By Jon Spurling – @JonSpurling1 Illustration by Diego Patino
Originally published in Eight By Eight magazine
“Always a case of if you need to ask, you don’t need to know. Publicity is, was, and never will be welcomed.”
Such was one particularly ominous Twitter response I received after putting out feelers on Dainton Connell, a.k.a. the Bear. Due to his connections with the notorious Arsenal firm the Herd in the late 1970s and 1980s, Connell was arguably the most recognizable face on the Highbury terraces, before finding fame as the Pet Shop Boys’ gregarious security guard. In an era when mass arrests, pitch invasions, abandoned games, and terrace wars inside crumbling stadiums were de rigueur, he was larger than life.
In October 2007, at age 46, in Moscow, Connell died in a car crash while on tour with the Pet Shop Boys. Among the thousands of mourners at his Holloway funeral (the service was held at St. Mary Magdalene Church) were former Arsenal stars Lee Dixon and Ian Wright, boxer Frank Bruno, English broadcaster Janet Street Porter, and comedians Matt Lucas and David Walliams, of Little Britain fame. Half of Holloway Road had to be closed. In the first home game following his death, a lunchtime contest with Sunderland, more than 1,000 Arsenal supporters wore black and joined a procession past Highbury Stadium and onto the Emirates. Dozens of cards and wreaths were left propped against the two bronze cannons outside Arsenal’s new ground.
In 2004, in a greasy spoon café near Arsenal’s old ground, I interviewed Connell for my book, Highbury: The Story of Arsenal in N5. I hoped to learn more about terrace culture at Highbury in the 1980s. He was charming, polite, and funny—a cuddly bear. The only time we remotely bickered was over who would foot the bill for breakfast; he won that argument. But he gave little away about his controversial past as a football hooligan.
Even direct questions failed to elicit any kind of nuanced response. I asked why, unlike other “celebrity” hooligans—including Cass Pennant (West Ham) and Martin Knight (Chelsea)—he’d never seen fit to add to the growing “kick-lit” genre and tell his fascinating life story. A shake of his head, and we moved on. When pressed on specific incidents at Arsenal matches against Brighton and Millwall, he threatened to end the interview—albeit politely.
Connell had always sought to remain beneath the parapet when it came to his past. He took exception when Andy Nicholls—author of Hooligans—named him as “the main face” of Arsenal hooligans in the 1980s. He was furious when, in that book, Stoke fan Mark Chester recalled his side’s FA Cup clash with Arsenal at the Victoria Ground in 1990, claiming, “We had a bit of a shock when 400 game-as-fuck Gooners steamed us back into the paddock. ‘Where’s Denton [sic], the big black bastard?’ As he was singled out as their top lad.” Connell resented being named. “For him, all the terrace stuff was a long, long time ago, and the world had moved on,” recalls a former associate. But the stories persist.
Connell was born in Brighton in 1961 to parents who’d arrived from Jamaica. He moved to Wood Green and spent the rest of his life living and working in London. After leaving school at 16, he worked as a scaffolder until his late 20s, by which time he was watching Arsenal home and away. He loved “the whole feel of Highbury,” he told me, “and the sense of camaraderie in following your team. I also liked being on the terrace and the banter and the humor.”
He recalled attending Arsenal matches in the mid-’70s when the most notorious Highbury hooligan was Johnny Hoy. Six-feet-two and around 200 pounds, Hoy was an astute rabble rouser who organized Arsenal fans to fend off rival firms who tried to make inroads on the Highbury terraces. According to a Time Out article by Chris Lightbown in 1972, Hoy had more convictions for football violence than any other hoolie in London. Two of Connell’s associates claim that “everyone in that terrace scene at Arsenal was in awe of, and fully aware of, Hoy, and Dainton really looked up to him. The message was simple—you fight for Arsenal’s honor and defend your ground if you’re attacked.”
By 1977, Connell had his first brush with fame when he briefly spoke to English journalist and broadcaster Janet Street Porter about the fashion scene on the Kings Road for an ITV documentary. The interview not only demonstrated his interest in the music and fashion scenes, but also that, at 16, he was already confident, articulate, and had gravitas. He was arguably the most recognizable black face on the Highbury terraces.
