English Football's 'Coked-Up Lad Army' Are Fitting Emblems of Our Coked-Up Tribal Nation
No one will admit it, but the Premier League and cocaine go brilliantly with each other.
Illustration: Dan Draws
You never really notice the calm before the storm until the storm is already happening. It was an oddly peaceful couple of weeks in the life of the Premier League, as focus shifted from the non-stop online nonce-shoot that is modern English club fandom to the last international break of the season, a sun-lit March detente in the never-ending Barclays War that seems to have been welcomed with a quiet thirst by all. The 20 hostile tribes of this fractured footballing nation – Cardiff City supporters aside – had somehow been pulled together as one by Gareth Southgate's impressive group of sixth-form prefects and Smash Hits pin-ups, uniting to coo over the prospect of tournament summers to come, and ganging up on other targets, like the House of Commons, Montenegrin racists, sobriety and Richard Keys's universally deplored hairy hands.
That fragile peace shattered this weekend, as the Premier League hype machine returned for its final exhilarating, obnoxious push through to early May. But it's worth squeezing a few last drops of national self-reflection out of that inter-lull. One of the most startling aspects of Southgate's tenure has been his ability to transform the England team into a prism for wider explorations of our society, the coach refusing to shy away from media questions on Brexit, multiculturalism, knife crime, mental illness, gambling addiction and national identity. There was no bluster when Southgate said that last summer's World Cup was a chance for his team "to affect something bigger than ourselves", just the even-handed admission that he and his players will be seen as emblematic of the culture from which they hail. What's also true is that the pathetic attacks Raheem Sterling, Danny Rose and Callum Hudson-Odoi were subjected to last week have been dealt with in a way that is emblematic of Southgate's reign so far. There is a deftness and dignity to him that is infectious and which seems to be transmitting to his players.
Deftness and dignity are not qualities, however, that you'd readily associate with some elements of the England support, nor for that matter with cocaine. Another story from Podgorica – lost slightly amid the fallout from the shit-muncher monkey chants – was one that centred on "the Stag-Do Brigade", a laughably out-of-touch moniker applied to "a new breed of hooligan" who apparently enjoy little more than hanging out in bars on far-flung public squares, getting gakked out of their minds in nice clothes while singing rude songs about the IRA. Which definitely sounds like something that no other generation of England fans has ever done before.
"By 7PM, some England fans have been drinking for nine hours and the Shrewsbury group re-enter the equation," reads the article, published by the Mail Online last Tuesday, referring specifically to a few lads who'd turned up with a Shrewsbury Town banner. "They encapsulate the new breed of hooligan – all seemingly under 25, immaculately turned out in Nike trainers, Aquascutum and Prada tops, Lacoste caps. 'I want to stay here, sniff all your gear,' they sing – the new lyric of the 'Please don't take me home' anthem which took hold at Euro 2016."
Leaving aside the inference that the few dozen people from Shropshire who've actually heard of Wavey Garms might be starting to coalesce into a globally feared hooligan cartel, the article is quite weird for a number of reasons. Mainly, it's that name – "the Stag-Do Brigade" – which feels jarring; all under the age of 25, disposable income funnelled into the weekly paycheque ego-fix of affordable designer clobber, cheap drugs and England away-days, these simply aren't the kind of men who get married in this country anymore, nor are they likely to be friends with the kind who are. Weddings are expensive, and not only do you have to save up for them, you also have to feel secure enough in your future job prospects to sign off on such a commitment. If you're English, under 25 and getting married, you're probably either dull, dynastically rich, or both.
These might feel like broad brushstrokes, but search inside yourself and you'll know it to be true. Come on: let's be even-handed about this. It’s what Gareth would want. Tellingly, "the Stag-Do Brigade" is a name bestowed upon this coke-blind pisshead army by England’s older generation. "Fans are sick of these dickheads, ruining the experience," exasperates one "vastly experienced" England supporter to the Mail's man on the ground. "You can’t win the battle with them by keeping them in their place." That’s the thing about younger generations, my statistically Brexit-voting, statistically wealth-hoarding, totally anonymous yet conveniently wisened old friend. If you deny them their rituals and rites of passage, they're liable to go and invent new ones.
