Football Hooligans in England

A Subculture Struggling for Power, Respect and Male Identity

Bachelor Thesis, 2007

23 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Football Hooligans in England –

A Subculture Struggling for Power, Respect and Male Identity

1 Introduction

Throughout the history of sports events, there have always been crowd disorder and spectator violence all over the world. Usually, such incidents are most likely to occur in and around large stadia in which thousands of spectators supporting rival teams come together. In “The Sporting Spirit”, George Orwell made the observation that “[a]s soon as strong feelings of rivalry are aroused, the notion of playing the game according to the rules always vanishes. People want to see one side on top and the other side humiliated, and they forget that victory gained through cheating or through the intervention of the crowd is meaningless. Even when the spectators don’t intervene physically they try to influence the game by cheering their own side and ‘rattling’ opposing players with boos and insults.” Consequently, Orwell infers that “[s]erious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnissing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting” (Orwell 1945: 1). Of course, Orwell’s view of “serious sport” might appear to be slightly exaggerated at first sight, but, in fact, it describes the nature of rivalry and competition, which is central to almost every kind of sports contest, very well. However, if one thinks of a typical sport representing Orwell’s understanding of the spirit of sports activities, football is often regarded an excellent paradigm because of its very aggressive and even martial character. Unfortunately, as far as football spectators are concerned, there are not only fans who cheer their team and sporadically insult opposing players or fans but also fanatical supporters who do not hesitate to use physical violence against rival fans. Although such violent and antisocial behaviour used to be rare among football spectators until the middle of the 20th century, it has become more frequent since the 1960s.

In Europe – and particularly in England, which is said to be the home country of modern football – football is the most popular kind of sport since it attracts millions of enthusiastic spectators and fans all around the continent. International football competitions such as the UEFA Champions League, the UEFA European Championship and the FIFA World Cup are publicly not only regarded as pure sports events but also as a contribution to intercultural communication and understanding. However, since the 1960s, football has also been intensively confronted – like no other kind of sport in Europe - with a very severe form of spectator violence, the so-called hooliganism. Again, the hooligan movement as we know it today has its roots in England. But even football hooliganism cannot be exclusively limited to England, English hooligans are by far the most notorious hooligans for they do not only cause serious trouble within the English borders but also abroad. Hence, football hooliganism “has been called the ‘English Disease’ on many occasions” (Pearson 2007: 1).

The reason why the phenomenon of hooliganism is so strongly linked to football is because this kind of sport is seen “as an appropriate venue for [...] aggressive rivalries, partly because of the working class roots and traditions of the game but also because of the culturally prescribed ‘territorial’ and masculine values which are intrinsic to it.” (Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research 2001: 1) Thus, there is no doubt that typical attitudes and emotions representing “true masculinity” (Holt 1989: 8), such as the celebration of physical strength and the loyalty to ‘mates’ or to a specific territory, are traditional and popular features of football culture. To be more precise, Russell points out that such features are especially “central to the more aggressive terrace cultures and to hooligan groups” (Russell 1999: 17). In England, a football match is traditionally regarded as a kind of “symbolic struggle between the representatives of predominantly working class male communities.” (Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research 2001: 1). However, referring to the English hooligan scene, “[t]errace fights go beyond such a representation to a ‘real’ struggle between young men who have strong masculine attachments to their own areas, teams and friends, and a considerable emotional investment in performing in a ‘manly’ way when confrontations occur” (ibid.).

Since meanwhile, the male-dominated subculture of football hooligans has not only grown to a serious problem in England but also in many other countries around Europe, football-related antisocial behaviour has become a subject to much discussion about masculinity and subcultures in the fields of academics and the media over the past several years and decades. Consequently, my paper aims at presenting football hooliganism as a male subculture with its own values and rituals, which are clearly different from those of our dominant culture, and, furthermore, it tries to analyse what images of masculinity are associated with the subculture of – particularly English – football hooligans. Therefore, my paper will first provide some important theoretical background information about hooligans, which are necessary in order to get into the topic of football hooliganism more elaborately. Then, it will analyse why hooligans belong to a certain form of subculture by presenting and explaining specific characteristics, attitudes and behaviour patterns of football hooligans, and, finally, it shall explore what kind of masculinity is represented by the football hooligans described in John King’s novel The Football Factory.

