THE beautiful game has long been tarnished by the tribal violence and mindless thuggery of the men who follow it.
But research by one of Scotland’s leading historians of the game has revealed it was women fans who were to blame for one of the earliest outbursts of football hooliganism.
Violence on and off the terraces plagued the British game from the 1970s onwards, with a host of so-called crews and firms arranging fights with rivals. In England, they included such as Millwall Bushwackers, the Chelsea Headhunters and the Inter City Firm, affiliated with West Ham United.
In Scotland, the groups were no less ferocious, with names such as Aberdeen Soccer Casuals and Capital City Service – a “firm” linked to Hibernian – earning notoriety and widespread condemnation.
However, Dr Matt McDowell from the University of Edinburgh, has discovered that one of the first reported incidents of football violence revolved around two opposing sets of female fans, if the press of the time is to be believed.
The lecturer in sport and recreation management has discovered a contemporary newspaper account of a violent clash in 1898 between the supporters of Morton (who are now known as Greenock Morton) and the now defunct Port Glasgow Athletic which left one woman requiring medical attention.
Describing the fight between the “mill girls”, the report from the Port Glasgow Express and Observer stated: “They appeared last night in swarms on Princes Street. Shouts of ‘Good old Port; dirty Morton,’ and ‘Dirty Port; Good old Morton,’ were heard all over the place. The Morton contingent proceeded down the Greenock Road, and a conflict ensued about William Street. There was a general scuffle among the girls and stones were thrown. One girl was so badly hit on the eye that she had to be taken into the surgery of a doctor at hand.”
McDowell said: “Women were definitely a part of the real and rhetorical universe of these footballers, despite our necessity to take some of these accounts with a grain of salt.”
His research into the roots of the Scottish game also revealed how the presence of female supporters at matches often bamboozled members of the Fourth Estate.
He said: “As for women in the stands, the press often seemed unsure as to how to react to them.
“The terraces were often very reactionary places, and some papers often drew pretty pictures of the scenes where women attended football matches in fashionable clothes.
“More partisan female supporters received a different treatment: Annbank, a club from an Ayrshire mining village which met with moderate success – and successfully exported many footballers to English football – was always noted as having a strong support amongst women.”
McDowell, who presented his research at a recent conference arranged by De Montfort University’s International Centre for Sports History and Culture in Leicester, also revealed the tension that existed in island communities at the turn of the 20th century amid fears football would displace shinty as the sport of choice.
The game, said McDowell, “would never be viable as a professional sport” in such communities. For instance, football was actively discouraged by Rothesay’s town council, while yachting and golf were patronised by its civic fathers, despite football being “arguably the most favourite sport of men on the island”.
His point is illustrated by a sharp letter published in the island’s Buteman newspaper in 1907 in which Alexander Gemmell, secretary of the isle’s Kyles Athletic Club, openly condemned islanders for abandoning their roots, accusing them of having “forgotten the game of your forefathers”.
He added: “Rothesay folks are thoroughly Highland, and the old instinct for the game of shinty still courses with undiminished vigour through their veins. Football is a Lowland pastime, and to a Highlander not at all to be compared with shinty. Indeed, if the Rothesay lads would give the same attention to shinty for three or four years that they have given to football for the last 20 years, they would take a leading position in the shinty world.”