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Flogging a Dead Ralph Lauren Horse
By Rod Belfitt
“… coming over and having a pint after the match? ....” - I would readily drink with my closest mates anywhere in the world. Even if I got a shout from them to go for a happy hour session in the Bear & Kalashnikov in Tbilisi, I’d try and put one in. But “a few quiet drinks” and “local derby” are not phrases that sit comfortably together when it comes to their football team and some of the mob affiliated to it. Both mates concerned undertook their hooligan tours of duty back in the 1980s. They were well-known within local circles and could always be relied on whenever it got nasty, as it frequently did back then. Two lads, just like many others in towns and cities all over Britain, who were involved in football’s extra-curricular activities when it seemed to count for something but then grew up and moved on, as most of us did. They still love their football team, the clothes and all the so-called culture going to the match once entailed and embraced but the desire to meet up and kick lumps out of mirror images of themselves went west a long time ago. And so it was that I came to travel over from the split-support hinterland we live in between their team and their biggest rivals for a Saturday afternoon on the ale
I walked into Swerve, the bar DJ said they would be in, and immediately wished I’d given it a large one. It was rammed. And rammed full of a mob I didn’t even recognise. For one mad moment, the thought entered my mind that a load of the opposition support had somehow given the police the slip after the game and managed to fill Swerve unopposed. I managed to negotiate the full length of the lower bar and was walking up the stairs before I finally saw someone I knew. The place wasn’t just full of younger ones who I wouldn’t expect to know anyway. There were gangs nearer my own age group and older who I’d never seen before – all Fjallravened and embarrassed Lyle & Scott eagles trying to fly off from their owners jumpers. And being worn by people who, unless my memory deserted me around the time I sold on my first Fila tracksuit top, certainly weren’t part of the local scene twenty-five years ago. Why? What the fuck possesses a middle-aged man to suddenly decide to become part of a football firm, running around with men young enough to be his children?
As I stood at the top of the stairs looking around for friendly faces, I felt a tap on the shoulder and I finally saw someone else I knew. It was DJ in possibly the smartest Hackett coat ever made, a beautifully-crafted navy bubble coat without a name or label in sight. He was also wearing the grin of a man who’d been on the ale since nine in the morning, had just seen his team complete the double over their bitterest rivals and then sunk several post-match bottles of Swerve’s reassuringly expensive £3:30 Stella to celebrate. Bernard was also with him and in a similar state of euphoria. It’s a safe bet to say that Bernard is the only man in the world who has not only stood and fronted 30 Leicester Baby Squad on his own outside a Kings Cross public house but also read virtually the entire literary output of Oscar Wilde. It’s probably such a contradiction that helps explain why we’ve been good mates for donkey’s years. From the understated plain green canvas kagoule and his fourth-pair-in-reserve Adidas Kegler Bernard was wearing to New Order bootlegs to the films of Steve McQueen or Sean Penn to Argentinian football to the Sopranos (still, nearly ten years on), we’re never short of anything to talk about during our drinking sessions. Not that there was ever likely to be much in the way of a Culture Show open forum on the new Andy Warhol Paris exhibition in Swerve that afternoon. Just a bar, in the main, full of young men needing to let off steam and ones old enough to really know better, most hoping for the chance of a row with another like-minded set of reprobates.
After a couple more bottles and a full match report (condensed version: “…played shite but it doesn’t matter when its three points against them …”), both DJ and Bernard were ready to move on, all of us fancying a drink somewhere we could get served a bit quicker. Bernard suggested Fillerys, a bar we usually drank in when we came over on non-match Saturdays that was just a ripped-out Luton seat’s throw away. As we exited Swerve via the back door, a large group of the younger ones were stood outside with an OSD van reversing up the street. Someone had supposedly walked past the van and attempted to put a smoke canister/nuclear warhead under the van (delete as applicable depending on who told you and how much ale you’d consumed). We kept on walking as the sound of a bottle breaking followed by a chant of “Harry Roberts is Our Friend” filled the air. We just looked at each other and shook our heads laughing. Young lads aping something they’d seen Millwall doing on a BBC2 documentary a few years previously. All that was missing was some of the older bluffers with them donning 70s Casuals surgical masks …..
