‘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.