Andy Swallow

  • by Graeme Howlett
  • Wednesday, 24th January 2018

You might be forgiven for thinking that with his 60th birthday closer than his 50th, life-long Hammers fan Andy Swallow, one of the faces behind the recently-formed Real West Ham Fans Action Group might be considering taking his foot of the gas. But that couldn't be further from the truth...

Upon arrival at Chez Swallow, I'm warmly welcomed by Andy's son Danny - a staunch West Ham fan himself (not that he had any choice in the matter!) and a young man who is beginning to make waves of his own as a DJ and fighter. Danny ushers me through to a room where his father is concluding a previous meeting, during which the main topic of discussion had been a stage show based on Swallow Snr's exploits.

It's another project that he has agreed to undertake in addition to the film (based upon his early life) he's currently working on, the resurrection of the groundbreaking Centreforce Radio station (legally, this time) and the aforementioned RWHFAG in addition to his regular business activities. Basically, he's a grafter and based on the evidence, almost certainly a bit of a workaholic.

Swallow is what would have once been referred to as a typical Eastender before most of the original Cockneys left for Kent, Essex and other areas bordering the M25 - a bona fide product of his environment. Brought up by his mother after his father left the family home when he was just a child, he had no choice but to fight for everything in the hard, unforgiving east End environment of the 1960s.

"I was born in Upton Park and lived In Waghorn Road, which is at the back of the market," he begins. "As kids we used to look through the East stand and you could see the green of the pitch, which would give you that little tingle. This was when the [original] Chicken Run was there.

"My earliest memories are of when I was six or seven years old, hanging around the back of the ground because I came from Upton Park market. That's how I got introduced to West Ham - though my family were all West Ham so I didn't have a choice!

"I became a barrow boy at nine or ten years old, putting the market stalls out," he continues. "Before the car park was built the market was on the other side where the station was and all those houses were prefabs. After they built the car park the part underneath was where all the barrows went - I'd love to think I got a pound a barrow, but it was more like a penny!

"My family were all market stall holders - my uncle had the broken biscuit stall at the bottom as you first came in, my mum was the sweet wrapper for Appletons so my front room was full of boxes of sweets from top to bottom! I would sit there with my mum weighing sweets for Appletons, which was in the middle [of the market] and my uncles sold fruit and veg."

Like many boys of his age, it wasn't long before Swallow fell in love with association football. Handily perhaps, it was a golden age for West Ham who were enjoying the most successful period in the club's history having won the FA Cup, European Cup Winners Cup, reached the final of the embryonic League Cup and played a fairly major role in England securing their only World Cup win in recent seasons.

"My first kit was a West Ham shirt without a badge - it was a claret shirt with light blue sleeves," he recalls. "I can remember being about nine when people started to wear vests - Slade and all that lot were wearing them - and I wanted a claret and blue vest. I got one, a light blue vest with claret trim and my mum washed it - all the colours ran and I nearly cried!

"My dad left when I was eight years old and so my family pretty much became West Ham. Early memories include Geoff Hurst missing the penalty against Gordon Banks and Stoke in 1971/72 and I went with my uncles to the final replay, which was at Old Trafford.

"That tie stretched to four games - it ended with a replay at Man United where Bobby Moore saved a penalty, although they scored from the rebound and I think we lost that night [2-3]. My uncles went to all of them.

"My earliest memory of watching West Ham is about 1970/71 with players like Clyde Best and Ade Coker. But my favourite all-time player is Billy Bonds. He's probably my idol and the player I always wanted to be when I was a footballer. To this day, he's still my hero.

"With Bobby Moore, he leaves around 73/74. I'd seen him for a few years - especially that year when Greavesie comes in and Peters goes across. But, as an out-and-out memory for me as a child, it was Billy with his socks rolled down. He was a centre half who played in centre midfield at 40! He epitomised West Ham for me."

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By the mid-1970s Swallow was firmly established as a regular at Upton Park, by which time football violence and hooliganism had begun to make the headlines, regularly. As a young man who travelled away to watch West Ham, clashes with opposition supporters soon became a frequent and unavoidable occurrence - leading to the formation of possibly the world's most infamous and notorious football firm.

"We originally formed the EELF (Essex & East London Firm) and we made our name in the South Bank cage," he recalls. "That's where the ICF was born around 1976. At that time, you had the TBF and the Mile End firms; at one point if you weren't from Mile End they didn't really want you with them. I think I was 11 or 12 when I went to my first testimonial with them, so I had my 'education' and came through with them all.

