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'I felt it was a generation of lads who really wanted to go to war, and really wanted to defend England'

American writer and editor Bill Buford, who wrote a book on English football hooliganism called Among The Thugs, is this week’s guest on Behind the Lines.

England fans in Turin in 1980.
England fans in Turin in 1980.
Image: EMPICS Sport

Updated Feb 9th 2021, 12:00 PM

BILL BUFORD REVIVED and edited the literary magazine Granta during his studies at Cambridge University, and having become one of the first people to publish the likes of Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis, he then turned his attention to a phenomenon of 1980s English society: football hooligans. 

He spent six years embedded with various firms across England, which culminated in his 1992 book, Among The Thugs. The book tells some of his wildest days running with English hooligans at home and abroad, and maps some of the psychologies and circumstances that begat their violence. 

“It began with my American perspective on life in Britain, and being perplexed at why it was considered normal that young lads would gather all over the country every weekend, and beat each other up”, Bill tells this episode of Behind the Lines

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His American twang earned instant suspicion when he went about attaching himself to various fan groups: he was usually considered, in his own words, as either a member of the CIA or a “a deviant homosexual who deserved to be injured badly.”

But he ultimately gained their trust, which allowed him to tell of several booze-and-blood-soaked days both in England and in Europe. The most extensively detailed trip was to Turin with Manchester United fans, when a night of violence culminated in a tank rolling through the streets of the city with the Italian military called in for support.

He also devoted much time to mapping the ‘why’ of this violence.

His initial assumption – that these were the acts of a bored, poor and disenfranchised class of people in Thatcherite Britain was challenged by how financially comfortable many of the supporters were: not extravagantly wealthy, but they had enough to travel across Europe a few times a year and across the country at least once a fortnight. 

The reasons, instead were varied. One, explains Bill, was the sheer, adrenal buzz of being in a crowd. 

“It was the equivalent of a drug”, says Bill. “It was a very druggy experience to be in a big crowd fight, with dogs and police and the possibility of extreme violence or a knife being pulled. It’s a real high-octane, adrenaline buzz.” 

One supporter in the book darkly reasoned, “The violence, we’ve all got it in us. It just needs a cause. It needs an acceptable way of coming out…it’s got to come out. Everyone’s got it in them.” 

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Bill saw another motivation for violence too, particularly on trips abroad as fans corralled around city squares and sang for England and about the war. 

“There’s definitely an identity behind it all. It seemed pretty flimsy, a little arbitrary. Being in Italy and believing that you’re defending the Queen and the Union Jack. Especially when we went abroad, I felt it was a generation of lads who really wanted to go to war, and they really wanted to defend England.

“And they couldn’t accept the idea that England didn’t want to have anything to do with them, and that the Queen would would be horrified to know that they believe they were defending her. It’s kind of a big nationalism. But then there was also a kind of small-scale at nationalism: it’s Chelsea or it’s Manchester United or it’s Manchester City or it’s another club. They’re all like little small clans, and countries.” 

In the book, Bill also considers how supporters were viewed by those outside them, and accentuates how they were treated to the point of being dehumanised by police and football’s authorities throughout the 1980s. 

“A lad knows what is expected of him, how he will be seen, what his value is”, he writes. “A history of Saturdays, a culture of Saturdays, has taught him that he is pocket money for the organisation that will shortly pack him as closely together with the other lads as is humanly possible. He is an item of cash flow. He knows that he will be caged, locked up, held in by spikes and barbed wire.” 

Fans’ treatment in stadia changed by necessity after the Taylor Report in the wake of the Hillsborough tragedy, and the game is very different today: the terraces are gone, and violence around games has greatly diminished. 

“It’s a beautiful, beautiful game and it has changed radically, but it didn’t have a future with the toilets not working, and the filthy food, and fans peeing on your shoes. There wasn’t a future there. Something’s lost, but I am glad I got to see it.” 

Listen to the full interview with Bill Buford by subscribing at members.the42.ie. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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