FOOTBALL HOOLIGANISM IS by no means a modern phenomenon.
The first incidence of it has been traced back as far as 1314, while it is said to have been far from uncommon amid the inception of the modern game, with Preston North End supporters, in particular, garnering early infamy for such behaviour in the 1880s.
It wasn’t until the 1960s and 70s however, that hooliganism became notorious in British footballing circles, with the press describing it as ‘the English disease,’ as a number of organised hooligan firms were established at several clubs across the country.
Nonetheless, despite its increasing prominence from the mid-20th century onwards, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the UK government began to seriously tackle the issue, and such measures eventually took effect, with hooliganism less prevalent since the 2000s.
One individual who epitomises this trend is Niall Slattery — a reformed football hooligan who was part of West Ham’s Inter City Firm (ICF) — described by many as ‘the most notorious gang in Britain’ — in football hooliganism’s heyday.
Slattery was born into an Irish family in London. Despite having an ostensibly untroubled upbringing, he became a football hooligan at the age of 16 and immersed himself in this unruly activity for the next six years of his life. So how does an innocent kid become involved in such disreputable behaviour?
“My local team was West Ham,” he recalls. “I just loved football. That’s all I was really interested in as a kid. I was growing up in the late 70s and early 80s, coming into my teenage years. There was a lot of violence then at football matches. It was all skinheads and those sort of people. But that all started to change.
“When I was about 15, I started going to away matches. I went to watch West Ham play at Norwich — we got off at the train station and we were just walking towards the ground when we saw a massive gang of guys who were a lot of older than us.
“They asked us if we supported West Ham, we said ‘yeah’. And then they just attacked us. I was just beaten up, knocked unconscious and got really hurt. Afterwards, I remember trying to make a joke out of it as if it hadn’t bothered me. But deep down inside, it had. For about a week, there was a fear in me that I never really had before. I hated that feeling because it made me feel weak. Obviously, I couldn’t have said that at the time. It’s more looking back that I understand.”
This moment at Norwich altered Slattery’s life irrevocably. The loss of pride it incurred convinced him to seek protection in the form of the local gang, the ICF, who were inextricably linked with West Ham.
“I became part of that gang,” he says. “Initially, it was just for safety in numbers really. But before that, I really just got sucked into that lifestyle of getting into fights and organised violence. This went on for a few years.”
In recent years, countless books, newspaper articles and films (see above) have explored the issue of football hooliganism, and Slattery criticises the latter art form in particular for sometimes “glamourising” the problem.
Moreover, these portrayals aren’t necessarily accurate. Hooliganism is often regarded as a highly sophisticated operation that entails considerable planning and preparation beforehand, but according to Slattery’s experience, it was far less organised than this perception suggests. In fact, it was “basically just a bunch of blokes who’d meet up maybe at a pub and then headed off to the game”.
Nor is the theory imtimating that most hooligans have no interest in football correct, according to his experiences. While he concedes that there were “a few lunatics,” the majority had “a genuine interest in football” and weren’t “too different from me”.
Eventually though, Slattery began to feel ill at ease in this raucous environment. A fight that led to the near-fatal stabbing of a rival supporter — an incident he witnessed up close — proved the turning point.
“At that time, I made the decision to stop going to the football, because I knew it was wrong,” he says. “My mum and dad are both Irish and I was brought up a Catholic. And even though I stopped going to church when I was about 11, there was something in me that knew there was something there, so I didn’t really have an excuse in a way, whereas some of the guys that were there just didn’t know any better.”
Consequently, he decided to stop going to football matches — a promise to himself that he upholds to this day. Instead, he travelled around the world, searching “like a lot of young people”. Despite leaving football behind, the hooliganism remained. Drink and drugs became more prominent in Slattery’s life, and he still got into fights on a regular basis. At one point, it looked as if his life may have even been at risk.
“For about two years, I was in and out of hospital. I couldn’t hold down a job. There was this fear in me — it may have been from the first time I was badly attacked. Sometimes I was even afraid to go outside the front door. And I really hated this in myself. At this stage, it was a really dark time in my life.”
Eventually though, at the age of 27, Slattery “decided to ask for help”. He sought guidance from the only person that “he could really trust,” his mother.
“I went down to my mum’s house and I started to tell her all about this [lifestyle]. I’ll never forget, because as I was speaking to her, I just started to cry. She looked at me right in the eye and said: ‘Niall, you’ve got to start praying.’ She said you’ve got to ask God for help, because I can see that you’re dying. It really made me think.
