This outstanding ethnographic study of one particular group of football hooligans--the "Blades" who follow Sheffield United--challenges and dismisses many of the popular conceptions about hooliganism. Based on the author's 15 or so years of following Sheffield United and hanging out with those he is examining, the book is a fairly academic one, brimming with sociology jargon and theory (none of it too distracting or demanding for the lay reader). A few key themes emerge: (1) The Blades are not organized in any way, they are a self-selected amorphous group with members coming and going of their own accord, and being involved at a self-decided level (ranging from "core" to "peripheral." (2) There are no leaders who organize Blade hooligan activity. Buses to away games may be organized, and some "Top Lads" may yell suggestions in the heat of a situation, but no one bears--or wants--a leadership mantle. (3) There is no element of racism, about 10% of the Blades are black. Blades involved with the National Front or British National Party are peripherals who are derided for their views. (4) The media generally get the facts all wrong (either from laziness or police misinformation) or intentionally distort the facts about hooligan incidents, oftentimes mislabeling non-football related episodes as hooligan events. Also, the police are generally effective in limiting hooligan on hooligan violence, but often wrongfully arrest Blades and manufacture charges. This is hardly surprising, but the frequency outlined in the study is somewhat disconcerting. (5) The level of violence as measured by actual punches, injuries (minor and major) is exceedingly minimal and is self-restrained by various unspoken "rules" and "norms" within the ritual of behavior. Most all violence occurs away from the match, either before or after or en route, and is never targeted at non-hooligans. This is a key theme, and an important one, considering the popular perception of what hooligan violence involves. The overall impression that emerges is that the effects of hooliganism are totally overhyped by media, police, and public for their own aims. The caveat is that this study was limited to one group in one city. One suspects that a similarly rigorous and long-running study of, say, Chelsea, or West Ham, would find a much more disturbing set of lads and incidents. For participant accounts, see "Capital Punishment: London's Violent Football Following" by Dougie and Eddy Brimson and for an excellent work of fiction see "The Football Factory" by John King.
I'm not a big fan of sociologists and their like. Most are so committed to providing data for whatever theory they support that reality seems of little relevance to them. Plus outsiders often have little understanding of what's going on anyway. But Gary Armstrong is born and bred Sheffield and was obviously accepted as someone who wasn't out of place ariound Sheffield United's BBC mob. If he had written this book with the popular market in mind and had left out all references to academic concerns,it would be up there with Hoolifan and the like. Even with the academic framework, it is still a great read and gives as good an insight into a northern firm as you're likely to find.