He swore that he’d never, never do it again
“Violent scenes”, “bloody brawl”, “violent clashes” “violent riot erupts” the media was awash with its usual cache of headline grabbing phrases to describe the set-to between Arsenal and Spurs fans before their north london derby on Saturday 5 March 2016.
By any standards this was a big game. Arsenal and Spurs, the 7th and 12th richest clubs in the world respectively, ‘global brand leaders’ with a massive corporate identity and a lucrative run on the cards if they make it through to the Champions League next season, currently jostling for position at the top of the world’s wealthiest football league. The economics are profound and dizzying¹.
So matchday fixtures like this will always be about pleasing the financial backers as they calculate the level of return on their investment, and with Sky/BT Sports in dutiful attendance dictating start times and blanket coverage it’s a day for the sponsors to take full advantage of the advertising opportunities offered up to the captive ‘live’ TV audience. Local fans though have other concerns.
Accident with a three-bar fire
For supporters of most London clubs (or a visiting team with a particular rivalry or past grudge with Spurs) the walk up from Seven Sisters tube station to White Hart Lane has always been prefigured with the expectation of some kind of reception committee from the Yid Army; hundreds of Tottenham fans lining the streets waiting to escort the away fans into the stadium with a barrage of threats, taunts, chants and physical exchanges. With Arsenal, being closest neighbours and rivals with a long history, it always feels a bit personal.
Yes it doesn’t quite have the same fearsome notoriety and market-stall etiquette of walking down Green Street or the same heart of darkness lost in bandit country, that permanent bleak chill of anticipation as you edge nearer the Den, but the intention is still the same – to create an atmosphere of intimidation and hostility, let rival fans know they’re in enemy territory, they need to watch their backs, dampening the spirits and psychologically demoralising any travelling support before they enter the ground.
At best it’s ritualised grandstanding with an aggravated sense of collective purpose, at worst it’s a torrent of traded blows and projectiles before the police move in and separate the opposing sides. In these days of the ubiquitous iphones held aloft and instant youtube uploads such scenes can be viewed almost as they occur giving an amplified sense of urgency and danger that really doesn’t translate if you happened to be there. It’s kicking off, but we know where we are, and we know how it works. These things happen. These things have always happened.
He wasn’t very happy anyway
What was most interesting about this particular set-to, beyond the Adidas catwalk show and inability for anyone to keep their feet, was the media response to it. Predictably split between the hand-wringing worst-fears moralism of the liberal left and the apoplectic reactionary right’s cynical bluster every news agency tried to outdo each other in expressing the most outrage, shock and disappointment.
But what wasn’t present in any of those news articles was the word ‘hooligan’. It was almost as if they had all decided as one to avoid the term altogether. And it’s not as though the phrase has disappeared from the media’s lexicon. Less than a week before every mainstream newspaper ran with a story about how ‘1,000 hooligans will be stopped from travelling to Euro 2016’ happy to repeat any piece of police pr propaganda thrown their way, trading gossip as fact.
We’ve always known ‘hooligan’ is a highly politicised term used as the currency of degeneracy to vilify football fans, especially the unreconstructed, unapologetic, un-middle class football fans of the old school. So to not use it in this instance suggests something’s going on in the press. Where we come from we don’t get a say, we get a label.
So what is going on? In the eyes of the mainstream media have hooligans ceased to exist amongst Premier League clubs? Are these “violent clashes” retold in shaky iphone footage the work of non-hooligans? Is this because the Premier League match goer is now viewed as the archetypal middle class modern football supporter (backed up with the tourists and corporate block-ticket purchasers)? If the football hooligan has been eradicated from the Premier League by pricing them out of the ground along with a trawl of ordinary working class fans (the argument being you get rid of the traditional fan ² you get rid of the problem of football hooliganism) who are these likely lads snarling at each other from across the line of riot police? And here lies the conflict at the heart of Premiership fandom. Who are we mixing with and who do we know to blame? It’s a paradox that needs exploring because it will go in some way to reveal how the future narrative on premier league football fans is being prepared and laid out, and for whose benefit.
Strangled in her very own bed as she read
The gentrification of football is almost complete. The Premier League football stadium is now home to and for the middle classes. In terms of territorial spacing the modern football crowd has been completely atomised and individualised, any collective response on the terraces is met with heavy-handed stewarding, police surveillance and arrests, threats of banning, every unauthorised movement monitored, recorded, scrutinised, even fans wanting to move freely within the stands are hampered by design, minimising any collective activity especially if it’s directed at the opposition.
The message is clear – ‘act like a customer, not a football fan’, where your presence is acknowledged by an individual financial transaction to the company who owns the club rather than a socially engaged communal environment to meet, spend time and socialise with like-minded people as a self defined community. Historically the football terraces were where the working class could recognise themselves as such, with a sense of pride and self-justification. No other collective environment, outside of the factory workplace, have the working class been able to assert themselves as a positive social mass. It re-affirmed a class identity even while you were trading insults and blows with the opposition crowd.
