BigShot Q&A: Author – Dougie BrimsonOne of soccer's biggest personalities and best authors - Dougie Brimson talks about violence in England, MLS and globally
by Herb Scribner | Friday, August 31, 2012
Dougie Brimson is an English author best known for his commentary on soccer and hooliganism. He’s also a screenwriter, having penned the short film It’s a Casual Life which detailed world football violence. His first full-length film was the award-winning Green Street, an analysis of football hooliganism starring Elijah Wood awards.
What is a hooligan?
DW: There is no simple answer to this because the description depends entirely on who is providing it. For example, if you’re an elderly woman and a group of young men run past you singing, you might well think they are hooligans when they could just be guys rushing to a game.
However, if you’re someone who understands the culture of soccer then a hooligan will be someone who is actively involved in acts of vandalism and/or violence.
But to me, “hooligan” is little more than a catch-all term used for anyone who behaves in a way which is contrary to both the spirit of the game and/or the law and who does so under the umbrella of soccer fandom.
Lots of people today describe any dedicated fan as a hooligan, especially in the United States. Do you feel the term has lost its meaning to some?
DW: Oh for sure. These days, even in the UK, it’s been diluted to the point where it’s little more than a meaningless term. However, the use of it in the US is slightly different because the MLS has no history of soccer hooliganism and so the general public have no point of reference. Given that soccer fans behave quite differently from fans of other American sports, it’s hardly a surprise that it’s becoming almost an accusation although one could argue that in this context, it could actually be adopted as a positive label.
After all, words get redefined all the time so why not hooligan?
What was the draw, for you personally, of the lad/hooligan culture in football? How did your upbringing and childhood lead you to that experience?
DW: I started going to football in the ‘60’s when I was 7 or 8 and by the time I was allowed to go on my own at around aged 14, the game was riddled with terrace violence to the point where it was almost the norm to see it.
To be around that kind of culture was incredibly exciting because it added to the whole match day experience and so it was hardly surprising that I gravitated toward taking part. In fact if you travelled to away games with your club, being with the mob was usually the best place to be! Safety in numbers you see.
However, I did it because I enjoyed it. It was certainly nothing to do with my upbringing because by the time I was ‘at it’ so to speak, I was serving with the military. Indeed, it was the anarchy of it, coupled with the almost schizophrenic lifestyle which was one of the key attractions. For many, it still is.
What were the turning points from being a participant, to non-participant, to opponent and documentarian? Was your experience in the military, including perhaps the “real” violence you may have witnessed there, part of the reason for your turnaround?
DW: I gave up, like many before and since, because the fun had gone out of it. I’d become sick of watching my back all the time and when weapons started to become prevalent in my circles, which was about ’83, then it took the whole thing to a different level. One I didn’t want to get into.
The other key reason was because I was becoming increasingly concerned that if I was to get myself arrested, it could have a major impact on my military career and it simply wasn’t worth the risk any more. So when I found myself in a bad situation at a game against Swansea and ended up taking a serious beating, I knew that the time had come to walk away.
However, like anyone who has been part of any kind of youth culture, an element always remains burning inside and I’ve never lost interest in it. But I did began to think about it in a lot more depth and in 1996, released a book called Everywhere We Go which not only dissected the culture of hooliganism but explored ways in which it could be solved.
The rest as they say, is history.
Was the racism/hooliganism at the Euros about what you expected? The BBC did a documentary called “Euro 2012: Stadiums of Hate.” Was their portrayal of those activities in Eastern Europe accurate or skewed, and was the timing of the film’s release appropriate?
DW: The BBC documentary was shameful because they clearly went out to film it with their conclusions already firmly fixed. The only thing it actually did was to upset the two host nations who as anyone who went or even saw it will testify, were both welcoming and generous.
More worryingly, the portrayal of both Poland and the Ukraine as being inherently racist nations was appalling not just because it was clearly wrong but because of the long-term damage it could well have caused to the image of both countries. Indeed, I am amazed that neither has demanded a public apology from the BBC.
