Last weekend, Everton came to the sleepy town of Hitchin. Not to play football, but to fill-up on booze before heading to the more challenging environment of Stevenage. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, in fact, the behaviour of the Everton fans reminded the non-league die-hards just why they prefer the more civilized world several steps below the Premier and Football League.
It was all very feralis. Climbing over this and that, pushing and shoving each other, beer spilling from every corner, abusive chanting and generally, making a nuisance of themselves. Then at half-time, some climbed the perimeter fence and walked on the pitch, a couple making camp in the dugouts. Finally, to complete the rout of Top Field dignity, somebody decided to head-butt a window, sending shards into the face of a Hitchin regular. Then they disappeared, off to Stevenage to watch their team make light work of the League One outfit. There were enough police around to ensure they didn’t run amok in the new town.
Surprised? Some people were. You see, the media rarely tell it how it is when it comes to Merseyside fans. There’s no doubting their devotion to the cause, in fact, there is a report circulating that highlights just how much of their disposable income they spend on football, and it’s a huge percentage. But while teams like Manchester United and Chelsea used to get all the bad publicity about crowd violence, rarely did the media highlight just how menacing Liverpool and Everton fans used to be.
If you visited either club as a supporter of a London club, it was always a precarious affair. I recall one conversation where two Crystal Palace fans walked into a shop after a game at Anfield in 1976. They were buying chewing gum and asked the way to Lime Street station. “Cockneys?”, asked the very old lady behind the counter. When the couple replied that they were, the reply from her husband was, “You’ll never make it to Lime Street”. Next, he nodded to two scousers and the Palace fans were pursued all the way back to their train.
Likewise, at Everton, if you parked your car anywhere near Goodison as a visitor, if you didn’t pay the protection money demanded by the kids that were no more than nine or 10, your car windows stood a good chance of being caved in when you returned from the game.
Ah, the indomitable wit of the scouser. Liverpool fans were among the first to bring flares back from Europe, and I don’t mean wide trousers. They also introduced bags of nails and darts to pre-match entertainment and then of course, there was the European Cup final that shall not be mentioned. Brian Glanville spoke of the vicious undercurrent that existed among Liverpool fans when the Heysel inquest was in full flow. It was rarely mentioned elsewhere.
That said, Liverpool were not a lot different from fans elsewhere, indeed clubs like Tottenham, Leeds United, United and Chelsea have all been involved in European military operations over the years.
Hitchin was a lot closer to home, and it certainly wasn’t football hooliganism of the 1970s kind, but it was a close encounter with a world totally alien to non-league fans. The doors will not be so widely opened in welcome next time they’re in town…