2 Spotlight on Football Hooligans – A Theoretical Background

2.1 Defining the Terms “Hooligan” and “Hooliganism”

Originally, the term “hooligan” first appeared in a London police report in 1898, in which it was used to refer to members of a violent street gang (cf. Weigelt 2004: 13). However, etymologists are still not entirely sure where “hooligan” actually derives from, and so there are several hypotheses about the origin of this term. Some, for example, argue that “hooligan” has been derived from an Irish family named “Houliah”, which was famous for its violent and hard-drinking members; another theory suggests that “hooligan” has developed out of a mistaken adoption of “Hooley’s gang”, which was a group of criminal adolescents. Furthermore, it is also claimed that the Irish word “hooley”, which means something like a drunken orgy, was simply changed into “hooligan” over the years.

Today, the term “hooligan” generally refers to “a young person who behaves in an extremely noisy and violent way in public, usually in a group” (Wehmeier 2000: 625). Such unruly and violent hooligan behaviour is normally associated with sports fans - and particularly with supporters of football clubs. Therefore, “hooligan” is often seen as a synonym for “football hooligan”. Although it is impossible to claim that all hooligans are of a certain age or class or possess a specific psychological profile, “[m]ost of the evidence on hooligan offenders suggests that they are generally in their late teens or their 20s [...], that they are mainly in manual or lower clerical occupations or, to a lesser extent, are unemployed or working in the ‘grey’ economy, and that they come mainly from working class backgrounds” (Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research 2001: 1). However, it is important to note that there are two different groups of hooligans. On the one hand, there are those who only cause “spontaneous and usually low-level disorder” (Pearson 2007: 1) in or around the ground. Such spontaneous misbehaviour of hooligans can be provoked by perceived grievances such as “a goal against their team, a doubtful decision of a referee or taunting from others” (Taylor 1990: 8). On the other hand, there are those who Mr. Justice Popplewell calls the “new hooligans” (cf. ibid.). This group of hooligans is much more attracted by violence than the first group, and their main target is to oppose rival fans who are violence-prone as well. They are organised in hooligan firms, in which they plan punch-ups with rival firms in advance. Usually, such “high-profile disorder between firms” (Pearson 2007: 1) takes places far away from the ground, and “normal” fans are not affected by it. For the “new hooligans”, violence and crowd disorder is clearly superior to anything else, and so watching the games of one’s favourite team is often considered secondary and of less importance.

Following the definition of “hooligan”, the term “hooliganism” refers to acts of crowd misbehaviour including verbal abuse and physical violence which are caused by clashes between rival hooligan groups. Further, Klaus Farin adds that “hooliganism” is a male form of civil disobedience which has to be interpreted as a non-political rebellion against authorities and the boredom of everyday life (cf. Farin 2001: 191).

2.2 The History of Football Hooliganism in England

The beginning of football-related crowd disorders in England dates back to the 19th century. According to Pearson, the first case of serious crowd disorder at a football match was recorded in 1846 in Derby where “the riot act was read and two troops of dragoons were called in to deal with a disorderly crowd” (Pearson 2007: 1). From the 1880s onwards, such incidents – especially pitch invasions – started to occur more frequently. In the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, spectator violence was predominantly aimed at players, referees and opposing fans. Thus, academics doing research on the topic of football hooliganism commonly agree that “outbreaks of hooliganism seemed to have been decidedly more spontaneous and individualised than those produced by the inter-gang rivalries which have come to characterise attendance at major matches in England in the modern era” (Williams/ Wagg 1991: 162). Similarly, Holt holds the opinion that in the beginning of the 20th century, “[c]asual, individual violence was almost certainly more common than today, but hooliganism in the collective and contemporary sense did not take place at football matches” (Holt 1989: 333).

