From HOPE not hate, where Nick Lowles reports on the mixed relationships between football hooligan gangs and the far-right parties:
Over the past few months there have been a growing number of football hooligan-led mobilisations around the country. Luton might have captured the most headlines in recent weeks but there have been protests in Birmingham and East London, with future actions planned in west London and Manchester.
Some commentators have dismissed these gatherings as fascist events. This is inaccurate and misunderstands the relationship between football hooligans, nationalism and fascism.
As reported in last month’s Searchlight there are a number of organisations currently active that derive from the hooligan world. The English Defence League (which was originally the English and Welsh Defence League), Casuals United, March for England and the SIOE.
While there are undoubtedly fascists involved in these protests they owe more to the racist and nationalist mentality of hooligans than to any real fascist undertones.
The British fascist right had its strongest influence on the hooligan scene during the mid-to-late 1970s. Racism was rife on the terraces and the revival of skinhead fashion and the birth of racist Oi music gave young violent working-class men a racist and political identity.
By the early 1980s, this was on the wane, certainly within many of the gangs associated with larger city clubs. Changing football culture, the emergence of black players and probably most significantly the growing prominence of black football hooligans pushed the hardcore fascists out.
Most gangs linked to London clubs, Cardiff, Birmingham, Manchester City and United, Leicester, Derby and the Sheffield clubs saw sizeable numbers of black hooligans emerge during the 1980s.
There were of course exceptions. Leeds and Newcastle both had strong National Front influence within their mobs, as did many of the gangs linked to smaller clubs, where either there was little non-white population or there were deeply segregated communities and little Asian interest in professional football.
Chelsea was an enigma. No club has had such a long link to the far right – from the NF and British Movement of the 1970s to Combat 18 in the 1990s. And yet, despite this, they also had black hooligans and they were generally accepted. In fact, the one falling out that the Chelsea Headhunters had with Combat 18 was when the nazi activist Mark Atkinson left a threatening message on the windscreen of Big Willy, a leading black hooligan.
The relationship between hooligans and fascists was even more fraught at Millwall, which will surprise many given that this was where the British National party had its first electoral breakthrough in a council by-election in 1993. Millwall has always had black hooligans. Even back in 1977 when Panorama documented the infamous Millwall “F-troop”, one of the central characters was a huge black hooligan called “Tiny”.
In 1993, shortly after Derek Beackon’s election victory, Combat 18 went round some of the Millwall pubs trying to recruit. They were given short shrift by the Millwall hooligans. To Millwall Combat 18 was too associated with Chelsea and they were also willing to accept anyone within their ranks as long as their loyalty was to southeast London and the club.
A bigger clash between hooligans and fascists occurred in April 1994 when England was set to play a “friendly” in the Olympic Stadium in Berlin on the anniversary of Hitler’s birth. British and German fascists hoped to join together to attack a Turkish demonstration in the city the day before. Tony Covelle, the leader of the Chelsea Headhunters and seen by many as the most important hooligan on the England scene at the time, would not consider the idea. He was English and the Germans were their key enemy.
Fortunately, the game was eventually cancelled after a campaign led by Searchlight and our German friends.
Loyalism has always been a bigger unifier for British football hooligans. During the late 1980s and more importantly during the early 1990s loyalism became central to hooligan nationalist identity. The IRA was bringing its campaign to the British mainland and English hooligans heavily adopted the loyalist cause.
In January 1993 over 600 people, including hooligans drawn from 22 gangs around Britain, met to disrupt the annual Bloody Sunday march in central London. Their intention was later to travel to Kilburn, an area with a large Irish community, in an attempt to kick off trouble with local people. Only the intervention of police and the arrest of 396 hooligans and loyalists prevented this from occurring.
The far right has never enjoyed this level of support. Hooligan gangs linked with Aston Villa, Oldham, Charlton, Swansea and Mansfield all had rightwing connections but they were easily the exception than the rule.
In more recent years the rise of the BNP has been mirrored by a growth in political hooliganism.
The Oldham riots stemmed from weeks of hooligan incursions into the predominantly Asian areas of the town. The first was when 450 Stoke City hooligans rampaged through Westwood a few days after the pensioner Walter Chamberlain had been attacked by four youths.
Over the following few weeks Oldham hooligans, one of the most rightwing gangs in the country, were joined by small groups from Stockport, Shrewsbury and Huddersfield in a bid to whip up trouble. Eventually, on 26 May 2001, the hooligans succeeded. After a day when 80 hooligans and nazis had been frustrated by police a group of ten hooligans ran down a predominantly Asian street attacking people and property in what a judge later said was the “trigger” for the Oldham riots.
A week later the rightwing hooligans attempted to do it again, though this time they were stopped by Searchlight intelligence and police intervention.
A week after that Oldham and Everton hooligans tried to link up with Combat 18 in an attempt to disrupt the England v Pakistan cricket match at Old Trafford. The plan had been for an Oldham hooligan to run onto the pitch during play and place a Combat 18 flag in the middle of the wicket. The hope, according to Combat 18, was for maximum media attention and a violent reaction from the Pakistani supporters in the crowd. Once again the 40 thugs failed because of Searchlight intelligence.
However, these incidents have been the exception. There is certainly a growing anti-Islamist feeling among many hooligans but this is probably just a reflection of attitudes in wider society. More hooligans are undoubtedly supporting the BNP but again this should not be of any great surprise given the growth of the fascist party in many parts of the country and the profile of the typical BNP voter. But this does not mean we are likely to witness an explosion of hooligan-based racial disorder.
The appalling turnout of hooligans in Birmingham in early August is testament to this. In smallish towns such as Oldham and Luton a local incident can quite easily incite a violent response from thugs and racists. However, there is no sign that hooligans will properly mix together for a political cause.
Football rivalry means that Watford hooligans, who might live only a few miles away, will never mix with their Luton counterparts and the return of the football season will refocus some hooligans on their traditional pastimes. In addition, heavy policing and the threat of arrest, football bans and possible prison will keep many away. It was interesting to witness the robust police response to an anti-Islam protest in East London in summer. Having been kettled for several hours and generally given a rough time, many of the hooligans who attended are hardly likely to come out again.
Finally, there is the very nature of hooligans themselves. They are a generally undisciplined, lazy group who prefer drinking and talking a good fight to involving themselves in a political battle. And those who do will be nervous about the role of the BNP and other fascist groups. Even at Luton, where the heart of the current hooligan mobilisation has emerged, there are growing voices of discontent about the presence of the BNP.
The organisers of the English Defence League and Casuals United have announced their intention to hold several more protests across the country, including in Manchester, Dewsbury and Bradford. Whether these go ahead remains to be seen but the dangers lie less in the big cities than in the smaller conurbations where tensions already exist.
Hooligans will not travel in large numbers across the country and they will be even more put off by the threat of arrest and football bans. However, in places like Luton, Oldham and West Yorkshire there are more than enough people to cause trouble without the need for outsiders. With the prospect of violence and communities tearing each other apart very real, HOPE not hate will be campaigning to get these events banned.
You may also be interested to read
A hot August? Gerry Gable, Simon Cressy and Tom Woodson look at the Islamophobic groups that are trying to provoke racist violence Searchlight Magazine August 2009
BNP supporters triggered Oldham riots In an exclusive investigation, Nick Lowles reveals how the BNP supporters triggered the Oldham riots