London riots and football hooliganism

‘People were determined to smash and destroy. Windows were being smashed and the looters saw their chance. A road sign went straight through the middle of the window. Two people moved in with cardboard boxes and filled them with jumpers. These would be highly resaleable. [Others] were concentrating on the jewellers’ shops and a good few were looted. People who were probably  law-abiding citizens at any other time just went berserk. The faces of people as they went into a smashed shop and grabbed goods were amazing; all signs of reason had disappeared from their eyes. One guy came out of a shop with his eyes rolled up, his tongue hanging from an open mouth and breathing heavily. His trip into the shop had been a physical experience, and he was beginning to smile. He had dared and won. In a very short space of time, the streets had been transformed into a madhouse. Sirens blared out and police vans screeched around the streets.’

Was this Tottenham last Saturday? Brixton on Sunday? Battersea or Croydon on Monday? Manchester on Tuesday? Surely it must be from one of those occasions this week when England was forced to confront the reality of a ‘sub-educated, feral underclass’ in a post-Thatcher ‘something-for-nothing society’ (as Andrew Roberts so colourfully described it).

Well, actually no. This was way back in 1983, in tiny Luxembourg, where England fans went on a smashing and looting spree after failing to qualify for the European Championships. Football hooliganism was approaching its nadir after a 20 year spiral that had almost destroyed the national sport and left the authorities baffled at how to control it.

Mob looting by football supporters dates back to at least 1976, when Liverpool supporters descended in large groups to rob shops in St Etienne, where they were watching a European Cup tie. It soon became assimilated into the away trip –  usually while being escorted back to the station, away supporters would smash up city centres, fight the police and, if the opportunity arose, loot goods from shops: a jeweller here, a clothes shop there. Whatever could be easily lifted and carried back home.

In Colin Ward’s classic account of terrace culture ‘Steaming In’ (from which the above passage also came), he describes Chelsea fans after a game in Luton: ‘The trip back to the town station saw the mass destruction of the town centre. Shops were looted and a train was set on fire… It was said that one guy who didn’t like football but had a fetish about smashing shop windows went along to have a good night out. Nutters often tag along with football crowds just for the buzz.’

The past week’s violence certainly seemed unprecedented – and in some ways it was – but there are significant parallels with the way overwhelmingly young football fans routinely behaved in the 1970s and 1980s. There’s the casual disregard for other people’s property, the mania of the crowd, the opportunist thieving and violence, the loose organisation into gangs, the sheer thrill of anarchy, the speed of movement and the power of being able to catch the police wrong-footed.

The fear is that mass lootings will become a commonplace event, another part of our lives, as criminal gangs realise what they can get away with if there are enough of them around and as long as the law and lawmakers remain clueless at how to respond. It certainly took the authorities a long time to get a handle on how to police football, but the experience has now been completely transformed, partly because of tough sentences for hooligans, partly because of the disasters at Heysel and Hillsborough but also because the football establishment itself realised it had to change the way it regarded football supporters if the behaviour of fans was to improve.

When I watched a small group of 20 or 30 kids terrorise Hackney in broad daylight on Monday afternoon while the police stood and watched, my first instinct was that they would never have let a bunch of football supporters behave like that these days. There are always lessons to be learnt from the past, if you look in the right places.

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3 responses to “London riots and football hooliganism

  1. I sat in a pub in Lewisham last night and watched a gang of youths marched slowly to Catford, and back again, by huge numbers of police. The only other time I’ve seen such tactics? Football matches…

  2. Like you, I realised that the events of the past week were nothing new, the English, and Londoners in particular, have a long tradition of public disorder, hoolinanism etc. Parallels with your example: the public are solidly behind anything that knocks this on the head, even if literally. Key difference, which I think will prove problematic, is that football hooligans were and are mainly white. Hence it was easy for politicians/authorities to take steps with a clear run. A large proportion of today’s rioters are “people of colour”, so there are clear signs (already) of a potential tippy-toe approach being adopted, even if Cameron and the courts are adopting a tough guy stance in the short term. Our leaders need to be totally colour blind on this, but will they be?

  3. An interesting read, as always Pete.

    I went with my father and brother to watch Spurs play Liverpool back in the early 70’s. Looking at the records, I think it was March 1971 when Spurs lost 1-0 in an FA Cup 6th round replay. It was an evening game and as we walked back up the Tottenham High Road towards the recently opened Seven Sisters station there was a running battle between the fans. I vividly remember seeing a crowd of Spurs fans pick up a Liverpool fan and throw him through a shop window. The fighting seemed quite vicious and intense and we hurried home.

    An interesting parallel with football is the characterisation of the perpetrators as a homogeneous group of disadvantaged criminals to whom we are able to apportion a very definite set of motivations depending on from which side of the political spectrum we’re viewing this. I remember the consternation when barrister’s clerks and other educated and comfortably-off individuals were up before the beak for football related offences, as this pointed to a greater complexity to the problem than some would want. The early cases now going through the courts, point to a similar experience, perhaps.

    Not sure about this idea that football was always hit hard and the recent events soft pedalled which seems to be gaining traction. It seems a little simplistic as an explanation and as you point out it took the police a good deal of time to adjust their tactics to the emergence of regular violence at games. Hillsborough in particular would point to the dangers of an ingrained “one size fits all” mindset taking hold both in the police and media.
    And we have to bear in mind that we’re now looking at the policing of football as developed over time. We have still to get a proper handle on what the various forces across the country should and shouldn’t have done in the last few days. To many the average game now seems over-policed and on the surface there certainly appears to be a disparity between what we saw on the TV and our experience on game day, particularly for the away fan. But just as it took years to formulate the “modern” approach it will take a long time for the naturally conservative institutions of public order to change their tactics.

    It’s worth noting that with football and many other public order problems, a lot of events are relatively static, their locations are pre-determined and when trouble erupts they are often about holding ground. The police usually have time to plan ahead of the event and over the years have developed their intelligence gathering and strategies. Hence the willingness to kettle old ladies and middle class academics with the same insouciance as setting dogs on football fans. It’s not because they’re all white, it’s because they know when, where and who.

    Recent events have differed from that pattern, particularly in the dispersed and opportunistic nature of the incidents. Like “steaming” on trains and “ram raiding”, new strategies have to be developed to combat the particular nature of the crime, both by civilians and the police.
    Certainly to start with, from the limited experience I had at around 6.00pm, the police didn’t have the “boots” on the ground. Plenty of air support though.

    It’s also worth noting that only a week before the trouble in Hackney, 300 police had raided a number of addresses on the Pembury Estate in a drugs related operation. So, some of them aren’t sitting on their arses. And while I’m only speculating, it’s not unreasonable to think that the trouble around the Pembury was not unconnected to some individuals sensing an opportunity to strike back.

    Apologies for droning on.

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