Books: Oi's Own Story

After the reminiscences of nice, middle-class boys like Nick Hornby, the latest football bestsellers aim to rehabilitate the hooligans
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The Independent Culture
VIOLENCE in our football stadiums might be a thing of the past, but the hooligan element has taken up residence in an unlikely new location: the bookshop. Literature about violence on the terraces is becoming a mini-industry in itself with novelists, fans and academics crowding the bookshelves with tales of hooligan excess. This month alone sees the publication of four new books on the subject: Football Hooligans (Berg pounds 14.99), an academic critique of the subject by Gary Armstrong; Derby Days (Headline pounds 6.99), by Dougie and Eddie Brimson; Oi Ref! (Sceptre pounds 10), a novel by Joseph Gallivan, and Kevin Sampson's debut novel Awaydays (Cape pounds 9.99), an acutely observed rite-of-passage story about a teenage hooligan who follows Tranmere Rovers in the heady days of 1979. Added to this are two recently published books written by Manchester United fans, The Red Army Years (Headline pounds 6.99); and If the Reds Should Play in Rome or Mandalay (Juma pounds 7.99), a collection of anecdotes from fans who have followed the team into Europe from the mid-Seventies onwards. Later in the year John King, author of The Football Factory (Vintage pounds 5.99), publishes England Away, the third in a trilogy about contemporary soccer violence.

Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch (Indigo pounds 6.99) is one of the decade's publishing success stories, while Pete Davis' story of the 1990 World Cup, All Played Out (Mandarin pounds 6.99) has sold impressively, but these are books which appeal squarely to the "new" football fan, the one who has come along to the game in the 1990s and enjoys the all-seater stadiums, Sky TV's coverage and wants no truck with the bad old violent heydays of the Seventies and Eighties. The sub-culture for books about soccer violence has existed since Richard Allen's suedeheads series in the Seventies. Jay Allen's Bloody Casuals: the Diary of a Football Hooligan (Northern Books pounds 4.95), the record of an Aberdeen hooligan's exploits in the Eighties, has been an underground cult since it first appeared in 1989, but it was Colin Ward's Steaming In (Pocket Books pounds 5.99) also published in 1989, which indicated that this underground might be more sizeable than expected. A hilarious account of Ward's exploits hanging out on the hooligan fringes of Arsenal and Chelsea in the Seventies and Eighties, Steaming In has become a classic of the genre and so far has sold in excess of 40,000 copies.

But leading the contemporary literary hooligan charge is novelist John King, whose debut The Football Factory is a recognised publishing phenomena. A brutal account of the violent life of a Chelsea fan who lives to battle it out on match day with rival firms, it has sold in excess of 200,000 copies - extraordinary for a novel which was taken from the slush pile and published to resounding apathy in the literary world. "When John's novel came out," explains Dan Franklin of Jonathan Cape, "it received hardly any reviews, and those it did pick up were almost universally hostile. But there was a mistake on the computer and Waterstone's in Leeds got something like 300 copies when they should have got 30. Instead of taking them back, we suggested they just put them out on display to see what happened. They sold out within a week."

This word-of-mouth success took publishers completely by surprise, but their ignorance of the readership is not new. "I had the idea to do the book over 10 years ago," King says, "in the Eighties, when that whole violence thing was at its height. I sent the idea off to a couple of publishers, but didn't get anywhere, and one of those who rejected it told me that he didn't want to publish it because people who watched football couldn't read."

The success of The Football Factory and its sequel Headhunters (Vintage pounds 5.99) has shown that there's a massive audience for stories about the seamier side of the beautiful game. Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting stands as a sort of talisman for the readers - young, urban, working-class - who remain a mystery to publishers. King's editor at Cape, Robin Robertson, also edited Trainspotting, but even he is rather mystified about just who this readership is: "The people who buy these books aren't regular readers of the books pages," he says wryly. "I expect those who buy John's books will possess only a few other novels, probably all by Irvine Welsh. But these books sell because they appeal to an under-represented part of our culture who are grateful to read about themselves and know they won't be patronised or demonised."

It's the on-going misrepresentation of football fandom generally, and its violent underground in particular, which spurs many writers to tell their own stories. The Brimson Brothers, Dougie and Eddie, found themselves authors of a sports bestseller with Everywhere We Go (Headline pounds 5.99), a recollection of their days following Watford. "Back in the Eighties, when you went to football, you got involved in the whole casual movement, and the casual movement was soccer violence," says Dougie Brimson. "We played up a bit back then, but it wasn't very much - mostly we ran away, but we enjoyed it. Those were great days, and we loved it. But we've been slayed for saying that. We get into trouble for what we say, but we just try and tell it like it was, and other fans respond to that. We've tried to expose the stereotypes and myths surrounding this problem, but people in authority don't want to listen."

