By SImon Moyse

To understand the current status of English supporter culture, it is important to have an awareness of its recent history. In many ways, the culture has had to fight to survive in the face of great challenges. It’s a big topic, but I will aim to give a short potted history here.

We have to start with the years when hooliganism blighted English soccer, mainly the 70s and 80s. Organized hooligan groups cropped up all over the place, the most notorious probably being the ‘Chelsea Headhunters’, and West Ham’s ‘Inter-City Firm’. At this time, most English stadia had considerably more standing space than they did seating space, so it was easy for groups to gather and move around the stadium. Groups would regularly fight pitched battles, battling to ‘take’ each other’s section. Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge was a great example. Back in the day, the Bridge was very different to how it is now; it was basically a big bowl, one huge terrace, with one covered area, known as The Shed, located at one end. The Chelsea Headhunters gathered in The Shed, and it became the stated goal of many opposing hooligan groups to ‘take’ The Shed. Cue many vicious pitched battles for territory. Similar battles took place across the country as the ‘English disease’ (as it became known) spread to all corners of the land.

Over time, measures began to be taken to curb the hooligan problem. Pretty much all stadia had fences erected at the front of the terraces to stop people getting onto the field, and also between the opposing fans. Although trouble still occurred in the stadiums on a regular basis, the problems were perhaps greater in the streets and bars around the stadium. A group’s ‘home’ pub would often be targeted. Often groups would organize fights in locations away from the stadium, away from the watchful eyes of the law.

In addition to the violence in and around the stadium, the country’s travel hubs would be venues for some major displays of violence. At the time, many soccer fans would travel to away games using England’s extensive rail network. British Rail would run ‘football specials’ at heavily discounted prices in order to make some money out of trains that would otherwise sit idle at the weekend. In many cases, of course, fans of rival clubs would find themselves travelling on the same trains, with chaos inevitably resulting. Similarly, service areas on the freeways of England would have considerable problems. One infamous example is the ‘Watford Gap’ services on the M1. At the time, the M1 was the main freeway between London and the north of England. So what you could have, for example, is Chelsea fans travelling home by bus from a game at Liverpool, at the same time as Manchester United fans were travelling home from a game at Arsenal. All of the drunken fans would need to pee on the way home, so the buses would all end up stopping at the Watford Gap. Not surprisingly, the wait for the urinal could often be fraught and life-threatening.

Fortunately for me, Ipswich never really had much of a hooligan element to their support, and for fans of the likes of Chelsea and West Ham, there really wasn’t (for the most part) much credibility to be gained by attacking fans of such a small rural club, even if they were one of the best teams in England for much of this era. There were a few hairy moments though. I remember getting off the tube for an away game at Millwall in the late 80s, and having four or five people asking me for the time as I walked out of the station. Being as I was, a naïve 13 year old at the time, I was somewhat baffled by it; it was only a few years later that someone explained to me that they were doing this to find out what my accent was; fortunately, having grown up in London, I had a London accent and so escaped unscathed. Given that I was basically only a kid, it shows you how indiscriminate the violence could be. In addition, there was a League Cup quarter final at Queens Park Rangers when we had ended up with some seat tickets, and watched as QPR fans tore out seats and hurled them at the terrace where the Ipswich fans were housed.

Even if you didn’t see the violence directly, the issues really impacted everyone. Wearing your colors at an away game was pretty much unthinkable, obviously, and you had to be very careful where you walked. After the game, away fans would be kept back in the stadium for 20 minutes (or more) after the game to allow the home fans to clear the stadium – travelling to Portland and Vancouver is a pretty surreal flashback to that era in this regard. Many pubs close to the stadiums would close, especially before big games or local derbies, just to avoid the damage that they knew would come if they opened up.