Sol Campbell who made the now infamous ‘body bag’ quotes relating to black and Asian English football fans should be hanging his head in shame.
One constant criticism that youth soccer coaches have of the sport at the youth levels is that many coaches are volunteers, and to this day those volunteers tend to be very over-the-top in their manner on the sidelines, always shouting and calling for simplistic physical play. Do you have any experiences as a coach of young footballers, and do you think this approach may have contributed to the early days of rough supporter culture?
DW: Not at all, if anything it was the other way round. If you study the history of hooliganism (and if you haven’t, it’s quite well documented in my books Barmy Army and Kicking Off) you will see that the problem of violence at soccer games actually dates back centuries. Certainly well before the current version of the game was even thought up. Yet sadly nothing has ever really been done to combat the culture of hate which has sadly come to infect the game to the extent that it has.
I certainly saw enough evidence of the type of things which go on at youth level when I used to watch my son play to know that it is an area into which I would never, ever want to venture!
Is it better for players to focus on learning how to play the ball, or how to play on a team first? What are some of the essential stepping stones for young players?
DW: Ball first, always. If you’re no good with that, it doesn’t matter how much of a team player you are.
Do you feel the Russian Federation will be prepared for dealing with crowds, fans, etc., for the 2018 World Cup?
DW: Absolutely. I think they will have learnt an awful lot from Euro 2012 not just in terms of policing, but about how they have to handle concerns about racism in particular. I’ve visited Russia on a number of occasions and I know that the issue of racism is very different there from the way we understand it. It is certainly not simply a ‘black and white’ issue and in my opinion, they need to go on some kind of media offensive to make that clear. Otherwise, given the English media’s ongoing resentment at the fact that the England 2018 bid to host the tournament failed, they will continue to highlight any incidents which take place in Russia and portray them as some kind of ‘proof’ that racism is a major problem there.
Several of your books indicate that racism and hooliganism is killing soccer. For those who may not have read the books, what’s your solution? How are things like racism and hooliganism erased when this sport is happening across the country?
DW: Those are huge questions but just to clarify, what I mean by ‘killing soccer’ is that the continued fear of racism and hooliganism have resulted in so much legislation being imposed on fans that the atmosphere at games is being strangled to within an inch of its life. Just as importantly, by continuing to harp on that racism and soccer go seemingly hand in hand, the public who don’t follow the game are increasingly of the opinion that the game is run by idiots, played by thugs and watched by neo-Nazis which isn’t exactly great PR!
Central to this problem is that too many people have vested interests in this perception continuing. The anti-racism organizations in the UK for example, receive massive amounts of funding and so even minor incidents of racist abuse are blown out of all proportion because that keeps the problem in the public eye. That’s not to say they don’t have a role outside of the top flight because they clearly do, but we should be holding the game up as an example of what can be done to combat the problem of racism rather than continuing to infer that it still has a major problem which it doesn’t. If Euro 2012 proved one thing, it certainly proved that.
What country has the worst cases of racism and hooliganism? What country has the lightest cases?
DW: Whenever this question is asked there is always an inference that racism and hooliganism go hand in hand, they don’t. I think it’s well known that many Eastern European nations have problems with racism as do Spain and Italy but it’s also fair to say, particularly in the case of Eastern Europe that this isn’t always racism as we would generally understand it. It’s often based more on regional and religious hatred as opposed to color. Indeed, I’ve talked to many fans in countries in the former Eastern Bloc who are often at pains to say that they love the black players who turn out for their teams because they are huge soccer stars! One only has to look at what happened in Poland and the Ukraine to see this is true because all the pre-tournament accusations turned out to be almost totally false as I and many other knew they would.
In the case of Spain and Italy however, there is no excuse for some of the things that go on there and the fact that the authorities have not clamped down harder on them is a source of bewilderment to me.
When it comes to violence, in my experience every country has its problems and a punch in the mouth hurts the same no matter what nationality the individual delivering it. But I’d certainly put Turkey and Argentina as two places I’d fear to tread as a lone football fan.
