Interview with Cass Pennant

Cass Pennant's story is one that could not have been made up. Raised in the East End of London, he spent the 80s as one of the key figures in West Ham's notorious ICF.

After being the first man jailed for football violence, he started a Bouncer business, which would go on to be one of the biggest in London, and it was working the doors one night that he was unfortunately shot three times. Since then he has gone on to fulfil his life long dream and had published 6 best selling books, including ‘Cass’, and the ‘ICF’, had a film made about his life, and recently produced his first documentary ‘Casuals’ (see post below).

Recently, I was kindly invited to meet him, where he gave me an insight into the new documentary, on what he thinks about modern football (and why standing will never return), how Casual fashion is spreading across Europe, and how football hooligans were involved in the rave scene in the late 80s. Here is what he had to say:

So I am here primarily today to talk to you about the CASUALS documentary that you have coming out, could you give a summary of the documentary, and why you felt it needed to be made?

Britain has given the world every form of youth culture. Most of these cultures start in London- Teddy Boys, Skinheads, Punks- then spread nationally and then internationally. The majority, as a full scale youth movement, don't last two years, and in some cases don't last a summer, like the New-Romantics. However, these cultures always come back, like the Mod and Skin Head revival. I mean people often forget that the original skin heads were from 1969, and they were trojan and not racist. It was only in the second movement that the skin heads became more political and were more associated with racism. All these cultures were normally off the street, associated with youth clubs and music. The Casuals however came off the terraces, and was a cult that out lasted every other cult, and that is partly because it was very flexible. If you were a punk you had to be into music, and as soon as you got bored of the music, you lost interest in the scene and the same goes for rockers. With the Casuals it evolved, as it didn't have a connection with any sort of music, and it originated from a different place to all other previous youth scenes. Now all of these other cultures (Mods, Skin Heads, Punks) have been documented, but the Casuals has been largely neglected. In the past few years I have been very much involved with documentaries, especially those to do with the football fan-culture, but those have been mainly to do with violence. That was however only the hardcore, and to me I always knew the real story was the one to do with the fashion, because that was everybody. I mean its wrong to think that the only people who are wearing Fila Retro and Adidas Originals, and going to watch recent films (Nick Love's Football Factory, and The Firm etc, are just hooligans, cause there are certainly not enough to keep them all in business, which shows there is an appreciation of Casuals still relevant today.

Now I am a man who has been involved in every aspect of highlighting, commercialising, and informing, the world about the football-fan culture, from my first book published in 2000, to advising producers who have made documentaries such as the Real Football factories, and having a film made about my life. So the whole football-fan genre has got my name around it. Therefore, when I formed my own company, Urban Edge Films in April 2010, I knew I wanted to go into documentaries, as I had always been interested in keeping it real, and the first call for me had to be ‘Casuals’. The two other partners of Urban Edge Films are Ian ‘Butch’ Stuttard and Mick Kelly.

Both these men have the expertise on the technical side, that allowed me to get the project made. As well as wanting to tell the story of Casuals, due to it largely having been ignored, I noticed that the movement itself was starting to become more relevant again, especially in Europe.

For example on a recent trip to Rome, to watch the Rome Derby, I noticed how all the Ultra's have now gone Casual, and were going mad for new British designers like Peaceful Hooligan. So the movement has gone full circle, from the days in the 80s when we were all trying to get all the best gear out of Italy and Europe, to today when young Europeans are getting all their gear from here over the internet. Therefore I felt there was no better time for the story to be told, and who is the best person to tell it? Myself. So with my contacts, I started to collect all the information to make sure I got the definite story out, collecting all the information from all the best experts etc. That was the mission when we started production a year ago, and personally I think it is job done. The next step is to get it viewed to a wider audience which it deserves. That in a nutshell is ‘Casuals’ – a personal quest from me to tell a story that has never been told, as there is clearly a market out there who have been waiting to hear it.

Obviously, like you have already mentioned, the Documentary looks into the Fashion of the Casuals. It has often been said that the fashion was started by football hooligans who were attempting to bypass the police with a ‘boy next door’ look. What is your take on that view?