By the late 1970s, a significant number of Afro-Caribbeans were attending Arsenal matches. Many, including Connell, were the children of parents who’d arrived in the United Kingdom during the immediate postwar era. Their experiences of visiting Highbury were mixed. Collins Campbell’s father arrived at Tilbury in 1953, and Collins, following bad experiences at both Stamford Bridge and Upton Park, visited Highbury: “There was more of an ethnic mix in the streets around the ground. My first time at Highbury coincided with Brendan Batson’s home debut against Sheffield United in March ’73. To be honest, I didn’t know anything about him before he ran out, so I was quite shocked to see him. I was also a bit nervous as to what reaction he’d get from the crowd. But again, the crowd was great. They chanted, ‘Batson, Batson,’ and he applauded them back. Everyone was really cool about it. He was our first black player and a big inspiration for many of us.”
Yet it would be an exaggeration to claim that racial harmony existed outside the ground. When I placed an ad in the Islington Gazette for information on aspects of Highbury history, I received three similar testimonies, citing problems at the exit to Arsenal tube station and in the maze of streets nearby. In the mid-’70s, National Front leader John Tyndall admitted, “We hope to swell our ranks by launching a recruitment campaign outside football grounds.”
The National Front made its presence felt around Highbury at the time, selling copies of Bulldog—the far-right magazine—and trying to recruit members. By the mid-’80s, their presence outside games—at least those at Highbury—had mostly ended. Collins Campbell explains, “Whilst it’s true that perhaps Arsenal fans as a whole were a little more open-minded than others—and that the police were proactive in a way they weren’t at other grounds—I know that Dainton was pretty handy at sorting these issues personally.”
Eyewitnesses recall Connell taking a hands-on approach with the far-right activists. Collins Campbell recalls, “On one occasion, he walked up to one guy and threatened him. The National Front guy shouted at him but backed off. Another time, Dainton grabbed the leaflets, laughed in a guy’s face, and walked off with them. It was hilarious, but there was a serious point behind what he was doing.” Another of Connell’s group recalled, “Out of respect to Dainton, you never would dream of using the N word in front of him. Because he was such a loyal friend and fan, a lot of the boys whom he knocked around with—who might have gone down that far-right route themselves—didn’t, mainly because of him. And they helped him keep the NF off the terraces, too. His influence was huge in that respect.”
Once in North London, Connell turned up to a National Front gathering with some mates from the Herd, barged his way to the front, and carried a Union Jack flag on a march. “That was his way,” recalled one of his friends. “He’d use irony, parody, humor—whatever—to calm what could be hugely tense situations. The look on blokes’ faces at those NF rallies when Dainton turned up was unbelievable. And of course Dainton would look at them as if to say: Well what are you going to do about it?, Their jaws hit the floor!”
Adept as he was with a joke and a smile, Connell was certainly no angel. He completed more than one prison stretch. A knife scar on his temple proved that the terrace battles often got seriously unpleasant. In an era when football hooliganism was described as the “English disease,” he was willing to wade in and use his fists and boots to make his point. In the early 1980s at Ashton Gate—home of Bristol City— he led a charge by the Herd that saw several City fans end up in hospital. One observer noted, the City fans “parted like the Red Sea.”
Afterward, there was a pitched battle on Bristol’s Westminster Road, which saw windows smashed and more fans taken to hospital. At Goodison Park, Connell used his fists and his boots during a battle with Everton fans, which exploded in the nearby streets. En route to away games, the Herd vandalized trains, urinated on floors, and screamed obscenities. A herd of animals—not cool, not clever. The list of Connell rumblings is almost endless. Winterslag away in 1981. Liverpool in 1983. What exactly happened? Connell replied, “Those that were there know, those that weren’t don’t need to know.”
Today he is held in higher esteem than other hooligans of that era. Perhaps it’s because in the aftermath he was the most garrulous of storytellers. “He could hold the attention of an entire carriage or pub,” recalls one Arsenal fan. “He’d get the whole place roaring with laughter. It was the way he delivered his stories—he had that much personality.” It’s also because Connell never sold out, unlike so many terrace fighters of his era. “It would have been so easy for him to have appeared on TV documentaries or whatever, given his celebrity connections, but Dainton valued friendship and loyalty more,” explains one of his friends. One member of the Herd says, “He was offered coin to do a book, but to make it a great book you have to name names, and he wasn’t a grass.”
A decade after his death, a mystique still surrounds him. On Mayday 1982, Arsenal prepared to take on West Ham at Highbury. For years, the Upton Park outfit’s notorious Inner City Firm (ICF) made it their business to infiltrate the North Bank. Before the latest clash between the Gunners and West Ham, word spread that the ICF was poised to launch another onslaught and that they were smuggling in potatoes stuffed with razor blades. The comparatively low attendance of 34,000 suggested that many people stayed away, fearing chaos. At 2:45, around 500 ICF members gathered at the top of the North Bank, ready to charge down the steps and join the throng. They unfurled a huge white banner, which had the hammers painted in claret and blue.
