October 13th, 1984. One of the rolling stock death traps which British Rail begrudgingly offered up as football specials pulls in to Barnsley central station. Seconds later a sea of young men are already running for the exits, chanting tribal football songs, announcing their arrival like a late 20th century equivalent of shock and awe. Pariahs across the north and way beyond, Leeds United are back in town.
Outside in the car park a small group of mounted police attempt to maintain some sort of order. They don’t have control and they know it. There’s history between the South Yorkshire force and their antagonists; unprovoked brutality on both sides. In the background is the sound of breaking glass, sirens and the smell of horse shit; shoppers and pedestrians take cover and a sense of anarchy reigns.
Later at Oakwell United lose by a single goal and the mood once again grows ugly. A pitch invasion from the away end is matched by one from the opposite terrace and briefly the two sets of fans are fighting toe to toe on the halfway line, shaggy perms and fists, Pringle sweaters and flying steel toe capped boots. One of the teenage protagonists is smacked in the mouth without throwing a punch. He withdraws to the stands, nursing a broken lip and new sense of reality. The following week the club’s supporters are met at Huddersfield by a water cannon; by the end of the season they would be subject to an away ticketing scheme which at the time was the most stringently controlled in British football.
The young teenager punched out in the story is me; this sorry incident was my first and last as a would be hooligan. What the braying did give me though was a tiny, voyeuristic insight into the experience, the “rush” often referred to by old timers, the DNA of what is for some an addictive compulsion to football violence. Why young men turn pugilistic in the name of their club has been dissected by anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists for decades, but for men of science creating that clinical context is next to impossible. Those feelings aren’t randomly generated from a single event; they’re part of a belief system based on its own morality.
Unlike now, there were far fewer opportunities to capture these events on film, or get an insight into how the protagonists lived away from their brief, violent bursts of anti-social behaviour. But in the last few years a series of photographs has reached the world via social media platforms; usually grainy Kodak prints set against a backdrop of lines of police, abandoned factories and railway stations. The idea that became Wish You Were Here began when it became obvious that these images were able to communicate a broader, more holistic truth than the publicly known history. But then came a more unique take on how to reach a wider audience: an exhibition, displaying the photos as contemporary items of visual reportage. For organisers Andy Pye, Rich Cusworth and Karl Skirrow – helped by Simon Gosling – it became more than a labour of love, snowballing rapidly into a series of events: first an exhibition at Temple Works in Leeds in 2011, then exporting the concept to New York and, almost unbelievably, on to Paris during fashion week.
It returns to its home city’s White Cloth Gallery from February 15th–19th – once again all proceeds go to charitable causes – the title being a tribute in part to Gav Spelman, a member of the group seen in most of the pictures, who died tragically on the way home from a game in 1986. The new exhibition coincides with the twenty-seventh anniversary of Gav’s death, and also remembers others present in the photographs who are no longer with us.
What the pictures reveal is casual culture shorn of it’s machismo, and the affirmation of something often perceived as a cliché – a group of working class men leaving adolescence behind together, lads who spent more than just Saturday afternoons in each other’s company, the legendary “tight knit group of mates” that almost every book about football violence ever written has as its unreconstructed bedrock. It shows this other dimension by going beyond mere spectacle, journeying with them through impromptu kickabouts, day trips to genteel Wharfe Valley towns, or madder outings to Blackpool, the camaraderie shining from every pixel of the enlarged photographs natural, obvious and lifelong.
And of course you have the clothes. Part of the appeal was the highly distinct visual identity that came with the territory. There was clearly something ironic about teenagers on the dole or in dead end jobs rampaging around the country’s major cities wearing a jacket that would cost three months of their wages. But the truth was that in the eighties much of the clobber was stolen, or “taxed,” from shops or even from each other. Brands and looks came and went in a moment in terms of street couture; keeping up on a YTS without taking the odd liberty would have been next to impossible.
The eighties is regarded as football’s darkest era, possibly because history is written by the winners. The game itself teetered on the brink of financial collapse, whilst the spectre of violence haunted the authorities and the Tory government. By the end of the decade, though, a transformation had already begun, facilitated by CCTV cameras and recreational drugs, snitches and new powers for the man. Just like Joe, the vast majority of the participants fought the law, and the law won. In among this misanthropy, however, what has emerged in relation to the casual movement is a hysterical condemnation by politicians, while equally the worst excesses committed in its name are now treated as everyday fact by people attempting to profit from them.
Wish You Were Here in some ways is the antidote to both sides of the argument: firstly to Thatcher’s projection of the perpetrators as sociopathic enemies of the state, but equally to the glamourisation of the lifestyle as portrayed on small and large screen. There are almost no pictures of people fighting, in part because the reality was that the threat of violence was sporadic. Meetings often happened at random, especially in London’s dingy tube network, and if they did, you’d expect more from your mates than to have them snapping you for posterity. At all other times you were free to be the subject. Many of those photographs have ended up here.
Wish You Were Here is taking place at the White Cloth Gallery, 26 Aire Street, Leeds LS1 4HT (click here for a map) between February 15th–19th. The accompanying books will be available for a minimum donation of £10 at the event. All proceeds from the event and the books will be divided equally between the Candlelighters and St. Gemma’s Hospice charities.
Special Thanks to those who provided the photographs: Steven Farrar, Wugie, Craig Gill, Karl Rafferty courtesy of Shaun McGrath, Michelle Hands, Michael Tobin, Carl Ryan and others.
The organisers would like to thank Adidas for their support.