"The ICF name was the idea of me, Grant [Fleming] and Micky [Morgan]. It's really weird though - all three of us have got three different stories! We've tried to come to an agreement, but we can't. In my film and screenplay I'm going to do my version and leave the door open for Mickey who's writing a book and Grant, who's got his version.

"We were all different little firms back then and we used to go up on the football specials - but we'd often come home on the Inter City, so we'd call ourselves the Inter City Jibbers, from which we became the Inter City Firm.

"The original Inter City Firm was about 20 or 30 of us by 1977. I think the calling cards were first produced by a fella called 'Tadpole' - they became infamous was when there was a stabbing and a calling card got left behind. From that day it became notorious."

Throughout the late 1970s and 1980s the ICF regularly gained headlines, both locally and nationally, due to their exploits both domestically and aboard. However the end was in sight once then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decided to raise the stakes in order to eradicate hooliganism once and for all.

"In 1987 we got nicked for the ICF and Cass Pennant did the film 'Hooligan'," said Swallow. "Then we got into acid house. I came back [to West Ham] in around 91/92 and we carried on the Inter City Firm as it was. I had two or three court cases with the ICF and spent three-and-a-half years on trial in three different trials.

"I even faced the same trial three times - which was very unique. There were actually four trials, but I didn't appear on one as I was ill. Nine of the ten [co-defendants] involved got off but they said "we want to try Swallow on his own"!

"After I came back people were still singing 'ICF' at West Ham, then we had the 30th anniversary reunion when we hired a plane to Everton. Now we're coming up to the 40th reunion. So I've never left the Inter City Firm. I'm not saying as 50-year-olds we run around like the ICF used to, but even though we're not an active firm we still go to games together in numbers as mates."

It is often said that even those who disagreed with the notion of hooliganism and football firms were grateful for the support of the ICF, should it ever be required back then. As it was, frequently at away grounds, whether you sought trouble or not.

"I've never had a person come up to me and be critical about the ICF," adds Swallow. "They're more than welcome to as they don't have to agree with what we did, but there's not many people who went in those days who weren't pleased when the Inter City Firm turned up. If you went to Leeds on a cold, midweek night and we turned up on the trains there would be a part of you that said I'm staying with them on the way home. It was like the cavalry had arrived.

"We lived through a period where society was violent, working-class and gang-orientated. It was tough. We had morals though; there was a code of conduct with us all. Even now, if I walk down the road and see several West Ham picking on one person, I wouldn't suffer it. I wouldn't suffer it now as I wouldn't suffer it then. I think football's perhaps lost a little bit of that togetherness; they were very different days.

"It's a shame that the morals we had don't exist today, I think times have changed. I think the West Ham supporter has changed - for better or worse, I don't think it makes a lot of difference. And the togetherness, the camaraderie, just isn't there."

Although Thatcher did her best to break the firms - whether by fair means or foul (there are too many examples of doctored Police evidence during the period in question to suggest HMG and its agencies were working entirely by the book) - it can be argued that music, and the advent of Acid House, had a far greater effect.

After all, who wants to trade blows when they've just dropped a purple ohm, a Dennis the Menace or a white dove? But like the hooligan scene, Andy and his team were once again one step ahead of the pack with the opening of Echoes nightclub in 1988 and the seminal Centreforce Radio a year later.

"All of our lot had just started to go raving, wearing bandanas and smiley t-shirts in 1988" Swallow says with a smile of his own. "I went to Phuture on a Tuesday night and someone gave me a pill - and I never looked back!

"From there we opened Echoes nightclub at Bow and I was putting on acid house parties, warehouse parties in east London later in 1988 before starting Centreforce Radio in May 1989. We became the biggest pirate radio station telling you where to go [for raves] and for six months we thought we'd cracked it - even Sir Richard Branson was talking about buying us!

"Well, we were under a six-month police obbo, weren't we - and ended up on trial again due to the new party laws that'd been introduced. They did our night clubs and we were charged with drug trafficking and running a protection racket.

"They nicked Micky, who was running Woodstock, half-a-dozen dealers, us as a radio station and put us all in the dock together. You couldn’t make up what they said [about Centreforce] - "this is the famous ICF, all they've done is take the 'I' off it!" In the end the trial was aborted - after a re-trial.

"Centreforce came back after but we found it very hard because now, it was [associated with] the ICF and we'd just got off a big trial, again.