Ironically, one place I’d put high on a list of ‘safe’ nations is the US and long may it remain so!
Some fans in the United States model themselves after fans across the pond in Europe. They want to be like the world’s best fans. Would you suggest this? Or will it only lead to more problems in the stands?
DW: I’d endorse it 100%! In my book March of the Hooligans I talked about how fan groups from the MLS have taken inspiration from Europe and thus far they seem to have largely drawn only the positive side of soccer fan culture.
There’s a long way to go yet of course but it seems to me that season by season, the MLS is developing a genuine fan culture of its own and thus far, it’s managed to avoid developing the kind of hatred which infects the game elsewhere.
That is a huge plus for the game there and everyone involved deserves a huge amount of praise.
Can you describe some of your own experience in the stands that have made you a believer in hooligans killing soccer?
DW: These days, to be fair, there’s very little that goes on inside English soccer grounds due to the impact of closed circuit television and oppressive policing. After all, even the most brain dead idiot knows that if you cause trouble these days you’re not only going to be banned from all soccer grounds for years but there’s a very real chance that you’ll end up in prison.
However, the legacy of the 70’s and 80’s lingers on and is the primary reason why we’re still segregated and still forced to sit in designated seats amongst many other things.
The trouble for people like me is that we’re all so used to it now that no one ever questions it which is a bit sad really.
Have you ever been left scarred or bloodied after watching a match?
DW: Oh god yes. To use American football terminology, it’s fair to say that as a Watford fan I spent far more times on defense as opposed to offense!
The funny thing is that during my time as a serviceman, I had to keep my ‘activities’ a secret so if I’d been caught up in any trouble at a game and had been hurt, I had to tell them I’d had some kind of accident over the weekend! Car crashes, motorbike accidents… I had the lot!
When you’re watching a soccer match, how often do you think of the people in the stands? Are you ever more focused on that than the game itself?
DW: Oh constantly, especially if it’s a game in which Watford or England aren’t playing. This is even more true when I watch soccer abroad because I am fascinated to watch the things the fans do and how they behave. Flare shows of the kind most often seen in Eastern Europe these days are a particular favorite of mine although I also adore the huge flags and banners.
In many countries, these have now become quite competitive with rival fans taunting each other with loosely choreographed shows which are often quite spectacular. A couple of years ago, I attended Spartak Moscow versus Lokomotiv Moscow and the crowd were so awesome I didn’t watch a single moment of the game.
Are there any matches that you’d advise against going to because of the harsh rivalry?
DW: Not in England or even Scotland because of the way these sorts of games are so heavily policed. In fact unless you went wandering off into back streets or did something really stupid then you should be OK. However, outside of the UK there are many very dangerous games although if you know what’s what and are ‘invited’ to attend as a guest of a particular group, you should be safe anywhere.
But if you wanted a top five games to avoid as an innocent novice:
Galatasaray vs. Fenerbahce (Turkey)
Ajax vs. Feyenoord (Holland)
Cracovia vs. Wisla Krakow (Poland)
Flamengo vs. Fluminense (Brazil)
River Plate vs. Boca Juniors (Argentina)
It’s also fair to say that when it comes to teams who play in different divisions or even leagues, there are plenty of fixtures the world over which would be bordering on lethal were those two teams ever to meet in competition. For example, one only need look at what happened in the former Yugoslavia to see the potential for problems were Dynamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade ever to play each other again. It would be war. Literally.
What are your thoughts on the Millwall vs West Ham rivalry? It’s been known to be pretty grim and gritty at times.
DW: The Millwall v West Ham derby game is without doubt one of the oldest and most tense in world football. It’s certainly seen plenty of violence over the years and even today, when the two teams meet it will result in all police leave being cancelled in London. That’s serious.
It actually dates back many years and some people claim its roots lie in the 1926 dock strike which gripped both sides of the Thames. However, if you want a really detailed insight into this game, might I suggest my own book Capital Punishment which explores the history of hooliganism in London.
