Having been a follower of football since I could walk and talk (and play), and also being English, I have an acute awareness of hooliganism in the sport. Although the match experience is far safer these days than it used to be, football hooligans (or “lads” as they prefer to be called) are still well and truly alive.
The BBC documentary “The Football Fight Club” is a candid piece of film making that follows a select group of lads organised in their firm’s “youth teams” throughout a season. I was shocked to see kids as young as 17 amongst these roving gangs, barely out of school and spoiling for a fight.
That’s not to say these groups are intrinsically violent. They decry fighting for the sake of fighting, swearing that they would never attack another supporter, no matter what team they supported. No, football firms fight football firms.There is an odd sense of honour here, as rival firms contact each other by phone and email to arrange fights.
“Where are you?” The leader of Manchester City’s youth firm, Carl, says down the phone to the man he’ll soon be trying to put in hospital. “How many of you? Four? We’ve got four here – you better not have six or ten, if you have let me know and we’ll grab another lad.”
When asked by the camera crew why they do this, many point towards the adrenaline rush, the sense of camaraderie, the sense of being “alive”. Not knowing whether someone could smash a glass in your face or stamp your head in is all part of the thrill for these teenagers. Standing by your mates is the epitome of being a man, as is fighting off a crew with more lads than you.
Watching I couldn’t help but draw obvious comparisons between these groups and Chuck Palahniuk’s classic Fight Club. The strongest firms tend to come from inner-city clubs like Birmingham, Manchester and London, or from towns in the North, where the opportunities for a lot of young guys are slim. Many are unemployed or unemployable, having served banning orders and prison sentences.
The men in Palahnuik’s novel were unsure of their place in society. They were domesticated, their ambitions in life dulled by the endless search for material possessions. In a world of political correctness, Calvin Klein adverts and societal expectations they lashed out the only way they could – with violence.
In a world where young men have little to rail against, the chance to throw a punch at someone in different colours to you is all too welcome. Paul, a member of Bury FC’s youth firm, lauds the ability to release all his anger at the end of the week, to forget about his life and live in the moment. The adrenaline rush is like a drug, another (masked) Man City lad tells the camera. “I work in the week, I pay my taxes and at the weekend I come out and do this,” he says. “I’m an addict.”
Violence is obviously not the way to deal with problems, but have men found a better way to do so in history? Dante, a former Spurs lad (now kept in check by his fiancée and several banning orders) heads out into the woods on match day to weight-lift trees and stamp on logs, pretending they’re Chelsea fans.
These are clearly lads who are looking for ways to express themselves. Unfortunately they’ve been dragged into doing so by trying to kick someone’s head in on a Saturday. Men have natural instincts inbuilt into our psyche – aggression is simply one of these instincts made manifest. Even the most gentle of men will revert in some way or another: getting drunk on the weekend, taking the piss out of mates or pushing themselves into physical competitions like Tough Mudder.
Is it fair to say then, that these youth firms are some rejection of the ultra-fashionable, feminised makeover that men are told to undergo in modern society? Probably not. I’m not sure many of the young men in the Football Fight Club think about chiselled Adonis models in the perfume adverts as they’re cracking a bottle in someone’s teeth.
There is no doubt that some of these kids are lost, though. The lack of a true role model in society has left them reaching for the first thing that fit their definitions. To them these bloodied, grizzled veterans of hooliganism are John Wayne with Wolverine claws.
“I used to go to pub with my Uncle when I was little,” Dante recalls, talking about after his dad passed away. “See all the clothes and hear all the stories. I wanted to be like them.”
They’re unable see a future past their twentieth birthday, past hanging around with mates and fighting for fun. Football is the world’s greatest sport, and provides moments of true brilliance for fans and players alike, but it is a tragedy and a sad indictment of our support system that hundreds of boys see putting each other in hospital as the epitome of life’s goals.
What does it mean to be a man? Masculinity is a massive question for the modern bloke, and one that will remain a mystery for many. Until then, it seems, there will be groups of lads kicking the shit out of each other in city centres every Saturday for years to come.