This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
On Saturday, a mass brawl erupted between Millwall and Everton fans. You might have see the Everton supporter, Jay Burns, whose face was slashed from mouth to ear. You might also have seen an Apprentice winner offer to fix him up for free at her clinic, which led to her being slammed for using a man's facial disfigurement as free publicity. Either way, the fight caused a senior police officer to comment that it was "some of the most shocking football violence seen for some time".
I'm sure many others agreed: football hooligans are generally viewed as Stella-sodden middle-aged men having a punch-up outside a pub, not Victorian delinquents trying to shear each other's faces off with Stanley knives. Unfortunately, in reality, they're a little bit of both.
Weapons have been used by football hooligans since the late-1960s, when a tightening of the rules surrounding what could be brought into stadiums resulted in the creation of the Millwall brick, a makeshift cosh formed by tightly rolling up newspapers. Knives also cropped up on the terraces around this period, with carpet cutters favoured among Liverpool's hooligans. I ghost-wrote a few football hooligans' memoirs from 2010 to 2014, and an older Scouse guy I was introduced to back then described how these weapons could "slice through somebody's nose and lips in an instant".
Smaller blades became more common during the 1980s, partly because they were easy to conceal; craft knives could be hidden in slits in clothing, or down the sides of shoes.
The 1980s also saw the adoption of a new weapon: ammonia. The caustic liquid would be placed in plastic bottles and squeezed into the face of rivals. Former Watford FC hooligan Dougie Brimson, who wrote the screenplay for Green Street, credits it for his departure from football thuggery. "When they started filling squeezable Vicks bottles with ammonia, I just thought, 'That's enough,'" he told a BBC reporter in 2003. By the end of the decade, it was no longer in common use, but that wasn't the end of noxious substances being used as weapons.
Canisters of CS were also used by hooligans to stun their opponents. They were often smuggled over from countries where they were legal, but fell out of favour with some firms, partly due to the fact that many gravitated towards CS spray instead. Whereas CS gas canisters emit a cloud that's likely to get in the eyes of the attacker as well as the victim, CS spray is more focused. It contains CS dissolved in a solvent, which is propelled via a burst of pressurised nitrogen. Man United hooligan Colin Blaney told me that his Inter City Jibbers firm swore by the spray during their heyday because it was more accurate and easier to aim.
More extreme weapons have also been deployed by hooligans throughout the years. Petrol bombs have been thrown and flare guns have been fired, while Hibs' top-boy Andy Blance was jailed for five years for hacking a rival in the back with an axe. Incidents like this are few and far between, though, with the vast majority of weapon-related injuries not caused by everyday items like bottles and bricks being inflicted by blades
Although knives are commonplace, that’s not to say they’re an accepted part of hooligan culture. Brian, a former member of Crystal Palace's Dirty 30 firm, tells me they're frowned upon but tolerated, as their use is viewed as inevitable due to the small contingent of hardcore nutters within each firm. "They're not seen as a good thing by the majority, but every mob has one or two psychos who want to carry them," he tells me.
The perception that weapons are excessive and uncalled for means there are sometimes serious repercussions for those who use them. The founder of Man City's Young Guvnors firm, Andrew Bennion, once told me that rivals went looking for him with guns after he slashed an opposing hooligan. He said it was common for revenge to be sought after these kinds of incidents.
Given that many football hooligans clearly dislike weapons, is it likely that attacks like the one at Millwall will soon become a thing of the past? Not exactly. According to Kevin, a member of Dundee United and Dundee FC's joint firm the Dundee Utility, changes in the way knives are perceived by the next generation could actually send things in the opposite direction.
"It's some of the younger boys that are going to shape how things turn out – the 'schooligans' posing on Instagram and Twitter with their Stone Island gear, holding a Stanley in their hand," he says. "Those types are a bit of a laughing stock on social media, but the issue is that some of them aren't just bedroom casuals; they’re actually going to the football on a Saturday. If that's the attitude from the new breed when it comes to weapons, it's inevitably going to cause a shift in things."
Shocking as the events at Millwall were on Saturday, they appear to be part of a long history of weapon use among hooligans. And although the majority seem to get enough of a kick from going fist-to-fist with rivals, unless firms clamp down on blade-carriers, it's likely that a small minority will continue to bring weapons to games.