You got to think that by the time the 80s came, the football hooligan culture had been going a decade. So if you think from ‘75, when West Ham won the cup, there was already a big reputation at West Ham, so it had been going a good decade. So to keep that going, when the authorities had started to recognise people and targeting the typical football hooligan, often looking at their clothes, you had to go under the radar; so that was part of the appeal, and as all youth movements they wanted their own identity, different to the one associated with the hooligans of the 70s- and this look was the one that would later be labelled Casual. This was also connected to the changing in names, and you no longer got Army's, Crews and Mobs but Firms, with new names like Naughty Forty and Under Fives, and these were the new football hooligan groups which were led by what I call ‘Thatcher's children’.

You mentioned earlier your experience in Italy, and how European football fans are becoming increasingly influenced by the Casual Movement. Could you give us some more information on how you have noticed this, and why you think this is happening?

When I went to Rome recently I saw how Casual shops had sprung up, in particular an interesting one called Star Wars, and their fashion influence is pure British, wearing gear we wore in the 80s. So I asked how come football fans have started to call themselves Casuals now, and I found out over the last two years there has been war on the Ultras. You know, the power of the Ultras is beyond, they control the merchandise, they control the ground and they vote presidents in. Therefore, there is war on the Ultras, as their powerful position has meant the Italian league standards have slipped. They realise that Britain has got ahead because of Sky, and Italy, they want the power back that they had before. In Italy they still have 80s stadiums with concrete seating, as they never had a government legislation, like we had here following Hillsborough, to modernise stadiums.

However, for them to get the wealth of the Premier League, they need to improve these old school grounds, and they have to take the power away from the fans, cause Sky and big money means high prices, with all seater stadiums and corporate boxes. Moreover, in Europe football is much more political, it is very left or right, and it is very much more than just a football match to the Ultras, so they are very much reluctant to give up the way the football is run at the moment. But because of the violence the Ultras bring, just like the firms in the 80s did here, politicians, and normal fans are using that to smash their power.

This is why it is no longer cool to be and look like Ultra, and why the Casual look pioneered by British football fans in the 80s is becoming more popular in Italy, and in fact all over Europe.

You touched upon in the previous question the modern game, with the dominance of Sky and all-seater stadiums, and the wealth that has brought to the Premier League teams. What is your opinion of modern British football?

Britain is great, we hate change. We are a nation who hates queues, and hates change, and we always go on about the ‘good old days.’ The truth is the good old days were never there. I mean if you think back then to the grounds, they didn't even have ladies toilets, they had a trough running along the ground with corrugated iron. Now, when I look today down Green Street, there are more women going to football than there ever was before. Back in the 70s and 80s, that just wasn't the case. So things like that, how its changed, not just getting rid of the football violence. And the violence was killing the game. At the time, to us, it was like no one is bothered about the game except the hooligans, cause we were the only fans that would travel, so we were the most loyal of fans. However, if you look back seriously, we were killing the game, because other people were not keen on going. For example, if you look at the gate figures in the 40s and 50s, before England won the World Cup, they were massive. Teams like Charlton, had 85,000. Charlton Athletic 85,000!

Now during the 70s and 80s, the grounds had barely changed, it was only in the 90s that happened, so it must have been because of increased football fan violence, that ground attendances decreased.
However, to me the modern game is more exciting watching it in a pub, than experiencing it there, other than the odd derby like Millwall vs West Ham, where it goes back to the feeling you would experience 20 years ago. Its like going to a nostalgic concert or something. I mean I've been to the Olympic Stadium in Rome, which is similar to the one West Ham want to go to, and the atmosphere was quite good.

The Ultras and Italian Casuals said it was shit, but for me I thought it was ten times better than a Premier League game. But when I thought about it, I suddenly realised why the atmosphere was so good – 60,000 Italian football fans, all standing up. They are there all on their feat, singing and chanting for 90 minutes, which makes the game electric. Thats not going to happen here, so the Olympic Stadium for West Ham in the future, is to me is all about corporate and making money out of football. And in many ways that is what modern British football is all about, getting every penny they can out of you and screwing you over.

Look at Wembley and the price of a programme, and how you can't get out the nearest tube station, or having to take a mortgage out to park, its all about taking football fans for mugs. Now you actually feel like a mug watching the games in the ground, and there is nothing worse than that. Everything wrong about the bad days might be gone for good, but there is something missing today, which is that the fans are no longer the club, like they were then. You got to be privileged to even get in the grounds, and they let you know that all the way. But they have missed the whole point, sidetracked by making as much money as possible. If you ask any West Ham fans over 30, they will be against moving to the Olympic Stadium. They know you can't take the Boleyn. You can't take Green street. You can't take the Pie & Mash shop, and you can't take Bobby Moore's statue. We don't win anything, but everyone loves the experience of going to West Ham, and you can't take these with you.

