Two things struck me when I read about all those Chelsea fans being horrendous dickheads in Paris a couple of weeks ago. First, how depressing it is that this kind of shit still happens in 2015; second, that the press were using the phrases “football hooliganism” and “racism” almost interchangeably.
Obviously chanting racist stuff is an act of hooliganism, but there are distinctions to be made; I’ve met various members of various different firms, and while the majority have had radical political beliefs of one kind or another, just as many have been left-wing as right.
One from the former lot is Andrew “Little Benny” Bennion, the founding member of Man City’s Young Guvnors firm. His political orientation is pretty hard left (he believes we should abolish money and revert to a bartering system), and was responsible for keeping the National Front away from Man City’s ground during many of his years as an active hooligan in the 1980s.
I caught up with him recently to find out his views on the media merging of right-wing politics and football firm affiliation.
VICE: The media has compared the Paris train incident to hooliganism during the 70s and 80s. Would you say that’s fair?
Benny: What, people with braces and Doc Martens and “love” and “hate” tattooed across their hands and all that? It ain’t the case. I suppose they’re making that association because the National Front had a hold on Chelsea when the NF was at its peak. If you look at Chelsea as an area, it’s very rich and conservative, and if you’ve got a lot of things to conserve, you tend to be protective against the idea that you might have to share them with another group of people.
If you came to City’s ground back in the day, you’d land in the middle of Moss Side, which is pretty representative of lots of areas of the city – people have very little, so they are more liberal and less conservative. That’s why right-wing supporters tend to be from richer places. Really, if you look at Kent and the Home Counties and the hooligans from those areas, lots of them are racist because they’re all rich areas.
Here’s a good analogy; when I was a kid, I used to sleep rough from time to time, because my step-mam was emotionally abusive and neglectful towards me at home. One freezing winter’s night, I huddled up underneath the doormat of an upmarket block of flats for warmth, and this bloke came out shouting at me, accusing me of stealing the doormat. Another equally cold night, I slept under some newspapers in a bin shed outside a house in Gorton, which is an ordinary, working-class area, where nobody has a lot. An old woman came out of the house in the morning and offered me a cup of tea. I guess the same thing is happening on a national scale, with Chelsea fulfilling the role of the bloke from the posh flats.
In previous conversations that I’ve had with you, you’ve linked hooliganism to the class struggle. Can you say a bit about that?
Well, as I say, rich conservatives who own a lot of things are also the quickest to crack down on anything that has a hint of danger or violence involved in it. That’s because, in the past, if a man had a horse, someone could come up to him and say, “I’ll fight you for that horse.” The two men would have a fair fight and the winner would walk away with the horse. Nowadays, the powers-that-be want to restrain the working classes as much as possible when it comes to anything that hints that they might try and use their might to gain something; look at the way the miners got treated. The elite and the government try to belittle and deride hooligans so much, but they’ve taken so much from us that our fists are the only things we’ve got left that give us power.
You were involved in imposing an unofficial ban on National Front leafleting outside Maine Road, Man City’s old ground. Can you tell me about that?
During the early-1980s, where I lived in Gorton, all of the houses were coming down and new estates were being built. Some people nicknamed these estates “the Paki estate” and “WIMPEY”, which stood for “We Import More Pakis Every Year”.
Some of the much older lads that I knew from the football would also regularly talk badly about blacks, which I didn’t like, because I knew a few black lads who also went to the matches. The riots in Moss Side, Toxteth and Brixton were still fresh in people’s minds, so racial tension and racism were definitely prominent. With all this in mind, it isn’t surprising that, when I first heard of the NF, they were gaining support. They were also boosted by the Falklands War and all the Thatcherite patriotic nonsense that The Sun was spouting at the time.
By the time I was emerging onto the hooligan scene, the NF had a grip on City, and would stand outside our ground, handing leaflets out. I had a lot of black friends from Moss Side, and the skinheads caused trouble for the residents there, stoked up by the NF, so we decided to turn those idiots away, because that’s what we regarded the National Front as being: a bunch of idiots. They weren’t there for football or there for what we were there for, and they were causing disharmony. At the end of the day, if you’re in another team’s city centre one day and there’s five of you and two are black, you aren’t going to say, “I can’t talk to you; you’re black” – it doesn’t make any sense. City needed unity, and the NF were intent on trying to ruin it. We said to them, “You can keep your leaflets and fuck off. We don’t want you here. You aren’t welcome, and there’ll be trouble if you come back.”
Given that you’re clearly opposed to racism, what are your opinions on the media conflation of hooliganism and right-wing politics?
It creates an image of hooligans as being dim-witted idiots in bovver boots, but really, in the firms, there’s a democracy that doesn’t exist in other places in society. The powers-that-be criticise us, but everybody has a say, which I think is a sign of truly being cultured. A lot of the lads I know are the opposite of what the media paints us as. I’d say that a high percentage of the right-wing ends up at the football, but I wouldn’t say that the majority of football fans are right-wing by any means. At the end of the day, people who are into all that are just sheep. You can’t have a democracy that only consists of our culture; democracy is about accepting differences.
The media almost never mentions anything about radical left-wing hooligans. Why do you think that is?
They like to pigeonhole people. At a lot of EDL marches now, there’s just as many hooligans there who are making clear that they’re against what the EDL stands for as there are who are taking part in the marches.
I take it you don’t approve of the EDL?
No, I don’t like them. The members I’ve seen on the TV spouting off at the marches just seem clueless. The hooligans who go in for that kind of thing are usually from smaller towns. You get a lot from Shrewsbury and Northampton and places like that. There’s probably fewer EDL members from Manchester than there are from other places because it’s so cosmopolitan.
So, to sum up, what’s your message to people who think that all football hooligans are right-wing?
Don’t believe everything that you read in the papers. You can rightfully level a lot of different accusations towards us, but that isn’t one of them.
First Published by VICE: March 5th 2015