The final Walker piece from The Other Britain collection.
'A quiet day out at the match' dates from September 1979. Not the greatest time for either Leeds and Chelsea, which, perhaps, explains the bellicosity of their supporters. Shame there wasn't a 'Nick from Maidenhead' on the Arsenal away special. Now, that would have been something else.
A quiet day out at the match by Ian Walker
At half time a black Arsenal fan handed out Young National Front stickers. One lad on the train said he always imagined it was his Mum he was hitting when he was in a Saturday afternoon fight. A middle-class young woman who lived in Hampstead and worked for the civil service said she had been following the team home and away for seven years. The police horses wore plexiglass eyeshields and their riders had blue and white crash helmets. There were a few arrests. But as these excursions go, it was a quiet kind of day.
It had started out at King's Cross station at 8.30 in the morning. Arsenal and Chelsea both had football specials leaving at around the same time so everyone was on their toes, needlessly as it happened. A lot of beer was being drunk, but that was mostly because you’re only allowed two cans on the train. Before we can board, Arsenal Travel Club officials, in red arrnbands, search our bags for booze and weapons.
As we pass Alexandra Palace on our left, two of the six policemen on the train are patrolling the carriages. They stop at a table occupied by two teenagers.
'How old are you son?'
'Fifteen, what about it?'
'I don't want to see you smoking'
’Why? It's not against the law.’
‘Yes it is. You have to be 16.'
The policeman grabs the cigarette out of the boy's mouth, throws it on the floor.
Robert had lit up again by the time I went over to talk to him and his friend Sean, who is 17. They never miss a game.
The previous Wednesday they'd made this same journey, up to Leeds. Sean takes home £30 a week as a trainee machine setter in north London. Robert is still at school, his Mum gives him some money, and ‘Sean helps me out'. At £7.50 for the return fare to Leeds, plus £1.50 admission and then spending money, isn’t it an expensive loyalty, following Arsenal away? ‘A day out, isn’t it?’ says Robert, as we race through Welwyn Garden City station. ‘We like going to different grounds and that; getting out of London! But doesn't it mean you can’t afford to go anywhere during the week? 'We never usually go out anyway during the week, just doss around.'
The amount of trouble you get into, Robert and Sean say, depends on the extent and the vigilance of the police protection: 'When we went to Liverpool, the cops said, "We don’t like you Cockneys. We don’t like you coming here. Find your own way to the ground." We had to walk past all these pubs with real unfriendly faces in them.’ What happened? 'We got chased down the road, didn't we?’
In the next carriage up, John Taylor, apprentice electrician, is sitting on his own because ‘me mate broke his leg last week’. A quiet sort of bloke, John doesn’t care much for bother, but says that sometimes it’s unavoidable. 'The home supporters are always out there waiting for you. The Leeds fans'll be waiting at the station, they were last year.' Last year, john says, Arsenal were winning 1-0 when Leeds had a goal disallowed, ‘The stewards opened the gates and let all the Leeds fans in on the Arsenal. Had a big fight.’
The violence only annoys him, ‘if there’s a good match on: if the match is boring, I don't really care.' What about those headlines describing football fans as thugs and animals. ‘They’re true,' he says.
John has a skinhead haircut. About nine months ago I was attacked by a skinhead on a 253 bus in Camden Town. To that bloke a fight was just something which happened, and which was fun, when you were drunk. It was a bit like that for the lads from Bethnal Green whom I spoke to in an old-style BR compartment with a sliding door.
I slide it open, explain my business. ‘Go on, I’ll buy it,’ says Perry Tomlin. This is my invitation to join them. ’We're all mods,' says Perry, jumping up from his seat and running his thumbs under the thin lapels of his Tonik jacket, which is green, changing to bronze as it catches the light. As everyone introduces themselves, Perry prefixes the description with: ‘You know, the well-known criminal.'
Perry says he's 15 next week. ‘So he's 14,’ says Stephen Jenkins who's a trainee chef and is sitting next to Mark Brewer, an apprentice butcher. The lad in the corner of the compartment, dyed blond hair, introduces himself as ‘Jamie. This is my firm. Meet the firm.'
His leadership is noisily disputed while Perry tells me Jamie is on the dole. Stephen passes round a black-and-silver pack of Lambert and Butler. Apprentice engineer Terry Walker, wearing a red Fred Perry jumper, refuses a cigarette and opens a window, explaining he's got asthma. ‘Against Man U last week we ran into Tottenham. I had to run into a restaurant cos I can't breathe.'
‘And I’m the hero,’ shouts Perry, leaping up again and beating his chest, Tarzan-style. ‘I rescued him.'
