Cover Story: FIFA World Cup 2018

Confessions of a Football Hooligan

Andy Nicholls is the author of Scally: Confessions of a Category C Football Hooligan. The lifelong Everton fan has been banned from every ground in England and Wales, including a life ban at Goodison Park, Everton’s home ground
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The emotional hurt of supporting England and other acts of violence

WORLD CUP TRIPS, following England, are never dull. They are, for the most part, fantastic in every sense. Other than the results, performances and inevitable failure in a penalty shootout, of course. Oh, and the fact that every hooligan, thug and member of the police force worldwide, rightly or wrongly, sees us, the followers of our national side, as the main enemy.

I was born in the early 1960s, and was just too young to remember the greatest day in English football history—when Bobby Moore proudly lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy following a 4-2 victory over (our) arch-rivals, West Germany. That day, how we celebrated as a nation and the song was born: ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup… do dar do dar day.’ How that song came back to haunt us. Far too many times.

Four years later, in 1970, I can just about remember my late father waking me up with the heartbreaking news from Mexico; that England had thrown away a two-goal lead against the same opposition (the West Germans) and were beaten 3-2 at the quarter-final stage. Even in 1970, that wretched song was being thrown back at us as the Germans began to dominate us on the football pitch.

At this point, English football fell upon hard times, so much so that we spectacularly failed to qualify for the 1974 tournament in West Germany. And then failed to make it to Argentina in 1978, where the hosts won the Cup on home soil. Those eight years were a low point in our history—the country that invented the beautiful game was so pathetic they we couldn’t make it to two back-to-back quadrennials. It was also no great surprise that within the English ranks, Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Alan Ball—our World Cup winners from 1966— had been replaced in the team by Emlyn Hughes, Kevin Keegan and Jimmy Case, respectively, and the beautiful game actually turned quite ugly.

By now the national side had inherited ‘The English Disease’ (the term widely used for people like me, UK hooligans) and football hooliganism was transported from the terraces at home to the countries hosting the England football team abroad. And the trail of destruction left on a far too regular basis meant that as a nation we not feared but hated.

For those who do not understand why and how one becomes a hooligan, it is probably hard to understand why thousands (yes thousands, and that’s no exaggeration) of men simply decide to fight, rampage and pillage every town, city and country they visit while following the Three Lions around the world.

I will try and explain.

In the 70s and 80s, the United Kingdom had become a crumbling shit-hole. Our industry was on its knees, unemployment at its highest since the end of World War II and the unrest in our inner cities saw several outbreaks of mass rioting, as the youth on the streets had decided that enough was enough. The riots received global news, but the reports covered only the symptoms of the disease and not its cause. For years, the same youth had been behaving in a likewise manner, only this passion was concentrated inside the confines of a football ground on Saturday afternoons.

It soon became apparent that watching England play abroad could be profitable too. We pillaged everything we could get our hands on

Why, you ask? Because it was exciting, a buzz from the mundane existence of our lives. And because we could freely give the two-finger salute (English for ‘stuff it’) to the authorities that we hated so much more than they hated us. Of course, we also loved our football teams; mine was Everton and I followed and fought for them for the best part of forty years. During that time, I received everything from beatings to fines and bans (I was even sent to prison for my sins), but it didn’t bother me one bit. I loved being who I was and I must confess that there was no better buzz in the world. Fact.

Back to the Three Lions; apart from the thrill of standing up for our team, it soon became apparent to us, the travelling fans, that watching England play abroad could be profitable as well. I won’t flower it up. The truth is that we pillaged everything we could get our hands on, from tills full of cash, jewellery shops full of gold and silver, and even the continental sports shops, laden with designer sports clothes, weren’t spared. We took the lot and the Football Casual (a term for hooligans wearing expensive casuals) culture was born. But that’s another tale.

On the pitch, things got better during the World Cup in Spain in 1982 as England returned to the world stage. That joy too was short lived as we were eliminated in the group stages—by some bizarre goal difference permutation—despite not losing a game. Of course, then, England’s elimination brought its fair share of problematic issues off the field as English fans fought with the locals, their rivals, the police and within themselves (in-house club rivalries were strained) after too much sun and far too much beer.

Mexico was the next country to host the world’s greatest football tournament in 1986 and our hopes were high as manager Bobby Robson had assembled a great side with the likes of Gary Lineker and Peter Beardsley. We were hoping to emulate the ‘Boys of 66’ and we came so, so close. After a poor start, England gained momentum during the group stages and breezed into the quarter-finals, where we faced our (new) arch-rivals, Argentina. Why arch rivals? Because four years earlier we had been at war with them over the Falkland Islands and 255 British troops died fighting to take back an island which lay nearly 13,000 km away from Britain, I still can’t work than one out to this day.

Within hours of us showing up, Rimini had turned into a war zone. We fought all through the night with Italian locals and their police

This fervour, this palpable hate between the two countries was expected to spill over on to the football stands of the enormous Stadium Azteca in Mexico City. A bloodbath was feared. But fortunately for all concerned, the Argentina vs England game, which was watched live by close to 115,000 spectators, was well secured and the hooligan element did not rise. In fact, the day passed off peacefully despite Diego Maradona’s two goals in five minutes—the first was the infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal and the second an act of sheer brilliance—which edged out England 2-1. I can assure you this. Had that very match unfolded anywhere in Europe at the same time, there would have been deaths in the stands.

