Roo Oxley has always considered herself a casual, part of the football subculture that dominated Britain’s working-class from the mid-’70s all the way through to the early 1990s.
Just as well, then, given Oxley is fresh from the release of her new book Clobber, a comprehensive account of casual and terrace culture that blends dry, witty cynicism with interviews, while breaking down academic papers into something readable. It’s also a 300-plus page love letter to a way of life that raised her in Stoke, supporting a “proper wank” team, as she writes. Tinged with nostalgia but hopeful for the future, Clobber is merciless in its condemnation of modern football and its limitations as an increasingly corporate sport, yet astute in its analysis of symbolic consumption and how hardcore casual traditions have evolved over time.
“Football has changed so much over the years,” Oxley, a marketing manager and mum of two, says. She’s come down to THE FACE’s London office on the outskirts of Soho to talk all things Clobber, having just popped to the National Gallery’s exhibition on Paul McCartney’s photography. Fittingly, she’s dressed in a Fred Perry x Stone Island grey polo shirt with neon orange trims, with Stoney x New Balance trainers to match. “But why do people dress like that when there’s no culture there anymore? No matches to go to? That’s the whole point of the book.”
Back in its heyday, casuals were largely inspired by the Milanese Paninaro, with lads from Merseyside via Middlesbrough all the way down to London descending on away day matches kitted out in smart designer gear: C.P. Company jackets, Stone Island jeans, Lacoste polos, adidas Sambas, often handily concealing their rival club’s colours to make brawls harder to break up.
The style subverted the macho bravado associated with the beautiful game, developed via the unexpected medium of sport rather than music. Casuals were among the first to make sportswear feel and look high-end, but there was a layer of danger attached, too. Casuals were largely associated with hooliganism, which Thatcher’s government in the ’80s clamped down on hard following the 1985 Luton riot, trying to introduce identity cards for fans to enter grounds.
As kids settled into the ’90s, their attention turned elsewhere: acid house was in full swing and attendance at football matches declined. Casual culture faded dramatically, as the scene’s heavy-hitters discovered ecstasy. And yet, the subculture’s sartorial hangover remains, having enjoyed a revival in the mid-2000s. Even now, its trickle-down effect is everywhere: Stone Island and C.P.’s cachet is as strong as ever, Sambas were crowned the sneaker of the summer this year, and casual brand staple Napapijri has lapped up huge success over the past few years, collaborating with designer Martine Rose, whose collections have referenced casual culture as part of her transgressive mash-ups of British tribes.
But where does this uniformity, largely propagated by the internet, leave contemporary casual culture? In Clobber, Oxley questions the effect the pandemic has had on the way we consume fashion. She also explores the rise of far-right nationalism in Eastern Europe, and its potential correlation with the increase of more hard-line hooligans or Ultras, as they’re often called, as well as the rebooted casual fandom throughout the UK, and how it varies regionally, nationally and internationally.
“Being Stokey born and bred, that’s where the football influence has come from,” Oxley continues. “There’s not a lot going on in that town, but people have always taken pride in what they wear and it suits the atmosphere. We’re a strange motley crew, shall we say!”
Oxley also wrote about casual culture extensively in 2011 for her masters degree at Keele University, following a couple of years spent in Ibiza to decompress from her undergraduate degree in international politics. Then, during lockdown, she submitted the book proposal for Clobber and was commissioned to write it.
“Basically, I picked up where I left off 10 years ago and so much has changed since then,” Oxley says. “Casual culture speaks to both the power of dressing and the power of sport – its collective consumption, its community, a game of one-upmanship, a uniform. Casuals were like peacocks and the football match was their theatre. Now, because the grounds are so boring that kids are wriggling in their seats, where can they do that?”
The challenge of telling the story of casuals from a female perspective isn’t lost on Oxley, either. She was always on the periphery as a woman, wishing she could get stuck in. “I’ve been going to Stoke City games for so many years, so that lot already know me,” she says. “But when I was speaking to people from brands and firms across the country, I had to prove myself, and prove that I wasn’t a generic girl who’s wearing Stoney for the ’Gram.
“I had to break that down a bit. I think once people started to realise how credible I was, how involved, they started to trust me a bit. It’s swings and roundabouts, though – by being a girl, you can also get away with more and be a bit more cheeky to get information.”
Oxley remembers her first Stone Island jumper well: it was bought for her when she was 18 by an old boyfriend from cult menswear shop LiFE in Manchester. “I’ve still got it and wouldn’t sell that for the world,” she says proudly. “It’s proper ’90s, and I’ve picked up loads of stuff along the way, but I’m not a total label freak either. I’m quite happy to wear a Benetton polo with Primark jeans. The casual way can’t be contrived. It’s how you wear it.”
Her favourite part of writing Clobber, without a doubt, was getting to interview “the Clobberati”, as she puts it, or key players such as C.P. Company president Lorenzo Osti or prolific casual Riaz Khan, author of Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual, which has since been adapted into a play. “It’s been an honour to be taken seriously by these people, for them to give me their time, and to be acknowledged as someone who knows what they’re on about,” Oxley says. “I wanted to put it all in a way that people could understand it.
“And I’m not trying to preach anything. I just hope they take it as an honest account of someone from a really shit team. That there’s more to football than Chelsea, Man City and Arsenal, that there are still casuals out there who are cool as fuck.”