Why do British men like fighting? As footy hooliganism returns FS finds out what fuels the need to scrap
Do not get the wrong idea: Lee Shone is a nice guy. After we spoke, he emailed to say he’s got “no respect” for people who start fights for “no real reason”. Fair enough. He’s 40 years old now, and launching an acting career (he’s in next year’s biopic of the bouncer Lenny McLean), which follows years of success as a Mixed Martial Arts fighter and bare-knuckle boxer (Tom Hardy is a fan). But in the past, there were… “altercations”.
Like, the time he saw someone beating a person up on a train, so he intervened and “knocked him out”. Or the time he was working on a construction site and another man kept singing racist songs, so Lee “choked him out”. Or the time when Lee was about 19 years old at a house party, and a group of local thugs burst in and caused chaos, so Lee put one of their heads through a picket fence.
“One of them had my mate on the floor and was just punching him and punching him in the face,” Lee explains. “And I’m thinking, ‘F**king hell, you don’t just walk away’; you’d be amazed at how many people just disappear, but that’s not me. I think, ‘F**k that, what you doing?’ So I ran up and grabbed this lad, and that was it.”
Or the five occasions when Lee fought the same man (when Lee was in his late teens and early 20s), one of which happened when Lee was going to get chips on his lunch break. He saw the guy, parked his car, got out and had a fight, pausing to offer to drive somewhere quieter to continue fighting away from passers-by, to which the guy said no. It wasn’t until Lee got back into his car that he realised he’d been stabbed.
“I was really close to going to the other side, if you know what I mean?” he says.
“Like, becoming a criminal?”
Oh. He was 21 years old when that happened. He went to the hospital, got stitched up (he didn’t tell them who stabbed him), and the next time he saw the man was four years later. Lee was in his car again, about to start his shift at work. He remembers he wasn’t really in the mood for a fight, but he knew he’d regret it if he didn’t stop the car and have a go, so he parked up, got out and started scrapping.
“I quickly got him on the floor and I choked him asleep and he pissed his pants basically.”
“Literally?” I ask.
“He did, aye,” replies Lee. “He pissed his pants.”
Most of us, I assume, wouldn’t have stopped our car on the way to work in order to choke someone unconscious. On the other hand, fighting isn’t a completely foreign concept to the majority of us either.
We watch fight videos (worldstarhiphop.com, anyone?), we follow boxing, we threaten to fight over inferred slights on drunken nights out (I’m guilty), and I expect most of us have thrown one punch (mine went badly). There is an urge inside us.
One high-profile example of our collective being ‘up for it’ came this summer at the European Championships in Marseille. Innocent supporters were caught in the melee, but according to ESPN’s Iain Macintosh, who was in Marseille, a small group of England fans did stand outside a pub singing songs about World War Two. Fighting words, most of us would agree, and the fight duly came; first from the police, then later from the French and the Russian thugs.
French police were criticised for escalating the conflict, but presumably they remembered footage of England fans in Charleroi in 2000, in Marseille [again] in 1998, and the many other occasions when England fans were looking for a tear-up – just as Brits do in Med resorts every summer, or on nights out in towns and cities across the UK every weekend (it’s part of the indigenous culture in my home town of Newcastle). So given the risk of a criminal record, serious injury, or accidentally killing someone, why do we do it?
Well, it’s much more complex than simply being a particular kind of man wanting a punch-up, or drunken fools getting chopsy, according to Clifford Stott, Professor of Social Psychology at Keele University. He explained that every incident, including Marseille, has its own set of circumstances, so I gave him a specific scenario: me, a Newcastle fan, walking through Sunderland on a matchday, and when trouble starts, I run away, while other men relish the confrontation, happy to get into a fight. Why?
“The issue here is about power,” he explains. “Why do you run away? Well, you run away because you’re frightened, and why you’re frightened is because somebody’s exercising power over you in a way that you can’t resist. So you have no choice other than to move away, but if you have an opportunity to resist that imposition of power…”
I think what he meant was I’m soft, so it’s either get my head kicked in or escape. Some people, though, are hard, and can stand their ground and assert their right to walk along a street if they want. They resist the power over them, which is exactly why Lee Shone started fighting in the first place.
In his home town of South Shields, he went to what he describes as “quite a rough school”, and he was picked on.
“I just used to take it,” he recalls. “It was f**king horrible.”
Rather than offering Lee comfort, his dad, an ex-forces man, encouraged him to fight back. It didn’t feel natural to Lee (“I didn’t really want to, it wasn’t in me”), but one day a tormentor picked on Lee and he “pure lost it”. He can’t remember exactly what happened, but he knows that he “beat the crap out of this lad”, and realised he could fight back. “I decided to stick up for my friends and for myself instead of being a coward.”
