Football violence in history

"I protest unto you that it may rather be called a frendly kind of fyghte than a play or recreation - a bloody and muthering practice than a fellowly sport or pastime. For dooth not everyone lye in waight for his adversarie, seeking to overthrowe him and picke him on his nose, though it be uppon hard stones? In ditch or dale, in valley or hill, or whatever place it be hee careth not so he have him down. And he that can serve the most of this fashion, he is counted the only felow, and who but he?"

Phillip Stubbs. The Anatomy of Abuses 1583

Medieval origins

Football has been associated with violence ever since its early beginnings in 13th century England. The original ‘folk’ form of the game, most often played on Shrove Tuesdays and other Holy Days, involved only slightly structured battles between the youth of neighbouring villages and towns. The presence of a ball, in the form of a leather-bound inflated pig’s bladder, was almost incidental to this semi-legitimised opportunity for settling old scores, land disputes, and engaging in 'manly', tribal aggression. Parallels existed in other European countries, such as the German Knappen and the Florentine calcio in costume, but the roots of the modern game are to be found firmly in these ancient English traditions.

These calendrical rituals, often accompanied by extended bouts of drinking, quite regularly resulted in serious injuries and even death to the participants. To a large extent, however, they constituted what Elias and Dunning1  have described as "an equilibrating type of leisure activity deeply woven into the warp and woof of society". While the sporadic outbursts of violence at contemporary football matches in Europe give rise to almost hysterical sanction, our ancestors found nothing particularly strange or sinister in these far bloodier origins of the modern game.

This sanguine tolerance of football violence was not, however, universal and as early as the 14th century there were calls for controls on the game. These stemmed not so much from moral disquiet about the violent consequences of football but from the fact that, by driving ordinary citizens away from the market towns on match days, it was bad for business. When the game spread to London, played out by rival groups of apprentices, orders forbidding the sport were swift. Nicholas Farndon, the Mayor of London, was the first to issue such a proclamation in 1314:

"And whereas there is a great uproar in the City through certain tumults arising from the striking of great footballs in the field of the public - from which many evils perchance may arise - which may God forbid - we do command and do forbid, on the King's behalf, upon pain of imprisonment, that such games shall not be practised henceforth within this city."

The effect of this proclamation, however, was limited and, despite numerous arrests, the games continued. Fifteen further attempts to control the sport were made by 1660 and elsewhere in England and Scotland similar, largely ineffective, bans were issued.  The Scots were no less passionate about their warring game. At the turn of the 17th century Scottish football was characterised by:

"… its association with border raids and forays and with violence generally.  Often a football match was the prelude to a raid across the Border, for the same hot-headed young men were game for both, and the English authorities learnt to keep their eyes on the footballers."2

Throughout the 17th century we find reports of several hundred football players destroying drainage ditches and causing mayhem in the towns. By the 18th century the game took on a more overt political significance. A match in Kettering, for example, consisting of 500 men per side, was a scarcely disguised food riot in which the object was to loot a local grain store. The authorities became, not unnaturally, rather nervous.

The transformation of the game itself from an unregulated battle on an ill-defined field of play to the modern rule-governed sport  came largely as a result of  urbanisation and industrialisation which corralled the traditional battlefield game into smaller and smaller arenas.

Soon, the disorder of the game itself aroused harsh judgement. "In 1829, a Frenchman who saw a football match in Derby asked 'If this is what they call football, what do they call fighting?'"3 

Taming the game

It was in the arena of the public schools  that the unruliness of the pastime became a cause for alarm among the educators of England's privileged sons.  The older boys exercised complete power over the younger 'fags' and would enlist them into the game on their behalf whereupon:

"…the enemy tripped, shinned, charged with the shoulder, got you down and sat upon you…in fact might do anything short of murder to get the ball from you."4  

Where countless other masters had been terrorised by their pupils, Dr Thomas Arnold, the headmaster at Rugby from 1828 succeeded in tempering the wild and brutal football so avidly played by the boys.  First he ensured the masters'  control over the barbaric 'prefect-fagging' system by formalising the older boys' right to power through appointments.  Then, rather than attempting to ban football as other masters had done, he legitimised the game and encouraged the pupils to formalise a set of rules to govern it. As the fight for dominance among the pupils was pacified through delegation of power, the real violence on the football field was ritualised by regulation. Much of the emphasis on the gentlemanly qualities of the game and the evangelical promotion of the sport as an alternative to idle evils such as alcohol can be traced to this period when the game flourished in the public schools.

