I’m sitting opposite one of the most notorious hard-men in Britain. A man so tough that he could break rocks when he turns his icy stare on them, full-beam. In his meaty fist, the pint glass looks like a shot glass. And judging from the frown which creases his chunky, balding head, he might have finally got me pinned as an impostor. Worse, he may have me as a journalist. ‘Know something?’ he asks, all gravely voice and ten-ton truck gear shifts. ‘I can smell violence. I know just when it will go off, how it will go off, and how many casualties there’ll be.’ Nervously, I finger my cigarettes. A prop; I don’t even like the taste. But you have to have one bad habit if you’re going to be able to infiltrate one of the toughest crews of non-league soccer hooligans this side of ‘I can be just walking down a street on the way to a game and then the sixth sense will hit me,’ he continues. ‘The mob from whatever team we’re playing are on the loose, like a set of wolves. And these
Gerald bears his teeth, just to show me what teeth look like.
‘And that’s why you have to get in there first. Throw the first punch. Knock ‘em off their perch a bit. A bit of the old ultra-violence like in that fillum, Clockwork Orange.’
Gerald literally peppers his speech with swear-words, but for the purposes of this article, I’ll take
that particular spice out of the equation. He’s menacing enough already, without having to resort
I decide I must ask a question:
‘Why, pray, did you decide to follow the non-league soccer tables?’ I ask, adopting a
street-urchin twang to my voice, and making sure I played with my mobile phone while I
spoke. ‘Why not the big cheeses of the Premiership? Why not the West Ham Uniteds and
the Tottingham Hotspurs of this world?’
Gerald weighs me up with his eye-scales. For a moment, I fear that he sees through me, but he likes the sound of his own voice does Gerald, and he likes playing this particular tune. He waves his already-empty pint pot in order for me to provide him with more lubrication, necessary to oil the wheels of his relentless savage tale.
‘All the fun’s gone out of your Premiership matches. The filth have their beady eyes on everyone. You can’t have a ruck in the ground no more, nor in the forecourt, not even at the station. You’re always watched. That’s why those lads in the know have moved on to your non-league fighting action of a Saturday afternoon.’ ‘But surely, fighting a battalion from Brixley or a gang from Grimthorpe won’t be as exhilarating as scrapping against the cream of Manchester or the lynch-mobs of London?’ I ask. Gerald slams a meaty paw on the pub table. He’s already told me that he's a cheese-maker by profession. Something that surprised me. According to him though, football violence is no longer the preserve of the unemployed. It now recruits from the professional classes. I wonder what kind of cheese Gerald makes? I bet it’s not something soft like brie.
‘Let’s get this straight once and for all, son,’ he says. ‘Fighting in the non-leagues takes a special kind of person. Because there you know it’ll be a fight to the death. No prisoners. No pigs. No holds-barred.’
He sounds as though he’s a marketer for a bare-knuckle boxing bout; a moustachioed
ring-leader. And he is; I’ve already noted the way some of the other hard-men in the
pub defer to him, give him change for the fruit machine and letting him punch them so he
can keep his eye in.
‘So are you going to let me tag along for a game or two?’ I ask, biting the bullet.
Gerald smiles for the first time.
‘You got insurance?’ he asks, in a fashion that chills me to the bone.
Cut to the small town of Smidwick, population 300, as the sign told us when we passed into the town-limits. The sign also told us that Smidwick was twinned with the German town of Bad Nauheim. ‘Get your bleedin’ head down,’ roars Gerald from the back seat where he’s riding like a chauffeur-driven rich-man.
For a moment I’m not sure what to do, but soon a meaty paw pressing into my cranium tells me I’ve acted too slowly. We drive through the main street, past the butchers and the bakers and the candle-stick makers, with our heads pressed into the litter-strewn carpet of Gerald’s Nova.
Gerald’s wife, the chauffeur, simply sighs. She knows just what danger we’ll be in should we be seen by a
Smidwick Albion ‘spotter’.
There are all kinds of terms I’ve had to introduce into my vocabulary, and ‘spotter’ is just one of them. Another
is ‘rendezvous point’ and that’s where we’re headed. Apparently, it’s a non-affiliated pub in a nearby town that
will act as the base of our military-style operations. A place where the all-important mobile phone calls can be
made and ‘aggro’ set up.
Gerald’s wife drops us at the Crown and Garter and tells us to enjoy the match. Gerald tips me a sly little wink. Little does the woman know.
And so we’re behind enemy lines, sort of. But as we enter the pub, I start to spot familiar faces. The Newton Hills mob is here in force and look ready for action. Gerald’s right-hand man, ‘Cotton Eye’ Billy, has already taken over the juke box and Ratchet is helping himself to drinks from behind the bar.
The Crown and Garter looks as though it’s never seen so many sweaty, leering blokes inside at the same time. The bar-snack menus quiver in fear; the beer taps are literally dripping with it. Outside, a couple of hardy-looking lads have overturned the picnic table.
‘What do you reckon?’ grins Gerald, like a king surveying his domain. ‘This is what awaydays are all about! We come, we see, we conquer. Pillage all you like!’
A bottle of beer is passed over to me and I tuck in with gay abandon, believing that I might need a little bit of the old Dutch Courage before seeing what I’ll no doubt have to see later on that afternoon. Soon the singing starts up, and I’m surprised to find myself joining in with them. The thrill of being here, part of a pack, is almost too much to resist. I start to worry about my journalistic integrity:
‘We are Newton Hills lads we’re here,
Shag your women, drink your beer!’
Goes the chant. And in that moment, it feels like I can do anything I want in the whole wide world.
But soon a shout goes up. It’s the dog-faced Ratchet.
‘Our spotter’s seen some Smidwick sniffing around down the street. We should check it out.’
Everyone piles out of the pub in this mad melee of rage. I find myself being carried along by the tide
of sneering violence and my heart is beating like a mad drummer boy with Parkinson’s Disease.
Then suddenly I realise that I’m even starting to think like Gerald now… I’d never have even imagined something so… so horrible before.
But violence is like that. It’s addictive. Compulsive.
As I’m barging through the pub door, I feel a strong, meaty paw pull me back in. It’s Gerald. He gives me this look I think is supposed to be meaningful.
‘Look mate, I used to be like you. Couldn’t wait to get stuck into the violence.’
Was that how I looked? Bottle in hand, charging after a football hooligan crew with the blood-lust on me? I suppose it was…
‘But be careful out there. Last time we played Smidwick, old Ratchet ran on the pitch with a plank of wood from a building site. Started chasing the referee around with it. The Smidwick boys will be out for revenge. All out.’
I find myself twitching out of his grasp. This I have to see. But he’s too strong for me. He forces me to look into the deep cheese-pools ‘And remember this. Don’t hit no scarfers,’ he says. ‘Remember the code. Always remember the code. Only other hoolies.’ Now he lets me go. I crash through the pub doors and into a montage of mayhem. It’s like something out of a Lord of the Rings war scene. Great troll-like men going head to head. Gerald darts past me with a turn of pace I’d not previously given him credit for. He launches into one of the Smidwick boys with this high karate kick thing. I let loose a great bellow and follow him into the first fight I’ve had since I punched Simon Crossett in Primary Three...
TO BE CONTINUED