But the role of the football fan has changed from a fanatical, if often fraught, social scene into an individual obligation as a consumer – by buying a ticket you are now signing a personal contract with the club which includes how to behave within the ground, and increasingly how to behave outside or away from the ground. Of course there are pockets of resistance to this where collective effort is rewarded with impressive visual displays ie Holmedale Fanatics, Spion Kop 1906, Brigada 1874, 1894 Group but even they must have permission from the management in order to have an organised presence in the stands (although they have come into their own as a galvanising point of protest and voicing dissent).
One of the major reasons for this is the shifting importance of the match-going fan in relation to the club. Financially speaking the match-going supporter is now the least important part of any Premier League game, coming a lowly third, after commercial revenue (sponsorship deals etc) and broadcasting revenue (TV rights), in terms of generating income. The club’s reliance on the solid loyalty of the traditional working class fan has been broken and with that the relic of the traditional fan has been abandoned for a more cosmopolitan, middle class and safer alternative.
Gentrification happens when a settled stable working class community is transformed by the influx of a critical mass of wealthier middle class inhabitants changing the social make-up and cultural fabric of the place to suit the new money being brought in. It happens in areas where the problem of being working class is the problem, and more importantly where those in charge wish to actively change the dynamic to suit the needs and aspirations and service the requirements of the middle class interlopers, even if they remain a minority presence, at the expense of the pre-existing working class inhabitants. As we’ve said before, gentrification happens when the middle class start to buy in.
In terms of football the process is much the same – people with money, social status and defined cultural expectations, often at odds with the working class communities they wish to supplant, have been encouraged to enter into an environment with the express purpose of utilising its transformation.
Jury you’ve heard every word
This transformation has taken 25 gruelling years, from the beginnnings of a snippet of Italian opera, the formation of the Premier League and its departure point of compulsory all seater stadiums. Of course it could have only happened with the concerted and combined efforts of the government, the police, the FA (representing the business interests of the football clubs) and the media, each playing a vital role in challenging and thus changing the social and class dynamics of league football crowds.
The process was deliberate, orchestrated and politically motivated. First working class fans must be attacked, demeaned, vilified, demoralised, in the process of being dispossessed, divided, marginalised and ultimately subdued. We were made to disappear. This took most of the 90s and 00s to accomplish. Regulating fan behaviour has been a journey from an invested working class social activity as a collective expression of communal loyalty – to the team, the club, the area you lived/were brought up and most significantly to each other, to an individualised, atomised declaration of personal ‘self-expression’.
Those Mother me eyes
So the dilemma facing the Premier League football fan today is this: you are now a customer, a consumer of a brand, your loyalty is based on your financial transactions. This is best understood in the middle class fan, the tourist, the corporate jollies, yet within the matchday experience remain the intractable working class who still view their role as an essential component of the football club they love. More importantly it is still ‘their’ club. They are fulfilling the traditional role of the working class football fan, creating the necessary atmosphere (which is always a collective act), sense of occasion and most fervent support.
It’s a class dynamic, understood and acknowledged, even if it has been stripped of its power, impact and grace. If Premier League football has become so gentrified that only the middle class, tourists or corporate ticket holders are able to afford to go to the games, and the working class are marginalised to the point of invisibility, how do you replicate the atmosphere of that time-honoured tradition of local working class territorial rivalry challenged in physical and verbal form? Now we don’t even sing when we’re winning. And perhaps a more pertinent question, who the fuck are all these people who keep kicking off at Premier League matches?
In the midst of life we are in death etc
The working class refuse to disappear. You can’t get rid of us. This is all we have. We have neither the arrogance, privilege or safety net supplied to the middle class, we cannot walk away if it all gets too much. We have invested our heart and souls into something as intangible as a football club, just like our parents did, and their parents did, and their parents did, because this is who we are. This is all we have. And this is why it matters.
Young working class football fans were called hooligans because the police didn’t want them there, the FA didn’t want them there, the media didn’t want them there, the government didn’t want them there. Unwanted and held in contempt, caught in the crossfire against a backdrop of corrosive political ideology and social dislocation, when you are forced to disappear you start doing things for yourself. And there’s always a danger when you act collectively against the wishes of those who would despise you just for existing. The football hooligan is a warning not of a society in turmoil, but of a class in despair. Until the next time.
¹ Most recent figures show the Premier League generated an income of £3.26bn in the 2013-14 season, Arsenal’s revenue was £331.3m, Spurs revenue was £195.9m for the 2104-15 season
² The term ‘traditional fan’ gets tossed about a lot but is never really defined, here we mean having a long-term historical committment to the club usually crossing generations and based on being chosen for you (either handed on through family or by the bonds of social peers), from the same geographical locality and a recognisably working class background.