Aside from the occasional flare-up, like last month's Chelsea smile outside a Millwall pub, the era of regular pitched battles between Stoney-clad English football hooligans is largely a thing of the past. There are reasons for this: more money in the game, improved policing and surveillance – and that some of the formerly hardcore contingent have been waylaid by crack and heroin habits.
Use of those two drugs is a well-kept secret among the old-guard. They aren't shy about how much they drink – or how many lines they do – on match days. But addiction to crack and heroin, seen by many hooligans as substances taken by those on society's lowest rung, has become a hidden problem for an alarming number within the old-school football firms.
I first became aware of the scale of use while ghostwriting a memoir by Man United "top-boy" Colin Blaney, about his time in two hooligan-related gangs: the Inter City Jibbers and Wide Awake Firm. While discussing drug use within the gangs, he estimated that between 60 to 70 percent of their collective membership had died of drug-related illnesses, and that the majority of the Wide Awake Firm hadn't made it past the age of 55. In most of the cases Blaney described they'd been using heroin or crack. I was also introduced to members of various other firms and observed that they too seemed to have their fair share of crack and heroin users.
So why do so many hooligans become hooked on these substances, given that consuming them is taboo in their community and likely to impair both their desire to go toe-to-toe with other firms and their ability to do so?
Football hooligans have gone through three main phases of drug use: in the 1970s and 80s, speed dominated the terraces; in the early to mid-90s, acid house took over and ecstasy became the drug of choice; then, in the late-90s, it was cocaine's turn. Coke's popularity was boosted by swathes of football lads becoming involved in the club scene, either as dealers or doormen.
According to Ramon Spaaji, a social anthropologist who has extensively studied football firms, hooligans' connections with clubs enhances the availability of drugs within the gangs. "Quite a few hooligans were actively involved in the night-time economy as club owners, managers, security staff or bouncers, or may have even dealt drugs in those spaces," he says. "There still is a cross-over between the night-time economy and football in terms of access to and consumption of drugs."
While some hooligans stuck to snorting coke, others started smoking crack, either because they wanted something stronger or because it was the obvious substitute when they couldn't get their hands on any powder.
Former Middlesbrough Frontline member Joe Shepherdson – who has left the world of football hooliganism and now runs a Christian charity called Restoring Life Ministries – was one such man. He first took crack after being offered it by another member of the firm at a match, and later started regularly smoking it after travelling overseas with other hooligans to ticket-tout at sports events and concerts.
"While we were going all over the place selling tickets, we'd take cocaine, and then when it ran out, we'd look for crack," he tells me. "When I was on the crack, I’d try and find heroin just to help me while I was coming down."
According to drug and addiction researcher Dr Adam Winstock, people who smoke crack often attempt to mellow out the comedown by taking heroin. This can mean that the more crack they smoke, the more heroin they end up doing in an attempt to balance out the unpleasant after-effects. It explains why some members of a subculture that is so focused on adrenaline also choose to take a drug that dulls their senses.
Former Everton hooligan Chris blames his descent into addiction on the fact that initiatives aimed at clamping down on football violence deprived many hooligans of their main focus in life. "When the Old Bill got a grip of things and lads started getting years in prison for throwing a single punch, lots of the boys sacked it off and started looking for other things to do," he says. "Some got nine-to-five jobs, some got into crime and others started taking gear."
Chris claims the hooligans who gravitated towards heroin did so for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was common for members of firms to do jail time, and heroin was the drug of choice in prison during the 1990s. Many hooligans also used it to calm their nerves when committing acquisitive crime, like robbery and shoplifting – an integral component of the culture for firms in the northwest. Then there was the epidemic level of heroin abuse on the estates that many of them came from.
Sometimes, hooligans had class A drug problems before they got into fighting rival fans. This was the case for Will, a former hardcore Swindon FC fan. He claims that the link between using crack and heroin and fighting at the football lies in the sense of belonging that can be gained from both. "Lads probably do both [hooliganism, and taking crack and heroin] to have a bit of acceptance in their lives," he tells me.
Drug and addiction expert Julian Cohen claims that addiction stems from "poverty of the spirit", caused by people becoming socially or psychologically dislocated from society. Taking crack or heroin allows them to be part of a drug-based subculture comprised of people with a common set of aims – hustling up money, procuring drugs, taking drugs, avoiding the police and so forth. Similarly, hooliganism allows people to be around likeminded individuals who spend their lives buying casual clothing, going to football games and fighting rival firms.
Whatever the reason for the unexpected levels of crack and heroin use among Britain's ageing hooligans, its consequences have clearly been devastating. Several hooligans I got to know during my ghost-writing days have killed themselves due to mental health issues relating to prolonged use of drugs including heroin and crack. Others have met an early death as a result of physical health problems relating to drug addiction.
While the majority of people are likely to have little sympathy for football hooligans, a closer inspection indicates that many use football violence as a mechanism for dealing with some heavy-duty demons. Now, it seems a significant minority of them have been struggling with heavy addictions, hurting themselves instead of rival thugs.