The fact that I was born in the '80s rather than grew up in the decade meant that I got involved in the football casual scene on tail end of its glory days. Many would say it was over long before I came along, but the scene was still vibrant with lads of all ages involved when I started going, a decent mix of dressing and violence, if significantly scaled down compared to the generation before me.
There have already been an exhaustive amount of essays and studies written on why young lads get together to fight at football, so I'll save you the psychoanalytic bollocks and come straight in with rule number one: no matter how straight we walk or how we dress ourselves up, we as men are animals, tribal, and be it for pride, sport or survival, we willfight each other. Rule number two is that within those base instincts, that raw aggression and the uncontrolled environment, your body jolts into survival mode and pumps a dose of adrenaline so fiercely through your blood that it creates a rush more intense than any drug I've experienced. It's that feeling which makes it so addictive.
After a few years having the time of my life, touring the country and continent engaging in recreational violence with my mates, I began to see the scene I loved changing. Films like Football Factory and Green Street had been released, and with them came a new generation of 'casuals' who I recognised none of myself or my mates in. As far as I knew, if you wanted to knock about with a mob as a youngun you had to show a bit of respect to the older heads, recognise there's a way of doing things, and above all show that at the very least you'd stand your ground in a row.
With these lads it was solely about emulating a lifestyle they'd seen on screen: wearing the right clothes, using the right words, listening to the right music, toying with the violent aspects but not wanting to get their hands dirty. These boys weren't from the same stock as the past three decades of casuals in Britain, the football factory had got a new supplier and was knocking out cheap synthetic copies. Cardboard cut-out casuals.
If you don't believe me, do a Twitter search for 'casuals' or 'awaydays' on the morning of a match day. You'll be greeted with hundreds of muppets across the country sporting their spiky hair and Stoney gear, or posing fully goggled up in their Migs. They'll either be pulling a well'ard face or looking solemnly at their trainers in some grey urban landscape, desperately trying to create a lifestyle they've pieced together from books and films. The reality is chaps, football violence isn't a scene from Kes. Do you think lads in the '80s had time to take photos of their footwear while some mental Scouser tried to stab them up the arse?
Before I get accused of being a grumpy old bastard longing for days gone by and moaning about the youth of today - I'm still in my twenties. Admitedly I don't go to football anymore - HMCS and the Football Banning Order Association have decided I'm not responsible enough to go within a mile of any football ground in the country, presumably for fear I might erupt into a frothing rage at the sight of a blue and white scarf and whack a load of pensioners. But what I experienced was that my generation were the last to uphold, or at least try in the face of an ever growing police presence, the core values of the football casual.
For me, the realisation that the game was over came one morning at our local derby. Our rivals had arrived early and got themselves into a boozer off the beaten track. The usual phone calls ensued. Muffled voices, crowds of heads gathering round the blower like a family sat around the wireless for the Queen's speech. They were over the road.
Drinks slammed down, caps on, single file out the side exit. Look both ways, no old bill. Touch. Across the road and straight in through the double doors we went, waiting for the roar to go up, jacket up, cap down, ready to shield the bottles that I knew were about to come raining down any second...
They got up and ran. Literally ran past us, heads ducked down, and out the door. Teenagers. Kids with frightened looks on their faces. Sorry mate, we don't want to play any more. Give us our ball back and we can go home.
You see, they thought they were on the phone to their equivalents, the young pretenders like themselves (and believe me we had them the same as everybody did) who'd jump around in the street shouting until the police separated them and they could claim a result for simply being there. When it transpired that they'd actually riled up a sizeable group of twenty-to-forty somethings who were intent on causing damage, and without the salvation of the police escort anywhere around, I saw their faces turn pale.
For me and the majority of mates my age, regardless of club, we got into it because we wanted a row. We were of a different generation to the original 70s and 80s terrace lads, it wasn't something all the kids in our area were into, there were no running battles of 200 up and down streets on the news every week to excite us, it was very tight and close knit, you were there because you wanted to be there. More often than not you'd wait all day and nothing would happen, but if it did there was no front line to hide behind, no mele to lose yourself in, and a large chance you were going to get a pinch for it in the forthcoming weeks. We knew the risks involved, but like every other like-minded lad up and down the country who bounced out of their front door full of energy on a Saturday morning, we were proud of our area, our team, and each other, and we'd take every opportunity to show it.
Yes we liked to look smart; we queued up in the morning for the latest adidas city series, we spent the equivalent of a Burkina Faso's GDP on a jacket we had no right to be bowling around in at our age, but the image was always an add-on. Don't get me wrong, it was important. It told the world you had a bit more about you than the beer bellied lager lout in a replica shirt, it let the opposing lads (and paradoxically for a movement which was born out of the desire to avoid attention, the police) know that you'd arrived and what you were there for, but it wasn't enough to just stick on an expensive jacket and bowl around calling it on, you had to back it up or come unstuck very quickly.
There were fellas at the football who'd turn up in a pair of Reebok Classics and the same Lacoste polo every game, but would back you to the last man even if, from my own experience, it meant beatings or nickings. Believe me, when you get that sudden jolt in your belly, when you're outnumbered and it's about to come on top, I'd rather have one of them next to me than a dozen blokes worried about getting beer on their vintage adidas Pandoras, no matter how smart they look. These days, I'm not so sure the mentality is the same.
But as CCTV footage, police escorts and draconian, civil liberty infringing Section 27/60s became a weekly occurrence, people could get away with calling themselves a football casual without actually having to have had a row in their life. And in a close-knit mob like ours where your liaison copper knows the majority of you on first name terms, nobody's taking any needless risks to have it with Norwich on a Tuesday night (easier said than done, admittedly).
So what now for the football casual? Is he to become like his Mod cousin, a striking reminder of Britain's past cultural flair but of no current, social importance? Merely a uniform coupled with a redundant mindset, an instruction manual for an out-of-production lifestyle. Will you find him not in the plastic bowl arenas of modern middle class soccer, but at nationwide conventions, with ageing lads and wide-eyed newbies having a beer and comparing adidas or CP Urban Protection gear? Forgive me if I seem dejected, but I've never been one for treading water culturally. When the game's up, as it now is, move on, leave the past where it is and find a way to express yourself in your own time. After all, wasn't it that attitude which gave the casuals life in the first place?