Gradually, the newly refined and 'respectable' game permeated the rest of society.  It was in this form that football was exported to the continent.

Export of the new game

In France, Germany, and Italy, the unrestrained character of English team sports came to be regarded as superior to the regimented exercises of gymnastics for, as one of the founders of the Ecole des Roches said the "gradual emancipation and self-revelation of youth."  The French aristocracy in particular, sought to exemplify the ideals of the great Imperial power by adopting the sporting values of the British gentleman.5

To the North, the Scandinavians also modelled their behaviour on the 'ideal British gentleman.' In Denmark, for example, football matches in the early 1900's were attended by large but well mannered crowds, often including royalty.  Betting was absent as were police. Unruly spectator behaviour was considered to be a Southern Continental problem.

In Sweden, local rivalries were more pronounced as were class  distinctions in this era.  Spectators were largely segregated into the decorous upper classes and the more boisterous working class sections.  The press positively encouraged their extroverted behaviour  (so long as it stayed within the bounds of decency) as it added atmosphere to the game. Official cheer squads debuted  during the 1912 Olympics in imitation of the Americans. It was during competition between Sweden & Denmark that outdoing the other team's cheer or banner squad became a kind of sport in itself.  Combined with drinking, these "organised expressions of feeling" gave some cause for concern. The cause of unruly spectator behaviour invariably was traced to incidents on the field itself such as poor refereeing or fights between players which "inflamed" the public. While the justification for such behaviour was not contested, by 1914 the propriety of  these excessive verbal displays of support began to be questioned.

In France, the noble nature of the British import was soon sold out for reinterpretation by the masses.  By the early 1900s, the number of aristocratic players diminished as the sport gained popularity among the middle class.  The liberating nature of football once praised by the elite now came to symbolise  middle class, working industrial values antagonistic to the aristocracy and the church. Thus football became "an allegory of liberalism."  The new French clubs set themselves squarely at odds with the elitist, exclusive shooting and gymnastics clubs. At the turn of the century English style football clubs were springing up all over Europe.  But, as Pierre Lanfranchi points out, the founding members of these clubs were largely members of white-collar practical professions - engineers, technicians, traders, doctors - or university students.

The inter-war period saw a rise in nationalist sentiment on the continent and, tangentially, an amplification of public enthusiasm for football. Thus in 1938, an Italian newspaper reported Bologna's victory over Chelsea as "a brilliant victory for Fascist Italy."

In this  twenty year inter-war period, continental football teams distinguished themselves with their own style, technique, and strong national allegiances ready to challenge the British dominance of the sport.

Return to the working class

In England, the spectator passion of the new century began to perturb the defenders of Victorian standards. For despite the middle-class administration and refinement of the game, football in the early 1900s remained a working-class pastime with most of the new grounds built close to the heart of working-class communities.  Descriptions of crowd behaviour at these urban matches varied greatly depending on the background of the writer.  Thus:

" … the old-guard defenders of an upper-class amateur, Corinthian ideal of the game could vent their spleen at the take-over of football by the industrial workers of the north by depicting crowds as dirty, fickle and degenerate."6

Certainly, the new rule-centred football was not free from violence.  However limited the number of actual players, the  commonly held feeling that football was a  participatory game had not been dispelled.  While the upper classes continued their tradition of  polite disassociation from the jousting rivalries on the fields of sport,  the working man merged his heart and soul with the effort and staked his reputation on the outcome of the game.

A new disorder

Invasion of the pitches in Britain occurred even in the 1880s, but were more often caused by simple overcrowding than organised assaults. And while other violent disturbances in the terraces were not uncommon they were usually regarded as understandable outbursts of collective feeling. This Scandinavian lenience soon hardened to anxious castigation as the crowds and 'incidents' multiplied.

