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In the turmoil of 1970s and ’80s England, the working-class escape was clear: be a footballer or form a band.

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Illustrations by Ben Kirchner.

England in the 1970s and early ’80s was a grim, violent, angry, lean, ambitious, stimulating place. It had hardship and conflict on a scale unknown since the end of World War II. It was the golden-studded age of English punk and heavy metal. It also had football success of a magnitude unseen since: English clubs won the European Cup seven of the eight years between 1977 and 1984. Now the English Premier League is the richest and most popular in the world, but English clubs’ dominance on the pitch is a thing of the past—like, alas, Lemmy Kilmister’s throbbing bass in Motörhead and Bob Paisley’s understated cunning at Liverpool.

Not much was understated back in English football’s salad days. And by salad days, of course, we mean beer-and-burger days, because enlightened dieting and sport science did not drive English clubs’ victories. The Italians and Spanish were well ahead on that front, as were the Dutch, Portuguese, and West Germans (and who knew what the East Germans were consuming?). And yet for the better part of a decade, English clubs consistently outfought, outran, and beat their continental counterparts. What was fueling them?

It wasn’t fancy brain food. Managers such as Paisley and Brian Clough were tactically smart but never developed schemes as elaborate as, say, the total football of the Ajax Amsterdam team that reigned supreme in Europe from 1971 to 1973 or the tiki-taka tyrants of 21st-century Barcelona. The three European Cups immediately after Ajax’s regal streak were won by Bayern Munich, who fielded almost the entire West German national team, including the imperious libero Franz Beckenbauer. His qualities somehow included a remarkable ability to escape conceding blatant penalties in the 1975 European Cup final, when Leeds United were on the wrong end of whiffy refereeing and a 2-1 score line. That should have been the first English triumph of the ’70s. Nevertheless, a feeling of injustice was not enough to account for the rioting and pillaging in Paris by Leeds fans after the final, when, as the striker Duncan McKenzie later put it, “all they left was the Eiffel Tower.”

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Illustrations by Ben Kirchner.

Yes, England was prey to darkness back then, both figuratively and, because of frequent blackouts, literally. The country was in economic, social, and political turmoil. Inflation and unemployment soared, and so did tempers. In 1974 businesses were restricted to using electricity only three days a week, and motorists faced petrol rationing. That prompted Idi Amin, a murderous despot who knew an easy target when he saw one, to taunt Britain by sending a telegram saying he had arranged for Ugandans to donate “one lorry load of vegetables and wheat” and the British government should dispatch a plane to collect it quickly “before it goes bad.”

Meanwhile Britain’s prime minister, Ted Heath, declared four states of emergencies in three years as he attempted to quash mass strikes. Violence of all strains broke out, sometimes politically or racially motivated, sometimes economic or recreational. Lord Radcliffe, best known for chairing the committee that partitioned India at decolonization, suggested England was “ungovernable.”

The bleakness dragged on. In the so-called Winter of Discontent of 1978–79, public- sector strikes led to school shutouts, rubbish festering in the streets and the dead being left unburied. Margaret Thatcher came to power in May 1979 with a plan to fix the nation. It was radical and callous and rooted in her belief that “there is no such thing as society.” It was never going to be carried out peacefully, so she weaponized the state apparatus to atomize resistance. To some minds her scheme worked. In other senses it made resistance stronger or, at least, made the alienated more impassioned.

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Illustrations by Ben Kirchner.

Which brings us back to music and football. Both were conduits of young people’s creativity, sources of community, and forums for their frustrations. A lack of alternatives led them to invest more in chasing dreams (or in the case of many punks, just denouncing nightmares) than they might otherwise have done. Once a generation of young footballers, like Paisley had striven to become professional players to avoid having to work down a mine like their fathers. Now the mines were closing, and many factories, too, so even that option was vanishing. Tension was rife, but positive energy also crackled as people sought upward mobility, to find common ground, or just to blow off steam. That could all make for boisterous, cathartic atmospheres at football grounds and at punk and metal gigs. There was a barbed but uplifting fervor.

“That was the working-class escape: go and be a footballer or form a band,” said Brian Tatler, who founded the influential metal group Diamond Head in the Midlands in 1976. Paul Di’anno, the first singer of Iron Maiden, struck a similar note when he explained, “In east London if you couldn’t play football or do boxing, you joined a band.” Di’anno should have added that you could join a band even if you could play football. Iron Maiden was formed in 1975 by Steve Harris, who was talented enough to play for West Ham United’s youth team before leaving to become a full-time bassist, songwriter, and heavy-metal troubadour. And if you couldn’t play football or join a band, you could watch instead, and pogo dance, headbang, or cheer and chant.