‘We don't look for trouble,' says Stephen. ‘But if there’s a ruck we steam in.' They proceed to
enumerate, with a touch of pride, injuries received in the cause of Arsenal. 'I got done at Wolves, someone hit me with a bottle.' And ‘I got done bad at Liverpool, broken nose.’ And so on.
The train pulls in at Peterborough. A Leeds fan, in the baggy trousers that disappeared from London's boutiques over a year ago, is standing on the platform. Perry is immediately up at the window, out of which he is singing, 'Where did, where did, where did you get those clothes?"
‘Leave it out. He’s twice your size,' says Jamie languidly from the corner. A policeman strolls up, 'C'mon lads, take your seats. Don't stir the natives up.’
Clichés about dead-end jobs and Saturday afternoon glamour don't seem very apt when you're rolling up north on a train, everyone sitting around reading the Sun, playing cards, or gazing out of the window. But glamour, and power, is what it is all about. One day a week to see everyone running scared on the streets at the sight of you in this singing chanting wild bunch, ‘Yeah, I follow Arsenal. Wanna make something of it, mate?'
Visiting supporters, if the balance of forces if favourable, aim to ‘take’ the end of the ground occupied by the mass of singing and chanting (young) home support. This is now the subject of conversation: ‘At Brighton we had everything and we killed ’em. Everywhere you looked was Arsenal.' But grins tum to grimaces when they recall how, every year for years now, Tottenham have taken the North Bank at Highbury.
‘Tottenham and Arsenal are worst rivals,’ they explain. 'Whenever there’s a local derby there's a fight! They call Tottenham fans ’yids' because, according to Terry, ‘years ago all their directors were Jewish.' And what do Tottenham call the Arsenal fans? 'Bubble and squeaks, meaning Greeks, but we ain’t,’ says Perry. 'We have a laugh, take the mickey. We don’t mind a ruck, if there's a lot with us, know what 1 mean?’
When the balance of forces is unfavourable, it’s less fun. Jamie says: ‘At Everton last year we had to go up into the seats, there was only 50 of us. We had to leave ten minutes after half time. We was gonna get battered, we couldn’t handle it.'
Arsenal’s real hard cases don't travel by train. Mostly, they’ve been kicked out of the Travel Club for fighting, so they charter their own buses. 'The three leaders are Denton, Legsy and Jenkins. They've all got firms [gangs] behind them. They're hard little bastards. Two hundred against 20,000 and they’ll still steam in. You can't get on the bus if you're gonna run.'
There has been a lot of talk of violence and Mark, the trainee butcher, tries to put things in perspective: 'People think we’re mad. But we only go because we love football.'
‘You might as well have a laugh before you're an old closet. Enjoy yourself while you're still young. Support your team,' says Perry, who at five foot nothing rnust live more on his wits than his fists.
'All I really work for is that,' says Terry, ‘and to keep me Mum, buy clothes.’ Perry agrees, saying, ‘We don't really know what to do on a Saturday when there’s no football. We just sit around the flats.' Apart from Terry, who now lives in Stoke Newington, these boys were all born and bred in Bethnal Green. Perry asks if I’ve heard of Bethnal Green and I nod. ‘Hardest going. They’re ruckers,’ he says.
‘Funny thing, Violence. . . . ' says Stephen, and I interrupt him to ask what l’d asked John Taylor, how he feels about tabloid headlines describing fans as no better than animals. 'You feel proud,' he replies. 'You think it’s really good.’ The others nod.
But these boys are sharp, they’ve got some idea of PR, too. It's time to put me straight, time to tell me they are not obsessed with violence, and that they do understand why they grew up as they did. Stephen here becomes the spokesman:
'We are a load of thugs, but you're brought up in Bethnal Green. You’re just walking down the street, some geezer hits you and it's a fight. You learn when you're young how to look after yourself. . . . Also, when you're a little kid and come home saying you've been beaten up, all our Mums say, "Well, hit 'em back. Stand up for yourself."'
Jamie picks up the story: 'You got your old lady nagging you all fucking week and you can't do nothing about it. It just builds up and builds up, until it’s Saturday and you get out there. . . . . Bam.' He is standing up, eyes closed, throwing punches into thin air. ‘Bam. If I'm clocking someone, I see my old lady there.' Everyone falls silent for two seconds, respectful of that confession, and not knowing quite how to follow it. Until Jamie sits down again, laughs, so everyone can laugh.
These lads used to be skinheads before the present mod revival, which Terry says is ‘just another trend', though one he'lI follow. I mention Sham '69, the now defunct skinheads' band, whose farewell concert was broken up by the fascist British Movement. I then find out they've all been on National Front marches, 'Well mainly on Anti-Nazi League things, running round the outside, chanting that.'
