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In the Thick of It and Swinging
on 1 June 2008
I bought this book largely on the strength of the other two reviews that were in place here on Amazon; both reviews described the book as being "so much more" than a "standard" hooligan book. When it arrived on my doorstep (I live in the USA) I happily ripped the packaging apart before tearing into the book with focused eyes. I read the first 70 pages in what felt like an hour, which was quick even for me. McCall's description of his city, plus what I imagined to be his enchanted Scottish homestead close to the Dundonian centre - and its two football grounds - had my nostalgia sense clicking into overdrive. I myself am a writer (author of "Perry Boys", a book in a similar genre) and I lapped up the images of little Kenny McCall peeping over the window-sill of his modest Dundee home, as armies of Glaswegians flowed down his street drunkenly trashing the place. The early accounts of Dundee United's growing presence in League and Scottish Cup and Premier League glows with an unvarnished pride, as young Kenny attends his first Hampden Park final, as well as what McCall refers to as the rise of the "New Firm" - Dundee United's rivalry with Aberdeen.
But then the story turns a strange corner. The drunken chaos of the 70s becomes the mid-80s, and Scotland's Casual era makes its presence felt. McCall does well to draw out his own development as a fighter on Dundee United's front lines - beginning with a chapter entitled "The Debut". It also becomes clear at this point that Dundee's Stobswell housing scheme was among its trendiest, as well as cosmopolitan enough to agree to an alliance with the casuals from Dundee's other football club, Dundee FC. McCall easily convinces the reader that he is some kind of big lovable "Bungle Bear" of a mate, who will protect you in a scrape. This is undoubtedly true - if you're a member of his firm. But he also mentions (without making a meal of) the fact he's a big lad, and as he grows older, Kenneth McCall obviously weighs into most every important battle the Dundee Utility had with any opposition worth its salt. He is in the thick of it and swinging every time it kicks off. He is clearly an Old School hooligan, and one to be respected.
McCall's introduction to Scotland's version of Manchester United - the curiously named Aberdeen Soccer Casuals - generates a lot of tension, and it was a pleasure to read of his trepidation when faced with this giant-sized mob of clobbered-up hooligans. Several accounts are detailed in the book, and I doubt there's anyone in Aberdeen who cares (or dares) to rewrite this most objective history; McCall is an engineer, and his truthfulness and lack of partiality are apparent throughout.
The phasing into the "second generation" via John Robb's excellent and intelligent contributions are a welcome shift in the tale; Robb outlines the exquisite degree of planning inherent in the Utility's invasion of places like Aberdeen and Glasgow, when the younger casuals were struggling to keep the culture alive, and some dramatic battles are described, with weapons, flare-guns, and many arrests.
Robb's consequent "third generation" is a timely report on the state of football (or "soccer" if you're an Aberdonian) casualism today. The diminished numbers in the mobs, and the increased football intelligence presence fighting to keep it that way, are described in honest and interesting sojourns, such as the trips down south to fight alongside Stoke City's Naughty Forty.
Finally, the game against England for the '96 Euro Championships sees some interesting accounts of how Scotland's top boys all met in advance in Dundee to discuss strategy. The resultant mayhem in Trafalgar Square says it all. I disagree with the claims that this isn't a hooligan book. It is very much a hooligan book, but it is a book that gives you a proper fighter's opinion. The closer to the action you live, the more honest you tend to be, and this is one big honest story, just like its authors. I loved it.