Blood, guts and milk crates: a history of the Black Country derby
Are the hooligans still among us?
By Jack Walton
Word was, some pubs opened at 5am. It was an early kick off, after all. The day's first arrest came before a ball had been kicked: 16 years old, carrying an offensive weapon in a pub. By not long after 1pm, a 400-strong block of West Midlands Police, riot cops included, were on the pitch and in the stands, trying to break up a massive ruckus. The police had cancelled their annual leave for the fixture. One of them was pushed down the stairs for his troubles.
By the evening, the Prime Minister had weighed in, calling for criminal charges. Arrests two, three, four, five, and six quickly followed.
A photo of one man — seen in hand-held camera footage from the stands jockeying with police officers at the front of a bustling mob of West Brom fans, before lunging forth and landing a right hook on one officer’s nose — went viral on social media after he was lead away by police with blood dripping down his face.
Last weekend’s events at the Black Country derby recalled the so-called ‘dark days’ of English football: when hooliganism made regular national headlines in the 1980s. Perhaps that’s a touch exaggerated, but if any game was going to resurrect those ghosts, there was a good chance it would be Wolves and West Brom.
Five professional football clubs occupy Birmingham and the Black Country, their various resentments overlapping and interweaving like pieces of string on a detective’s evidence board. Birmingham and Villa hate each other, obviously — but then everyone else hates Villa, too. Birmingham and West Brom used to hate each other, though that one’s died down a bit. Birmingham and Wolves have a ‘firm’ rivalry dating back years; there’s also a bit of mutual respect in there too (at least between the hooligan elements). Walsall hate everyone, but no one cares much about Walsall, which they find infuriating. But perhaps none of them have the boiling over capacity of the Black Country derby.
“We’re all quite similar but really don’t want to be similar,” laughs Russ Cockburn, a Wolves fan who has been to more than 500 away games. “We all live in different towns in the Black Country close together.” The commonalities don’t end with geography. Both are historic clubs, titans of the English game from a pre-money era that today feels practically mediaeval. Of course, Wolves have hauled themselves back up closer to the top in recent years (they have players with names like Neto and Cunha, compared to West Brom’s Townsends and Furlongs) but over the years this has been a glamourless, old-school clash between clubs with more in common than they dare admit. The narcissism of small differences.
Russ notes that the violence must have been a scary experience for families at the game, especially those with young children, though he wasn’t worried himself. “We were just laughing at them, for the most part,” he says. “Like that bloke in his technicolour dreamcoat” (on of the fans who broke past police was wearing an especially standout patchwork coat).
Russ — as well as the other supporters we spoke to — are keen to point out these events involve a minority of fans and are pretty rare at football games these days. The phrase “a minority of idiots” was being bandied around at full-time by journalists and pundits. Nevertheless, hooliganism has cast a shadow over this fixture for years. On the Wolves side is the Subway Army, led by the Burberry-shirt–wearing Gilroy Shaw, the ‘Godfather’ of hooligans (as the tabloid press call him) who was once banned from every ground in the land. And in the West Brom corner is Section 5, which took over from the Clubhouse and the Smethwick Mob in the ’80s and was unique in its mixed ethnic composition at a time of homogeneity.
In both cases, the glory days have long passed. In the early 2000s, an upstart group of Wolves fans calling themselves Young Wolves wanted to lay claim to their throne. Then-WMP Superintendent John Colston described the Young Wolves as a group of “particularly nasty supporters” in a 2002 letter to former Wolves president Sir Jack Hayward, requesting the banning of “The Liquidator” before games — a ska track by Jamaican band Harry J Allstars with easily adaptable lyrics (“Fuck off [insert team name]!”) — from games. “I feel it sad that with all the serious crime in Wolverhampton,” Colston wrote, “I have to spend time composing a letter requesting that the record is not played at football matches. I really do have better things to do with my time.”
