Off the Pitch Review: Among the Thugs

Bill Buford's classic novel "Among the Thugs" provides a behind-the-scenes look at football hooliganism from the 1980s

Each week (or so), The18's Mike Smith takes a look at how football is portrayed and covered in the media and popular culture. This week, we review the classic book, Among the Thugs by Bill Buford.

For those recent converts to the beautiful game that are looking for ways to engage their new love, we highly recommend Bill Buford’s account of the time he spent amongst proper football hooligans, Among the Thugs. For the book, first published back in 1990, Buford spent over eight years spending time with a variety of individuals and firms (as the groups of supporters are known) as they went to football matches, rioted, and fought, mostly with each other, but sometimes with the police. Buford himself got caught up in the action and was assaulted by the police on multiple occasions.

Among The Thugs Book Cover

Bill Buford's firsthand account of soccer hooliganism was first published in 1990, but remains a classic today (Photo: Wikimedia)

For me, the highlight of the book comes when Buford details his trip to Turin, Italy when he traveled with a plane full of Manchester United supporters on the way to the second-leg of the UEFA Cup Winner's Cup semifinal match against Juventus. Buford's descriptions of his traveling companions' actions, chanting, and alcohol consumption are almost too ridiculous to believe. I first read this section of the book on an airplane and found myself laughing out loud on multiple occasions at how ridiculous those “gentlemen” were acting. I got some funny looks, but at the time recognized that if my fellow passengers knew what I was reading, the looks what have been more akin to death stares.

What is not funny is that the supporters ended up rioting that evening in one of the most infamous accounts of hooliganism in football history. Buford was there right in the middle of the action and provides detailed descriptions of the shocking acts of violence that he witnessed first-hand on the streets of Turin. In a sign of the culture at the time, Buford actually gained “street cred” from the other hooligans after they learned he was there and experienced the brutality on that fateful evening.

Admittedly, the stories from this book date back to the 1980s when football hooliganism was a much more serious problem than it at least appears today. That said, when I attended a Chelsea match at Stamford Bridge back in 2012, the local bars had signs on the doors that stated “Home Supporters” only that were being enforced by rather large gentlemen at the door that did not appear to work for the establishment. There are also incredibly draconian restrictions on how to keep the supporters apart within the stadium (i.e. a visiting fan can be thrown out for sitting in the home supporters’ section), which showcase the legacies of this era.

Though the actions of the hooligans are of course immensely entertaining, the book also highlights the obsessive relationship that the fans have with their clubs. I was always impressed with the number of fans that traveled to away matches, even as far away as Eastern Europe for weeknight matches. I always wondered how the supporters got off of work to make it to these matches, let alone how they managed to pay for it. Yet, for these fans, it is not a matter of “if” they are going; the only question is how they are going to get there. Though hooliganism is not as much of a problem as it was back in the 1980s, the passion that the fans exhibit and how they live and die with the results of every match remains alive and well today.

Buford also plays amateur psychologist at points and attempts to divine why so many boys and men got caught up in the hooligan culture. Without giving too much away, the stories that he tells illustrates how the “mob mentality” can play out in real time and how it is very easy to get caught up in what everyone else is doing when you’re in the thick of the action.

Among the Thugs is a must-read for every football fan, no matter when your love of the beautiful game first began to blossom. At this point it qualifies as living history with touches of humor and insights into the psychology of the young male. The book also creates a sensation of watching a train wreck: you want to look away, but you just can’t put it down because you have to know what these “gentlemen” are going to do next. 

Among the Thugs by Bill Buford is available on Amazon.

Follow Mike Smith on Twitter @thefootiegent

He hasn’t been caught up in an act of football-related violence...yet.

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