Tuesday would be a Level 5, the highest security threat in football, and sent hundreds of riot police and even mounted police to separate and monitor fans. Some fans were forced to wait behind police lines, others were effectively frogmarched to and from the stadium like overgrown children. Is it any wonder they fought back, hurling bottles at police officers? If you treat people like scum, don’t be surprised if they behave (allegedly) like scum. This is another reason why the disturbances caused such fear amongst the political and opinion-forming classes: not only because these uneducated thugs threaten to ruin the sanitised and politicised NuFootball introduced and institutionalised by New Labour over the past 12 years, but also because it is so rare these days, and terrifying for those at the top of society, to see working-class violence against the forces of the state.

I don’t attend football games and none of my best friends are tattooed Millwall fans. But I am far less worried about such individuals than I am about the state’s authoritarian response to their behaviour. This week’s events confirm that football fans remain the laboratory rats of state authoritarianism, that for all the liberal elite’s handwringing about the demise of our civil liberties it is still broadly accepted that football stadiums are one place where the state can police and spy on and harass people to its heart’s content. When the police used violence against the anti-capitalist G20 protesters and Climate Campers earlier this year, there was an outcry. Yet the events at Upton Park have led to widespread, virtually unchallenged demands for extreme measures to control football fans: more police at games, more CCTV cameras, more clampdowns on heated chanting, more lifetime banning orders against any fan who does anything disrespectful: ‘Everyone who throws a punch or invades the pitch should be locked away’, demands one hack (17). Well, why not? They are only ‘society’s scum’.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume pointed out that the Hillsborough tragedy was not just an accident, but also the unintended consequence of a deliberate policy. Duleep Allirajah argued that post-Hillsborough, the policing of fans has become more insidious. After a riot at Hull City’s KC Stadium, he said hooliganism was still largely a thing of the past. He saw West Ham’s ban on ‘persistent standing’ as yet another example of restrictions on fans’ freedom. Graham Barnfield saw evidence of the soccerati liking football, but disliking fans. Or read more at spiked issue Sport.

(1) The problem is people, not football, Comment Is Free, 26 August 2009

(2) A WAR ZONE, Mirror, 26 August 2009

(3) The real trouble is the hatred never died, London Evening Standard, 26 August 2009

(4) The real trouble is the hatred never died, London Evening Standard, 26 August 2009

(5) Bloody battle of Upton Park, Sun, 26 August 2009

(6) Yobs’ return is blamed on BNP’s triumph, Mirror, 27 August 2009

(7) Bloody battle of Upton Park, Sun, 26 August 2009

(8) Hooliganism rears its ugly head again, Guardian, 26 August 2009

(9) Pitch invader carried young child, BBC News, 26 August 2009

(10) Lawmakers need to kick this hooligan scum out of football for good, Daily Telegraph, 27 August 2009

(11) The problem is people, not football, Comment Is Free, 26 August 2009

(12) Cited in From Boot Money to Bosman: Football, Society and the Law, David McArdle, Routledge, 2000

(13) Cited in From Boot Money to Bosman: Football, Society and the Law, David McArdle, Routledge, 2000

(14) Cited in From Boot Money to Bosman: Football, Society and the Law, David McArdle, Routledge, 2000

(15) Cited in From Boot Money to Bosman: Football, Society and the Law, David McArdle, Routledge, 2000

(16) Cited in From Boot Money to Bosman: Football, Society and the Law, David McArdle, Routledge, 2000

(17) Yobs’ return is blamed on BNP’s triumph, Mirror, 27 August 2009

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Topics Politics


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