West Ham’s Inter City Firm was without a doubt one of the largest and most feared of the football hooligan ‘firms’ that ran riot throughout England in the 70s and 80s. So called because of their use of InterCity trains to get to away games, the ICF were nationally famous and were respected by all English ‘firms’, whilst having the fiercest and most brutal rivalry with London rivals Millwall. Rival firm victims who had been beaten to a pulp were left with a calling card which read ‘Congratulations, you’ve just met the ICF.’ I met up with ex-ICF member Billy Lyall*, to see whether there was any sense behind the violence, and to find out just how it felt to be a young member of a football hooligan gang in the 70s.
How old were you when you first got involved with the ICF?
I was in my second year at secondary school so I would’ve been 12. It just seemed a natural progression from being part of the skinhead culture in the 70s. We used to go with the older teenagers from school on the train from Romford. Everyone supported West Ham where I came from.
You were involved in football violence at the age of 12?
I was usually on the receiving end of it at that age. Most of the people we fought with were teenagers but some were adults who were a lot older than us.
They showed no remorse?
None at all. It didn’t make any difference to them that I was that young, even though I was definitely one of the youngest.
How did the ICF work?
They used to be very organised. It was organised violence. It was a whole culture. It was about how you dressed. Other hooligans knew you were up for trouble if you wore Dr. Martens and braces and had a skinhead haircut. There was a group of people who you knew were the ringleaders and they would meet up in the pub. It was like a military operation. They went out and told the other hooligans where to go, whether we would get them at the station or at the pub. We knew the police couldn’t control it, there just wasn’t enough of them to deal with it.
Did the police make a big effort to control it?
They did but you’d get arrested but never get charged, they just couldn’t be arsed with the hassle.
What do you think caused football hooliganism to spring up in the 70s and 80s?
When it first started it was the policing that partly caused the violence because originally there was no segregation between home and away teams but they changed that. Before, punch-ups used to start and fizzle out, but when they segregated us, caged us in, it became more of a challenge to get to the other team. It became more of a sport.
Did you and your friends just get mixed up in it?
It seemed like a right of passage from being a football supporter to becoming part of a football gang. I suppose it gave us a sense of identity. We felt like we belonged to something powerful and respected, feared.
Do you think many of the hooligans were passionate about football?
The ones who were passionate probably grew out of it because they saw that it was ruining the game. I was there for the excitement of the violence, not for the football.
Do you think ICF were the hardest firm?
Millwall were the maddest, everyone was really wary of them. The F troop they were called. They were quite a small firm, there wasn’t that many of ’em. A lot of ’em just shouted and chanted at us and if something happened they’d just leg it. But then there were the real nutters like Harry the Dog. He was the leader of the F troop. I saw him only once when I was a teenager and I was frightened to death. He had his shirt off and he was standing with a broken bottle in either hand shouting at about 50 West Ham supporters to come and have a go at him.
And no one did?
They rushed him but there was loads of his Millwall gang. It all kicked off and there was a lot of blood spilt. He was legendary – he was like Attila the Hun. He was everything horrible you’d ever read about humans all rolled into one person. People would point him out on the terraces, and say to me ‘if you ever get a chance, stab him’. The ICF would’ve killed him if they got hold of him but he was always surrounded by a load of psychos. Some of the Scottish teams’ firms were fucking lunatics too.
How many Millwall derby games did you go to?
Only one. I was terrified. I was probably only 14 or 15, seing all these guys in surgical masks wielding weapons. They had something called the Millwall brick. They rolled a newspaper up and it was like being hit with an iron bar. The problem was you weren’t searched going into grounds. You used to be able to take anything in there, even fireworks, they used to fire rockets at us! We used to throw anything that could possibly hurt someone at them. Even coins.
Did you never feel any regret if someone got seriously injured or killed because of the violence?
If someone died it didn’t matter to us, we didn’t know him. If it was a West Ham fan it would be different. If someone got stabbed by a rival firm you’d know that there would be retaliation. You’d know there would be a lot of trouble.
So were the top boys in the firm hero-worshipped?
Oh yeah, we’d be talking about our exploits in the pub during the week and when I was young if your mates saw you push over a hot dog wagon or something like that they’d all be talking about in school. We’d have to christen every new pair of Dr Martens too.
What exactly does that mean?
The same as the first hunt you go on, you have to get blooded.
Was it a working-class thing like the media made out?
People who had respectable positions were involved in hooliganism, even some coppers were arrested for it.
Nowadays how do you look back on your days of football hooliganism?
It destroyed the game, it’s all too controlled now because of what happened. The atmosphere’s gone from the terraces. And it’s hooliganism that caused it.
Are films like Green Street and The Football Factory accurate representations of hooliganism?
They can never capture the feeling of having 5000 people committed, hell bent on hurting one another. The people who play the main roles, supposed ‘hard men’ like Danny Dyer are complete tossers, you just can’t take them seriously.
The ICF was one of the most famous gangs of all-time. Do you think the ICF would be a match for the gangs of youths that are on the streets today?
Wearing a hoodie doesn’t make you hard. We didn’t used to threaten people and do a load of squaring up, we just used to get stuck in and kick the fuck out of ’em.
I was in the local pub darts team at 14, it was a different world then. The ICF was nothing like the riots last year, wankers on bikes nicking TVs. We would be throwing bikes through shop windows. You couldn’t do it nowadays. There’s CCTV everywhere.
So the police are winning the war?
They’ve won it. There isn’t any real hooliganism anymore. Just a load of shouting. Back then, if you went to an away match you’d wreck the town, smash the place up, especially if we’d lost. You’d put dustbins through shop windows. It was just hooliganism, a complete free-for-all.
Do you follow football now?
I was never really in it for the football.