In 1909 a riot that even today would merit bold headlines, broke out after officials declined the fans' demand for extra-play time to settle a draw between Glasgow and Celtic. The ensuing riot involved 6000 spectators and resulted in injury to fifty-four policemen, serious damage to the grounds, emergency equipment, and "the destruction of virtually every street-lamp around Hampden"7 

Although no accurate figures are available on the frequency of such episodes, the reported levels of violence and mayhem  should be enough to dissolve any romantic nostalgia for the gentlemanly behaviour of pre-war football fans. A survey of the reports led Hutchinson to the conclusion that:

"Riots, unruly behaviour, violence, assault and vandalism, appear to have been a well-established, but not necessarily dominant pattern of crowd behaviour at football matches at least from the 1870s"

The disturbances mostly revolved around the activity on the field and perceived injustices to either the players or the crowd as in the Hampden case above.  Reports of fighting between fans in the terraces are relatively few.  Some historians suspect that the relative paucity of crowd misbehaviour reports, relative to the abundance of reported assaults on players and officials, points not to the absence of such violence but rather to the lenient attitude toward crowd disturbances that did not actually interfere with the game. This may be explained by the fact that, within the stadium, it was the referee who reported incidents to the FA. If violence tipped onto the field he would consider it a problem; if it spilled onto the streets it became the problem of the town police; but if it was contained within the stands it largely went unreported. Television, of course would turn the spotlight on these inconsequential scuffles.

Calm between the wars

While no period in the history of English football has been completely free of incident, the inter-war years saw a decline in the intensity of the occurrences.  Official rebukes harped on tamer misdemeanours such as "ungentlemanly conduct." Moral degeneration was a favourite topic of editorials. This discontent about deteriorating standards of behaviour in the terraces was precipitated by dismay at "un-English" and excessively violent play on the field.  In 1936 the Football Association  issued  a stern memorandum regarding "rough play" to the players.  A Reynolds Times report sardonically called for the FA to issue another to the fans, stigmatised in the Times as " … altogether too vocal and biased in their opinions on the conduct of the referee."8

While a few street-battle style clashes were reported in the inter-war years, most incidents of crowd misbehaviour involved vocal protests against administrative rulings insensitive to the fans such as the sale of top players, or abuse of the referee, an offence considered so monstrous that Bradford Park closed its boys' section for three months after the referee had been "pelted with rubbish" .

Not only was there a decline in football-related violence in these post-war years, several newspapers even saw fit to report on the good behaviour that distinguished the crowds attending cup finals.  The number of women attending football matches increased significantly during this period,  some even considering the environment wholesome enough to bring infants.9

Even the Scots ritualised the Border raids of old by way of the tamer,  albeit no less high-spirited,  biannual trip to Wembley.

The new hooligans

High levels of national solidarity may have helped to continue this pacific trend after the Second World War and into the 1950s, but by 1960 a new form of zealous patriotism became violently directed at immigrants - an attitude also reflected by many hard-core football hooligans. (See also Section 6)

Many sociologists place television at the graph intersection of the decline in match attendance from the 1950s onwards and the rise in spectator violence.   Television not only allowed fans to watch games at home, it graphically publicised fan violence.  One such pioneering broadcast televised a major riot after an equalising goal during a Sunderland versus Tottenham game in 1961. That the hooligans were seen on television, the Guardian later said "provided…encouragement to others."

The rise of counter-culture youth protest movements seemed to need no encouragement. The Teddy Boys, Mods, Rockers, Skinheads and the Bovver Boys all added to the increasingly  stereotyped Football Hooligan. The term Hooligan was coined in  the 1890s as an alternative to "street arab"  or "ruffian."  Now readily applied to the 'wild and unruly' football fan of the 1960s, the term and the on-screen images of undisciplined 'toughs' rekindled a Victorian style 'moral panic' vocalised by the Conservative party and fanned by the press. According to the Chester report of 1966, incidences of football violence doubled in the first five years of the 1960s compared to the previous 25 years. 