Millwall fans invade the pitch at Luton Town in 1985

The mid to late 80s was really when everything started to change in English soccer. Although the game had experienced major hooligan problems for a while, up until that point it had never really reached the point of being a hot political topic. The game that really changed that was an FA Cup game between Luton Town and Millwall in March 1985. Around 10,000 Millwall fans travelled to watch this game, and basically smashed the town up even before kick off. They then tried to invade the Luton sections before the game, but the real problems started after the game, when thousands of Millwall fans invaded the pitch, attacking fans and players alike. It was awful. It wasn’t the first time that Millwall fans had caused such trouble, but this one was significant because Luton’s chairman, David Evans, was a Conservative Member of Parliament, and a bum-chum of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Evans reacted by banning all away fans from Luton’s Kenilworth Road stadium for the following season, and introducing a membership scheme for home fans so that only true Luton fans gained entry. With matters further brought to a head by the Heysel disaster later in 1985, when 39 Juventus fans were killed while trying to escape rioting Liverpool fans at the European Cup Final, Thatcher’s government set up a ‘war cabinet’ in an attempt to implement such a scheme nationwide. It was unsuccessful, but still, supporter culture was suddenly a major topic.

There was much political discussion on what should be done about the hooligan problem in the years that followed, but then the environment changed again, this time for good, with the Hillsborough disaster of April 1989. For those of you not familiar with this event, what happened was that 95 Liverpool fans were crushed to death as people surged into the Leppings Lane End at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium prior to an FA Cup semi final. Many in the media at the time portrayed it as the fault of the fans (many Liverpool fans still refuse to buy The Sun, Britain’s most popular newspaper, as a result), but it was really the police who were to blame, irresponsibly opening up the gates and allowing too many people to gain entry to the stadium, and then refusing to allow people to escape the section. It was an awful event. I was actually at a game just down the road in Bradford on that day, and hearing about it on the way home, you just knew that the game would never be the same again.

The change was rapid. The fences came down quickly, but then the terraces followed soon after. The game experienced a total revamp. Around the same time, the fledgling Sky Sports satellite TV network came along and poured vast amounts of money into the game. The new Premier League was launched in the 1992-3 season, with live games now only being shown on Sky Sports. Ticket prices went up quickly, and have continued to rise ever since, to the point where it’s now pretty much impossible to get into a game at a place like Chelsea for less than $100. The direction has been clear – this is no longer the game of the people; it’s a game of the wealthy elite. While there are still sporadic outbreaks of hooliganism, notably at the League Cup game between West Ham United and Millwall in August 2009, these instances are now rare, at least in club soccer (the English soccer team still attracts a significant hooligan element when they travel abroad).

While nobody of decency misses the violence or the fences, there is no doubt that these changes have caused a massive deterioration in supporter culture in England. Part of it is down to the demise of the terraces – there is no ‘general admission’ section in English stadia, meaning that the passionate fans inevitably get spread out around the stadium, inhibiting their ability to support. Plus, it’s just easier to sing loud standing up than it is sitting down. Some people will have you believe that English fans all stand up to watch the game the whole time, but that is not really true. Certainly at Ipswich, even in the most hardcore sections, the stewards will allow you to stand up when there are moments of excitement on the field, but if you stay stood up then they will come along and tell you to sit down. I think other places are more tolerant of people standing, but still, it is a gray area at best.

In any case, the drop in passion in English grounds is less about the environment, and more about the fans. Frankly, the kinds of people who go to games now just don’t have the passion for the game that the old fans had. In many cases, the working classes love their soccer team, because it’s all they have. It’s their one love, their one escape from the shit of everyday life. Wealthy people just don’t have that passion, because it’s just a hobby to them. They go to stadiums to be cool, not because they care about their club. The culture is still there, but it’s just not backed by the same do-or-die emotion. There isn’t the old creativity in the chants, the old passion for the game. While the English style still has plenty going for it, it does sometimes feel like it is falling behind when compared to the more structured styles of continental Europe. For evidence of this, one might consider the Manchester City v Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal v Schalke games from last year’s Champions League, when the German clubs brought huge travelling support and comprehensively outsung their English counterparts. At some point, you have to wonder if English supporters are going to start looking to different styles in order to keep up.

Then again, to go back to where we started, maybe nobody in England really cares. After all, we are England, and we do things our own way. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. After all, the cultural differences between nations is a big part of what makes soccer so great. Going to an English soccer game is certainly still very unique, and it can still be really amazing. In many ways, it is supporter life in its purest form, with no rules, no discipline, no structure – just the fans and the atmosphere they decide to create. English stadia are a place where extraordinary things can happen. The culture is certainly not as extreme or as exciting as it used to be, but still, when it is at its best, I’m not sure there is anywhere in the world that is better to watch a game.