Life doesn't always make sense. Patterns break, your mind briefly struggles and, yes, hotel owner and reality TV star Donald Trump is president-elect of the US. But while working on a piece about neo-Nazi group Combat 18, I learned that leading member Charlie Sergeant was, perhaps illogically, an Arsenal football hooligan. The main Arsenal firm at that time was multiracial and contained numerous black members – potentially odd common ground on which a committed racist and the club's hooligan element could align. In reality, this isn't as rare as you might think, though.
Before writing for VICE, I had a brief stint as a ghostwriter for football hooligan memoirs, and learnt that numerous gangs were comprised of both ethnic minorities and people with far-right views. Even Chelsea's notoriously racist Headhunters, whose skull crest bares resemblance to an SS Totenkopf, had prominent black members. The same applies to sectarianism; there are firms that contain a mix of Protestants and Catholics, both with relatively extreme views about religion. What would attract people to gangs that seem to openly dislike their ethnicity or religion?
"I think that the commitment to club amongst gangs has always been more important than any commitment to social views – racism, homophobia etc – so ethnic minority hooligans are becoming part of the club loyalty aspect of the football hooligan gang," says academic and author Professor Steve Redhead. He also says that common unit is seen as being of the utmost importance in the face of threats from "the outside".
This can take the form of foreign ownership of the club, media fabrications, and/or police infiltration. Presumably, this works in both directions: racists are willing to put aside their hatred of ethnic minorities to preserve the cohesion of the gang, and minorities are willing to overlook the fact that there may be racists in the firm for the same reason.
Some dispute whether far-right views vocalised by certain members of football firms are actually important to them at all. Pete, a former black Crystal Palace hooligan, feels that the "racists" are able to get along with black members of the firms because they aren't actually as prejudiced as they liked to make out. "They were all following fashion," he says. "They had those views, but they weren't hardcore with it."
He says that black guys in firms with far-right members didn't regard them as serious racists, as most of the so-called far-righters seemed to like the image of right-wing thugs but didn't actually subscribe to the ideologies. "The media look at firms like Chelsea and say: 'oh yeah, they're stigmatised with this right-wing National Front thing', but how many of them really did have that view if they allowed black guys to be their main geezers?" he asks.
I mention that the Chelsea Headhunters' logo was similar to a Nazi symbol, but Pete questions whether the majority of the firm actually knew what it meant. He points out how a member of Crystal Palace's firm had unknowingly printed out calling cards with a red hand of Ulster on them, and was later surprised when an Irish Catholic was offended.
BBC journalist Caroline Gall spent a significant amount of time with football hooligans while compiling social histories of three different firms. She echoes Pete's sentiments, highlighting the fact that the mob mentality is particularly prevalent in football firms. "That's true of most things in football firms. People just go along with it," she says.
Gall documented the Leeds Service Crew, who are regarded as one of the most racist football firms but also had a man of mixed heritage in its upper hierarchy. "It's his team, it's where he's from," she says, "and from what I could gather, he never faced any situations where he personally faced one-on-one animosity from the Leeds lads because of his race. He was accepted, so he carried on being part of it." Although a small minority of Leeds' firm probably were genuine racists, Gall says it seemed as though a lot of others got caught up in the moment and gave Hitler salutes at matches because they'd seen other people doing it.
The belief that people looking in from the outside perceive hooligans to be more racist than they actually are is also held by Paul*, a black Liverpool hooligan. He claims that the accusations of racism that were levelled at his firm stemmed from a conflation of political incorrectness with genuine prejudice. "There's a lot of lads who say 'nigger' but aren't actually racist," he says. "It's just something that they say." It's notable that hooligans in other multiracial firms have documented links to groups like Combat 18 and the National Front, so this can't be true in all cases.
Essentially, this seems to suggest that gang and club affiliation are seen as a higher priority than race and identity politics. A similar dynamic plays out in firms with a sectarian element. Take Manchester United's Red Army, for example, which contains a mix of Irish-Mancunian Catholics and Protestants. At least one of the Catholics I've met in the past has professed sympathy for the IRA.
According to Colin Blaney – a former member of a sub-group known as the InterCity Jibbers (ICJ) that focused on acquisitive crime – allegiance to the Red Army and ICJ brought together people who would otherwise have been at each other's throats. "Our school, which was Catholic, used to fight the Protestant school, but then people who'd fought each other came together for United," he says. He also says that despite being a Catholic, he attended an Orange March parade with ICJ member John "The Grid" McKee [pictured above], which never would have happened if it wasn't for shared group membership.
A weird paradox has created tighter bonds in the part of football fandom that outsiders associate with violence. Identity is a complex thing, and membership to groups can sometimes mean shoving personal beliefs to one side when they conflict with those of other members. "At the end of the day," says Gall, "when you're facing your so-called opposition, you're not going to refuse to fight alongside a man of a certain background just because he is of that background."
Thanks to everyone who took the time to talk to me, and also to MC Flux for putting me in touch with Pete. You can read more about Crystal Palace hooligans in Flux's autobiography.
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