Boswell running with the Blades in Little Chicago

Book of the week
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The Independent Online
Football Hooligans: Knowing the Score By Gary Armstrong (Berg, hardback pounds 39.99, paperback pounds 14.99)

A HARD place, Sheffield. Always has been. "The Sheffielders were yet a turbulent race, very apt, whether with or without reason, to express their feelings by riot" wrote one commentator in 1902, while Engels observed that "crimes of a savage and desperate nature are a common occurrence". The gambling "Gang Wars" of the 1920s earned it the nickname, "Little Chicago", and Orwell was moved to describe the city's inhabitants as "troglodytes". More recently, the miners' strike merited such vigorous opposition to "scabs" that South Yorkshire police spent pounds 40m protecting them. So with two big football teams banging up against each other, there's always going to be some trouble, and from 1980 to 1995, Gary Armstrong, now Lecturer in Criminology and Sociology at Reading University, ran with the Blades, the United hard core, amassing his data and subjecting it to an academic seeing-to that makes Knowing the Score a fascinating read.

For all Armstrong's determination to be objective - and he maintains that he affected not one single act or utterance - the book is surely intended partly as a corrective to the demonisation of hooligans, and as an eye witness he provides a string of examples of truth perverted by the police-media complex. Frequently, encounters with Wednesday's Owls, or other team's crews, did not depend on violence for their resolution - honour was often satisfied simply by having shown willing. Armstrong is fascinating on the games-playing and ritualistic nature of hooligan confrontations, even if sometimes all the talk of honour among these weekend warriors makes them sound like a cross between the Klingons and the Mafia.

There's a huge amount of interesting material, his accounts of how rumbles are set up, for example, but one lacuna is Armstrong himself. He should have written about his own interactions with his cohorts - for all his protestations, the presence of a professional researcher must have had some effect. In fact, a first person, non-academic account would be fascinating. It's a perfect comedy-drama set-up - boffin down among the hoolies.

But that is not to say that Knowing the Score is hard going. Armstrong has a clean, clear style, and though there's lots of jargon, it's mostly illuminating. There is one mistake: to describe Sheffield's best-known boxer of the recent past as "Errol" Graham is careless for a local man. But this is a tiny blemish on a huge canvas. The most stirring passage is an eloquent critique of the "McDonaldisation" of society, in which all experiences are packaged and sanitised, all the spirit policed out of them (witness the Notting Hill Carnival these days). The police and the authorities seek a "purified community", with the raw emotion of the football spectacle reduced to "the enslaving violence of the agreeable". No standing, no chanting, no bother. Hooligans used to like a bit of attention, a record of their brave deeds. In Armstrong, one crew, at least, found their very own anthropologist, the Boswell of the Blades.

Chris Maume