I enter a backstreet pub near Upton Park and survey the room for Cass Pennant. On the phone, he simply assured me that I couldn’t miss him. And he was right. There, standing among a gaggle of fellow West Ham supporters, is a 6ft 4 man mountain, clutching a pint with a hand the size of a shovel. He dwarfs every other drinker in a pub occupied by men who would, under any other circumstances, be considered very large in their own right. Suddenly, it’s clear what the thousands of football hooligans who encountered Pennant over the years must have felt. They weren’t fighting fellow street-scrappers any more. They were taking on a one-man army.
Enter a West Ham supporters’ chat forum on the Web, and much of the talk concerns the minutiae of Harry Redknapp’s team selection. Throw in a question about Pennant, however, and a few virtual eyebrows are raised. The responses are swift and numerous: ‘Cass Pennant is more than a big name,’ reads one. ‘The man is an Upton Park legend.’
Pennant never played for West Ham, nor did he manage them. He’s never been on the staff in any capacity, but almost every regular visitor to Upton Park over the last 20 years has heard of him. To many of them, he is regarded with a similar reverence to the likes of Bobby Moore, Trevor Brooking and Billy Bonds.
The origins of his status lie in the early 1970s, when an adolescent Pennant entered the then racially hostile environs of Upton Park for the first time. Any black face was likely to be noticed in those days. But the fact that Pennant, even at that age, was a 6ft 4 colossus meant that he was doubly certain to stand out. His spectacular physical presence was only one of the factors in his swift elevation to one of the leading figures in West Ham’s notorious gang of hooligans, the InterCity Firm. It was a time of mass organised violence in football, when firms were untroubled by a largely disorganised police force. Pre-eminent among all firms was the ICF, and Pennant was at its heart. And it’s not just West Ham fans who will tell you. ‘Cass was well respected throughout the land,’ says Martin King, a leading figure within the Chelsea gang of the same era. ‘You go to any club and they would have heard of Cass. When you thought of the West Ham mob, you thought of him. I’ve crossed swords with him a few times, and he was a formidable opponent.’
Nor was the status of the ICF solely the stuff of West Ham posturing. ‘The only firm that did it at Maine Road in the early days was West Ham,’ reports Manchester City’s hooligan leader Mickey Francis in his memoir, Guvnors. ‘Upton Park is the home of the InterCity Firm, probably the most famous footballing mob in the world,’ write former Watford hooligans Dougie and Eddie Brimson in their book Everywhere We Go. In their account of Chelsea hooliganism in the 1970s and ‘80s, Martin King and Martin Knight write of the ICF:
‘Around this time, there was no mob to match them.’
When I meet Pennant in the Upton Park pub, it’s a Saturday afternoon in August. West Ham are about to take on Manchester United, and fellow drinkers seem to be vying for Cass’ attention. Years ago, the talk would have been of the day’s proposed confrontations with Manchester’s hated fans. But Cass is a changed man. He chats amiably about the team’s prospects against the champions before joining me in the garden, along with his young son, to inform me that he is ‘retired’ and has been for some 15 years.
‘At my age, I’m not interested in the violence,’ he says. ‘Back then, we had our moment, we had our fun, but we knew it was wrong. They [hooligans] really are in the minority now. They used to call us a minority in the 1970s and ‘80s, but that was balls. Okay, there was a smaller group at the centre of it all, but everyone at West Ham associated themselves with the ICF. Everyone would sing the name. There was a unity – even the law-abiding supporters would stick up for you. And they’d never turn you in because they saw you as West Ham, and that was all that mattered. Nowadays, if you look at the size of crowds, there’s bound to be the odd group who want to cause aggro. But I look at them and it amuses me – it’s just a re-enactment of the past. It’ll never be the same as it was.