More broadly, the story chimes with a growing urge to link English football to cocaine. Just after the turn of the new year came reports that use of coke among English professional footballers was "widespread", followed recently by the claim from police that a 45 percent rise in disorder inside stadia over the last two years is connected to match-day abuse of the drug. A flurry of stories regarding the latter arrived in the wake of Aston Villa's Jack Grealish being punched in the face by a Birmingham City fan named Paul Mitchell during the Second City Derby earlier this month. Mitchell was rapidly jailed for 14 weeks as the authorities rushed to get a handle on the problem of player-fan confrontations after a spate of similar incidents in English and Scottish football in early spring. There is no suggestion that he was on drugs at the time of the attack, but nevertheless we soon saw that old trope of drugs reporting – the toilet cubicle swab test – wheeled out in an attempt to prove irrefutably the connection between coke and football.
It can't prove this, of course, at least not in places as busy as football grounds. Just because traces of cocaine are found on one cistern or loo-roll holder, doesn't mean a significant number of the hundreds of people who've spent three hours filling that particular toilet with piss are bugled up to the eyeballs. But in truth, you barely need eyeballs to know that people watch football matches in stadia and in pubs either on coke or with plenty of it still coursing through their system from the night before. Absent from pretty much all of these articles is the admission or even the allusion to the fact living at the crux of all this: that modern English football and cocaine go brilliantly together, a marriage between culture and substance that's as good a fit as rave and ecstasy or video games and Monster, the meeting of two pumping pistons of compulsive, anxious consumption, both of which are utterly ubiquitous in British public life and work ceaselessly to spur each other on.
As someone who spent a decade regularly taking cocaine and thinking about little other than football, the arc of the standard coke sesh perfectly mirrors the experience of losing a big match; the soaring bravado, the crashing schadenfreude, the anxiety-ridden comedown. The drug and the game would hold hands all through the late Friday nights spent huddled, hostage-like, around a laptop screen in a friend's living room, molars grinding through yet another Matt Le Tissier goal montage. They were still together, albeit in a hazy and depleted way, on the Saturday afternoons wasted convalescing in bed with an iPhone leashed to a lonelier laptop, this one tuned to a live NBC feed on SoccerStreams or EPLsite or atdhe.net as legions of anonymous idiots screamed at each other in the chat box. Even the way coke is delivered to the system – in a series of little bumps that momentarily satisfy a craving, raise the pulse – resembles how football flows into us now, as tiny packets of information and gossip absorbed from endlessly refreshed Twitter feeds and websites.
Perhaps most pertinently of all, cocaine is – and for years has been – the silent partner in the booze, gambling and drugs triangle that really powers Premier League fandom, at least on these shores. All three encourage and perpetuate each other, and all three fuel consumption of the Premier League, the difference with cocaine being that you’re not allowed to advertise it on TV, even though it’d arguably be less damaging for society than Paddy Power using Rhodri Giggs to chase the cuckold pound. But coke's been there a while now, in the conversations of slightly lost and wild-looking young men in Super Sunday pubs shouting about accumulators and last night’s boxing; in the lagered-up crowds as you walk to and from games on a match-day in Podgorica or Pimlico; in endless Twitter jokes and banter memes that draw their punchlines from a caner’s argot of chisel, gear, banger, blow, late-night cashpoint runs, clenched jaws, swollen nostrils, empty pockets, gallows humour, bulging eyes, erectile dysfunction, street fights and cringeworthy 5AM oversharing.
Is this enough to constitute a culture? Perhaps. Regardless, it is exactly where the sharply dressed youth mobs that have started following Southgate's team abroad hail from, a tribal country on a tribal drug, a chemical that is expertly adept at fostering a siege in-group mentality and causing a spike in spiteful partisan noise. I don't take cocaine anymore, but it can often seem as though everyone else in England does; another reason why those swab tests can't really prove anything is that coke is absolutely rife in every echelon in society, to the extent that traces of it can be found on the fingertips of one in ten people who've never even consciously used it. It’s in the countryside and in the cities, in the lawyers' offices and the student halls, in the working men’s club chlorine-stung toilets and the kind of nightspots frequented by millionaire Premier League footballers and their entourages. Cocaine isn’t a football thing, just as it's not an age thing, a wealth thing, an ethnicity thing or a gender thing. It’s an England thing, something that our society – with its political rifts, digital anxiety and grinding work stresses – has created.
If England's number one cultural export is the Premier League, our most all-pervasive and popular cultural import is coke – and if we are going to continue in this spirit of taking a mirror to ourselves every international break, we shouldn’t flinch when confronted with the new emblems of a nation quite literally on the rocks, whether it casts us in a light that is dignified or decidedly otherwise.