Tony is a massive, baby-faced man with tattoos from his earlobes to his ankles. One arm is dedicated to his wife and mother, and his chest reads "Made in England." Part of his left leg is devoted to racial slurs against Pakistani immigrants.
But the bulk of Tony's body -- across his broad back, down to his buttocks, around his wrists and calves -- is a blue-inked paean to Manchester United Football Club. He went to his first game at age 3, and "ever since I can remember, it's been United. Always United."
Tony's reveries of matches won and lost rarely touch on what happened on the soccer pitch, however. When he speaks of victory at football, as soccer is called here, he is speaking about battles in the stands and on the streets, where United fans are known to be as tough at mayhem and marauding as their counterparts on the playing field are at winning games.
At age 31, Tony says that, for the most part, he has given up fighting for fighting's sake. But he bestows on his gang of football hooligans the highest accolade he knows. "We was feared."
The deaths of 38 persons during a riot in the stands at a European Cup match in Brussels late last month has sent shock waves through the soccer world. In England, whose FC Liverpool fans have been held largely responsible for the Brussels deaths -- most of the victims supporters of the opposing Italian club -- the violence has focused an embarrassing spotlight on a longstanding domestic problem.
In the international glare, the country is conducting its own soul-search. From government conference rooms to university seminars and police headquarters, the questions are the same. How did the soccer stadium, the seat of a British sporting tradition extending back to Elizabethan times, become a venue for violence? Who are the youthful thugs who have turned the matches into warfare? Why do they do it, and what can be done about it?
Football hooliganism is by no means a new problem here. Countless studies have been made, and countless solutions proposed since the mid-1960s, when groups of thugs known as "Skinheads" -- for the shaved heads and combat boots they sported -- began to make football attendance a dangerous way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
Yet the problem, if anything, has gotten worse. Today, the football hooligan gangs in English cities call themselves "firms," and often have calling cards printed to distribute among their victims. Although they have carried on the skinhead tradition of seemingly mindless violence, their style now, Tony says, is to "dress smart, so people don't know your an 'ooligan."
Many of the firms adopt a distinguishing individual fashion -- a particular label of sweater, a flashy suit with a tie.
Here in Manchester, a bleak, northern industrial center of 2.5 million, one "firm" of United supporters calls itself the "Inter-City Jibbets" -- "jibbing" being local jargon for stealing. It can refer to everything from the taking of food from the school cafeteria, to cleaning out a jewelry store on the continent, where European proprietors as a rule do not cage in their merchandise as they do here.
In Manchester, football is known as "the religion," and it is a rare home game that United's Old Trafford stadium is not filled to its 58,000 capacity. United is the city's premier team, known the world over for its playing prowess and long list of championships. It is the object of immense local pride.
Following years of trouble with fans, United also is now known as a team whose home games are among the most heavily policed. "We've often likened it to running a war operation," says police Sgt. Stuart Worthington of the hundreds-strong contingent of officers, dogs and horses that form the strict security cordons protecting visiting team supporters and nonviolent locals.
Like most of the industrial north, Manchester is politically liberal and morally conservative, and the tendency is to blame the violence on both the economic policies of the current Conservative Party government and the crumbling values of modern society.
"There's never been the violence that there's been this last five or six years," said Patrick Crernan, a retired United player, now the proprietor of The Park pub in Altrincham, a Manchester suburb. "I think it coincides with Margaret Thatcher getting into power. Because unemployment has gone through the roof in this country and the people have got no hope. You take kids leaving school at 15 or 16 now. That child, what has he got to look forward to?"
Sheila, a middle-aged nurse and United fan, stepped into The Park for a beer with her husband. "You get the likes of these fellows here," she said, looking around the bar. "You get so many unemployed. They've got to have a bit of an outlet. It's all socialization, a generation. The little lads, the latch-key kids. It's all in the way they're brought up."
Across the room, Willy, a self-described hooligan, snorted and provided an answer that seemed as valid as any. "The truth is," he shrugged, "we just like scrappin'."
Tony sits in the living room of the nearby public housing duplex he shares with his wife and two young children and reflects on the same question. The hooligan gangs, he says, remind him of "West Side Story," a movie about gang warfare on the streets of New York.
"Yer like tribes, aren't yer," he says in the consonant-clipped local accent. "That's the only way I can figure. Yer just like tribes. As if you was in Africa. You got tribes fightin' other tribes."
Now at the older end of the hooligan generation, Tony says, "I got more to lose now if I get in trouble." But he still is proud of his fighting record, and the fact that he is "feared" in local pubs. As a successful hooligan, he says, "You're at the top of you profession . . . . Everyone wants to be with you. No one wants to be against you."
For much of his life, Tony has been at odds with the law, although he tends to separate those acts committed in the name of football from petty criminality.
"Me mother died when I was 14" and he went to live with his grandmother. "I got put away then for stealin' and I got done put away again when I was 16. . . But I've always kept a steady job. . . laborer, construction. Now I work in an American cereal factory."
If there are no true generalizations to be made about the employment status of the hooligans, neither is there always a direct connection between their gang activities and soccer. In the north, in places like Manchester where the sport has a citywide following, the hooligans tend to be genuine fans who see in their own violence an extension of the strength and fortunes of the local team. Just like a team victory, a good day of hooliganism is seen as reflecting well on the status and "toughness" of the hometown.
In other areas, like the East End of London, the several local teams serve largely to provide a name by which various "firms" identify each other. The Saturday match is a centralized place for head-bashing, pocket-picking or the sale of counterfeit tickets that are more daily activities.