‘Take last season up at Leicester, for example. I’d gone with my son and a couple of my old mates. We were standing in the away end and heard a bunch of West Ham behind us singing “We hate Millwall”. Usually, West Ham make a lot out of hating Tottenham, but when I heard them mention Millwall, I thought: “These blokes know the real enemy – they must be some of the guys from the old days.” Then I looked round and saw how young they all were and thought to myself: “Have the fans singing that chant ever actually met Millwall? I think not.” Me and my old mates just looked at each other and gave a knowing wink.’
At 42, Cass is devoted to his family and his string of small businesses. He and his young son have season tickets in one of the quieter areas of Upton Park and revel in the performances of the best team to have graced the club in the last 20 years. When the odd bit of trouble does break out, Cass is happy to take his son by the arm and lead him away. But he makes no secret of his fond feelings for the past. ‘When you’re young, setting out to make a name for yourself is what it’s all about. Back then, the stars were on the terraces. We didn’t have to pay to get into clubs, and doors would be opened for us everywhere.’
His fighting zeal and powers of leadership, as well as his striking appearance, meant that Cass made a name for himself at a very early age. ‘The big names from the other firms were who you sought out,’ he explains. ‘There were so many people involved that we had to seek out the right faces to make it count when you took them on. In the same way, other firms would seek me out individually. Every single game, I knew they’d be looking for me. I’ve had my name sprayed up on walls over at Millwall in the past, stuff like: “Cass is one dead man”.’
While Cass expresses certain regrets about such times of violence and mayhem, he consistently asserts that hooligan firms reserved their attentions for each other and endeavoured not to harm any supporters who weren’t looking for trouble. Again, his Chelsea rival King supports his claims: ‘Cass wasn’t a liberty taker,’ he says. ‘There were those who would take liberties – if they were 50-100-handed, they’d go and bash up geezers with shirts on. But he wasn’t like that. They were the rules of combat – you didn’t get Joe Public involved.’
Aside from the rights and wrongs of the fighting, Pennant’s achievement of lofty status within Upton Park was to have another impact on West Ham supporters. ‘There are a lot of black guys in East London, but in the ‘70s a lot of them wouldn’t support West Ham,’
he observes. ‘I’d ask them why and they’d say “We’d love to but we support Arsenal because they play black players and have more black supporters.”
There was a time over at West Ham when the NF were there. But they weren’t running the show; we [the ICF] were. And, what’s more, if I got racial abuse at away grounds, it would be the white West Ham fans who defended me most, so I felt comfortable that they had no problem with blacks. But in the bad old days when the National Front were selling their newspapers outside the ground and the skinheads were coming to games they did get a few recruits. Some of the main boys switched over to them from us [the ICF]. It caused a few splits because one minute I’d be dosing down at their houses and having dinner with their families and then, after all the propaganda by the NF, I’d walk into a pub and all of a sudden they’d be looking away. I put it to the test one day. They all used to gather in the west stand. I was never that political before. We never used to question anything. The attitude was, “F*** your politics and f*** your divides. You’re West Ham, f*** you all, that’s all that matters.” But that one day something inside told me I didn’t feel quite right with it. I wanted to know where the West Ham support really did stand. I walked into the end where the NF all used to be giving the Nazi salute every match. There was a mob of about 200.
‘I walked into the middle of them and all the hands went down. They weren’t sure who I was but the word went round: “Who would have the front to walk into the middle of us all?” The hands kept going down row by row as I worked my way down the terrace. I could hear them asking each other “What’s going on here? I think he’s something to do with the ICF.” I thought I was going to get swamped, but I didn’t care. The ICF would be waiting for them outside and they’d get annihilated. Then, the ICF started to try to get on the pitch to get over and give me a hand with them. But I had it under control because this lot weren’t the real West Ham support. They didn’t want to know. In the end, the old bill came down. They said they were going to nick me. There were 200 skinheads and they were going to nick me! So I shifted, but I felt I’d made my point.’ By the late 1980s, West Ham had one of the biggest black followings in the whole country and was ostensibly free of all far-right groups.
