Football Special Report: Early Modern Part 2 – Hooligans and Ultras

The following was originally published in Red Inc. #63 (May 2019) – the long running Shelbourne FC fanzine put out by Reds Independent – as part of our “Early Modern” mini series.

In the last issue we examined certain historical kit concepts that proved far ahead of their time, with Early Modern Part 1. We now continue this mini-series by seamlessly switching to our equally comfortable “supporter-culture wing” (from which a fascination with the “grittier” side of the game often drives away small amounts of social media followers who have naively only “liked” us for the great shirts, bless) to take a look at the origins of fan disobedience and expressions of supporter passion.


In the world of today’s modern football, the capitalist-authoritarians have been systematically removing many aspects of the sport that used to make it such a special spectacle. Old grounds with unique character (Tolka Park for example) are being replaced one-by-one with shiny, uniform new stadiums that lack any real soul (think Tallaght perhaps). Well meaning (?) club boards and local councils seek these upgrades due to a demand for safe, updated facilities that will appeal to both the family and the “new” fan, who couldn’t possibly stand for 90 minutes and for some reason need excellent bathroom facilities.

We prefer the heroicness of those footballing museums of the past, where, much like an old city, the ground has been built piece by piece to create a somewhat incoherent – but fascinating and historic – piece of sports-related architecture. Granted, we have also been accused by some of using the term “heroic” as a substitute for “shit-hole”, which may be true in some cases. But we would take any lower-league shit-hole over the stadiums of some of the world’s supposed top clubs, such as Manchester City, who’s latest innovation as we type is “electronic flags” displayed on a series of screens in the upper-tier of the Ethiad. No need for distressingly tactile real material ever again!

This is a huge part of the sanitisation of football, welcomed by many who associate the old style grounds with the “violent days”. Likewise, pitch invasions are becoming increasingly taboo again among the authorities after an upsurge in recent years in England towards the end of the season, and the lighting of flares, etc, will always be seen by some as simply a needless, idiotic fine incurred by their club, while making snide remarks at the young culprit for thinking he’s “in the San Siro”. In certain situations the supporter in question risks far more than derision from the better-behaved stadium-goers, with long bans, fines and a day court looming if caught.

In some people’s minds, football was a originally gentleman’s sport ruined by the rebellious youth culture of the 1970s that infiltrated the terraces and exploded into the hooligan epidemic of the 80s. At mainstream level, where business potential has long-since replaced gentlemanly sport, the quest to stamp out the remnants of this chaotic period is nearly complete, although many clubs across Europe who compete in UEFA’s premier competitions still have passionate ultras groups. Despite the fact that they contribute hugely to the fascinating European football tradition, these groups (some quite powerful within their own clubs) are clearly not welcome in the eyes of the continent’s sophisticated governing body, who would rather club-sanctioned displays designed by marketing firms if anything has to be happening in the stands. But 60,000 sat politely in their seats not making too much of a fuss about anything would be even better, apart from taking selfies and dancing to Seven Nation Army when a goal is scored.

Because of this, a certain generation have grown up thinking that watching football in a stadium (usually observed through TV) equates to tens of thousands of match-going “customers” sitting in matching replica jerseys, like a poorly designed video game from the past (although this might be changing somewhat as Wolves have just announced safe standing in their home end). But since the sport became orginaised in the 19th century, the natural environment within which it is played has provided the perfect breeding ground for a type of exhilaration that differs and exceeds that of merely watching a ball game, and in a way that apparently no other sport could replicate. The lawless, dystopian wastelands that the terraces would later become attracted both legit nut-jobs and otherwise “regular folk” alike. To them, the raw competition between fanbases – unlike the controlled competition of the game on the pitch – and the comradery found within your own, were among the only truly-real things found in life. A last-minute away goal in a hated rivals’ ground on the other side of the country, experienced with a group mates that had traveled the land together on never ending football adventures, was comparable or superior to many sexual encounters (a fact unknown to mere-TV viewers). And of course the whole thing hinged on civic pride, with most fan actions the result of a desire to show that this meant more than just sport.