We moved on to the next World Cup, Italia 90, and our brand of hooliganism had been earmarked as a major risk, to the extent that the authorities ensured that England’s group games were played on the remote Islands of Sardinia and Sicily. We felt cheated, for it was a blatant attempt to keep us out of the big cities. But to be honest, we got rather fond of the Sardinians and Sicilians, who welcomed us English with open arms and in return they were given the peace and respect that their hospitality deserved.

Once again Robson’s England qualified for the knock-out stages, and with our young and talented striker Paul Gascoigne pulling the strings, the newspapers back home in the UK had already begun making enough noise about winning the bloody thing that we travelling supporters could hear it in Italy. The moment England made it to the Round of 16 we moved out of the islands and descended upon Rimini—within hours of us showing up, the place had turned into a war zone.

We fought all through the night with Italian locals and their police, who were not as welcoming as their island neighbours. As the blood and dust settled, we progressed past Belgium in the pre-quarters and then Cameroon in the quarters and we danced long into the night after both games. Partly because we were celebrating England’s wins but mostly because Ecstasy had become the new craze. Now, us beer-swilling thugs had become pill-popping hugs.

The semi-final in Turin (against West Germany, who else) was billed to be the biggest game in the history of English football since that glorious Saturday in 1966. But delight quickly turned to despair as West Germany beat us on penalties. This loss by shootouts would set the precedent for future England teams as the highest paid footballers on the planet would fail miserably over and over again to hit the target from 12 yards, repeatedly failing us fans on the big stages. In Turin, we waved goodbye to the World Cup and the Italians waved goodbye to us—hoping we would never return. Such was the trail of injuries, the destruction left in our wake.

The emotional hurt of supporting England got worse four years later, as we once again failed to qualify for the World Cup. USA 94 beckoned until Graham Taylor’s boys missed the boat at the expense of, well, Norway. We were now the laughing stock of the world. How the Germans laughed. ‘Do dar do dar day.’ Luckily, we didn’t miss two World Cups in a row and I was on my way to France in 1998. The experience was bad, very bad.

We English fans didn't just bump heads with Tunisian gangs. We sliced and stabbed with knives for an entire day. Yes, all day long

On the field, we were poor but limped into the knock-out stages, where we would meet Argentina (again) in the Round of 16. Off the field, Marseille was the scene of some of the worst violence I have ever been a part of at any World Cup as English fans clashed with Tunisian gangs. We didn’t just bump heads, we sliced and stabbed with knives for an entire day. Yes, all day long. We, of course, had become a liability for the French Police and they too joined in, beating and arresting anyone who remotely looked like ‘an English thug’. There were plenty of easy pickings and the local jail was so full that several aircraft had to be chartered to deport us back to the Blighty. I, somehow, managed to stay back.

Following the arrests and the deportations, our numbers had dwindled and didn’t have the resources for a fight. Lucky, I would say, as in the game against Argentina, David Beckham was sent off and once again we lost the game on penalties. Little did I know then that this would be my last World Cup as a travelling supporter for a while, for the next tournament was in South Korea and Japan and the British government decided to take control of the hooliganism that was getting out of hand and began placing FBOs (Football Banning Orders). Many of our passports were confiscated for the duration of the tournament, including mine.

Anyone with a history of causing violence was banned from travelling to Korea and Japan, which was a bit extreme because many of us wouldn’t have travelled even without the ban. Why? The threat of being jailed in Japan put many of us off. We didn’t miss much, another quarter-final, another defeat, another false dawn. The World Cup returned to Europe (Germany) four years later in 2006. As did the violence. But there was a small difference. We English fans had gone from being the hunters to the hunted, as local gangs—especially Eastern European thugs—began emulating us and became the worst hooligans on the block.

The story, however, was status quo on the field. The England team was the worst in many years and once our star striker Wayne Rooney was sent off during the quarter-final against Portugal, our slim chance had all but disappeared. It went to penalties. And that meant we were gone—England managed to score just once from the spot.

Travel costs and more football bans ensured that I, and many others, missed out on travelling to the World Cups of 2010 and 2014, in South Africa and Brazil respectively. Strict fan control policies didn’t help England’s chances either—we lost both in a whimper, but at least without the embarrassment of more penalty shootout failures. Our performance in Brazil especially was one of utter disgust, where we didn’t make it out of the group stage. Still, thankful that the spot kick didn’t cost us.

The Russians are making their move to become the World's more feared football hooligans. They're thirty years too late

Now, to Russia 2018, where we will be travelling later this month. I say ‘we’ as I have not been served with a banning order… yet.

But I know what to expect if I indeed go to Russia. Online videos are awash of Russian gangs practising their fighting skills in forests. And we, the English, will be far from welcomed as the Russians are making their move to become the world’s more feared football hooligans. But, in reality, they are thirty years too late, as most of us have long given up the fight. Unless it is forced upon us.

Still, I can foresee some serious violence, reminiscent of the bald old days of the 70s and the 80s. Why? Because during the European Championships in France two years ago, Russian thugs conducted their own championship on the streets to be the most feared hooligans—guilty of beating to a pulp anyone who got in their way. That was in France. Imagine what it is going to be like in Russia.

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