As we walked into Fillerys, I thought we had indeed gone right back to 1978. The Doobie Brothers “What A Fool Believes” was playing over the speakers. One fucking tune and a half. Whenever people throw up the topic of songs that you shouldn’t really like but do, it’s one that’s right up at the top of my list. Reminds me of all-day football in the park when we were kids. The World Cup in Argentina. School discos. Playing Thin Lizzy’s “Live and Dangerous” and the Pistols “Never Mind the Bollocks …” to death. And Hugh Johns calling John McGovern “Johnny McGovern” when he notched for Forest, for some mad reason that Freud would struggle to fathom. My head full of nonsensical mud that is, as opposed to the ATV commentary on an East Midlands derby on a Baseball Ground pitch full of even more mud. As we were getting served, Goodlass strode up to the bar. Goodlass is harmless enough but does love to play the “main lad” role to the max. Even I’d heard of incidents he’d put himself not only present at but at the very forefront of when tales were being told in the pub afterwards, even though he’d been nowhere near. He was wearing what could only be described as one bad day at the Milano office for Giorgio Armani – an awful PVC-effect hooded coat that would have had the fashion police death squads out looking to strike a line through the name “Armani” on their hit list, just under “Versace”. The reason I knew it was Armani was because I’d seen the badge on Goodlass’s chest all the way from outside Swerve while he was already in Fillerys, it was that fucking big. To top it off with a top hat, he was wearing a Stone Island top hat with the compass logo on the front. Actually it was a baseball cap, but it couldn’t have been any less funnier or conspicuous if it had been a top hat. “Alright, Rod?” – “yup – twat of a coat that though, Kev lad”. I just couldn’t help myself. It’s not bad manners, I’d like to think I’ve been brought up better than that, but a form of casual Tourettes I’ve suffered from for years. Whenever I see something that badly wrong, it flares up. Bad trainers, inappropriate tattoos, increasingly bad haircuts, ear-rings, played-out labels. And that’s only on women, let alone “casuals”. The look on Goodlass’s face was priceless. You could almost see the cogs inside the top boy top hat moving into gear – “… what the fuck does that cunt know, in his bad snorkel and fucking old Nike? And that jumper he’s wearing hasn’t even got a badge on …”. But the words never came out of his mouth. Because, as we have established, actually having to do something is not Goodlass’s forte. Just another lad still craving to be a someone in a scene that not only moved on but fucked off for good years ago. A bit like wearing a green MA1 flying jacket and oxblood Doc Martens to a Basement Jaxx gig (followers of Olympique Marseille excepted …)
Despite the best efforts of Michael MacDonald and the Doobie Brothers, the atmos in Fillerys stank and it wasn’t of Paul Smith Extreme aftershave. A Gary Cooper High Noon matchday kick-off at the police’s insistence meant we were now at 7pm PMT (Plod Mean Time) when it was only 4pm and you sensed it was only a matter of time before some variant of drink-and-cocaine-fuelled nonsense was going to be in the offing. Over by the windows, some of the older younger ones were getting restless and had been ringing their opposition counterparts, hoping they’d turn up later. Two hours later, they would indeed be fighting. Not with their rivals but with older members of their own mob as the police resorted to sending their dog handlers into Fillerys in an attempt to quell the trouble. You didn’t exactly need to be Nostradamus or Tony Montana to see it coming. We’d got off after one drink in Fillerys and taxied it back over to the neutral Switzerland of our local for a well-earned slice of Japan’s “Quiet Life”. That was at least until one of the active generalissimos felt the need to ring Bernard to give him a running commentary of the internal squabblefest.
The next time anyone who had been in Fillerys that afternoon would get an actual sighting of the rival mob would be on their television screens the following week. That Saturday’s opposition turned up in all their bad-trainered glory on one of those Donal-MacIntyre-suckholes-the-police CCTV programmes, looking in the main as badly dressed in 2009 as they had been well-dressed back in 1984. Not that many of the original eighties participants would have been present. More men old enough to know better and old enough to have been involved first-time round but quite possibly weren’t, acting up for the benefit of the cameras. A programme that, irony-of-ironies, carried an Adidas advertisement during one of the commercial breaks. Not quite as subliminal in its placement as the Fred Perry and Stanley Tools advertising hoardings around Goodison Park in the late seventies but there you go. That’s casual 2009 for you. Where even fucking Hollyoaks is carrying a football hooligan storyline (Wrexham Frontline lad dies laughing on Mold Road at some Chester beaut’s carefully-sculptured hairdo). Where every impressionable footsoldier believes everything they read on internet messageboards and in Stoke City hooligan books and blatant lies become accepted as the gospel truth. Where men who definitely weren’t there first time around attempt to regale lads who actually were with their tales of Chelsea, Arsenal and Leeds away, sounding more like an audition for woeful nonsense like “It’s a Casual Life”. And victory in a local derby is celebrated by fighting amongst yourselves ….
Two weeks later, the next home fixture for DJ and Bernard saw 400 Harry the Dog and surgical-mask-free Millwall herded from train station to ground and back by over 600 on-duty constabulary. Later that same day, two British soldiers were shot dead at a Northern Ireland army base by the Real IRA. The line in Kevin Sampson’s seminal 1983 Face terrace fashion article about football violence being as curable a disease as the troubles in Ulster immediately sprang to mind. Except that despite the efforts of some bigoted diehards on both sides of the sectarian divide who refuse to accept that Northern Ireland has moved on, the province has finally has done so. Nearly twenty-six years after Sampson’s comparison, it is football hooliganism, its recent converts - young and old – and the addicted refusniks who cannot give it up that are stuck - quite literally - in No Surrender mode …..
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