"When they raided our studio in 1990 for the last time, they raided the radio station, they did Echoes and they did the Pink Toothbrush [in Rayleigh, Essex], where I was. They brought a record with them and the DTI said 'to all you Centreforce listeners, this is the last record you'll ever hear' - and they put on the Theme to Hill St Blues! Three days later I came back on with the theme to Dixon of Dock Green!"

Fast forward several years, to 2010, and Centreforce - not heard of since those heady days of the late eighties and early nineties - returned.

"About seven or eight years ago, we returned on Time FM - we were sort of the dance side of it which was Centreforce sessions," say Swallow. "I remember going up there to do my first show, they put me in the studio and said don't touch this or that - it was like the big red button!

"Then they said you've got to stop after 30 minutes for an ad break and I thought to myself, what is all this? I never went back on again; it wasn't the radio I knew. Then Facebook - or Safebook, as I called it the other day! - came around and we decided to see if there was a market. I couldn't even listen to the first show as I didn't have Facebook!

"In the last six months we've been running twice a week and have attracted more than two-and-a-half million views. We do two days a week; Tuesdays from 8-10pm and most Fridays from 8-10pm. This Tuesday we didn't broadcast as West Ham were playing and we know that most of our people are West Ham or east London!

"Also, we've just got our DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) license so by March or April we'll come on as a full-time radio station in the London plus area."

Like Centreforce, Swallow has found himself re-energised in recent years by his former projects. The ICF are currently celebrating their 40th birthday, which is being marked with the launch of a new charitable organisation that will benefit West Ham United fans who may have fallen upon hard times.

"We look after our own", states Swallow. "It's for people who haven't got headstones, people who might have died and need contributions towards their burial, or just someone who might need a little money now - maybe they're having trouble with their mortgage. All money will go into a registered, charitable fund. It's based on a Lazio scheme. Even part of the money raised from my new film will go towards it."

Ultimately, almost everything that he is involved with comes back to West Ham in some way. And so it was perhaps no surprise when Swallow, along with Micky Morgan launched the Real West Ham Fans Action Group (RWHFAG) late in 2017 in order to take the club's Board to task following what many supporters perceive as a botched move to Stratford.

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The RWHFAG already boasts a membership of some 13,000 despite having only been active for a matter of months, which is testament to the depth of feeling regarding the Board's decision to move West Ham United from Upton Park to Stratford and Swallow's ability to attract large numbers of Hammers fans to his latest venture.

"To be fair, I've never liked any of our Boards - this is nothing new if you've done the Cearns and the Browns," he only partly jokes. "I always thought the Board was ten old gits sitting round the table, each with a few shares! If you go back historically, you only knew about the manager; you knew about Ron Greenwood and John Lyall and that was it. But I think this Board want to be celebrities - and I think that's where we have our problem.

"I became involved about a year ago, when we were having all the trouble with the standing and stewarding. I was asked by West Ham to come in and have a chat. Myself, Dave [Davies], [my son] Danny and Grant [Fleming] came in. We sat round the table and met their advisors, and we told them what we thought was wrong.

"I suggested giving the fans [who'd been previously banned] their seats back straight away and letting people put their flags around the stadium. Grant came up with the idea of making the perimeter of the pitch all claret. They then asked up about the possibility of staging an open day so we brought the Lazio boys over.

"We were going to do a grand opening until they said it'd cost too much money. After that I didn't bother anymore and from that point I was going to the games and coming home disheartened. It was a chance for me and [my son] Danny to go somewhere together and then he doesn't want to go any more - so last season we were going, then not going.

"Anyway, David Sullivan lives up the road and I saw that a supporter had put up a flag [on his entrance gates] saying 'Karren Brady Out'. I then heard they'd been banned. I didn't know the supporter but I phoned the club and said 'you're causing yourselves problems here' - and they said 'Andy, could you please come in and see us?'

"I told them I was a bit disillusioned as a result of what happened last time, but I said I'd bring Bill Gardner down and we'll have a meeting. They asked me if I could stop a demonstration that was being planned. I knew nothing about it, I didn't even know there was a demonstration - it was nothing to do with any of us.

"So I asked people via my Facebook page not to take part in any demonstrations as I was going to meet West Ham - and by the next day it'd hit the newspapers. In the meantime, someone had suggested setting up an action group - and that's how I got involved!"

Following the formation of the Facebook group, a public meeting was arranged and the RWHFAG filled the Boleyn pub just a matter of weeks later - further testament to Swallow's ability to gather the troops, in much the same way he did on behalf of the Football Lads Alliance a matter of months earlier (when in excess of 2,500 West Ham supporters partook in an anti-terrorism march).