In the 2009 book Sons of Albion, written by three ex-West Brom ‘firm’ members, you’ll find all manner of charming anecdotes about the history of the local fixture. The time, for example, in the Wheatsheaf during the ’95/’96 season when Section 5 found 40-odd Wolves lads drinking in the sun and “went straight into them”. Or the “military operation”-style scrap on Halfords Lane in the lane ’90s where a few lads ended up getting bitten by police dogs. Or the disputed tale of what went down at West Brom’s Halfway House in ’98 (the Wolves lot, in particular Gilly Shaw, claim they gave West Brom a beating here, but Section 6 insist they merely “smashed the fuck out of an almost empty pub — except for a few old Asians playing cards”). As Big Jon, one of the book’s authors, writes eloquently, another incident (this time at the Fox and Dogs) proves just why Gilly Shaw is not to be trusted, and in fact demonstrates just “how treacherous he is”. I’ll save you the whole anecdote, but it includes the Fox and Dogs, as well as The Vines pubs, an assortment of missiles “including bottles, bricks and glasses” and at one stage someone getting “a good hiding with an old milk crate”.
All good things must end, though. Walk through West Brom on a Saturday afternoon now and you’re unlikely to see the tools of a milkman’s trade redeployed as weapons of assault. Gilly’s alleged fibbing still stings though. West Brom fans on the concourse before last weekend’s game had a hearty chorus of “Gilly’s full of shit”. “As I suspected,” tweeted an account that appears to be a pardoy of Shaw on the morning of the game. “Not one Albion has turned up in Wheatley Street in Darlaston at 9.15am…This shows they don’t want it.”
This, largely, is the image we have of football hooliganism in the 21st century. Middle-aged men writing books about who won what scrap 30 years ago, and tweeting their frustrations that things have moved on (“youth of today av lost there bottle,” the Shaw parody lamented last weekend). But that isn’t to say the hooligan spirit has gone away entirely. Former West Midlands policeman Michael Layton is one man who believes the hooligans are still among us. He even wrote a book about it in 2017. The title? The Hooligans Are Still Among Us.
In Layton’s view, only two things have changed since the heyday of hooliganism: the scale of the organisations and the technology they have behind them. Scale-wise, things are clearly diminished: modern firms have less sophisticated organisational structures than their predecessors, which had leaders, photographers, intelligence gatherers, spotters, police, weapon carriers, and foot soldiers. But the latter development actually makes it harder for police to keep things under control. “Hooligans move very quickly,” Layton says. “Everyone now has mobile phones — the ability of these groups to move quicker than police is sometimes quite apparent.”
That isn’t what happened last Saturday, of course. According to Layton, events like those can be explained by what he sees as a three-tiered hierarchy of hooligans. At the top are organised hooligans like Shaw and Section 5, men who have known each other for years who — despite having often been banned from grounds over the years, — “never went away entirely”. Then you’ve got the “up and comers”, such as Young Wolves, who are trying to prove themselves and find acceptance among the mainstays. And finally, the hangers-on — “normal people” working ordinary 9-5s through the week, who (whether because of drink, drugs or just the adrenaline of the moment) find themselves caught up in the mix. It’s primarily the latter that caused the crowd surge last Saturday, Layton believes, moreso than the serious, organised elements.
How about another theory? After the game, the researcher and lecturer Dr Stephan Lawrence tweeted: “when you mix up economic strain, the symbolic violence of fandom, and then throw in a clash over bragging rights, [West Brom vs Wolves] was the perfect storm for a minority to get carried away”. His inclusion of “economic strain” caught attention. Research has shown that football violence and economic deprivation are correlated, and in recent years areas of West Brom have ranked among the most deprived in the country. But when I spoke to fans before the Wolves Man Utd game a week later, they made little of the suggestion.
I ask Arthur, a Wolves fan wearing a Wolves puffer jacket and a Wolves hat in a Wolves pub, what he makes of this particular theory. He’s not buying it. “It's just a bunch of hard men, isn’t it? Or men who think they’re hard men, I should say,” he scoffs. His son Morgan, a mini-me only with a tad less Wolves attire, is similarly dismissive. “Load of shit, that,” he tells me.
For someone like Arthur, who has followed his team since the late ’70s, football violence has always been peripheral. Of course he knows of Gilly Shaw — he’s been in the same pubs as him various times over the years, he’s heard all the stories, and he’s got friends who have been mixed up in it to varying degrees — but I get the sense he finds it all a bit tedious to talk about. “That’s not what going to the football’s all about,” he says. “It never was”.