With trouble raging at the mouth of the North Bank, fighting broke out in the center, and on the wings. At 2:55, an enormous smoke bomb was detonated in the North Bank, engulfing the terrace for a good five minutes. The tabloids reported that West Ham fans were responsible; in fact, Arsenal fans set it off. Rumors persist to this day that Dainton Connell was behind the explosion. One Gunners fan comments, “It was designed to show the West Ham fans that the North Bank belonged to Arsenal fans. Everyone said it was Dainton, although his associates insist he was at the Clock End.” There were other, conflicting accounts as to Connell’s whereabouts that afternoon. In any case, West Ham supporters never again launched a serious attempt to invade the North Bank.
After the match, an Arsenal fan was stabbed to death in Arsenal tube station. Football violence reached a new pitch at Highbury that day. Despite the history of terrace trouble on London derby day, this was the first—and last—time that the ultimate cost of hooliganism became apparent at Highbury. Increased policing and security cameras meant that from then on, fighting between rival firms was squeezed out onto the streets.
Connell remained high-profile through the 1980s, and was again at the forefront during a tear-up with Millwall supporters at the Clock End in January 1988. He is also credited with coining the term Gooner. In the 1980s, word spread that Tottenham fans, in a forthcoming North London derby, were going to mock their Arsenal counterparts by calling them goons. Connell pre-empted Tottenham’s verbal insult by adopting it for Arsenal hooligans. He admitted, “It was originally used by a group of us as our nickname, and although nowadays thousands of Arsenal fans describe themselves as Gooners and there is a fanzine called The Gooner, it certainly wasn’t a widely used phrase back in the day.” I pushed one last question his way, “So is it true that you invented the term Gooner?” “Oh,” he replied, “I wouldn’t say that.”
Connell mellowed as the 1980s came to a close. He continued to follow Arsenal, though, and when Michael Thomas grabbed Arsenal’s late and dramatic winner at Anfield in May 1989 to win their first league title in 18 years, he can clearly be seen pogoing up and down in the Arsenal end, his jester’s hat bobbing. By then, he’d been employed by the Pet Shop Boys to take care of their security, along with friend and fellow fan Peter Andreas. He used his charm and quirky humor (singing daft songs or semi-crushing would-be troublemakers in a bear hug) to prevent trouble.
Pet Shop Boys singer Chris Lowe recalls: “Dainton struck up friendships wherever he went, in any country. He was recognized everywhere, unlike Neil [Tennant] and me!” Whether at an Elton John fancy dress party in white tie and tails, or Matt Lucas’s 30th birthday bash as Dickens character Mr. Pickwick, Connell was happy to mix with anyone, from Brian Eno to former Sex Pistols frontman (and Arsenal fan) John Lydon. A natural showman, he performed with the Pet Shop Boys, appearing in their “So Hard” video from the 1990s and taking his place at the front of the stage in their “Somewhere” residency at the Savoy Theatre. Production artist Sam Taylor-Wood, who largely conceptualized the show, photographed him with a 360-degree camera for her 1998 artwork, Five Revolutionary Seconds X111, while he read a small book of poetry.
As the Pet Shop Boys toured less frequently, Connell juggled family life (he was father to three children) with security work and managing an Oxford Street luggage shop. On the night of the fatal accident in Moscow, he had enjoyed champagne and beluga caviar with the Pet Shop Boys and their entourage and was being driven to a club called The Roof, when the driver lost control and crashed into a tree, and the car plunged into a river.
His name divides opinion. After his death, Arsenal Football Club was criticized by his friends for refusing to allow the wake to be held in their hospitality rooms. Two years later, Islington Borough Council voted to remove a plaque to him on a roundabout near the Emirates Stadium. Yet hooligan-themed message boards (many password protected) are laden with (often) cryptic anecdotes about the Bear, and the Herd’s exploits.
Thirty-one years after the Sunday Times described football as “a slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people,” the game has been changed beyond recognition by astronomical injections of cash from TV deals. Yet there remains an insatiable lust for tales of terrace battles, and for the camaraderie and the thrill of the fight from that era. The memory of Dainton Connell—loyal friend, freedom fighter, showbiz personality, Arsenal fan, and football hooligan—still looms large in the mind of anyone who crossed his path. And, I expect, it always will.
— Published: March, 2017
This article originally appeared in issue 10 of Eight by Eight, a quarterly magazine.