My revolting past

June 25, 2004

From working-class kid to getaway driver for hooligans - sociologist John Williams shares memories of a colourful life.

John Williams, director of Leicester University's Centre for the Sociology of Sport, came a year late to university. He had good A levels from Bootle Grammar School but came from a background where there was no thought of universities and signed on as a clerk with Liverpool shipping agents Elder Dempster. "Four or five months after leaving school, I knew a lot about trading and was advising ships' captains about the price of oil and where they should go to refuel," he recalls.

The idea of university took hold after a friend invited him to Leicester for the weekend. He saw "a life I'd never contemplated" and realised he could do it, too, and get a maximum grant.

Williams was excited about sociology. "It was a subject that took my background and people like me seriously, and I thought I had things to say." And then there was Leicester's pioneering sport sociologist, Eric Dunning, whom he never thought he would meet, let alone work with. "I simply hoped I might at some time have a conversation with him," he says.

Sociology and Leicester, where he arrived in 1973 and has been ever since, lived up to their promise. He had a good social life - so firm was the group of friends he made that 17 or 18 meet every year - and also campus politics. "My politics came from my own background, which was working-class Labour and was all to do with class and inequality."

He greatly enjoyed student union meetings. "That you might spend the whole afternoon talking about Chile then passing a resolution seemed very empowering and important," he says. His memory that "there seemed to be a correlation between the cleverest people and knowing about Marx" contrasts with his observation that modern students "mostly take their politics from Marks rather than Marx".

Although Williams can't recall much detail of his campus politics days - "as they say, if you can remember what the occupation was about, you weren't there" - he has fond memories of occupying Leicester's administrative block. "It was partly a jape. We stayed out all night, and the centrepiece was a video show of an incredibly raw and unappealing tape about marital relations that somebody had found. It all felt really subversive."

A third-year thesis on the sociology of the Kop, Liverpool Football Club's legendary terrace, led to Dunning's suggesting that he might do a PhD with a football theme. "The only way to get money was to study hooliganism," Williams remembers.

From here came his pioneering participant observation work on hooligans. It laid the basis for his career but created some unanticipated problems. "I felt you should quote exactly what people said, but I was told some students were quite shocked and that I should probably tone down the language."

Moreover, his research into hooligans' lives might easily have led to trouble with the law. "I found myself unwittingly as getaway driver on a job. I picked up a couple of lads to drive to a pub. When we got there, they got out, said they'd be a moment and asked me to wait. They'd realised a local businessman always left his takings in his car outside that pub on Fridays, dived into the car and lifted his bag, then jumped back into my car. I was extremely pissed off with them and had to explain that, no, I didn't want my share."

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