Soccer fiction is all the rage, but the latest tomes are the antithesis of `Fever Pitch' and its golden-age nostalgia. The beautiful game has turned ugly.Jasper Rees talks to

author Kevin Sampson

In 1996 Jonathan Cape published a first novel called The Football Factory. Its author, John King, was paid a minimal advance, but the book has gone on to sell 140,000 copies. A surprising number of people want to read up on hooliganism. So lace up your bovver boots and sharpen your Stanley knives for Cape's next visit to the neighbourhood. Awaydays is by Kevin Sampson, who used to manage the Farm, Liverpool's premier indie- pop baggies. It is another first novel, and another graphic account of medieval warfare in the shopping precincts of English town centres.

Awaydays is narrated by Paul Carty, an 18-year-old from Birkenhead who avidly follows Tranmere Rovers. We're in 1979, aeons before all-seater stadia and hooligan control. Tranmere used to be known as the Millwall of the north, and Sampson captures their ramshackle operations in unsparing detail: "I bang a lad under the nose and his top lip just bursts, blood and snot everywhere and he's down, snivelling ... The one on the floor tries to crawl away but I volley him in the guts with my left and glue him a beauty on the side of his ear ... He looks up at me stupidly and tries to say something, so I pick up his lump of wood and crack him with it ..."

Sampson has just as acute an ear for the squelching body contact of sex, but that's another part of the story. Paul is by no means the worst of the crew. The frightening thing is that he is intelligent, more or less middle class, with a job at the Inland Revenue. He reads Sylvia Plath and The Observer. His acts of savagery come out of an ultimately vain effort to impress the pack.

Sampson himself was, and still is, a Liverpool fan. "I was a very unsuccessful football hooligan," he says. "But I saw everything that's described in the book, from mass violence ... to the sort of things that in fact disturbed me more: isolated incidents where you'd get stragglers away from the ground being attacked by two or three people, badly cut up by Stanley knives."

Sampson was nearly Stanleyed himself. "This red-haired lunatic appeared ... He was going to cut me, but he found someone fatter and easier ... It's not like Friday the 13th. You don't see innards, or muscles twitching. It's a trickle. It's not carnage. It doesn't look horrible. It's horrible in a different way ... because it was fashion, and it was casual."

Sampson first wrote about hooliganism The Face, when he was at Sheffield University. "I wrote an article about football hooligans who dressed up, and had wedge haircuts and wore Lois jeans, and would travel to the ends of the earth to get a pair of training shoes that no one else had."

Awaydays, he says, is "an unashamedly conscious effort to try and do a Mean Streets or a GoodFellas". "Football violence is to British people the equivalent of Mafia stories in America ... I really tried to go into some of the motivation."

I'm not convinced that he's pulled it off. Although the book is set in the signal year of Mrs Thatcher's accession, unlike John King he has made scant attempt to see hooliganism as part of the spiral of urban deprivation.

But it's no surprise to hear him deplore the imposition on football of the bourgeois values of the market. We meet in the Sports Cafe in the Haymarket, an emblem of the way football has rebranded as a commodity. Sampson's broken nose, smeared across a classic Liverpool-Irish face, looks like an anachronism here.

"The shame of football is there are no designated cheap seats ... It's wrong that people who are traditional football supporters and have been going for a long, long time, feel that they are no longer required."

I argue that scallies still go to Anfield: I've been ripped off by them myself. "You've been ripped off by scallies trying to sell you tickets outside the ground," he says, "but whereas once the only thing that would have mattered to them would have been the success of Liverpool Football Club, what matters now is how they can be part of the money-spinning process."

The bitter pill for Sampson is that he was present at the two matches which significantly helped to marginalise the working-class fan, and fatally wound hooliganism with it. Before Heysel, he and his friend Mauro from Turin talked about "the fantasy of Liverpool playing Juventus in a European Cup final". "We went down to the ground, and there was a different atmosphere. But there's an even weirder and more horrible punchline to this story. The next time I saw him, after we'd established that we weren't enemies, I invited him to come and stay in Liverpool for a weekend and see an FA Cup semi-final.

"And I think you can guess which one it was."

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