The WH v M rivalry is one of the most noted in all of football, and became the inspiration for your screenplay, and the subsequent film, Green Street (Hooligans). Did you choose this rivalry because it was well known and you believed the story would be an accurate representation of other such rivalries?
DW: Actually, when I wrote the original story it wasn’t about Millwall v West Ham it was about Tottenham and Arsenal. I chose the latter clubs simply to avoid the film being yet another stereotypical hooligan movie.
Sadly, the director didn’t agree and the producers thought that there was more chance of Americans knowing about Millwall which was ironic given that it failed to get a general screen release there. As it happens, West Ham were the only club who agreed to let them film on a match day although that’s a whole story of its own!
Did you have any personal interaction with any firm members from either side, either during your hooligan days, or since the movie came out?
DW: I’d encountered both groups many times over the years and to be fair, Millwall were always the worst. Since Green Street came out however, I’ve had a few run-ins with West Ham lads who took exception to the storyline. The irony being that most of the lads who took part in filming were West Ham as I point out at length. That usually shuts them up.
What are their thoughts on the film?
DW: I think most accept it for what it is, a piece of fiction. Personally, I actually dislike it intensely as I think it could and should have been so much better. There are details which let it down quite badly.
Were there any other rivalries that you considered?
DW: As I said, I wrote it about Tottenham and Arsenal but it could have been about any one of a dozen rivalries. However, the truth is that it simply had to be set in London because that’s a city that the bulk of the overseas market most associate with England.
Are rivalries essential to soccer? Right now, the MLS doesn’t have many strong derbies and rivalries. Are these important to forming a formidable soccer league?
DW: It’s a very competitive sport and so I think they are part and parcel of the game, especially for the fans. They up the tension and the excitement for specific games which inevitably adds to the experience. In fact I’d say if you asked most fans to name their most memorable games, most would name a local derby. They’re not just about the result, they’re about bragging rights!
Based on your experience in documenting soccer, what kinds of things does the MLS need to do in order to become one of the top leagues?
DW: At the moment, it’s all about shaking off the ‘soccer mom’ image which to be fair, still dogs the US game globally. But that will come in time and there’s little doubt that the MLS is moving in the right direction. The increasing success of the national side is certainly helping as of course, is the presence of so many big names including the legend that is Beckham.
How important is it for leagues and federations to take a stance against racism and hooliganism?
DW: Absolutely vital. The drive to combat racism has been one of the major successes of the game in England and that work has been of huge benefit both to soccer and society generally. Indeed, I don’t think the game gets given enough credit for the awesome work it’s done in that direction.
The issue of hooliganism is more soccer specific as the game is the actual catalyst for violence amongst supporters. There has been nowhere near enough work done to combat that and instead it’s been largely left to the forces of law and order to deal with which means that it’s simply being suppressed, not resolved.
In all your time watching soccer, what’s the favorite match you’ve seen in person?
DW: Simple. October 4th, 1997. Luton 0 – Watford 4. Our local rivals were simply torn to shreds. I never tire of watching the highlights on YouTube!
Was there anything in your experiences in school that would have suggested you would become a writer? Did you have any affinity for it or did a teacher suggest you might have the “gift of storytelling”?
DW: I certainly had a love of English when I was at school and my dad was a professional comic so I guess story-telling is in the genes. However, I only really started writing seriously when I began motor racing whilst in the Royal Air Force as I used to write reports to keep sponsors happy and these found their way into the forces press.
But I never really thought about writing a book until the idea for Everywhere We Go came along in 1995 and even that was only going to be a one-off. Sixteen years and fourteen books later I’m still not actually sure what happened really, or for that matter, how I’m still getting away with it!!
Describe the transition from writing about footy to other subjects. What are the topics you have covered and are there any commonalities other than you, the author? Please give us a rundown of the works you are most proud of.