All these new grounds are in retail parks on the outskirts of town. Back in the 70s and 80s they were in the most condensed parts of cities, in the middle of housing estates, which was all part of the feeling that football was a peoples game. Now you are bused in and bused out. I am old school, and my carpet slippers definitely come out when they move to an new stadium, thats it for me. Can't change the team, always support West Ham, but I won't feel the need to actually be there, cause my spirit will still be at Upton Park.

As you said, there are lots of historic landmarks which have been lost, or going to be lost, due to football clubs moving grounds for financial reasons. However, there was calls from people such as Malcolm Holt (Chair of the Football Supporters’ Federation) to bring back standing in stadiums, like they have in Germany, which would allow teams to stay in their old traditional grounds, but increase attendance. What do you make of this?

No look, we know all about this. There is such a fantastic group in this country called the ‘Stand up Group’, who are not hooligans, and even have backing from MPs, who are not even listened to or compromised with. Its been going years, but sadly its going nowhere, cause its all about the money. The moment you have standing, you cannot charge 58 quid to watch football. Thats what they fear, and thats why I say its never going back. When you have players, like Adebayor, coming out and saying ‘I love Tottenham’, yeah you will love Tottenham, you are on 185,000 a week to love them. You said the same thing at Man City, at Real Madrid and the same thing at Arsenal before. Go back to standing and pay players like him that much, no way. More like 1.85 a week. In Germany they have a different system. They have standing, because the money is distributed evenly between the clubs, which is why they always have good world cups. And, surpassingly German clubs are richer than you think, they just don't have teams like Man City who can pay what they like to any player. In Germany they make sure all the clubs benefit, which means there isn't a massive gap between the Champions League teams and everyone else. This even distribution means money is not their God , instead its football development, which is why there academies are all funded very well, creating good players for the country. What do we do, have disaster World Cups, but then go on about how we have the best league in the world because we have the best players. So yes Adebayor you will love the club on that money [Laughing], but lets get real. Thats another thing, it us and them now, and there are very few players who really understand the fans, and that goes down to the money gap.

There doesn't really seem to be any real look into long term development here, as everything is a short term solution. Your team is not doing well, sack the manager, bring someone else in, or buy a new player, seems to be the answer for many teams at the moment.

Yeah but now we have got a different fan-base. So we are half responsible for that, cause we want the managers head straight away. We are leaving cup finals with empty seats. Fans are picking and choosing, and this new fan base is backing up the clubs who want to make short plans and solutions. I hear what you are saying but lets get real. You know, we are seeing big games, Carling Cup semi-finals with empty seats. Furthermore, the real fan-base is being pushed out, and replaced with a new fan base who only care about winning, and increasingly you have the two team fan, which you would never see before. You now see people, who have there winning team, and their local team.

Moving away form football, I also wanted to ask you about your film ‘Cass’ (2008), and how that happened etc?

My book came out in 2000, but I wrote most of it in prison, 20 years earlier in when I was the first football fan to be sent to prison. I always had the ambition to do the book, but it took along time with my background to get it out there, but in 2000 I got it published. Two years later, my book on the ICF was published, and people came in for that to be a film, and their was a race between that, Tony Rivers and Dave Jones Soul Crew, and the Real Football Factories, and the Football Factory won, so I thought I missed the boat then. However, I was on Green Street as a consultant, and their was a guy called John Baird, who had done a short film called a ‘Casual Life’, who was a producer. Nevertheless, he felt he didn't have much input into Green Street, and felt following his short film, he could do so much more. I'm an opportunist, and I thought from his age, and the fact he had already made a short film, his next step would be a long film. So we are both at Victoria station, just after filming for Green Street had finished, in the Iron Duke Pub by platform 3, and I say ‘I have quickly got to go to the toilet’.