“For about a week, I couldn’t stop thinking about this. And then one day, I sat down on the road and started to say a Hail Mary. I remember laughing at myself, because I hadn’t prayed since I was a kid. I laughed because I could remember the words. Every day after that, I used to pray. I started to remember when I was very little, I often thought there was something I was supposed to do with my life and I think everybody thinks that. I didn’t know what it was at the time, but just to have that sense that there was something else.”
Source: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland
(English football hooligans pictured at Lansdowne Road in 1995)
And Slattery soon found that he was not the only former trouble-maker who was seeking redemption.
“I remember one day, I walked back into my church in Ilford, Essex. I hadn’t been in a church for at least 15 years. The gospel that day was on the Prodigal Son. I knew that it was [about] me. At the end of the mass, the priest said that there was a person who’d like to speak. Out of the congregation, this massive bloke got up. It was a man called John Pridmore. He used to be a gangster in London. He was involved in organised crime, but he started to tell his amazing story about how God had changed his life.”
A gradual reconciliation with the church followed and nowadays, Slattery is very much a fully reformed individual who is part of a group of laypeople that “go out and do missions in parishes”.
“We go to schools, we talk to young people, we particularly like secondary schools, we like primary schools as well. For the last 15 years, I’ve travelled all over the world doing that.”
And how did friends and family react to what seems a total personality u-turn?
“Sometimes the members of your own family are the hardest to convince [you're serious] because they know you so well. At first, someone changes and people think: ‘What’s that all about?’ But most of my mates from when I was little weren’t too surprised at all really. A lot of them would come from a similar background to me. I’m not saying they’d be going to church or anything, but you kind of understand it. You do also come across people who are a bit cynical, but what can you do?”
And what of his former gang friends? Are they still wreaking havoc in one form or another?
“Some of them have gone on to lead quite normal lives, but many would be in prison for life now, or they’d have moved on to organised crime. At that time, it did attract a lot of characters who were pretty dangerous, but I don’t really think it still exists as such. The police cracked down a lot at certain times. Most of the people have moved on to other things. I think football’s in a much better place than it was during that time in the early 80s.
“Say West Ham were playing Leicester — you wouldn’t even walk to the football ground. That’s how bad it was in those days. Little clubs like that. But now, I don’t think there’s anything like that. Football’s a different culture now. But I’m not saying it couldn’t come back. It just takes a few people to start leading it down the wrong way. But it probably wouldn’t, because the policing is so much more efficient these days.”
(Football hooliganism has decreased significantly since the early 2000s, though there are occasional anomalies, such as the incident above from earlier this season)
Slattery, while still having an unmistakable London accent, currently lives in Ireland. Yet he explains how he has invariably been treated as somewhat of an outsider, irrespective of the location in which he resides.
“Almost all the kids in my school [growing up] were from a very similar background. It was at the time of the IRA bombs in London and people would be confronting us all the time. I didn’t really know what to say but they saw us as Irish. The funny part of it was that when I went to Ireland, they saw us as English. But it was a good community to grow up in as well. There was a closeness around. You knew people were quite similar to you.
“And by and large, the Irish are very popular in England — they always have been. But there was a small time where there was a lot of anger, but thank God that didn’t last too long.”
While still following football and admitting that he misses “the atmosphere” of games from time to time, he also expresses concern that it has “replaced” religion, while lamenting the sense that belief in God is “something to be embarrassed about”.
“To be a true Christian is a very challenging thing. You do have to be able to stand up to people, have that courage and not worry whether they like you or not. I think that’d be something that’d be great to be seen again in Ireland, because Pope John Paul II, when he came to Ireland, said he believed that Ireland had a special mission in the world — to bring the light of Christ to the nations, which it has done. It doesn’t matter where you go in the world, you find Irish men and women have travelled there.
“When many sportsmen have that faith, it does stand out. It does encourage [young people] to stand against that cynicism and not to be swept up in some of the false messages in the world. Whenever you look at MTV culture, it gives across a false message of what life is — you have money and you have girls. It’s all so empty — it’s not going to fulfill anybody. I’m sure everybody knows that. It’s just about having the strength to stand up and think I’m not interested in that — I’m going to be who I truly am.”
Niall Slattery will be speaking at St. Brigid’s Church, Crosshaven, Co. Cork, at 8pm on the 24 February as part of a Parish Mission running from 24-28 February.