DW: I consider myself incredibly lucky in that I grasped quite early on in my writing career that there are fundamental rules which, if you’re going to make a go of it, you have to grab onto. The first of these is that you have to know exactly who you are writing for and in my case, it’s guys.
Therefore, whenever I’m working up a new project I always put myself in the shoes of the average guy and ask the simple question ‘would I want to read this?’ If the answer is yes, I’ll throw the idea out to a few trusted mates and if they also come back with a positive response, then it’s all systems go.
The trouble is, my warped imagination throws up all kinds of odd ideas and being someone who is always happy to sling out new stuff irrespective of what genre it might inhabit, convincing my publishers that something would work was always a problem. For example, Billy’s Log (which is now one of my biggest sellers) was only printed because I insisted on it being tacked on as part of a two book deal with my then publishers.
Moving away from traditional publishing into the world of eBooks has removed that obstacle and I can’t tell you how liberating that is. I can now write what I want and release it whenever I want to and if ever a book proved that it’s my last one, a comedy novel called The Art of Fart.
It’s the funniest project I’ve ever worked on but in truth, it was never meant for public consumption at all as I wrote it as a brain purging exercise whilst working on a screenplay about quite a dark subject.
However, by the time I’d finished the script I had enough material for a short book and so after a chat with my epublishers and a brief polish, we put it out for sale. Thus far, it’s gone really well but then again, it is about farting and for a guy, is there anything funnier than that?
In terms of the books I’m most proud of, Billy’s Log is my personal favourite because it’s a comedy I wrote in response to the wave of anti-male propaganda which surrounded the release of Bridget Jones Diary. It tackles all kinds of issues surrounding the relationship between the male and female of the species and in particular the thorny subject of romance which is one of my favourite subjects. There is a lot of me wrapped up in that book which is why I like it so much.
After that it’s The Crew and Top Dog simply because they’re f*****g awesome. Honestly, at the risk of sounding conceited, I read them sometimes and can’t believe I actually wrote them.
What’s currently in the works for you, and are there subjects or projects you’d like to get into that you haven't yet?
DW: I’m currently writing a book called Wings of a Sparrow which is best described as Brewsters Millions meets Fever Pitch. It’s about one of those questions all sports fans discuss over a few beers and that is what would you do if you inherited ownership of your own team’s local rivals. It’s proven to be great fun to write and I’ve actually written the movie version at the same time. That’s currently being put together but the book will be out as an ebook within a couple of months.
After that, in response to both their success in ebook form and demand from readers, I’m scheduled to write sequels to Top Dog and Billy’s Log as well as a couple of movie projects but in truth, if there was something which really caught my imagination then I’d be happy to go for it. It would have to pass the ‘guys’ test first though!
You’ve tweeted quite a bit about the publishing world, and specifically the movement toward self-publishing and e-books. Summarize your thoughts on that subject, and do you see books going the way of newspapers, ie. away from print?
DW: For me, epublishing has been a revelation primarily because after years of struggling with traditional publishing which never really understood what I wanted to do in terms of targeting the ‘guy’ market, I have been able to take control of every aspect of my output from the subject matter to the PR.
What that means in effect is that not only do I decide what to write and when, but I can target it directly at my core readership which is something I was never able to do. Just as importantly, as an author who is firmly in the ‘give them what they want, not what you think they might like’ camp, I am now able to actively involve my readers in the publishing process. Not only am I able to react more quickly to their feedback and develop new ideas accordingly but I actively encourage them to help me promote my work be talking about it on social networking sites. That’s a fantastic thing and one I don’t think many authors have grasped yet.
It’s hard work for sure, but it’s hugely rewarding when it all comes together. One only has to look at the success of The Crew to see that.
I still believe that there is a place for paper though. There are too many people who like the feel of a book as opposed to something like a kindle to see it ever die out.
Full details of Dougie Brimson and his work can be found at www.dougiebrimson.com
This BigShot Q&A interview was a collaboration of Soccer Newsday writers Herb Scribner & Ken Sweda.