The modern-day hooligan is portrayed as a multimedia strategist as much as a beer-swilling yob. Many newspapers would have us believe that travelling firms carry laptops to football grounds, sporadically ducking out of the fighting to blow-by-blow accounts on their websites. Cass is unconvinced by such portrayals, insisting, ‘The websites are busier than the actual boots going in on the street.’ Indeed, despite the furore surrounding the misbehaviour of England fans at Euro 2000, statistics published by the National Criminal Intelligence Service show a decline in arrests for football-related offences over recent seasons.
During the ‘70s and ‘80s, groups of hooligans could not depend on their mastery of mobile phones and Palm Pilots to achieve terrace notoriety. Cass has strong views on what set the ICF apart from rival gangs. ‘Firstly, there was a drive,’ he says. ‘Once West Ham had established their reputation in the 1970s, none of the generations that followed would want to let it slip. Secondly, there was the fact that we had no single leader. Other firms tended to have one central figure, and if they lost him to prison or something, they would tend to crumble. They might have been just one single firm who, if you turned them over, would be finished. We were made up of loads of little firms. Turn one of us over and there’d be another one waiting. We had a number of talented leaders and we were very organised.
‘Perhaps the thing that made other firms most jealous about the ICF was our tightness as a unit. Everyone was from the East End or Essex, and we allowed no outsiders in. You’d have to prove your loyalty over many years, travelling home and away, before you could earn any respect.’
It was the tightness of the unit that thwarted all police attempts to destroy it. In the late 1980s, police infiltration of the Chelsea firm had led to several successful convictions. When the same was attempted with the ICF, the title Operation Own Goal was to have ironic repercussions for the authorities. Such was the hostility of the firm to anyone who had not been following the team doggedly for years, that under cover police officers found it impossible to get close enough to accumulate any valuable evidence. Instead, they cobbled together overheard nuggets of information from a distance and used them as the catalysts for a series of dawn raids on Cass and several other West Ham fans in 1987. The group were arrested and faced prison terms of up to ten years as part of Margaret Thatcher’s public clampdown on the hooligan problem. However, such was the shambolic nature of police evidence, the case collapsed and the accused walked free.
As it happened, many of them – including Cass – had long since retired from hooliganism anyway. Improved policing, advancing years and the appeal of the blossoming rave scene are all common reasons for the decline of the problem in the late 1980s. While Cass agrees, he cites the main turning point as the Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985. ‘People died, and that wasn’t what it was all supposed to be about,’ he reflects. ‘There was a general feeling at that time that things had come to an end.’
Cass is insistent that the chaotic days of the ‘70s and ‘80s will never return to the same extent. The younger generation, he believes, are less interested. He points to the lower divisions as the new home of hooliganism, due to the less strict security and relative anonymity of the firms. The NCIS statistics confirm his opinions: during the 1999/2000 season, there were around 35 per cent more arrests for violent disorder at second-division games than at Premiership fixtures.
The only thing Cass misses about West Ham nowadays is the atmosphere once created by heaving terraces of roaring fans. ‘The original members of the ICF only talk about fatherhood and business nowadays,’ he says. He points to the subsequent successes of such men as counter-evidence to the popular portrayal of them as mindless yobs. One member was responsible for one of the country’s biggest rave pirate radio stations. He then set up a legitimate record label and, last year, had his first number one. One is a successful photographer, one owns a chain of bookmakers and another set up his own building company, which he then sold for £1 million.
Cass appears reluctant to attach the term ‘hooliganism’ to a pursuit he saw as being somehow noble. When asked directly if he would describe himself as a hooligan, he is uncharacteristically ambivalent: ‘Yes and no,’ he ponders. ‘I’d just like to think that those were the times, and in following your football team, everybody else was just as game for it as you were. It just happens that whatever I turn my hand to, I like to excel.’