Maiden and Diamond Head were in the vanguard of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), a term coined by Sounds magazine in 1979 to describe a sudden proliferation of bands that in many cases had been playing to big audiences for several years without recording anything until convinced that they could do so by the DIY derring-do of punk. That attitude was the punk movement’s most enduring contribution, along with a handful of classic albums, most obviously the Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind the Bollocks,” which was released in 1977, the same year Liverpool won the first of their four European Cups in eight years.

The Pistols’ singer, Johnny Rotten, né John Lydon, was and is an Arsenal fan. His description in his 2014 autobiography, Anger Is an Energy, of the allure of football could only have been written by a man well tuned in to the English clubs’ indomitable era. “Over-analysis of football is a modern-day problem,” he wrote in response to the contemporary outbreak of tactical lectures. “It should be chaos out there and it really is, actually, no matter how they try to plan it … You can over-strategize and purchase all the best players, but still that might not work. It’s something about the personality blend and the confidence a manager can instill in a team that makes a team successful and exciting to watch. … All this rubbish about zonal marking and so on is confusing the format they’re playing. I mean, come on!”

That’s astute punditry from the punk icon (“he is an Antichrist, he is an analyst?”). Right there he nails the genius of Paisley and Clough, and of Bill Shankly. It was all in the human alchemy they performed. Sure, they could spot great players in unlikely places (or Scotland, which—believe it, youngsters!—was actually the first place to look back then; e.g., Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen, Graeme Souness, John Robertson). And they could plot a smooth, broad strategy. But what made their teams special was their knack for generating an easily complementary mix and a rousing sense of shared purpose—society, as Thatcher would not say. English teams—and crowds—developed an intensity that others could not match. Stories abound of those managers’ exceptional ability to rally their players.

Gary Mills, who at 18, became the youngest player ever to feature in a European Cup final when he helped Nottingham Forest lift the trophy for a second year in succession, in 1980, tells a good one about Clough. “He was about 50 yards ahead of us and then stopped and started punching a tree,” he said, recalling a team walk with the manager the day before an away tie in that campaign. “We were all wondering what he was doing when he told us all to do it too. So we all circled round and started punching a tree. That was the power of the man. He could make you do anything.”

Shankly had a similar charisma. Liverpool’s rise began at a time when the Beatles ruled the musical world and the city had a thriving comedy circuit. The manager augmented the feel-good factor and created a vibe akin to a cult. But let’s not make the Beatles the soundtrack—Liverpool’s style of play when they won Europe’s second competition, the Uefa Cup, in 1973 and 1976, was about speed and desire, being first to second balls, winning personal duels, and crossing to a towering striker. The perfect musical accompaniment, funnily enough, would have been Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown” (although Robert Plant is a lifelong Wolverhampton Wanderers fan and, indeed, that club’s honorary vice president).

Anything by Motörhead would have worked too, since their output is the aural equivalent of a Steve Heighway cross into the mixer for John Toshack to fight for in front of a heaving Kop. It’s the speed and aggression, you see. Motörhead, mind you, were not formed until 1975, after Lemmy’s fondness for speed led to his expulsion from Hawkwind, a more stonerly ensemble. But Motörhead’s fastness and sharpness—and the ferocious play of their drummer (Phil “Philthy Animal” Taylor, a former Leeds United hooligan who turned to music when his father gave him a drum set and the advice, “If you want to beat something up, beat these up”) could just as easily be used to soundtrack later features of English clubs’ European conquests. Think of the penalty-box hurly-burly that preceded Forest’s three goals against Cologne in the home leg of the ’79 semifinal, or the near-post corner routine from which Trevor Francis scored against Ajax a year later, or even launched passes from Terry Butcher to Paul Mariner, both of whom were regulars at metal gigs around the time their Ipswich Town team won the 1981 Uefa Cup. They may even have attended gigs by Raven, a NWOBHM band from Newcastle whose riffery was so lithe and muscular that they described their sound as “athletic metal.”

Paisley, one suspects, didn’t attend metal gigs. He was a quiet man, self-effacing, less obviously charismatic than Clough or Shankly. But he was just as hard (hard enough to usher Shankly away from Anfield after his old friend’s retirement) and at least as canny. His insightful recruitment enabled him to inspire by giving simple instructions: “Just do what you’re good at.” He elevated Liverpool from Uefa Cup winners to serial European champions by tweaking their style to make them less rambunctious and more about control, nuance, and nifty time changes. They were still powerful, and pressed like demons, but they had melody too. They became more like Maiden than Motörhead. Liverpool were playing heavy-metal football long before anyone milked up Jürgen Klopp.