Thievery of one type or another appears to be an integral part of the hooligan world, whether reserved for game days and trips to out-of-town matches, or a more regular occupation. Whenever he would travel to one of United's away games, Tony says, "I used to bring me Gran a present. I'd go out fightin', and stop and lift her an ornament. She'd say, 'Oh, what a lovely lad. He's been down south for the day.' "
A normal trip to an away game for the United hooligans begins on Friday night or Saturday morning as they gather at the train or bus station for one of the reduced-price transport "specials" organized for profit by the team management.
Avoiding the ticket collector on the specials or even regularly scheduled trains is not considered difficult, and the hooligans, Tony says, often spend their time taking up collections for the police fines a number of them are likely to incur.
In the morning, they begin their conquest of enemy territory. "We just go to the grounds" of the home team, "and just walk around from 9 o'clock," daring the locals to stop them. "Each club sort of has its own pub where the fans meet," says Tony, and they begin to congregate after legal opening time at 11 a.m.
"That pub is packed, y'know, with United supporters, and you have a great feelin' for the day. Y'know, you take over another town."
By game time at 3 p.m., the hooligans are ready for the main event -- trying to evade police segregation and infiltrate the opposing fans' "end" of the stadium. Traditionally, there are no seats in the end sections behind the two goalposts, but cheaper, standing-only concrete steps called terraces.
Once they gather in strong enough numbers, the infiltrators begin taunting. The spitting starts, then the missiles are thrown. If the police are successful, the real fighting does not start until after the game, outside the stadium. There, it frequently turns into a rampage of window smashing and looting. At the end, the visiting hooligans are as elated at their conquest as the British Navy ousting Argentina from the Falklands.
"Well, it's like you could just walk down any street you wanted to" in foreign territory, "and nobody could touch you," Tony explains. "And y'know, the other teams couldn't come to your ground and just walk about and do as they please."
On the evenings of home games, or no games at all, there are local turfs to be won.
"I been down at the shoppin' place on a Saturday afternoon, and we used to have a gang of about a hundred there. And then we used to go out on Saturday night, to see if they was any Pakistanis about. It was just a thing we had against them. So they used to get the thumpins' at night."
Tony says he disapproves of the growing use of drugs and weapons -- including nail-studded golf balls, steel-tipped darts and pool balls -- among the younger new breed. Hooligans who follow the Liverpool teams, at least according to their sworn enemies 30 miles away in Manchester, have a fondness for "Stanley knives" -- razor-like implements that make such a fine cut "you don't know you been slashed" until the perpetrator moves out of range.
"I been at games where there's been axes used," Tony says. "But I'm more of a fist and boot lad. Y'know, the old sort of fight. I don't want to know them people slashin' ."
Manchester United supporters sometimes refer to themselves as "Mancs," and the one thing a Manc hates more than anything else is a Skouse -- somebody from Liverpool.
The two cities exist in an urban sprawl that spans the 30 miles between them, and share a similar landscape of failed industry and unemployment. But their accents are distinctive, and for a visiting Skouse to open his mouth on a Manchester street is to invite trouble.
"Mancs and Skouses don't mix," says Danny, a 16-year-old United supporter.
Rough-hewn sports fans in Manchester say they were sickened by the deaths in Brussels. But what seems to have enraged them more than the pregame carnage was the banner Liverpool supporters held up before the world's television cameras once the match against the Italians began. The message -- "Munich '58" -- was a guided missile of an insult targeted on the fans in Manchester they knew would be watching.
Feb. 6, 1958 is the date that the bulk of the United team, flying out of Munich after a European victory, lost their lives in a plane crash.
This year, although international soccer authorities have banned English teams from foreign play, the local season will go on, and some of the United fans are planning their own banner for the Skouses. It will read "Brussels '85."
For police Sgt. Worthington, a good-humored man who tries to maintain some perspective about his work, that means more trouble. "Maybe it will quiet itself down now for a while, after Brussels," he muses in his office overlooking Old Trafford stadium. "But then they might try something different, and in six months they'll be saying. 'Don't forget Brussels,' so they'll be getting into prison in six months time because someone's remembered."
Now is Worthington's slow season, time for his family vacation in the Canary Islands, and a chance to recharge his batteries for the coming season.
"If I had all the answers" to why young British soccer fans like to riot, he says, "I'd be making a lot of money." The way he sees it, Worthington's job is not to analyze the hooligans but to control them. Over the eight years he has been working with soccer at Old Trafford, it has become highly scientific warfare.
At least a month before a home game, he sends a memo to the visiting team management suggesting optimum routes and arrival times for the special buses and trains carrying supporters. From the station and adjacent bus parking lot, visiting fans are under video surveillance as they march, surrounded by mounted and foot police and police dogs, down a straight road to the nearby stadium.
The number of police posted inside the stadium -- for whose time the police department bills the home team -- depends on the visitors' past history of violence. The stadium "ends," surrounded by high fences, are under constant video scanning.
At the conclusion of the game, the visitors are kept in their end until the rest of the stadium is cleared and then marched back to their transport.
Stiffer jail sentences, rather than fines, for hooligans caught in the act might help, Worthington says of one of Thatcher's new proposals. But he questions another, the suggested banning of liquor on the trains and buses and in and around the stadium.
"I suppose it might have some effect," he says, "because if you have a bit of drink, suddenly you become a bit bolder. . . it'll give you a little bit of euphoric rise of your manhood, or whatever.
"But if it means they're not going to get any alcohol on the ground, and they want it, they will probably stop at a public house a bit longer and then nearer to kickoff, or, as we call it, nearer to death. And then we've got a problem getting them in on time, and you've obviously got this panic -- oh, I'm going to miss the game -- and it was their fault because they've been out for the jar."
Still, with good police work, those intent on violence "can't win," he says, "because we can't afford to lose. Perhaps they don't realize it, but the next stage is a paramilitary situation. It's horrific, and God forbid it should ever happen. But we are putting our lives out. And I think that this is something that nobody here wants."