Hooliganism in Europe

The prevailing consensus that post-war permissiveness was precipitating the decline and fall of the 'British way of life',  led to calls for the birch, the stocks, military service, and other such disciplines for the football rowdies.10  Nation-wide preparations for hosting the 1966 world cup highlighted the need to solve the 'problem' before such bad British behaviour was internationally broadcasted. Although in the next decade, football hooliganism would be dubbed "the British disease" that infected the civilised continental spectators, several reports may reveal earlier strains of the illness in Europe.  In Yugoslavia for instance,  a mid-50s wave of football disorder known as "Zusism" put terror into vogue.  The origin of the word stems from 'ZUS' an acronym of the Serbo-Croat words for "slaughter, kill, annihilate."  The communist newspaper Borba carried reports of two incidents near Belgrade involving fans armed with "hammers, mallets and metal bars."  On one occasion knife-wielding spectators rushed onto the field seriously injuring the referee. And not long after in Turkey:

" … fans of the Kayseri and Sivas clubs fought with pistols, knives and broken bottles for days after the end of a match between the two sides.  Before troops restored order, cars were burned out, 600 spectators injured and 42 of them killed, 25 by stab wounds."11  

Several reports contradict an Italian sociologist's claim that hooliganism was an unknown problem before the 1970s when Italian youths began imitating the British.12 Dunning and his colleagues13 cite an incident at a match in Vialoggio in 1920 when police had to intervene to quell fighting between opposing fans.  The referee in charge was killed.  In 1955, 52 people were injured during a riot at a match between Naples and Bologna, and four years later 65 injuries resulted from a pitch invasion when Naples played Genoa.  These contradictory reports may simply indicate a divergent definition of hooliganism.  The Roversi report makes a clear distinction between 'spectator disorderliness' which may include unintentionally violent acts - 'peaceful' invasion of the pitch and the throwing of fire-crackers as being 'simply the expression of joy'- and  intentional violence on the part of hooligans.  He claims that the "intentional violence" is a new phenomenon at football matches.

Still, in England it was the increase in local television coverage of incidents which some historians claim precipitated the "amplification spiral" of violence.

Whether due to television coverage or not, the 60s witnessed a colourful change in the style of fan support. Football supporters became more organised with carefully orchestrated waving displays, chants, and slogans; and more mobile. Regular support of away games helped to disperse the varying styles across the country. It also increased the incidences of vandalism to trains.  Liverpool and Everton supporters held the record for the worst cases of train-wrecking to and from matches in the early 60s.

By 1964, the core of troublemakers was perceived to concentrate in groups with "no allegiance to either team," 14 and could no longer be characterised simply as overly ardent supporters. These groups identified and named themselves separately from the teams, and used matchdays as  venues for confrontations with rival groups. 15   By 1967 the sport of 'taking ends' emerged as the favourite pastime of young male supporters. The object was to charge at supporters of the rival team thus driving them away from their viewing area behind the goal, capture as much of their team gear as possible (flags, scarves etc.), and land a few good kicks and punches before police stepped in.  Although on film these charges looked menacingly aggressive, in reality, serious injuries were rare. However intimidating the threats and waved fists, the blows inflicted were, according to commentators such as Peter Marsh, largely symbolic.16

By the 70s these groups became increasingly sophisticated in their cohesiveness, organisation and 'scoring' systems that among other means, used press coverage to determine which group was on top in the hierarchy of hooligan 'firm' rivalries.

In other European countries hooligan groups emerged that, while accused of mimicking the British fans, had distinct styles all of their own.

From the 12thcentury to the present, the game of football has been claimed, defined, refined and reclaimed by every stratum of society. In the end, moral guardianship of the game has gone to those who shout, chant, clap and cheer the loudest for it - the supporters. How and why the current hooligan situation evolved, the sometimes violent battle for dominance on the terraces, is in itself a heated contest among social scientists.

Historical examples of violent incidents in Britain to 1960

1314, 1315 Edward II bans football.

1349, 1388, 1410 Football was banned from the city of London due to complaints from merchants.

1364 Synod of Ely bans clergy from playing football due to the violent nature of the game.

1477 Edward IV issues edict against football.

1496 Henry VII issues edict against football.

1539 Annual match in Chester abolished due to violence.

1555 Football banned in Liverpool due to mayhem.

1576 Middlesex County Records reports that  100 men assembled unlawfully to play football. There was a "great affray."

1579 After the start of a match against the students of Cambridge, the townsmen of Chesterton proceeded to assault their opponents with sticks, driving them into the river.

