Covert Hooligan: Studying Football Violence from the Inside: Dr Geoff Pearson

Dr Geoff Pearson is a Senior Lecturer in Criminal Law at the University of Manchester, a co-founder and committee member of the Annual Ethnography Symposium, a Manchester United season ticket holder and committee member of MUST, the Manchester United Supporters Trust.

Having attended football matches regularly with his father as a child, he became increasingly interested in terrace culture and the dynamics of football crowds. Whilst sitting a school exam in 1990, Geoff came across a question relating to football crowds, based upon a paper authored, coincidentally, by his namesake, the late Professor Geoffrey Pearson. With the realisation that football crowds was something he could actually study academically, he eventually enrolled in Lancaster University to study Law, completing a PhD on Legal Responses to Football Hooliganism.

It was during the writing of this thesis that Pearson decided to undertake covert research, when attempts at interviewing fans proved unreliable.

“Often non-violent fans would exaggerate their involvement in disorder whilst serious ‘hooligans’ tended to ‘play-down’ their involvement for fear of being reported.”

In order to gain suitable data for his PhD thesis, direct observations were required, with Pearson subsequently embedding himself amongst fans of Blackpool FC, as he sought to understand the impact law changes had upon violence amongst football crowds.

During this period of research, Pearson was put under pressure to commit criminal offences as part of the group, which would crucially gain him the acceptance required to continue his research. To his surprise, the committing of minor offences such as pitch invasions and confronting rival supporters seemed to do the trick.

“My justification for this action at the time was that it enhanced my position in the field and I was accepted for the remainder of the season as one of the ‘hardcore’ despite my continual ‘opting out’ of more serious offences.

In fact, towards the end of this research period, I was informed by one of the research subjects that I was considered to be ‘a bit of a nutter’ by some of the group. This was despite the fact that during my entire time in the field, I had not ‘connected’ with a single punch nor been arrested, in contrast to many of the research subjects”.

Dr Geoff Pearson would go on to become Director of Studies for the University of Liverpool’s MBA Football Industries programme from 2003 - 2014, during which time he authored a number of papers on football hooliganism, crowd disorder and the law.

The Terrestrial caught up with Geoff to discuss his time undertaking covert research with the Blackpool FC supporters during the 90’s, and what his research unveiled about the ever changing state of ‘the English Disease’.

Interviewed by Marcus Lawry.


TT: What were your first memories of hooliganism, and how did your interest develop from there to the point you wanted to study it up close?

GP: I attended football matches regularly with my father in the 1980s and really didn’t see much trouble, although I do remember listening as a child on the radio to the 1985 Heysel stadium tragedy. I became interested in football crowds through being a fan and the experience of standing on a terrace and I realised this was something I could study as long ago as 1990 when I came across a question about it in an exam paper at school.


TT: What was your motivation for embedding yourself amongst the fans, and what did you want to focus your research on?

GP: I was initially interested in seeing how successful the law had been at reducing football crowd violence. So I started conducting covert participant observation at a local club, Blackpool FC, standing on the terraces, travelling to away matches, and attending pubs near the stadiums. At the time however Blackpool didn’t have a regular “firm” so my attention switched to spontaneous violence and disorder in which fans I was observing occasionally became caught up.


TT: How did being part of that element differ from how you perceived it would be?

GP: Following Blackpool for three years and then travelling to the World Cup in France in 1998 it became clear to me that the vast majority of so-called “hooliganism” wasn’t the result of ‘hooligans’ travelling to matches with the intention of causing violence, but that it was unplanned and a result of a number of complex factors, not least how football crowds were managed by the authorities.


TT: How did you get them to accept you?

GP: The fans I was observing did not know I was a researcher so I was typically seen just as another fan. Later in my research when I stopped doing covert work, it was with a group of Manchester United fans who had already accepted me as one of their group. Generally if I outwardly supported the same team and engaged in the same drinking, singing and ‘piss-taking’ or ‘banter’, and if trouble took place I didn’t run away - unless they did - football fan groups were welcoming, friendly and also fun to be around.


