cold. The fans are jammed so close that you can't get your hand to your mouth
to move the cigar in or out. The crowd sways sideways and lifts you five feet
to the right. "God bless our gracious team," they sing. And "...the
sodding visitors." Toilet rolls whistle and flap past your ear to clutter
the field like ticker tape. Someone drips his tea on you for a giggle.
This is a normal
English soccer crowd warming up for an average game. Down below, the police
keep a baleful eye on certain spots. The Leicester City fans are in blue
scarves, defending the south goal. The West Ham crowd, in red, is up by the
rafters. This may be the stadium that fate has chosen for Monday's headline,
DISGUSTING OUTBREAK OF VIOLENCE IN LEICESTER, or Stoke or Millwall. Or it may
be routine bedlam, two bloody noses and a broken umbrella.
The phenomenon of
crowd violence in England is, among other qualities, insanely capricious.
Trying to catch it is like trying to get mugged in the New York subway.
"You should have been here last week," says one man next to you.
"We had a lovely punch-up." Or "Wait till the Liverpool crowd gets
here. Then you'll see something."
That Saturday in
Leicester the police formed a wedge between the rival gangs. They were obliged
to sway with the West Ham supporters, helmets bobbing forlornly, dignity
maintained as well as may be. One bobby was almost flung into the Leicester
camp as an offering. (Somebody pushed me, sergeant.) But the holding action
worked. The game began eventually and distracted the crowd from its other
interests. And later everyone had to walk home in the rain, that great sobering
force in English life.
This would be the
scene on 10 out of 11 First Division soccer grounds. Violence hovers, no one is
certain how seriously; the crowd is skittish, likes to tease. But on that 11th
ground hell breaks loose. Darts fly into the goal mouth, spectators are
stabbed, bricks and broken bottles crisscross. The ever-present stretchers are
filled and refilled, until the terraces (or stand-up bleachers) look like the
Siege of Sevastopol.
A montage of the
gamier incidents of the last couple of years would include six heads split open
at Stoke, a boy stabbed through the abdomen with a bayonet at Highbury, a rash
of turnstile pilfering at Leeds, fires at Notts Forest, Coventry and Swansea
and assorted assaults by paint, aerosol can, potters clay, marbles shot through
a peashooter and, in one case, a chewed pork chop. The roll call, for the most
part, is dingy and repetitive, so that you get the impression of reading the
same newspaper week after week. " Everton director boasts: 'We get fewer
toilet rolls than in London' "—but he admits they get some. The regional
variations are trifling.
On the way home,
elated with victory, enraged with defeat or simply frustrated with a draw, the
visitors slam against windows and doors, smashing but seldom looting; rip out
telephones; and lurch onto their special trains, where they start all over
again. Manchester City holds the railway record with 100 light bulbs destroyed,
Manchester United holds another with 47 emergency stops. No one has kept score
on smashed windows—or toilet bowls. So severe has the situation become that
Home Secretary James Callaghan told the House of Commons last month that
special mobile police squads were being set up specifically to battle what
newspapers were calling "soccer thuggery."
What is it all
about? Before we are awash in theories—and every Englishman has one—contemplate
for a moment the inside of a supporters' train. The boys on the West Ham
special are restless but relatively peaceful, under-grown kids of roughly 13 to
17, very hard to take seriously as threats. A couple of months before, they
made their bid for fame on the way back to Ipswich, stealing seats and managing
six emergency stops. But now police roam the aisle, and there is talk of a vast
dog called Rikki who can tear you apart. (Rikki has already made a doleful
appearance, baying mournfully past the ticket window, but he is not actually on
weren't no coppers, wouldn't it be great?" mutters a sport across the way.
He looks speculatively at the light bulbs, but half of them are already out.
The train is stripped and crummy, as hard to wreck as a padded cell. Even the
emergency cord sparkles with fresh paint, which will linger guiltily on the
unauthorized hand. So they settle for a game of throwing Pepsi-Cola cans and
sugar lumps at each other. "Dead place this train, isn't it?" shouts a
merrymaker as he scampers through the coaches, ricocheting off unsmiling
bobbies twice his size.
There is one
small incident just before we get to London. A boy about 14 chucks some tea
over his mate. The nearest policeman lectures him like a nursemaid and makes
him clean up the mess. The boy reddens and a minute later stalks off to the
next compartment and breaks a window. When I get to the scene of the crime the
investigating officer intercepts me. "Press, eh? Well, it was an
accident." I point out that the glass is thick and would take some
breaking, and he says with a wink, "Yes, well, he fell against it with his
key ring." The boy looks crushed and terrified. Later, on the platform,
another policeman scuttles over. "It was an accident, sir." In other
words, please, no talk about disgusting behavior in the Monday papers.