The people versus the elite: John King on his Football Factory trilogy 20 years on

The author revisits the characters from his novel 20 years on and in the context of the EU Referendum

football fans
Football stadium image CC Lukas Koster/flickr.com

It may be twenty years since The Football Factory was first published, but the ideas that underpin the novel feel much more relevant and urgent now than they did in 1996. Britain is being slowly dismantled, its culture and assets sold off to the highest bidders, and the alienation felt by millions of ordinary people is deeper than ever. The EU referendum is focusing some of this resentment, but trust in politicians and the media has plummeted, protests from across the spectrum met by wide smiles, easy debt and lots of empty liberal rhetoric. If that doesn’t work, some familiar smears follow. The smiles of the elite grow as the insults flow. Democracy itself is up for sale.

One of the main themes of The Football Factory is this incredible sense of powerlessness. Hearing our political class openly excuse the transfer of sovereignty to an undemocratic body on the other side of the Channel would have been unimaginable even a few years ago, and shows the contempt the likes of David Cameron, Tony Blair and John Major have for the electorate. Paying billions of pounds for the privilege of being in their Brussels club is one more kick in the teeth. A corporate coup has been taking place over the decades, quietly assisted by a complicit establishment.

The Football Factory

Tommy is full of energy and ideas, but his background means he will always struggle. […] Like millions of others, this unfairness makes him very angry

The rise of UKIP and the SNP, along with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, reflects the disillusionment of the masses, but seeing Corbyn and Nicola Sturgeon aligning themselves with Cameron and George Osborne, the banks and multinationals, has destroyed any idea that the party system is undergoing the shake-up it so badly needs. Sadly, the debate over Britain’s EU membership has been channelled into tit-for-tat side-arguments over trade and immigration, when it should be focused on the more important questions of identity and independence.

The Football Factory looks at the importance of identity through warehouseman and ‘football hooligan’ Tommy Johnson, and pensioner and former soldier Bill Farrell. Tommy is full of energy and ideas, but his background means he will always struggle. His culture is dismissed and his beliefs belittled, and he knows his voice will never be heard. Like millions of others, this unfairness makes him very angry. Being part of a football firm is exciting and channels his aggression, but he is fighting his own kind, and this is one of the major points made by The Football Factory and the other novels in the trilogy – Headhunters and England Away.

When he is out and about at football, his life has meaning and he feels powerful, but really he is not, and if the people could unite, stop arguing among themselves and see the other person’s point of view, break away from that stifling party-political model, they would be unstoppable. Tommy himself understands this argument. The passion of a football crowd shows off the power of the proles, as expressed in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, its rejection of dogma in the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy In The UK.

Back in 1996, football supporters were still seen as a form of lowlife by many in the middle- and upper-classes. Often patriotic, largely white and working-class, outspoken and noisy and sometimes violent, they were never going to appeal to those controlling the agendas of Right and Left. The Premier League had recently been created and the seeds of gentrification planted. The fact that it is only now, after twenty-six years, that the victims of the Hillsborough Disaster have received some form of justice, shows how deep the prejudice goes. Hillsborough had nothing to do with hooliganism, but the establishment’s attitude towards football and what it represented was one of disgust – at least until the arrival of millions of pounds of satellite TV and sponsorship money.

The Football Factory

Patriotism is a positive in The Football Factory novels, rejects the stereotyping of those who dismiss it as right-wing and racist, looks to shared values and ideas of localism

The most important character in The Football Factory is Bill Farrell. He fought in the Second World War and took part in the D-Day landings, helped liberate a concentration camp and married a survivor. He is a strong, moral man, and one who believes in cooperation. He is a hero to the likes of Tommy and his friends, even if some of their opinions differ. Bill is Tommy at a different stage of life, reflective and shaped by a much more intense set of circumstances. Like the younger men, he sees through the careerists who have hijacked the political system. He remains a true socialist, and it is his voice that is most obviously missing from the debate on the EU. He fought totalitarianism and saw the horror first hand, knows how fragile democracy can be.

The Football Factory draws on social history, the war and its aftermath, when pride at defeating Hitler ran into the creation of the welfare state. Public housing and healthcare, core industries managed by the state on behalf of the people and therefore beyond the profit motive, a desire to self-improve and the means provided... These were foundations considered right and proper by men and women of different backgrounds and beliefs. Patriotism is a positive in The Football Factory novels, rejects the stereotyping of those who dismiss it as right-wing and racist, looks to shared values and ideas of localism. Independence is essential to Bill and Tommy, both as individuals and collectively as a country and a culture.

The Second World War is fading from the national memory now, but the irritation certain groups felt over a relatively modest pride in defeating fascism seems to be increasing among today’s new elites. Waves of professionals are trained to reject the nation state and what is still portrayed as a plebeian, white working-class. The Football Factory, Headhunters and England Away have no time for this sort of discrimination, the latter of the novels rooted firmly in the war and its meaning to the then present. Merely mentioning it today is considered uncouth in careerist circles. It is natural for a rampant form of globalising, ultra-capitalism to want to censor our folk history.