If the message from punk was that anyone could get onstage if they really wanted to, and the message from NWOBHM was that anyone could get onstage if they wanted to and were good enough, then assorted football teams demonstrated similar points. Forest, as they climbed from the second division to the summit of Europe. But also Elton John’s Watford and Wimbledon, who soared from the lowest domestic level to England’s top flight. And of course, Aston Villa. Europe had to be conquered by a club from Birmingham, the cradle of some of the greatest metal acts, including Black Sabbath and Judas Priest.

Sabbath’s bassist, Geezer Butler, is a Villa fan. But Priest’s music was closer to Villa’s Europe-conquering team of 1982 (even though the band has tighter links to Villa’s local rivals West Bromwich Albion). Their 1980 album British Steel is perhaps the purest definition of heavy metal—sonically, lyrically, even visually. And it sums up the Villa team’s style too.

British Steel crashes open with a line that could be a tribute to Peter Withe (“pounding the world/like a battering ram”) and races along with virtuoso guitar solos that seem to foreshadow Trevor Morley’s dribbles and piercing, rarefied vocals on a par with Gordon Cowans’s incisive through balls. The lyrics had moved on from Priest’s mystical early whimsy to reflect the street-level yearning of the age (“If you did you’d find yourselves doing the same thing too/BREAKING THE LAW, BREAKING THE LAW”) and an anthemic number (“United”) that could have been a terrace chant. And it’s all underpinned by rollicking drumming and Ian Hill’s thumping bass work (he switched from finger play to a pick to give extra thuds).

There’s no mistaking the defiant esprit de corps in Priest’s words and sounds, just as there was no mistaking it when Villa won the English title with only 14 players and then made their way to the ’82 European Cup final, where they endured an onslaught from Bayern Munich before Withe plundered the winner on the counterattack.

That year’s Super Cup pitted Villa against Barcelona, who back then were one of the richest clubs in the world as well as the de facto ambassadors for on-field thuggery. In the year before taking on Villa, they had twice been fined by Uefa for “unnecessary hard play,” including after a Cup Winners’ Cup clash with Tottenham Hotspur in which a policeman had to run onto the pitch to stop Manolo Martínez from clobbering Graham Roberts. Their duel with Villa promised to be a mighty football battle. The second leg, in particular, turned out to be a reference specimen of the genre. It was brutal, at times beautiful, always exhilarating.

Villa won 3-0 because they channeled their fury better, getting only one red card to Barça’s two. Ken McNaught, one of Villa’s hulking Scottish center backs, provided one of the most telling images of English clubs’ European dominance: not his superb headed goal (he scored only eight goals in 207 matches for Villa, five of them headers against European opposition who couldn’t cope with his aerial menace), but rather the way he dealt with matters when Barça’s goalkeeper, Urruti, booted Cowans up the backside after conceding a penalty and then charged around the box looking for someone else to hit. McNaught strode over to the keeper and began shadowboxing, bobbing and weaving in front of him while displaying a big, cheesy grin that conveyed his certainty that Urruti would beat a quick retreat. Which Urruti did. “There was no way the goalkeeper was going to try to stick one on me, and after that Barcelona just went to pieces,” McNaught later explained.

Barça were fined again after that match and threatened with expulsion from European competition, with one exasperated Uefa official saying that he was “sick and fed up” with the club’s behavior.

In September 1980 Villa tried a novel preventive scheme, better than erecting cages or electric fences. They invited up to 1,000 local teenagers to biweekly coaching sessions at the club’s training ground. Villa’s manager, Ron Saunders, explained that it might help release “the energy and pent-up emotions brought on by unemployment. They must be itching for something to do.” There were nowhere near enough such schemes.

Violence off the field when English clubs played ultimately became unbearable. The deaths of 39 people at the Heysel Stadium disaster before the 1985 European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus led to English clubs being banned from European competition. English dominance was ended.

By the time England was reinstated in the 1990s, and the Premier League was rebranded, the English game had been cleansed of some of its problems. But it had also lost something. For intensity now, English and European clubs tend to sign players from South America—which, as it happens, is where England’s surviving metal giants find their biggest, most raucous audiences.

This story originally appeared in issue 10 of Eight by Eight. Click here to subscribe, and support our independent magazine. 

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