However, the “modern era” of football hooliganism is said to have started in the late 1960s (cf. Pearson 2007: 1). During that time, the English hooligan scene became more organised. The first serious hooligan crews and firms were founded, and young men – mainly with working class background – came together in large groups and established “Saturday afternoon rituals” (Williams/ Wagg 1991: 166) which included meeting at a pub, drinking huge quantities of beer, watching a game of the team supported and fighting rival hooligan groups – usually before or after watching the football game. It is often claimed that this new form of football hooliganism became “much more prevalent in the 1970s and the 1980s, with more reported wide-scale violence at matches” (Pearson 2007: 1). Moreover, serious hooligan incidents involving English fans were not only limited to England anymore, since English hooligans also started to cause trouble abroad. However, it is difficult to know “whether the amount of disorder increased or whether the growing media interest in, and coverage of, crowd disorder has meant it is reported far more regularly” (ibid.). Whatever the case may be, football hooliganism in England has changed significantly after the Heysel and Hillsborough disasters in 1985 and 1989, where hundreds of football fans were badly injured and some of them even killed after crowd disturbances. Immediately after these two tragedies, the British government decided to improve security in and around English football grounds by passing new laws and publishing the Taylor Report in 1990. Since then, football-related crowd disorder calmed down. Security measures such as the establishment of “[a]ll-seater stadiums, ‘Football Intelligence’ and Closed Circuit Television in particular have meant that incidents of violence inside football grounds (particularly in the Premiership) are rare” (ibid.). Nevertheless - as Pearson additionally remarks - this does not mean that football hooliganism in England has reduced since a lot of “football disorder has been ‘pushed’ from the stadium itself to other meeting places, where it is better organised and has the potential to be more violent” (ibid.).

2.3 The Subculture of Football Hooligans – Specific Characteristics, Attitudes and Behaviour Patterns

In all modern industrial societies, a football hooligan is typically – but not exclusively – “a young lower-class male, frequently but not usually unemployed” (Guttmann 1986: 168). Since football hooligans belong to a specific group of society which has established its own social system different from that of the dominant culture, hooligans can be rightfully regarded as a subculture. The subculture of football hooligans is “[s]elf-organized and not controlled by society’s institutions, it has its own norms, symbols, designations, and rituals [...], and [...] it generally, collectively, and demonstratively represents and defends itself against the world outside” (Gabler et al. 1982: 23). These specific norms and values represented by football hooligans are “reminiscent in many ways of the preindustrial forms of segmental bonding and [...] correspondingly generate acute forms of aggressive masculinity” (Guttmann 1986: 171). Additionaly, Holt emphasises that “[m]iddle-class ideals of ‘playing the game’ have always been alien to rough working-class culture” (Holt 1989: 339). For this reason, football hooligans “have built upon this uncompromisingly physical attitude to games and turned it into a different, more aggressive [...] subculture” (ibid.). Hence, physical violence is nothing out of the ordinary since toughness and the ability to fight are central to the subculture of football hooligans in order “to establish one’s status and identity” (Guttmann 1986: 171). However, in order to gain respect and recognition among football hooligans – and lower-class adolescents in general - it is not only necessary to demonstrate toughness and the ability to fight but also courage, physical strength and the ability to bear pain.


Excerpt out of 23 pages


Football Hooligans in England
A Subculture Struggling for Power, Respect and Male Identity
Free University of Berlin  (Fachbereich Englisch)
Verttiefungsmodul Culture - Gender - Media II
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
622 KB
Englisch, Hooligans, Football, Football Factory, Masculinity, Male Identity
Quote paper
Master of Education Thomas Schachtebeck (Author), 2007, Football Hooligans in England, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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