While most of us stick with cowardly powerlessness in such situations, he took back the power. On other occasions, men fight to assert power not against individuals but against less tangible foes.
Stott mentions a scene of “serious violence” he witnessed in Staffordshire, which involved about 500 Port Vale and Sheffield United fans. For him, just as with many incidents of football violence, it wasn’t about rivalry.
“It’s about a broader alienation among sections of our youth in communities where they suffer economic deprivation,” Stott explains. “In those communities, people find empowerment in forms of football violence that allow them to exercise antagonisms, often toward other football fans, but most importantly, what they’re actually doing is attacking the police.”
Socio-economic motives for fighting are not unique to Britain. The word hooligan is believed to derive from an Irishman, Patrick Hoolihan, who lived in London and had a gang of toughs, but in the 1970s and 1980s, it was associated with violence at football matches, a phenomenon which arrived at the same time as social breakdown and mass unemployment. John Hughson, Professor of Sport and Cultural Studies at University of Central Lancashire, says that in post-Communist Russia and Eastern Europe, social breakdown is again shadowed by men fighting.
“I think in those sort of circumstances,” opines Hughson, “men can start to look for other types of association; a kinship.”
And Liam Satchell, a psychologist studying aggression at the University of Portsmouth, says the research backs this up. “Fighting is about making friends more than an anti-social thing, that’s the crux of it. Having a strong in-group – a cohesive structure amongst your friends – is really important to people. We’re talking about on a chemical level here. You have endogenous opioids – chemicals inside your body that make you feel happy – and having a good cohesive structure amongst your friends gives you this sort of high. The interesting thing about fighting, especially for guys, is you create this clear outgroup of people who aren’t you, and by doing that, you create a strong ingroup who are like you. It’s a bonding exercise.”
As well as that, Satchell explains, men get another high from the aggression we experience when fighting, thanks to testosterone. It gives us a buzz. When Lee describes how he felt after a bout with the man he fought five times, he says, “I was all shaking. When you get that rush of adrenaline, it’s unreal. It feels like you’re tired and weak, but excited too, and scared. It’s all a mixture of these mad chemicals. It’s hard to explain.”
John Hughson suggests that the buzz men get from fighting might be a motivating factor, and quotes a lyric by Mike Skinner of The Streets as a potential prognosis – ‘Geezers need excitement / If their lives don’t provide ’em this / they incite violence, Common sense, Simple common sense’. “Skinner might be on to something, but that really gets into the heart of gender studies, and the debate over if there’s a difference between men and women in these things.”
Whether there’s a difference between men and women or not, there’s certainly a difference among men: some don’t fight. Liam Satchell says that one of the reasons for this is inhibition. “Inhibition naturally varies in a population,” he explains. “But when people drink alcohol, it suppresses the part of the brain that controls inhibition – the pre-frontal cortex. Also, when people are in crowds, inhibition is suppressed. So this personality trait of inhibition seems to be key to why some people would engage in these behaviours and not other people.”
So when we get drunk, we get carried away with being in a crowd, and we do some things we wouldn’t normally do (and we hope it’s not filmed and put online). Some men, though, always feel like that. Equally, according to Satchell, some people who have unclear futures – meaning they don’t have a clear path to a good job and money and opportunities – can have lower inhibitions; while most of us would fret about a court appearance or a bad injury, some men don’t care.
Lee, for example, back in the days when he was parking his car to have fights, panicked after being stabbed, because he had a house and a family and was worried he might lose his job. Hence, when he noticed he was bleeding badly, he drove around for another hour before he went to hospital. The injury itself didn’t worry him. Nor did legal risk, apparently – as mentioned earlier, years after being stabbed he stopped his car to fight the guy again. Inhibited? Not much.
Lee, however, is a reformed man now, with a successful career. His days of street fighting are gone.
And his isn’t the only positive outlook to take from the fighting scene – although it looked like English men were eager to get mass brawling back on the to-do list over summer, Stott points out that Marseille was complex, particularly regarding the Russian influence, and reports suggest that despite the horrible scenes, England fans committed little violence.
The truth is, according to Satchell, violence in the UK is falling, and has been for 30 years, just as it is in the US and Europe.
“Those of us who study aggression, we’re a bit confused,” he says. “Violent crime is down in general across the board, including these sort of street incidents, and we’re not really sure why.” Maybe men have found other stimulants (online gambling?) or new ways to bond (Satchell suggested social media) – but whatever it is, Satchell says there’s no need to worry about British men and violence. It’s a fight that’s already being won.