Football Hooliganism: Was It as We Remember It?

GARY DALY's research project aims to find out

The older readers amongst you will remember the moral panic that was associated with football hooliganism during the 1970s and 1980s. This short article will ask if the demonization of football supporters by politicians was justified. It will also question the legitimacy of the claims made in the press at the time that football hooliganism was symptomatic of a society which had lost all sense of morality and was a problem that could not be controlled by conventional methods. 

This view is illustrated for example in the claim made in the Daily Mirror at the end of the 1973 season that:

“Stabbings, beatings, kickings and destruction were almost commonplace at the nation’s football grounds”.

Moreover, this portrayal of football supporters as an undisciplined underclass having very little in common with mainstream society and having complete disrespect for its sense of morality was also expressed by politicians who, in attempting to be seen to be tough on the problem, used language that we would now associate with the condemnation of unfriendly foreign governments. An example of this was Neil Kinnock’s response to the Heysel Stadium disaster at a press conference in Vienna in May 1985 where he said that:

“A voluntary ban on English soccer teams would be giving in to hooligans. If the tribute we pay to these thugs is to reduce the freedom of thousands of other football supporters then the thugs have won.”

In this case Kinnock’s soundbite was designed to marginalise those involved in football violence,but it also had the impact of popularising and legitimising the measures which saw ordinary football fans herded into the caged enclosures in which ninety six men women and children were crushed at Hillsborough on April fifteenth 1989. However, what has been forgotten with the passing of time – and the justified campaign by the families to overturn a flawed judgement that effectively accused Liverpool supporters of deliberately killing their own – is that contempt for the safety of football supporters by the authorities that are supposed to protect them on a Saturday afternoon is as old as the game itself.

As any football fan who is familiar with the history of the game knows, Hillsborough is merely the most recent in a long list of stadium disasters involving British football supporters and can list Burnden Park (Bolton), Ibrox (Glasgow – three times) and Valley Parade (Bradford) as sites where many perished watching the game they loved. With the exception of the Bradford fire, all these disasters had a common cause, which is that the grounds where they occurred were overcrowded due to the negligence of either the stadium operators or the authorities. Yet little was learned from them and the press, on occasion, chose to blame fans who attended games, claiming that they were responsible for these events. One example of this was the Guardian’s article from 1970 with the headline “Barrier collapse was home crowd’s fault”, which accused Stoke City supporters of deliberately causing a crush barrier to collapse during a fixture against Leeds United and injuring 61 people.
"academics ...have made little attempt to define what they actually mean by the term 'football hooligan' "

Until now these attempts to demonise the football supporting public have been explained, by those who have re-examined these disasters, as being a result of a willingness by the football authorities and political elite to view the supporters who sustained the game as pack animals and wild dogs. As a result of this they found it easy to engage in what academics have subsequently described as “victim blaming”, which was essentially a concerted effort by the football authorities of the time, assisted by the press and politicians, with the aim of removing responsibility for crowd safety away from them and placing the onus upon the fans themselves, by stereotyping them as an ill-behaved rabble. But was this depiction of the football-following public of the time justified? The answer probably has to be that the jury is still out on this one.

As we all know, football supporters are a diverse group, which was as true then as it is now. However, it is also true that violence did occur more often at football matches during the 1970s and 1980s than it does now. So what really happened?

If we believe the current dominant academic explanation for the rise of football hooliganism as a social phenomenon, then the answer is that football hooliganism was just an extension of local working class gang rivalries, played out on a national scale. This explanation in my opinion needs to be questioned and it is the core question of my research project, where I am suggesting that we need to reassess how we look at a topic that has been discussed by academics who have made little attempt to define what they actually mean by the term 'football hooligan'.

My project seeks to address this by talking to supporters who were attending games during the 1970s and 1980s, with the aim of giving a voice to those who are usually written out of history, and telling how it really was. It is hoped that it will show that those attending football matches, even the hooligan element, and especially in north-east England, had a strong sense of pride not only in the team they supported, but in who they were and in where they came from, and that the post-war resurgence of football hooliganism in the region was primarily due to the economic decline of the region, which saw the collapse of the local shipbuilding, mining and steel industries, and in turn brought about the collapse of traditional social hierarchies in the area. This created a growing feeling of disillusionment among working class young men who, in the resultant power vacuum, aimed to gain social standing for themselves within a substitute hierarchy that largely conformed to their community’s values, but also reshaped how they maintained them.

Therefore it can legitimately be argued that the reality was that attempts by the press and politicians to portray football hooligan groups – and football supporters in general – as right-wing yobs who had values that had little in common with those held by the majority of the general public, were misguided and that the reality was that they were part of subculture which had a far more nuanced relationship with their community than was suggested at the time.

Gary Daly, Teesside University (AHRC funded PhD Candidate and Northern League ground-hopper).

For further information on my PhD project please go to the link below or contact me via e-mail at or on Twitter @GaryDaly01