Boro’s Frontline, Pompey’s 657 crew, West Ham’s Inter City Firm: just a few of the infamous gangs who established reputations as some of the most feared and active mobs in English football. Chelsea’s Headhunters and Millwall’s Bushwackers both played their part in the war on and off the terraces, and Nick Love’s film follows the build-up to an FA Cup tie between these fierce rivals.
Based on John King’s excellent book, The Football Factory centres on a group of Chelsea fans, examining the comradeship and bitter feuds that exist between the ‘top boys’ and their troops. Here, the theory that football violence only attracts the disenfranchised is finally laid to rest, courtesy of solid characterisation. We have Tommy Johnson (Danny Dyer) – an average joe whose common decency is marred by his willingness to damage fellow human beings when match days come around.
His best friend is Rod (Neil Maskell); another member of the firm, whose loyalty to the cause is threatened when love comes to town. No such conflict of interest for Bill Bright (Frank Harper) – a successful businessman who would pick a fight with himself in the absence of any willing/unwilling persons who find themselves within a 50 metre radius. Bright – a thoroughly nasty piece of work – resents the fact that Harris (Anthony Denham) is the leader of the firm, and sets out to terrorise Zeberdee (Roland Monookian); a younger member who seeks to rise up through the ranks and strengthen his bond with Harris. The older generation is also represented, with Dudley Sutton excelling in the role of Farrell – Tommy’s grandfather – a war veteran who is bound for Australia with his lifelong pal, each hoping to enjoy the time they have left.
The Football Factory successfully explores the generation gap, taking in hopes, aspirations and the differing and changing attitudes of men who have literally gone to war, albeit for causes that lie poles apart. As an accurate depiction of football violence, Love’s film also scores highly. The opening assault on a pub full of Spurs fans; the violent revenge attack on a couple of Stoke supporters, en route to an appointment with the red half of Liverpool, and the shattering confrontation between Milwall and Chelsea, deep in ‘bandit country’. It’s all in there, together with ‘spotters’, ‘lookouts’, business transactions between rival thugs (a throwback to those clubbing nights when everyone mixed freely), and watch out for those famous Scouse blades!
Granted, The Football Factory does tip its hat to Trainspotting in several areas, and Tommy’s fearful premonitions crop up a few times too many, but this should not detract too much from its overall effectiveness. Raw, violent, compassionate and often extremely funny, The Football Factory will appeal to all those who played (and still play) the game, whether they be old-timers who participated in those often brief 500 per side brawls in days gone by, or the current firms who use technology to organise smaller, more violent ‘offs’.
Of course, many critics have roundly condemned this film, stating its release will further fuel the possibility of violence at the forthcoming European Championships in Portugal. Utter rubbish. If it does kick off there, and when it starts again in the UK next season, it will be a result of the legacy handed down by fathers, brothers and friends down the years. In this case, film is most certainly not guilty.