(‘It’s just another craze,’ says Terry, wearily.)
They've also all been to Rock Against Racism carnivals. ‘Oh, yeah, I went to Vicky Park,' says Perry. ‘Everyone went for the music anyway.' I say I don't like racists and they look embarrassed, not belligerent. 'We know some coloured geezers,' says Stephen. ‘They're all right. All except Pakis.'
‘What's wrong with Pakis? Don’t cause any trouble, do they?' demands Jamie.
This gets nowhere, and l'm wondering if their families are National Front? Stephen says his aunt wasn't 'till she got robbed by blacks. But my Mum isn't NF, there couldn’t be a bigger socialist going!
'My Mum said she was going to vote National Front, but she voted Liberal,' says Terry smiling at the absurdity of it all.
The train stops at Doncaster station, where there are large numbers of Leeds fans. Perry, safe in the knowledge no one is getting on or off, is again yelling sartorial insults out of the window.
Jane, the posh-sounding young woman who lives in Hampstead and works for the civil service, is sitting right at the back of the train with her two girl friends Julie Blay who's a sorter at the post office and Lynn Davis, a student Of photography. Lynn's Dad used to play for Arsenal Reserves in the 1950s. She is wearing the tight blue jeans and black suede spiked heels she'll be in tonight when she meets her boyfriend down the pub. 'Men don't like girls who know more about football than themselves,' she says. 'lt insults their vanity.'
These three, aged between 18 and 21, have all been travelling away with Arsenal for six or seven years. 'We don't get as much hassle as the guys,' says Julie.'It's verbal abuse, but we just ignore it.' She goes on to say that at the last away game she picked up three sets of darts. 'All thrown from the seats,' she emphasises. ‘They say all the trouble starts from the terraces. But that's just not true.'
The trouble is, in Julie's view, exaggerated by the press and often provoked by the police. 'They enjoy a good fight as much as anyone else. Also you’ve spoilt their Saturday afternoon. They're bloody well going to spoil yours.'
Feminists, I'm saying, regard football as a macho ritual, which . . . 'Most feminists are just frustrated old bags,' interrupts Lynn. The others laugh in agreement. The train is pulling into Leeds station.
A corridor of policemen make it plain where we have to walk. At the end of the corridor is a steel gate behind which we wait while we are searched again for weapons. Arsenal FC enamel badges are regarded as potential weapons. One middle-aged Scotsman, who has the entire Arsenal team tattooed on his chest, doesn't think much of this. ‘It's a fucking disgrace when you have to take your badges off.' Told to get our 21 pences ready, we're finally driven off in double-deckers, three policemen to each bus.
Outside the ground a posse of riot police, on horseback, wearing blue and white crash helmets, are by the sign which has ‘Entrance for Visiting Supporters' painted in white. But it's only 12.30, kick-off is not till 3, so we all queue up for bright-red frankfurters and plastic cups of almost milkless tea. This comes to 50p.
Over the road from the entrance, six National Front posters are stuck on an empty redbrick end-terrace. Fifty yards down the street, a billboard says ‘Wisdom. The Choice Is Yours' under a photograph of false teeth in a glass. Most of the Leeds fans haven’t arrived yet, but one struts past. On his white T-shirt is written in blue capitals: YORKSHIRE REPUBLICAN ARMY.
The gates open at 1 p.m. We pay £1.50 and there’s one hour of sitting around smoking, playing cards, another of swapping chanted abuse with Leeds supporters, from whom we are separated on all sides by blue steel bars.
‘ArsenaI, where are you?' sing Leeds. There's still only the 200 or so of us who came by train. But Denton and his firm’s arrival is theatrically timed, five minutes before kick-off. Denton himself leads the charge of 100 crop-haired teenagers on to the terraces and there's pandemonium as they try to scale the barriers. Police move in, fists swing. The disturbance only lasts two minutes, but long enough for Stephen Jenkins to now point dolefully at a swollen red eye which will in time be black. A couple of Arsenal fans are escorted from the ground.
‘Are we all settled in now?' asks one cop, through his teeth.
‘Aye, I’m reet fine, lad. How are you?’ replies the Arsenal fan. It is a poor attempt at the Yorkshire accent.
'I'm fine. Let's keep it that way,’ says the policeman, leaning over to grab the fan's arm. The rest of the exchange is drowned out in a roar signifying the game's start.
An electronic scoreboard instructs us to 'Give Jimmy Hill a wave. We’re on Match of the Day.' Leeds sing 'Jimmy Hill's a wanker.’ Arsenal disagree. And the dialogue continues throughout the game.
