Kicking off: A new film relives the fashion and fighting that defined the football 'casuals'

Thirty years ago, a new footie tribe arrived on the terraces: they dressed weird, liked cool music and were up for a ruck. On the eve of his new film, Kevin Sampson recalls the style highs and violent lows of the 'casuals'
Click to follow

Sometimes it takes more than smart clothes and memorable music to cement a youth subculture in history – it takes a film. Quadrophenia did it for mod culture in 1979. More recently, Shane Meadows' This is England brought skinheads back into the public eye. Pat Holden's stylishly scrappy new film Awaydays is set to do the same for football casuals – although it's fair to say the film doesn't really belong to the director, but to Liverpudlian writer Kevin Sampson, who wrote the 1998 source novel and the screenplay. Sampson spent a decade trying to get the film off the ground with first-time producer David Hughes, a film composer by trade (and former member of OMD), who also scored the film.

Sampson and Hughes have known each other since they were teenagers in the late 1970s. They didn't support the same football teams then, and they still don't – Sampson is a Liverpool fan, while Hughes sides with Tranmere Rovers – but they moved in the same circle of young men who went to the football, got into fights, dressed in European sportswear and listened to dark-edged, Northern post-punk: Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division et al. In the early 1980s, they would be dubbed "casuals", but Sampson prefers the term "match lads". "It's one of the great teenage subcultures," he says. "For once, it didn't start in London; it didn't start in the United States. It started on the streets of Liverpool."

Unlike skinheads or mods, casuals never disappeared underground; they diversified. Their influence can be traced over the past 30 years, through Wham!'s Fila jackets, the Stone Roses' scruffy sportswear, Damon Albarn's floppy fringe and Mike Skinner's casual chic. In 2009, there is casual DNA in the sartorial choices of almost every young man and woman in the UK, be they black, white or Asian, from council estates or country estates. Almost everyone, after all, owns a pair of trainers.

Set in and around Liverpool in 1979, Awaydays follows a young man called Paul Carty (played by Nicky Bell) who works in a dull office job while dreaming of joining The Pack, a group of violent Tranmere match lads led by a psychotic older man (the terrific Stephen Graham, of This is England). Carty befriends the charismatic Pack member Elvis (Liam Boyle) at a gig and is eventually accepted into the fold; cue much shouting, punching, kicking and homoerotic longing.

While Awaydays took a decade to transfer from book to screen, the story has, in essence, been around for much longer. Sampson first had a stab at the novel in 1981. "There were the same characters – Carty and Elvis – but it was only about 65 pages. I sent it to Penguin and it was quickly rejected." Still keen to write about the subject, he rehashed it as an article for The Face in 1983. The piece buzzes with youthful energy. "This is young, urban, male Britain," it declares, "modern as hell, and how."

Twenty six years later, with a budget that came in under £1m, the film of the book of the article is finally set for nationwide release. "From the outset, people were telling us that you can't make a period film for under £5m," says Hughes. "It feels like a great indie record rather than a polished major production."

The film's release also marks the end of Sampson's love affair with casual culture, which has spanned more than 30 years. "If there's anything autobiographical about Awaydays, it's that perspective of the outsider wanting to belong," he says. "Gradually, over a period of time, it became my world." Here, he lets us into that world and explains the look, the music and the violence that made the scene what it was...

The look

"At most of the away games I went to up north and in the Midlands in the 1970s, you came across the same type of boot-boys: guys with Bee Gees centre-parts, wide trousers and Dr Martens boots. They were basically cavemen. Then you had this strangely androgynous Liverpool lot who had girls' haircuts, and wore very tight Lois jeans and training shoes. It's hard to imagine how revolutionary and subversive that look was. They were quite hard lads dressed in an effeminate way. Turning up in a pair of training shoes – which at that point were only used for PE at school – was very unusual.

"You would save up for a pair of Adidas Nastases and go to the match thinking you looked great, and the older lads would have moved on to a different training shoe altogether – Puma Argentinas or Stan Smiths. The shops in Liverpool cottoned on to that pretty quickly. They used to dress the windows specifically for the match lads. Whether the clothes were in for a week or two, once they were gone, something else would come in. It was very fast-moving.

"There were always leaders, but 95 per cent of kids at the game looked identical. That was the point. You wanted to fit in; you wanted to almost clone each other. I was never one of the vanguards of the scene, but there would be hordes of people who would get into things way too late, so we had the satisfaction of ripping it out of them. That's the way it worked: adopt, abandon, ridicule."

The music

"Music is certainly not part of the football lifestyle in the way it was. After the game you'd go to these clubs in Liverpool – there was Eric's, the Harrington bar, Checkmate and the Swinging Apple. They played quite stripped-down, electronic music: Kraftwerk, Bowie in his "Heroes" phase, and lots of the post-punk that was coming out of the north-west. There was a weird, Eastern European feel to what they were doing.

"The band that most of the football lads identified with was The Jam. If The Jam were playing up here, it was like a football match. The new wave scene and the north-western industrial music scene both had a significant football following – bands such as Echo and the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes and OMD in Liverpool and Joy Division and Magazine in Manchester. Ultravox as well – we've got three or four Ultravox songs in the film. But if you're looking for one music reference that really sums up that time, it's David Bowie on the front cover of Low, where he's got that wonderful, vermilion-dyed wedge haircut and a brown duffle coat. If you were going to a Liverpool game in January 1978, that's what everybody was wearing."

The violence

"Violence is part of working-class male adolescence. Even if you look at DH Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, Mr Morel likes nothing better than going out on Saturday night, sinking a few pints and having a scrap. It's a male rite of passage and it found a ritualistic form in the bad old days of football violence. When it came to the actual fighting, there was always a momentary stand-off. They'd shout, "Come on!" at each other, this big roar went up, one side ran in and nine times out of 10, the other side just ran away. Equally, there's no doubt that in every gang there's a handful of psychos who are in it for different reasons, who get off on the violence and savagery of it all.

"It's exciting being part of a gang. It gives you a sense of belonging and superiority – rightly or wrongly. You would get off a train somewhere like Derby and there would be all these men with sideburns and donkey jackets on, assuming the Liverpool lads were fair game because they looked like girls. There were times when we'd be split up and, to be honest, it terrified the life out of me. But when you get back together and you're on the way home, you can convince yourself that you've been heroes for one day."

'Awaydays' (18) is out on Friday

Four films of football, fashion and fighting



Though set around the running battles between mods and rockers in the 1960s rather than football fans, this cult classic starring Phil Daniels and Ray Winstone first highlighted the correlation between fashion and violence within gang culture

The Firm


Rival fans battle it out on the streets as Gary Oldman, leader of a London "firm" of supporters, tries to unite them for a bigger fight against European thugs in this powerful drama. Currently being remade by Nick Love (see below)

Arrivederci Millwall


Set against the violence of the war in the Falklands, a group of jingoistic Millwall fans travel to Spain for an England World Cup match in 1982 – and end up doing as much violence to themselves as anyone else

The Football Factory


Directed by Millwall fan Nick Love, Danny Dyer's hooligan starts to question the morality of his lifestyle – though not for long. Very true to the casual look; brands featured include Stone Island and Hackett

Robert Epstein