I run out the back, go to Smiths, bought my own book believe it or not, get back to the pub, sat down and gave him the book. Within two hours he is ringing me up saying he has read a couple of chapters and this has got be a film.
Now being from the book world, I didn't mind Green Street, and saw some positives in it, but the real guys at West Ham were not into it. Therefore John did not want the same to be said of ‘Cass’, and wanted to make sure the authenticity was shown. This meant I had the opportunity to have a say in the film, which is not normally the case for authors. I was therefore involved every day for the three years it took to get the film made. He wanted to know everything about me, thats how ambitious and meticulous he was. And it meant it became very personal, because he met all the weird and wonderful characters that made my life. For people in the film world, they make the movie, and move on, whether its shit or good. But for me I had to walk the streets, with people going ‘yeah we know you made a film’, so it was very important that I had that relationship with the director, where I was involved, but as a result he made the film he wanted, different to what he saw on Green Street. It was through this relationship, that I got 290 of the 300 extras, who were real people, old members of the ICF and their sons, which gave it a more authentic vibe. Thats why people love it, cause they can relate so much to it. And you know, its been copied, cause the Firm used real lads, with Nick Love getting the real 657 crew, so the fight scenes look realistic.

Now for the actors itself this was kind of scary at first. For example, the guy who played me Nonso Anozie is well thought of actor, unknown at the time to the majority of the public, but not in the trade, because he was the youngest to play Shakespeare and had been involved in big films with big directors such as Mark Lee. Therefore, it was an honour that he played me. But then again, there aren't many young black actors that are going to play a lead role, so we both felt honoured. Obviously people would look at the film as all glamorous, but it wasn't as it was very personal, and I had to take Nonso back to some dark places, that definitely stayed with him.

For instance, there was a moment when I took him back to where I got shot, and which was difficult, cause there are certain things like anyone that you bury. I mean no one really wants to go back again and talk about when they got shot three times at point blank range, but if I wanted to keep it real, I had to open up a lot of war wounds. Now a lot of actors would think that was necessary to really get inside the role, but it was obviously a very personal and powerful thing, and that moment where I produced the bullet certainly showed him that what he is acting was very real, and was about real peoples lives.

What is more, Nonso, and all the other actors had very different backgrounds to the people they were portraying, and they were suddenly there on set with all these real guys from the East End, thinking ‘Jesus have I got his mate right’, or ‘will they knock me out’, so the actors were very wary and nervy at first. However, once they met the real people, they began to relate to them more, and it turned out a lot of them were in to football as well, so a great relationship started between what we would call the ‘us and them’ worlds and both learnt off each other. Nothing was stage managed and nothing was routine, which meant the actors probably learnt a lot more than they normally would.

For me obviously it is a very special film. However it wasn't until after it was finished I realised what an achievement it was. For instance I bumped into a hollywood director in a bar after, and he said ‘I have looked up a hundred great black Britons, and your names not there’ and I said back to him ‘I didn't expect it to be there the as they are the true heroes in life, people like Linford Christie, not a street guy like me’, and he replied ‘no you have misunderstood, there are a hundred black Britons, and none of them have a film made about them, but you do’, so after that it kind of hit home what I had actually achieved. But you know, you enjoy the moment, but you move on.

Finally I just want to ask you about the late 80s, when you were running your bouncer firm which was involved in the rave scene, and how the Casual movement of the early 80s moved into that and what your views are on that period of youth culture?

The football guys were generally leaders, in whatever they were doing, whether it be fashion or violence. Hooligans were telling the world what they were going to do, not the authorities.

So when the writing was on the wall for the hooligans, they knew first, and they moved on and the rest followed like sheep. So when they rave thing came along, they were the first thing to seize the opportunity, and anything new these guys were on it – from a new pair of adidas trainers, to raves. Originally it was art and university students who started the rave, but they generally weren’t organisers, instead more creative types. The football guys saw this, but saw the commercial opportunity it offered, and once that got in there, you know its going big, cause they're the trend setters. It was these guys who set up things like Centre Force radio, which was central to the raves. Now when the establishment gets involved, and say ‘you will not play your records loud, and you will not be out late etc’, who is going to stand up to them? Art Students? No. Thats where I got involved with the doors, organising heavy people to stand outside. Then other football generals were looking at ways to make money, so started supplying the pills and the drugs, or even charging for bottled water.

The rave culture itself was one of the first things to not begin on these shores, but because everything else had come from British kids, we were the first to pick up on it. So even though the seeds of rave were set in America, the movement that evolved into huge clubs in Ibiza etc, are not linked to there, but connected to Britain. And that is because British kids always give it that originality that freshness, whether it was New Romantics, Punks, Casuals, or Ravers.

PODIJELI