Taunts are as much about the relative merits and demerits of Yorkshire and London as they are about the two teams' past glories and humiliations. Leeds chant, 'York-shire.' Arsenal sing, 'Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner.' Both sets of supporters mimic the other’s accent. Arsenal assert that moral superiority which they feel comes from travelling to away games, being 'real supporters’. 'Do you ever go away?' they demand. Ignoring this, Leeds instead bring up the shameful defeat of the last few seasons. 'Tottenham, North Bank, Easy, easy.‘ Which gets the lame retort, 'Ea-aye-addio, we won the cup.’ Repeat.
Leeds score a goal just before halftime and their fans sing ‘one nil’ to the tune of Amazing Grace.
At half time, in the crush for lukewarm pies and hot Oxo, Denton is distributing Young National Front stickers. Denton is black. Members of his firm dutifully stick these messages about white youth and repatriation to their jackets. One black youth has two ‘Repatriation, Not Immigration’ stickers, one 'Fight Communism' and one 'White Youth Before Immigrants’ sticker, all affixed to the front of his anorak. The same black youth was, some two hours later, arrested at Leeds station.
Denton, some say, is a member of this organisation, which seeks to eliminate humans of his colour from the motherland. I don't believe it. I couldn't get near enough to speak to him, but he is either playing some kind of sick joke on himself, or else the joke is on his disciples (’These dummies'll take NF stickers off a black?'). The remaining possibility is that he’s taken the goal of winning white acceptance to its ultimate, logical, and absurd, conclusion.
Football crowds goad black players in two main ways. One is to chant 'National Front', the other is to ape the grunt of apes. Both taunts came from the Leeds fans terraces after half time, when the Leeds fans saw that Denton was some kind of leader. Arsenal’s response was first to chant 'National Front' back at Leeds, with Denton and the other half dozen blacks joining in, then to group round their leader, pointing and singing, ‘We got the hardest nigger in the land.' Denton meanwhile is doing a passable imitation of the dance the men in the Black and White Minstrel Show used to do - you know, the way they opened their mouths, stretched back their heads and shivered splayed-out palms?
I ask the Bethnal Green contingent about Denton’s real political preferences, but they just shrugged and laughed. For them, I suppose, black members of the NF are no more, no less, bizarre than friends from the same block of flats fighting each other on Saturdays if they happen to follow different teams.
Leeds United v. Arsenal ended in a 1-1 draw. A lot of us missed the Arsenal goal because it was just after half time and we were still in the pie queue.
The only time the chanting had got really venomous was when Arsenal were awarded a penalty.
‘You're gonna get your fucking heads kicked in,' we were told, at high volume, a few thousand index fingers pecking in our direction. Just as well the penalty was missed. A home defeat brings violent revenge. As it was, Leeds fans couldn’t be bothered hanging around outside until the lock-up period was over: visiting supporters are confined to the ground till most of the home crowd have dispersed.
When our gates finally did open, police herded us back on to the buses, back into the same walled-off section of the station we'd been kept in on the way up, until the train was ready to leave platform 12.
Once on the moving train I thought we were safe. This, apparently, was not the case. A steward came round telling us to draw the curtains (it was now a beautiful late summer’s late afternoon), just in case any bricks were aimed at the windows.
Conversation turned to the possibility of clashing with Chelsea at King's Cross. We were due back at 8.45 p.m., but our train was late. Chelsea's was due back at 9.15 and there was no telling whether they were on time. 'They’ve come all the way down from Newcastle, they’ll be half pissed and they lost too. They'll be just in the mood for some aggravation,' said a tattooed veteran of these excursions.
This man, probably in his mid-thirties, then went on to recount adventures he and his mate had in Amsterdam, when Arsenal played Ajax. Everyone showed polite interest.
Most of the train were either asleep, trying to sleep, or playing cards. Stubble being burned on the fields outside Peterborough looked dramatic in the dusk; beautiful if you like that kind of thing. The man with the tattooed arms was now telling another anecdote: a mate of his had acquired a square yard of the Highbury turf after an offer in the local paper. This was a few years back, when the old pitch was taken up to build an underground heating system as protection against snow and ice. This man's mate had given the square yard pride of place in his garden, in the middle of the flowerbed and away from the rest of the lawn. Even the man with the tattoos thought this was going a bit far, especially as the square, he told us, was now faded and bare.
Chelsea were nowhere in sight at King’s Cross. just as well for the lads from Bethnal Green: they had a party to go to. The three girls rushed off to their dates. The man with the tattooed arms reckoned he could go and get an Indian takeaway and still be home in time for Match of the Day. One more Saturday night.
13 September 1979