When English Football Was Feared

Today, Premier League clubs playing around the U.S. epitomize the globalized game. But a book celebrating its 25th anniversary remembers when it wasn’t so friendly

Tonight at Yankee Stadium, Liverpool Football Club will play Manchester City in the International Champions Cup, a gussied up series of pre-season friendlies. All sorts of fans will descend from the El on River Avenue in the South Bronx, with jerseys, scarves, and tickets upward of $260.

Inside, they’ll buy still more pricey concessions, maybe indulge in a pre-game meal at NYY Steak, the in-house beef emporium, and pretend to hate each other. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Many of these fans don’t remember Heysel or Hillsborough or Maine Road or even the old Yankee Stadium—and maybe that’s all for the better. But it wasn’t always like this, the contrived hate, the foodie options, the functioning toilets. This wasn’t Yankees vs. Red Sox; this was something far better (or worse).

It brings to mind a book that is celebrating—if that’s the right word—its 25th anniversary: Steaming In: Journal of a Football Fan by Colin Ward. Published in 1989 in the U.K., it’s still remarkable to read, essentially a document of working-class English youth culture run amok. “Violence,” in the words of Ward, “for the sake of it.”

 

steaming in

“The youth of other nations,” Ward writes, “saw us in a romantic light. English football fans were a tough, sometimes outrageous group of people having an exciting time and cocking a snook at everybody. The established order couldn’t stop them and that was part of the mystique of being an England fan.”

Ward was a hooligan and England and Arsenal supporter, in the days before Gunners’ fans were nerds who read Zadie Smith novels, before they played at Emirates Stadium, when they were “boring, boring Arsenal,” who in that same year had the most enthralling ending to a season ever—at Anfield, no less—equaled only by, yes, Man City in 2012.

The book came out a couple of years before the two books that help popularize English soccer, especially within England: the miracle run portrayed at Italia ’90 in Pete Davies’s All Played Out and Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch. It even came out a few months before the more celebrated book (at least in this country) on hooligan culture, Among The Thugs, by Bill Buford, still the best-written book on the sport, or, rather, surrounding the sport, that an American has produced.

Ward’s account, unlike Hornby’s and Buford’s, is emphatically unliterary. It was the brainchild, you sense, of a clever editor who just let the tape-recorder hum while Ward yammers on. Somehow, though, it doesn’t feel calculated to woo a certain market. Ward simply has good (war) stories to tell.

“When it’s all over,” Ward writes, “and you are safely on the train going home, then the sheer terror recedes; but while you’re going through it, the experience is indescribable, and no drug could possibly reproduce that same feeling.”

Away to Middlesborough, he and his group were attacked by darts. One was stuck into the shoulder of a fellow Arsenal fan and then he saw “a ghastly sight: a young man had a dart sticking through the center of his eye.”

About Liverpool, now American-owned, with a huge following in the U.S.: “It always amazes me that the press dub Liverpudlians a friendly, fair crowd because whenever I have been to that city I have found them the exact opposite. It seems to me that they love nothing better than to set upon a couple of lone Cockneys and batter them senseless.”

There are the characters: “Doddy was mental—not a nutter like Smiler, but crazy….Doddy made me nervous. Crazy Bob petrified me.” And there are scenes following the English national team, terrorizing France, Belgium, Italy—the “fine city” of Turin, especially, as in Buford’s book—Spain, Denmark, anywhere, everywhere, even Basel, Switzerland (where the above photo was taken).

But Ward didn’t have to look far for a fight. He just had to go east. About West Ham and its Inter City Firm, he writes: “For some unknown reason West Ham fans have always been regarded as fair. West Ham was the only ground I ever went where, for five whole seasons, I never cheered for Arsenal. I went in fear of my life—most Arsenal fans were too frightened to go there at all.” After a punch up, they would leave business cards that read, “Congratulations, you have just met the ICF” (something Ward attributes to the film Apocalypse Now when the Robert Duvall character did the same to the Vietcong).

It was even worse, south of the Thames. “Millwall: The word sent shivers down my spine. The hardest fans in the land.”

There’s humor, too (it wouldn’t have sold millions of copies without). “Gareth was the epitome of a Cockney football fan—to northern fans that is: tall, always well-dressed, good-looking, and always with a smooth hairstyle.” Indeed, Ward is partial to his home town: “Londoners, Cockneys to all football fans not from London, see themselves as a superior bunch in terms of their dress sense, language (nicknaming ability and rhyming slang) and success with women….There is no doubt that cockneys love their notoriety and the animosity they arouse in other fans.”

Things change, as do places. If you don’t get on board, you’re left behind. The area around Yankee Stadium—hell, most of the Bronx—was a war zone in the same period that Ward writes about. Yankee Stadium was best avoided and unruly.

It’s safer now, the environment around the English game. How can that not be better? (The Bronx, too, for that matter, is much better, though it remains—blessedly—a stubborn holdout to gentrification.) But vicariously, from a distance, Ward’s book, even all these years later, is a thrill. Violence is like that.

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