1581 Evanses Feld at Southemyms. One yoeman killed by two others during a football match.

1608 Football banned in Manchester due to the mayhem caused by  "a company of lewd and disordered persons…"

1638 Football crowd destroys drainage ditches on Isle of Ely.

1694 Fenland drainage destroyed during football match

1740 Football match in Kettering turns into a food riot and local mill is destroyed and looted.

Football matches held to tear down enclosure fences at Holland Fen and West Haddon.

1797 Kingston-upon-Thames.  Traditional Shrove Tuesday match turned into a riot after three participants were arrested by magistrates.

1843 200 soldiers and 50 policemen were needed to patrol the ropes at a Preston North End v Sunderland match.

1846 A match was stopped in Derby, the riot act was read, and two troops of dragoons called in. The Mayor was injured by the crowd.


At Wigan station two railway officials were knocked unconscious by a group travelling to a Newton Heath v Preston North End game.

1884 P.N.E fans attacked Bolton Wanderers players and spectators at the end of the game.

1885 Aston Villa v Preston. A mob of "roughs" attacked the visiting team with sticks stones and other missiles.

1886 A railway station battle occurred between Preston North End and Queens Park fans.

1888 Report of "a continuous hail of bottles" onto the pitch at an unspecified match.

1889 Small Heath v West Bromwich Albion. Small Heath fans molest strangers.

At Middlewich station a fight broke out between Nantwich and Crewe fans. Nantwich men stormed the platform occupied by Crewe.  Many sustained injuries.

1893 During a match between Nottingham Forest and West Bromwich Albion spectators invaded the field and fought with Albionite players.

1896 While returning from a football match, three young men attacked and murdered a police sergeant and injured a constable.

1899 After a match at Shepshed between Albion and Loughborough Corinthians the Loughborough players were stoned and struck.

1905 Preston North End v Blackburn. Several fans tried for hooliganism including a "drunk and disorderly" 70 year old woman.

1906 Tottenham v Aston Villa cup tie had to be abandoned after spectators swarmed onto the pitch at the interval.

1909 6000 spectators involved in a riot at Hampden Park, Glasgow.  The  pitch was destroyed, 54 police constables were injured, and much damage done to the town.

1920 Birmingham City football fans use bottles as clubs and missiles.

1921 Bradford park closes the boy's section for three months after the referee was pelted with rubbish.

1924 After a match in Brighton the pitch was invaded, the referee chased by the crowd and a policeman knocked unconscious.

1930 Rangers ground closed after unruly conduct of spectators during match against Northampton town. Clapton Orient v Queens Park Rangers.  Police called in to stop fighting between rival spectators behind the Rangers' goal.

1934 Leicester City fans vandalised a train returning from a match in Birmingham.

1935 Police lead a baton charge against stone-throwing fans during a match between Linfield and Belfast Celtic.

1936 During a match at Wolverhampton Wanderers spectators attacked visiting Chelsea players.  Later the crowd protested outside officials' entrance over the sale of top players.

1949 Millwall v Exeter City.  Referee and linesmen attacked  with blows and projectiles from the crowd.

1951 At the Queens Park Rangers ground missiles were thrown at the Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper.

1954 Several hundred spectators came onto the field during a match between Everton Reserves and Bolton Wanderers Reserves.  Fireworks were thrown and a linesman was kicked.

1955-56 Liverpool and Everton fans involved in several train-wrecking exploits.

1946-1960 An average of 13 incidents of disorderly behaviour by spectators per season reported to the FA.

1961-1968 An average of 25 such incidents per season reported.

Historical examples of violent incidents in Europe

1908 Hungary. After a Manchester United v unnamed Hungarian team the Manchester players were attacked by Hungarian fans as they left the grounds.

1933 France. Gendarmes were needed to quell a disturbance in the crowd during a match between Nice and the Wolves.  The Wolves were taken off the field by their manager.

1931 Germany. Hertha Berlin v Fuerth. A pitch invasion by the Hertha fans resulted in severe injury to a Fuerth player.

1946 Sweden. Hundreds of angry Malmo supporters pelted a bus carrying the rival Wolves players.

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