Everywhere We Go was such a big success it prompted a further three efforts along the same lines (England, My England, Capital Punishment and the forthcoming Derby Days, all Headline pounds 6.99): personal recollection from the brothers, interspersed with anecdotes from other fans. That the Brimsons have been criticised by newspapers and the sports establishment (they've been banned from ever appearing on Sky Sports) shows that it is impossible to have mature and reasonable debate about soccer violence in the media, as, inevitably, pejorative stereotypes and moral indignation quickly follow.

The only mainstream account of football violence, Bill Buford's Among the Thugs (Mandarin pounds 6.99), an outsider's account of hanging around various hooligan gangs in the Eighties, simply perpetuates the stereotypes. Buford presents an unpleasant picture of the company he kept: football fans are ugly, fat and badly-dressed boozers whose guts hang out over their trousers and "whose common feature was, I must admit, a look of incredible and possibly even unique stupidity". It is cloddish misinterpretation like this which has prompted so many to pen their own stories, far more complicated and fascinating than Buford - and regular football commentators in the media - could ever understand.

Kevin Sampson's novel Awaydays, set in Birkenhead in 1979, is the story of Paul Carty and his best friend Elvis who both run with the Pack, a gang who follow Tranmere Rovers. The Pack are "the nastiest little crew in the Third" and Sampson presents a sickening picture of soccer violence in action as the Pack rampage at away matches, beating up rival fans, slashing faces with Stanley knives and looting local shops. But Paul and Elvis aren't stereotypical thugs: both are obsessed with fashion and music and hang-out at Eric's, then the epicentre of the Liverpool scene. Paul is a casual who is obsessed with the then look of Stan Smith trainers, Lois jeans, cardigans and wedge haircuts. "I wanted to challenge the whole News International portrait of the football hooligan," explains Sampson. "That caricature of the hooligan as a skinhead with tattoos. I mean, I'm sure those people existed, but I didn't really see them in my experience."

Sampson is brilliant at evoking the period when the casual movement was just gaining momentum on the terraces. "I wanted to look at that group who were around in the North West at the time, who were intelligent, into Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire, well-dressed, but into violence as well," he reveals. The contradictions of his characters are many: Paul's terrifying mate Elvis uses a Stanley knife to carve up the opposition before going home to read Sylvia Plath and Ezra Pound; Paul and Elvis smoke weed, listen to David Bowie and the Velvet Underground, discuss the meaning of life and then rampage on a Saturday afternoon. Sampson, while never excusing their actions, looks closely at what motivates their dysfunctional behaviour, and it comes as a relief to read a rounded evocation of a time and a generation which has too often been reduced to cliches.

Sampson, a former journalist and manager of the band The Farm, was also instrumental in instigating the football fanzine movement with the now legendary publication The End. One of the first fanzines, it quickly won a big cult following in the mid-Eighties, blazing a trail for magazines like When Saturday Comes and writers such as Nick Hornby and Pete Davis. It's this still expanding and vibrant fanzine scene which led directly to the recent publication of the much-praised The Red Army Years by Richard Kurt and Chris Nickeas, two writers on the Man Utd fanzine Red Issue, while another United fanzine, Red News, published If The Reds Should Play ... These collections are social histories that reveal the side of being a fan which many would prefer to pretend does not exist.

But Andy Lyons, editor of When Saturday Comes, admits: "I don't like many of these books much. A lot of them seem to be about giving a vicious thrill to their reader, like pornography or books about the SAS do. While it presents itself as a reaction to the Premier League and the 'new' football thing, I think it's simply being read by newer, middle-class fans as well as nostalgic old blokes who can't run around any more."

Now that football has become much more of a middle-class game, and "ordinary" fans are increasingly finding themselves priced out of it, it's no wonder a wave of nostalgia is sweeping over what were once the terraces. The truth is that much of this literature is the literature of the dispossessed, written by and for those who have seen the game they followed and the way of life that went with it disappear completely in a few short years. After all, who wouldn't want to recreate the past, in all its dubious glory, in these strange days when David Mellor presents himself in all seriousness as a representative of ordinary fans, and marketing men create ever more hideous kits ever more regularly to separate the hard-of-thinking from their cash.

"I do get a bit nostalgic for those older days," says Kevin Sampson. "Not the sickening sound of someone being carved up, obviously, but I can't help pining for the crumbling terraces now that so much of it is run like a business and it costs nearly a grand for a season ticket at Liverpool."

The middle-classes might be colonising football, but the hooligans are getting their revenge by steaming into the book shops. The boot-boys are becoming the book-boys.

'Red Issue', 'Red News' and other football fanzines are stocked at the two branches of Sportspages: Barton Sq, St Anne's Sq, Manchester M2 7HA (0161 832 8530); and at 94-96 Charing Cross Rd, London WC2H 0JG (0171 240 9604)

John Tague supports Manchester United