Origin stories:

As mentioned in our original RI article (Pyro On The Pitch #10), some of the earliest evidence for the use of football-related pyrotechnics actually comes from Ireland, and indeed Shelbourne. A report regarding Shels’ victory in Dalymount Park over Belfast Celtic in the 1906 IFA Cup Final states that “tar barrels and bonfires were blazing across Ringsend and Sandymount that night as the Irish Cup was paraded around the district”. Bonfires have deep pagan origins in Ireland, particularly during Samhain (Halloween, the end of the harvest) Bealtaine (May Day, the beginning of summer) and mid-summer’s eve (the summer Solstice), with the flames – evocative of the sun for which later religions would be based on through metaphor – deemed to hold protective powers. By “the time of Shelbourne”, the bonfire and the more sophisticated tar barrel fire (an early flare of sorts?) had been adapted as a form of celebration and sign of appreciation by locals for the team who represented them.

That same year saw altogether more sinister developments over in England, as hooliganism began to lay it’s roots. In the 1880s, the presence of spectators known as “roughs” (a term that should really come back), who’s aim was to cause trouble at games and intimidate officials, already displayed that a form of hooligan had been around, but this was generally an era before away fans. The early meetings of massive rivals Millwall and West Ham United, however, were occasions that meant more than football, as both clubs’ working class followings were primarily made up of neighbouring London dockers, many of whom were employed by rival companies. Competition regarding livelihoods, as well as locales and football clubs, therefore divided the fans, and during a particularly tense Western League match in Upton Park on September 17th, 1906, violence broke out among the unsegregated supporters.

Millwall had two players sent off in the game, with the first incident – where one player was thrown against a metal advertising hording – triggering brawls in the stands. The East Ham Echo newspaper later reported that trouble had been brewing since kick-off, but that once the match had descended into mayhem “the crowds on the bank caught the fever, free fights were plentiful”. Considering how hooliganism later became known as the “English disease” in the 1980s, the idea of the “fever” having originally been caught through violence from the players is an interesting origin story, and one which initiated Millwall’s reputation as a hard club on and off the pitch.

Strikes, politics and hooligans in Ireland:

Back in Ireland, football would soon provide a theater for even more politically tense situations than rival dockers. In 1913, Shelbourne and Bohemians (the only two teams from present day Republic of Ireland in the Irish League at the time) played out a friendly match to mark the opening of Shelbourne Park, while hundreds rioted outside the ground, attacked carriages carrying supporters to the game, and clashed with police. The reason was down to the Dublin strike and workers lock-out of August 1913-January 1914, as one of the teams was alleged by trade union leader Jim Larkin to contain a scab. More than 50 were injured and sent to hospital in the episode, and 16 arrested.

Earlier in 1913, a British Home Championship game between Ireland and Scotland in Dalymount Park was marred after Scottish players were attacked by supporters following a 2-1 win for the home team. The Irish revolutionary period was about to begin, which would ultimately mean the end of Dalymount and the like hosting British Championship games following independence for the 26 counties. The divide in the remaining 6 counties of the North was evident by a 1919 derby between loyalist Glentoran and republican Belfast Celtic, during which pitch invasions, projectiles, and a “disorderly march through the town” afterwards, were accompanied by republican songs throughout. The same fixture the following season saw similar scenes, this time with the addition of gun shots, while fighting between rival mobs at a game involving fellow-republicans Cliftonville, also in 1920, resulted in multiple baton charges from the Royal Irish Constabulary.

Once the partition of Ireland was complete, hooligan incidents – now often referred to as such after the “Hooligans”, a stereotypically rowdy fictitious Irish family from an 1890s English song – in the Irish Free State swiftly followed the creation of the new FAI. At the final-replay of the 1922 FAI Cup (the inaugural edition of the competition), again in Dalymount Park, Shamrock Rovers fans rushed onto the pitch at the end of their side’s defeat to St. James’s Gate to attack the victorious players. In 1930, an English newspaper recounted how angry Shelbourne fans had attacked a referee at a match against Waterford. Back up North, where sectarianism remained an issue, fighting broke out when Derry City hosted staunchly loyalist Linfield. In 1958, when the popularity of the League of Ireland was at it’s zenith, nearly 20,000 filled Dublin’s Tolka Park to watch Drumcondra and Shamrock Rovers, with masses locked out. After 25 minutes the hordes outside broke through the gates, causing the swelling crowds to burst onto the pitch and the match was abandoned.

Just another brick in Millwall:

Millwall, meanwhile, had continued to build a bad reputation throughout these decades. Their Den stadium had already been closed for two weeks in the 1920s, after a Newport County goalkeeper had been struck by missiles (hopefully including bricks just for the sake of the pun above) and then knocked-out after he entered the enclosure to confront the home supporters. A match against Bradford Park Avenue in 1934 and it’s ensuing crowd violence again resulted in a two week stadium closure. The punishment was next applied in 1947 following a pitch invasion, and in 1950 a fine was issued after officials were attacked outside the ground.