TT: What were your findings?

GP: My findings were that in the UK the media – and the hooligans themselves - over-stated the impact and organisation of football hooligan firms and that most football riots were actually far more complex. I found that a number of factors could increase the risk of widespread football disorder, most importantly policing and crowd management strategies and tactics. Bad policing causes crowd disorder. Good policing can manage even large and intoxicated football crowds which include hooligans looking to engage in violent confrontation.

To understand football crowd behaviour we need to focus not just on the occasions that disorder takes place but also on the vast number of match events which pass off peacefully.


TT: How does organised football hooliganism in the UK differ to its darkest days in the 80’s, and what has been responsible for the changes?

GP: Well I didn’t carry out my research in the 1980s so cannot speak with complete authority. But previous research suggests, as I found later on, that the level of organisation was overstated. So-called ‘firms’ rarely arranged fights in the 1990s and 2000s even with the advent of the internet and the mobile phone. Football hooligan culture in the UK remained a bit of a game – it was something you did on a match-day close to the stadium or main railway station or coach park.

Visiting firms would know which pubs were considered by the home supporters to be home territory and could either arrive early to “take” the pub before the home fans arrived or could wait until it was full and walk provocatively past it. Both tactics had the potential for violence to occur but no organisation between the rival firms was required in advance.

The main difference was that policing got better and it became more difficult to play the game without getting caught. A number of researchers have also suggested that hooligans actually want the police present to play a role in ensuring violence is limited in duration and seriousness.


TT: Has the perceived social profile of the average football hooligan changed during this time?

GP: Research in this area is simply not robust. There is no definition of what is a “football hooligan” for a start. Do we mean someone who attends matches with the intention of fighting but may not actually fight? Do we include someone who attends just to watch the match but gets involved in a spontaneous fight? Do we include those who engage not in violence but in vandalism, other non-violent criminality, or anti-social behaviour?

Generally engagement in crime increases amongst those with reduced income and some early researchers into football hooliganism pointed to the link to lower working class social groups. But these findings were never properly tested and at the time most non-violent football fans also belonged to those groups so this explanation didn’t really tell us anything and certainly couldn’t account for why these individuals only became involved in violence occasionally.


TT: Will it ever die out?

GP: Football is a microcosm of society generally. So long as you have violence and disorder in society you will also see it in connection with football events. However in my view football stadiums in the UK are some of the most safe places in the country – personally I feel safer going to the match than going out to drink in a town or city centre on a Friday or Saturday night.


TT: The law changes and the preventative measures employed by stewards and the police often see ordinary fans persecuted by approaches developed for hooligans. How do you think these issues could be addressed?

GP: There are a number of laws in the UK that attack non-violent football fan culture and in doing so increase the risk of violence and disorder. UK restrictions on alcohol consumption at football for example tend not to reduce how much fans drink, but do increase the risk of disorder taking place and escalating.

Furthermore, the UK enables the police to apply for banning orders to prevent fans attending matches (or even towns where matches take place) where they believe the fan may contribute to violence or disorder. These orders are unnecessary at a time when recorded football-related crime in the UK has been declining steadily for 20 years and due to the fact they follow a civil rather than criminal justice procedure, they inevitably catch non-violent fans.

The concern is that the UK football banning order model will be seen as a panacea for football hooliganism elsewhere in the world, when in fact the real reason for the reduction in football hooliganism in the UK has been due to a combination of safer and better managed stadia (including extensive CCTV coverage), proportionate criminal punishments for those convicted of football violence offences, and policing strategies based on differentiating violent and non-violent fans and communicating and engaging in a positive manner with football fan groups.


Dr Geoff Pearson is author of “An Ethnography of Football Fans: Cans, Cops and Carnivals” (2012 Manchester University Press). His research can be followed Here and on Twitter @Geoff_Pearson


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