Football hooliganism, sober servant to the state

What used to be a working-class game fuelled by passion, where arguments were settled with fists instead of sophistry, has become an anodyne, overpriced, safe spectacle for the middle class. But it was fun while it lasted.

At the play-off semifinal between Millwall and Birmingham City on May 2, 2002. I’m the one with the hands raised.

The 2001-2002 season had been an ugly, exhilarating, frightening, intoxicating one of violent disorder as Millwall pushed for its first promotion to the Premiership. At the play-off semifinal against Birmingham City on May 2, everything came to a head. A riot was triggered, next to which the beatings, slashings and glassings of earlier in the season felt like child’s play.

Outside the ground, a car had been set alight. Its black smoke, thickened by bottles, stones and bricks, had turned grey under the beam of the police helicopter searchlight, enveloping the 800-strong mob that charged repeatedly beneath it like theatrical dry ice. Their target was a line of riot police, assembled to protect the victorious Birmingham fans, among them 200 of their notorious Zulu firm, who were as keen as us to get it on. Had they done so, there would have been fatalities. In 40 years of watching football, I had never experienced an atmosphere so sinister. Behind me, higher up on Ilderton Road, a second front was developing. The Old Bill began lashing out ferociously at us with extendable truncheons. One split open the bald head of a middle-aged man standing next to me. Blood streamed from the wound down his face, blinding him. Some backed off. I stood, shouting, “Stand Millwall! Stand!” our rallying cry in the face of all opposition. For 30 years I had sought out and enjoyed situations like this. I knew not to turn my back. Confrontation carried risks, but that was part of the buzz, the fizz of the adrenaline rush. And then there was the camaraderie; the drinking together beforehand, the story-telling after.

From my days as a Cockney Red, supporting Manchester United at the 1977 5th round Cup Match at Southampton.

 

I was 12 when the bug first bit me, in 1971. Josie, a Chelsea fan, had stood me up on a date at the school gate, so I went to the game without her. It was Peter Bonetti’s testimonial against Standard Liege, nothing of consequence, but the famous Shed was out in force. Fireworks flew through the air. Some exploded in front of my face. Skinheads in pleated, white Ben Sherman shirts, two-tone tonic trousers, braces and Doc Martens cascaded down the terrace, singing:

“Knees up, Mother Brown! Knees up, Mother Brown!

Under the table you must go

E-I-E-I-E-I-O!

If I catch you bending, I’ll saw your legs right off!

Oh aye, what a rotten song!

What a rotten singer too-oo-oo!”

Some fell and tumbled down the terraces, others were thrown out of the ground by unamused, moustachioed police officers. I loved the anarchy, the overturning of order, the thrill of latent danger. I was hooked. Even now, I can’t attend a match without wanting to experience that surge in the stomach, the visceral thrill I only find at football.

That night against Birmingham was later classified as the worst mainland crowd disturbance in the UK since the poll tax riot of 1990. One-hundred and fifty-seven police were injured, 26 police horses wounded and over 80 Millwall fans arrested, many later sent to prison. After taking such a battering, the police then went on a mission to bring as many of those involved as possible to justice.

The Times of London wanted to include me in a feature on middle-class people with dangerous pursuits, complete with a picture of me standing outside the Millwall ground. I refused. It was too risky. Next season, in common with most of my Millwall mates, I didn’t attend any games. Membership registration had been made obligatory for entry, and the police continued a witch hunt that lasted well over a year. My long association with football hooligan culture had come to an end. A few years later, so did my marriage. My wife divorced me on the grounds that I was a football thug.

Mark Glanville.   -  David Chater

 

Today in the UK, CCTV, all-seater stadia, intense policing and over-the-top court sentences have almost eradicated the phenomenon. Other countries have become infected with “the English disease”, but a World Cup held in Russia, which also involved England, Poland and Germany, has just ended with barely a punch thrown. Russian hooligans went out to cause trouble at the 2016 European competition in France, apparently at the behest of the state. They even trained for the occasion and refrained from drinking before they fought. When their government told them to behave at the World Cup, they obeyed. Football violence, as I knew it, was an ecstatic, Bacchic threat to order, but, at least in Russia, it seems to have become a sober servant to the state, turning the very raison d’etre of football hooliganism on its head. What used to be a working-class game fuelled by passion, where arguments were settled with fists instead of sophistry, has become an anodyne, overpriced, safe spectacle for the middle class. But it was fun while it lasted.

Mark Glanville is a classical singer and writer, and the son of noted football writer and novelist Brian Glanville.