In 1965 a fake grenade was thrown on the pitch from the Millwall occupied end at Brentford’s Griffin Park, with fighting inside and out of the stadium, and in 1966 a 6-1 defeat at the hands of QPR featured a thrown coin that drew blood from an opposing player, and a pitch invasion in an attempt to annul the game. Finally in 1967, after the Plymouth Argyle team bus was attacked and another referee assaulted on the pitch, the FA ordered the erection of fences around The Den’s terraces – an ominous “solution” with grim implications in the future.

A global phenomenon:

So far, we have seen that extracurricular activities at football throughout the early-mid 20th century in Ireland and England stemmed from the likes of industrial rivalries, politically based eruptions of violence, anger at referees and opposition players, pitch invasions due to overflowing crowds, and plain old hooliganism for the sake of it. But as the popularity of the sport increased around the world, other regions also began to experience stadium trouble and sometimes of a far more serious nature than in Britain or Ireland.

At a match between Italian clubs Viareggio and Lincques in 1920, the crowd rioted after police had intervened in a fight among players and somehow shot the referee dead, resulting in fans confiscating police revolvers and cutting telephone and telegraph wires at the local railway station. In an eerily-similar situation at a club game in Argentina in 1936, a policeman again shot and killed a referee during “crowd uproar”. Groups of particularly enthusiastic fans known as “barras” had began to appear in Argentinian stadiums in the 1920s, meaning “gang” (not necessarily criminal) or “group of friends“, laying the groundwork for the future “barras bravas” label in the 60s (“fierce gangs“). But both incidents displayed that the supporters in the stadium were not the only violent group to fear. On the eve of the birth of Nazi Germany, meanwhile, a Fuerth player was attacked and hospitalised by pitch invading Hertha Berlin hooligans in 1931, while in British India that same year 45 were arrested and 65 injured in a riot after an Hindu team took on a Muslim team in Bangalore.

Going above and beyond:

Not all supporter developments of the age were of the violent kind, however. Early on in certain Eastern European and Latin countries, flags and banners were already used to express encouragement to the team. In Brazil “torcida” groups (crowd in Portuguese, from “to root for”), focused on large flags and fireworks, had began to spring up in the 1940s, starting with São Paulo’s “Torcida Uniformizada São Paulo” (like “Uniformised Cheer“). The exact middle of the century would prove a suitably pivotal moment in the development of this type of support, as the two cultures mentioned collided via the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. At the final in the Maracana Satdium, a number of Yugoslav-Croat students among the 200,000 in attendance were stunned by the colour, noise and coordination of the home fans, including pyro as puffs of smoke were seen rising from the crowd after Brazil took the lead (before their ultimate shock defeat at the hands of Uruguay). The inspired travelers returned to their homeland and decided to form their own supporters group for their local club – Hajduk Split – based on what they had seen, choosing the name that the Brazilians used themselves: Torcida.

In retrospect, the group’s debut appearance in that autumn’s league opener against Partizan Belgrade was the first of an ultras group in Europe, although it would not yet be known as such. Over the years the “Torcida” name fell out of use, but was revived by young Hajduk supporters in the late 1970s after the decade had seen an increased usage of flags, section banners, and organised chants. By time the group hit it’s prime in the 1980s, the label of “ultras” had now started to spread across the continent, all thanks to concurrent developments in Italy.

Re-winding again to the early 1950s, an arguably more important event occurred a year after the foundation of Torcida, as Torino FC’s “Fedelissimi Granata” (Maroon Loyals) were born – the first supporter group in Italy. The group were the also first to display organised banners in the club’s Stadio Filadelfia, the first in the country to travel by plane to an away match for a game against Roma in 1963, and by the 1970s were producing choreographies in the stands. Like Torcida, and Panathanikos’ Gate 13 in 1966, Fedelissimi would be grandfathered-in as among the original ultras groups, but again long before the true concept had been created. This would come at the end of the 1960s when the ultras-movement prepared to explode, with two particular clubs at the forefront: AC Milan and Sampdoria.