Today, few council houses are built and the expensive homes that are produced are viewed as investments by the wealthy of the world. The NHS is creaking and threatened with privatisation as the EU pumps out directives and presses for increased competition, its attempts to introduce the much-hated Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) a move the Tory leadership backs. On top of this, given the catastrophic failures of the financial institutions, nobody can know what will happen to their pensions in the long term. The renationalising of industries is occasionally mentioned, but those doing so refuse to face the limits placed on such a move by the EU. This is far more uncouth than mentioning the war.

The Football Factory

All change is sold as positive, the term ‘progressive’ dropped into conversations like acid, creating surreal mindsets where logic plays out in reverse

The welfare state was a foundation that few questioned, and it led to a feeling of national unity, but the press towards privatisation and the rolling back of public services was already underway when The Football Factory first came out, yet the speed of change keeps increasing, with no opposition strong enough to slow it down. The novel looks back to the Thatcher years as a starting point for this shift, and is almost a bridge between the political turmoil of the 1970s and ’80s and the uncontrolled exploitation of the last ten or so years.

That British consciousness was by no means universal, and could be romanticised and dismissive of some serious hypocrisies, but it didn’t have to relate to the state or the establishment, and for the likes of Tommy and Bill there is little connection. It is about a shared history, beliefs, customs, humour. These are the same cultural connections that would see them reject the EU today. The idea of such a unity is laughed at by some, but what is the alternative?

A global takeover driven by the corporations and controlled in Europe by an organisation where unelected bureaucrats create rules and regulations that become laws that override our own? The crushing of Greece by the so-called troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – an example of what happens to a country that does not obey Berlin and Brussels? A Eurocentric model of immigration and trade that has seen us betray the Commonwealth and close out the wider world?

The high-profile dictators of the past are long gone, replaced by anonymous figures driven by free-market ideology and a love of power for its own sake. Local loyalties have to be destroyed if big business is going to operate without restraint, and so it makes sense to undermine any sort of pride or socialist thought. All change is sold as positive, the term ‘progressive’ dropped into conversations like acid, creating surreal mindsets where logic plays out in reverse. The coup has to be slow-moving and take place across generations to work, which is something the EU has successfully achieved. The past is only useful if it can be exploited, and so Brussels can’t even agree on what happened in the Second World War, while the roles of Britain, the Soviet Union and America are quietly sidelined.

The culture that surrounds football acts as a microcosm for all of this, and The Football Factory, Headhunters and England Away try to capture the vibrancy of a way of life important to millions. Boys, youths and men have linked football, drinking, communal singing, popular music and youth cults since the early-1960s, moving from mod into skinhead, suedehead, boot boy and beyond. The skinheads were branded ‘racist’, but this was a subculture based around a love of Jamaican music, with most of the London crews featuring leading black and mixed-race faces as far back as the ’60s.

It could be argued that there were more non-white faces in our football stadiums before the price hikes of the Premiership, though nobody would question the fact that racism existed at certain points, and yet it was a relatively small element and football quickly embraced black players and remains one of the most integrated areas of society along with music. The same cannot be said of those passing judgement. The casual use of the ‘racist’ slur is liberally used in order to shut down an argument, just as it was in the past to demonise whole swathes of the population. Until very recently, most of those who tried to oppose the EU were dismissed in this way.

Today, TV companies and foreign billionaires control football at the top level. The leading teams feature few players born in the country, let alone kids who have come through the youth system. Corporate hospitality is prized above passion and loyalty, yet those two qualities are maximised in the clubs’ advertising. When I went to my first full season at Chelsea back in 1976 – 77, entrance to The Shed was 50p. Now the cheapest adult ticket costs £56. That is an increase of over 1,000 per cent. When The Football Factory came out, a seat at Stamford Bridge cost £7.

Characterless stadiums and endless merchandising are promoted as progress, but the high prices act to drive ordinary supporters away so they can be replaced with wealthier ‘consumers’, and this reflects what is happening to the rest of the country on a much larger scale. Language is bent and twisted out of shape as doublespeak runs into babytalk.

Earlier forms of surveillance featured in the novel, such as video evidence and some serious prison terms, were essential in controlling the fighting around football, and this has developed into something that is dipping into every area of life. An army of part-time spies secretly record and shame people for the smallest mistakes. Mobile-phone cameras, YouTube, trial by Twitter – the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty is consistently challenged, and reflects a larger picture which for many is symbolised by the European Arrest Warrant.

