The idea of some “glory era” of football hooliganism is, of course, a contradiction in terms. Football hooliganism, as practiced by adherents of many football clubs around the world, was never about glory. Rather it was an outlet of sorts for testosterone-fuelled negative energy among mainly younger men, who delighted in the potential for a physical confrontation loosely based on sporting rivalry. There was nothing glorious about it; usually in fact there was a dependence upon an element of surprise and the advantage of greater numbers to emerge as “winners”. It was a pain in the neck for authorities both inside and outside of football; for the public who just wanted to support their team – and for what might be called innocent bystanders, who just happened to be in the vicinity when these idiots met looking for savage fulfilment. Football thugs were scary only to each other, really. To those above such primitive displays of attention-seeking, they were no more or less than anti-social pests.
The problem with any mob is the impressionable and easily-led types attracted by the feeling of “belonging” and the adrenalin rush induced by the thought of being pitched against an opposing force. One theory is that those involved will, in time, grow out of what is basically an extension of unruly little boys fighting in a playground. Bewilderingly, though, some people show no signs of wanting to abandon childish pursuits, and are still attempting to demonstrate machismo and aggression well into beery middle-age. There’s an obvious element of compensation going on; the individuals concerned know that their youth and vigour has gone, but – lacking any alternative outlet due to inadequate intelligence – they can’t let themselves admit it.
Comically, the main outlet for such types – in these days of omnipresent CCTV, anyway – is the internet. Cyberspace is, it turns out, a peculiarly friendly environment for those who wish to continue espousing anti-social and violent sentiments, even at an age when they should have grown up and moved on to more adult preoccupations. The capacity of the internet for preserving the anonymity of an individual or group with negative intentions towards society at large is a gift for your average ageing ex-thug. There are several benefits of such a very incognito way of carrying on, which play into the hands and cater for the needs of overgrown playground warriors.
The main thing today’s ex-hooligan turned internet tough old man needs is the presence of a good few like-minded chaps of sufficiently feeble intellect and, ideally, that yearning need to recapture those long-ago days when they could scare people in real-life physical confrontation. Then, as now, the important thing will be the ability to identify with a cadre of “lads”, sticking together in the face of authority and anyone who might wish to challenge such an outdated point of view. It goes back to that urgent need to belong, so characteristic of those who always did feel unable to stand alone and plough their own furrow. It’s the herd instinct carried over into the virtual world: don’t mess with us, we are many and you are few. So it was back in the day, and so it is today – only, with advancing years the ability to either absorb or dish out any genuine punishment has dwindled away to nothing. But advancing age doesn’t seem to encourage the overgrown “lad” to wish to grow up and act as an adult. The former thug has become, against his own will and self-image, what is essentially a sad old man – and there’s a great deal of mutual reassurance from other desperate, sad, internet tough-guys needed to salve that particular wound.
Disappointingly, my own club has as many of these pensionable hooligan types acting in its name as any other. In days gone by, Leeds United had this “firm” (that’s what they called themselves, with no apparent appreciation of irony) who were known as the “Service Crew“, due to their predilection for raising hell after being conveyed to away games via rail and other services, knocking on for forty years ago. At that time, the Service Crew were one of many notorious “firms” who used the occasion of their respective football clubs playing each other, to meet and anthropologically posture at each other. Actual explosions of violence were by no means the norm, although such incidents as did occur naturally made the headlines. But so much of it was the kind of ritual aggression-displays you see on David Attenborough documentaries, where mindless animals, driven by raging hormones, act ridiculously from the onlooker’s point of view – simply to establish territorial or sexual claims. The parallels to be drawn between hooligan and ape are almost irresistible – but it’s important to remember that, while the ape is exhibiting instinctive behaviour vital to establishing itself within a peer group, your average yob is showing no more than a weak intellect and an inability to take on board more than a few pints without descending to the level of dumb beasts.
In this regard, the Leeds Service Crew were no better and no worse than many others. Their claims of predominance notwithstanding, the Crew were just another bunch of pests making life a misery for other sections of society on regular Saturday afternoons around the country. The tragedy of today is that – although football hooliganism has been marginalised by surveillance technology, almost to the point where, as a phenomenon, it is dead – nevertheless, some ageing boneheads refuse to let go of the compulsion to identify themselves as “lads”. In middle-aged men, that’s not only bizarre – it’s laughably embarrassing. But the fact remains that, even nowadays when their former exploits have been just about stamped out, the Service Crew still feels the need to identify itself as a collective which misses what it would term as the “good old days” of football violence. So, they have this forum, where they can chortle about those old days, swap memories both real and apocryphal, share their hideously outdated political and social positions and generally carry on like a gang of anti-social kids even though many of them are well into physical dissolution and should be doing something healthy like sorting the garden out.
The Service Crew forum actually used to serve a purpose not all that long ago. Like its slightly watered-down counterpart WACCOE, it used to be a half-decent source of Leeds-related news and gossip, although obviously there was still that element of tough talk, threats and posturing going on in the background. Boys, after all, will be boys – even old, fat, bald ones.
These days – and this applies equally to the Service Crew forum and WACCOE – the useful content has almost disappeared. Both sites have degenerated into what might best be described as a virtual “peeing highest up the wall” contest, as the usual crowd of insecure inadequates strive to out-do each other, whether that be in the context of weak jokes, fascist propaganda, or simply ganging up on any contributor who doesn’t conform to the group ethos. The surprises come in the lengths to which some will go in order to seek the approval of their bone-headed peers. Desperate for kudos, some middle-aged or elderly morons will happily transgress boundaries of behaviour that an adolescent would think twice before crossing – and will receive the sniggering approval of his fellow reprobates. You find yourself having to shake your head, reminding yourself that some of these people are grandparents. The mind boggles.
From some points of view, of course, all of the above represents progress. Football violence has died an unlamented death as a major player in modern fan culture. It rears its ugly head so rarely today, and is confined to just a few notorious clubs – so as a social irritant, it’s more or less disappeared – which at least makes the match-going experience that bit more pleasant for the grown-ups. But the price for all this would seem to be an insidious process whereby formerly quite readable fan sites are becoming hackneyed examples of mass attention-seeking, virtual posturing, recurrent cyber-bullying and the expression of views and standards deemed unacceptable in this century. It’s a pity – for anyone who might wish to trawl the net for anything useful in connection with their favourite football club.
For myself, as a moderate Leeds United fan with left-wing views, some areas of the net are becoming almost no-go areas – always allowing for the fact that I find it amusing to wind up some fairly hard-of-thinking and gullible types who find their refuge on the more extreme, FV-nostalgic boards – the Service Crew Forum being probably the most obvious example. On such occasions as I do engage with these less-than-able types, it’s usually a salutary reminder that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. But the sad thing is that another formerly usable site has become useless – and there aren’t enough truly well-informed and worthy places on the web for that to be something we can afford.
Some consolation may be derived from the thought that, just as actual hooligans have decayed and become too old to indulge in the physical stuff, so too will this middle-aged and elderly generation of virtual thugs eventually pass by and disappear into doddering senility – some self-evidently, earlier than others. The general trend is one of progress towards enlightenment, towards a time when the negative factors are removed, one by one, from the game that most of us can love without feeling the need to kick somebody’s head in, or even indulge in a little cyber-posturing. Such a desirable state of affairs would probably imply the demise of the Service Crew forum, of WACCOE, and of a couple of other havens for the insecure and deluded latterday “lads”. And that – as any intelligent recent visitor to either of the sites referred to above might agree – would be no bad thing.