Like many Italian clubs, Milan also had a “Fedellssimi” supporter group by this stage who waved flags and supported the team, but not in an ideal section of the stadium. In 1968, groups of like-minded youths began to assemble on match days at Ramp 18 of San Siro’s “popular” enclosure, and before long the collective gave themselves the name “Fossa Dei Leoni” – the Lions Den, named after the old Milan training grounds. Among other soon-to-be “ultra-characterists”, the group produced a hand-sown banner baring their name along with other huge waving flags, threw confetti, and traveled to away games as a unit. Amazingly for the decade, there would also be pyro at the 1969 European Cup final in Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu stadium, as fireworks were shot from the crowd onto the pitch to greet the Milan team as they emerged along side Ajax.

While Fossa Dei Leoni certainly showed all the signs of – and would later, along with Torino, claim to be – the country’s first ultras group in it’s truest sense, the name itself still hadn’t arrived. This actually may be disputed by some Genoese, as the word had apparently already long been adapted by graffiti-creating UC Sampdoria fans as a near-acronym for the phrase “Uniti Legneremo Tutti I Rossoblu Asangue” in reference to their city rivals Genoa CFC: “United, we will beat the red and blues (Genoa) till they bleed”. The fact that the letters corresponded to the Latin for “beyond”/”more” – ultra – made it an apt choice of name when Sampdoria’s own historical group, also driven by outwardly expressing their support more than the usual fan, formed in 1969: “Ultras Tito Cucchiaroni”. The second part of the name honored Argentinian cult-hero player Ernesto “Tito” Cucchiaroni, who had represented the club from 1959 to 1963 and scored twice in his first outing in the “Derby della Lanterna” against Genoa.

In the 1970s, this title of “ultras” proved so perfect for the style of support now springing up all over Italy that before long, other club’s fans – probably completely unaware of the double meaning within Samp’s support – began to create and name their own “Ultras” groups. It was in fact one of many “memes” within tifo (Italian support) culture in terms of names at the time, with a particular popularity for the military variety as banners displaying “Commandos”, “Brigata”, and “Korps” became a common sight on the curvas. But by the 80s, “ultras” had developed as the accepted catch-all term and even began spreading outside of the country, as evident by Real Madrid’s “Ultras Sur” foundation in 1980. One exception, naturally, was Genoa, who doubtlessly never forgot the true origins of Sampdoria’s use of the term. Their original group, formed in 1973, instead went the Milan route by choosing the name Fossa dei Grifoni – Griffin’s Den, in reference to the mythical creature that adorned both the city’s coat of arms and the club’s crest.


Having now looked at the various violent encounters that seemed always primed to emerge from football’s natural working class habitat, even through it’s supposedly “gentlemanly” years, as well as the elements which came together to give birth to important fan cultures such as ultras, it is clear that the “black and white” era is not so distant as some might think. We have not even covered all there is to discuss, including notable incidents such as: Nice vs Wolves in 1933, when “civil disruptions” caused the gendarmes to intervene and the Wolve’s manager to take his team off the pitch; Napoli’s riots against Bologna (1955, 152 injured) and Genoa (1959, 65 injured after a pitch invasion); a riot after a disallowed goal causing Rapid Vienna and Benfica’s 1961 European Cup semi final-2nd leg to be abandoned; some 2000 supporters invading the pitch at Selerno vs Potenza in 1963 resulting in the death of a fan via gunfire; missile throwing and rioting from home fans at Roma vs Chelsea in the Fairs Cup first round-2nd leg in 1965; a pitch invasion at Werder Bremen vs Partizan Belgrade in 1965/66 European Cup round of 16-2nd leg; and of course 1966, the dawning of the modern era of crowd disobedience when millions watched “people on the pitch” at the final of the World Cup between England and West Germany in Wembley (we purposefully have not touched on the disasters in the likes of Ibrox and Peru where many died, as that’s a different topic).

As mentioned earlier, it is fair to say that the environs of the sport were then, as they are now, extremely attractive to a certain sort of individual purely driven by mayhem. For others, who do possess a moral compass but receive equal exhilaration from the tense and sometimes troublesome atmosphere of the terraces, they may struggle to justify how such an “outlaw” world can feel so at home. But probably already harboring somewhat of an exception for over-authority in an increasingly meaningless society that’s driven mainly by the greed of a few, the football stadium with it’s maniacal hooligans, fireworks and pyro, flags, banners and chants, provides a wild-card alternative to the “real world”, where the stakes simultaneously mean nothing (it’s only a sport) and everything. After all, what a club is really about is the community and absurd family that you find within it, and every time the team scores that “family” is one goal closer to a continued existence together, which is definitely something worth celebrating.


YouTube Links:

West Ham United vs Millwall, 1930
Brazil vs Uruguay, 1950
AC Milan vs Ajax Amsterdam, 1969



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