Headhunters and England Away, which followed in 1997 and 1998, take on the themes of The Football Factory, the stories of Tommy and Bill evolving and coming to some sort of resolution in the latter of these books, on both the streets of Berlin and the remembered battlefields of Germany. In each novel, barriers are broken down, as Headhunters insists class war is more important than sex war, that men and women are united by background and their economic situation rather than gender. But it is England Away that links more closely to The Football Factory, as story-lines are continued and, back in 1998 when it was released, the emerging EU superstate is confronted, the argument being that it is the people themselves who deal with difference and find common ground, while attempts to impose uniformity from above will always be shaped by vested interests.

The pro-EU lobby has one main argument. Leave and few companies in Europe will trade with us again, leading to a rise in unemployment. That, essentially, is it, but those firms would be ruined if they stopped selling their goods to the UK, while any tariff war is two-sided. It makes no sense. I have never met a person in ‘normal’ life who enthusiastically supports the EU. Many worry that they could lose their jobs if we leave, but despite decades of propaganda and the total failure of our political, media and cultural controllers to address the issue honestly, the vast majority of ordinary people remain at least sceptical.

The Football Factory

My belief is that it has the potential to become a new sort of dictatorship, with the work of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451) acting as guides to its nature

Incredibly, Cameron and the rest of the establishment still insist that a superstate is not the final goal of the EU, while simultaneously excusing the transfer of political power to Brussels. However, their simple trade agreement does not need a president, a legislature, a national anthem, a flag, a paramilitary police force (Eurogendfor), its own currency, a planned army. If even one law is made outside of Parliament – and it is estimated that over half of UK laws are now derived from Brussels – then we are in big trouble. It follows that if a system is undemocratic it can easily become anti-democratic. The question that everyone should be considering is where is the EU heading?

Jean Monnet, regarded as the founding father of the European Union, summed things up this way: ‘Europe’s nations should be guided towards the superstate without their people understanding what is happening. This can be accomplished by successive steps, each disguised as having an economic purpose, but which will eventually and irreversibly lead to federation.’

The Football Factory trilogy, and books such as White Trash and Human Punk, come together in the arguments against the EU. Identity, democracy, culture, that festering anger – it really is a case of the people versus the elite. The upcoming vote is the most important issue of our twenty-first-century history, and yet confusion has clouded the thinking of too many decent people, especially that of some genuine liberals and socialists. Like Tommy Johnson, they have ended up fighting the wrong enemies.

If the people vote to leave the EU, there will be fresh ‘offers’ from Brussels, more dire warnings of economic collapse, delays and threats, and probably an attempt to hold a second referendum. It has happened before. Leaving the EU is by no means the answer to all of the country’s problems, but those in control will have seen their ambitions blocked and there will be a real chance to create something new and exciting, to look forwards rather than back. Again, where is the EU leading? My belief is that it has the potential to become a new sort of dictatorship, with the work of George Orwell, Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451) acting as guides to its nature.

If the UK votes to stay in, a fresh campaign to leave will start soon after, driven by millions of furious people. The EU will keep tightening its grip, become more powerful and intrusive, and eventually we will have to join the euro. This is an inevitability, never mind what the current crop of apologists say. It is essential to any single state. A basic principle. But those who oppose the EU have passion on their side, while any remain vote will be made reluctantly and decided by a fear of job losses.

None of this is going to go away anytime soon, and those feelings of frustration and anger will keep on growing, the sense of powerlessness expressed in The Football Factory trilogy fixed for decades to come. Thinking about the characters of these books two decades later, it’s hard to imagine that they will have mellowed. If anything, their alienation will be near enough total.

When Bill Farrell looks back to the savagery of the war and the social gains made in the years after, that feeling of unity and hope, he is saddened by the way the dream is being destroyed, tempted by his nephew’s offer to join him in Australia. Vince Matthews is an old Chelsea boy who has gone off to see the wider world, in a sense escaping and finding a better life, but Bill feels that leaving England would be a betrayal of everything he fought for and an admission of failure.

When I think of the former soldiers I knew growing up, the heroes of the greatest generation, who helped me create Bill and his pals, it feels like a small blessing that they aren’t here to see how low our leaders have sunk and how profit-driven and conformist society has become. For a British prime minister to suggest that they fought so that a clique of spoilt, self-serving politicians could sell off our country and its democracy defies belief.

In The Football Factory, Bill Farrell decides to stay, but after his mental return to Germany in England Away, where he confronts his killing of a young enemy soldier, he accepts the way the country is going and decides to travel to Australia. If he is still alive he would be well into his nineties, and I sort of hope that he stayed and never came back. I can imagine him sitting in the sun with Vince, a cold lager in his hand as he hears the referendum result.

As for Tommy Johnson, he is still in West London, and I see him all the time in the pubs I use, older maybe but still game and full of energy, his spirit right there in the younger generations. Tommy hates the professionals telling him what to think and how to behave more than ever, his anger focused and mind racing, an unheard voice and a man who remains ignored.

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