3 MAY 2008, Page 56

Battle stories

Jeremy Clarke

Cass Pennant and his wife and son and son’s girlfriend came round the other day for a cream tea. Cass used to be — still is — a top ‘face’ in the world of football hooliganism. When I was a kid I used to travel all over the country to watch West Ham and would sometimes see Cass in action at the front — always at the front — of the notorious Inter City Firm. It was a great comfort to know that this extremely violent individual (as he was then) was on our side. The ICF were often outnumbered, especially in the northern industrial cities. But they were stylish, well-organised, ably led, and imbued with an esprit de corps. And they were invincible.

Cass still goes to West Ham matches, where he moves around with the statesmanlike authority of a black Pope. I’ve got to know him only recently, not through football, but through his latest incarnation as a publisher. To see one of my adolescent heroes, 40 years on, seated in our sitting room, with one of our poncy Victorian armchairs straining audibly under his weight, was slightly odd. It isn’t every day, either, that we have a chap who’s been shot three times and run through with a sword, and who is the subject of a biopic on general release, eating off our best china.

Among other hooligan-related topics, we got on to the subject of Turkish football hooligans. I ventured the opinion that they were top drawer and more than a match for our boys. Cass disagreed. ‘They stab you and run away,’ he said, taking a sip of Darjeeling. ‘They don’t stand and battle like us. But they’re close-knit. Fighting them is a bit like fighting gypsies. They don’t give up. The young hotheads come at you and you sort them out. Then you’ve got the women trying to fight you. And then you look round and their old men are coming at you. In the end, the only way to get a result is to appeal for a peacemaker.’ We went from the Turkish to the Sicilian hooligans. Last year West Ham drew Palermo in a European competition and the Inter City Firm, many of whom are now family men in their forties and fifties, flew out for a reunion. The Italian ‘ultras’, great students and admirers of English football hooliganism, were looking forward to testing the mettle of the famous ICF.

I couldn’t get a ticket. Not that that should have been a factor in my decision to stay at home. What was it like? I said to Cass. ‘Well, it all depends whether you went out there for the battle or not,’ he said. ‘Those that did said it was like Christmas. Ordinary fans were terrified.’ There was continuous street fighting in the 24 hours leading up to the match. In the midst of it, Cass arranged an interview with one of Palermo’s leading ‘ultras’ for a book he is compiling about international hooligans. A car met him beside the Teatro Massimo and he was driven to a secret destination, which turned out to be a bar in an old part of town. Some ‘ultras’ were in hospital and Cass was unsure of how he’d be received. Their top ultra had a couple of henchmen with him: ugly-looking customers, said Cass. ‘But do you know what their first question was? How much ICF memorabilia — hats, T-shirts, and so on — could I let them have? They were really impressed with us.’ After the game, the West Ham fans who were arrested were fined and sent home. Those who couldn’t pay were ordered to make a public apology instead. Those refusing to apologise were kept in jail for several weeks. One or two ex-ICF members privately admitted that Palermo had made them realise that they were getting far too old for that kind of thing.

Palermo beat West Ham at football and in the next round they drew Newcastle. The ultras couldn’t believe their luck. Two famous English clubs visiting Palermo in successive rounds. So imagine their disappointment, said Cass, when the Geordie Boys didn’t turn up. About 50 made the journey, he said, and when approached in a bar by the ultras and challenged to a fight, they answered that they only wanted to be friends! Cass thinks this the funniest thing ever. His Christmas card last year was a photograph of West Ham supporters filling the away end at Palermo, next to a photo of a few Newcastle fans not filling theirs. As he and his family stood up to leave, a wasp flew into the room. His wife and his son’s girl quailed in alarm. Cass casually picked it up and crushed it between finger and thumb. ‘He won’t be renewing his season ticket this year,’ he said.