And whilst appreciating that the RWHFAG won't appeal to every West Ham supporter, especially those who are delighted with the move the Stratford, Swallow insists that he'll listen to every supporter's opinion - even if that sometime leaves him feeling vastly frustrated.

"I come from the old school where if you're West Ham, you're West Ham - and you and I can say what you want about West Ham because we're West Ham," he says. "Now there seems to be so many West Ham people that want to have a go at people they don't even know.

"They don't know us and they haven't got the balls to come up and say so. If someone came up to me and said 'listen mate, you're wrong' I'd have a chat with them and I'd try to understand it - but there's so many people who go on social media and have so much to say when they don't know us from Adam! It took me a bit of time to get used to that.

"When I stand with them on the terraces, I'd like to think we're all as one. I've been to so many games where we've had to be as one, so I haven't got an argument with any West Ham fan. If you enjoy it - brilliant; if you think the Board have done the best for you - brilliant.

"But we don't. And there are so many that don't, I think they should respect our opinion. I haven't got a problem if you like it, but we don't like it - and we nearly stopped going to football because we don't like it. Others already have - and that can't be right."

The Board's inability to engage with those disappearing, long-suffering fans - some 5,000 failed to renew their season tickets after season one at Stratford, equivalent to the entire capacity of the Boleyn Ground's East Stand - is a cause of further frustration for Swallow.

"What hurts me is that I could leave Upton Park in any direction and know loads of people," he argues. "Now, I can leave that stadium and get to Westfield and not know one person. That can't be right. And the reason I don't know them is that many don't go any more. They don't like it [at Stratford]. They don't like the way they've been treated, they don't like the stadium.

"I don't buy into everything that the supporters moan about but we have to represent everyone. I can honestly say that I've no had no problem with the stewards, but that doesn't mean there is no problem with the stewards because everybody's moaning about them. But if supporters aren't going then we have a major problem - and I could reel off a list of names of people who no longer go. The Board don't care - and that's wrong.

"Look at it this way - my family are all West Ham and yours probably are too, so our kids have no choice [who they're going to support]. Now if they're not going to football, their kids won't be brought up around football so all of a sudden you're losing a generation.

"The club must have records of the people who went and no longer attend. So instead of giving, say, 200 tickets to the local community who may have no long-term interest, there are all these people out there who they're missing. Get them back. Get them here.

"I've suggested this to the club. Why don't they contact these supporters and say 'you haven't been for a while, we'd like to send you four tickets'? Now you might say 'shove it', but if someone else comes back they're also getting back his family - and future family. So start by bringing back our fans who aren't happy - and let's see if we can make them happy. That's it for me."

With regards to achieving his aims, Swallow believes that it is important for the various fan groups to engage and pool their resources in order to maintain pressure on the Board in order to achieve a satisfactory outcome. And maintaining that pressure is very much at the forefront of his plans.

"We were supposed to have a meeting with the club last week but it was postponed," he says. "So there's going to be a meeting next week - we're going to call it at their offices. If they don't turn up, they can shove it. That'll be the end of it, we're not interested any more as we'll just become like everybody else.

"I'm not knocking anyone else, but the club look at some of them as weak groups because they know they can't rally the troops like we can. KUMB have a lot more respect out there because you have numbers - so you're a threat. We can rally numbers. But there's certain groups to whom they'll just say 'yeah, yeah'."

And the threat of an organised, anti-Board march remains very much on the agenda - even though it is yet to happen and something Swallow admits might even be counter-productive to RWHFAG's long-term ambitions.

"There are certain people involved who want to march because they want to march - and I get that. It's a hard one," he muses. "But if we're already in dialogue, we're only going to end up in dialogue again if we march - and we're already at the table! So if we've got that already, we'll try to exploit that. But I'd like to be at the table with the likes of KUMB and one or two others.

"I think that us, KUMB, WHFTV and other groups that are independent can work together. What's important is that people feel they have a voice and someone they can talk to who will genuinely try to work on their behalf. They would never think that we'd unite, but it's not about me - it's about you and us and if we show our strength and say we're not suffering you any more.

"I'd only challenge the Board on things that I thought could be changed for the better at West Ham and marching has to be the final, last resort. If we're in dialogue with them, I think people have to realise that's going to be a long, drawn out process. So, the action group has to remain focused.

"A friend of mine was in the Golden Fleece and someone said 'Swallow ain't going to do anything, Swallow's in Sullivan's pocket because they worked together at Grays'. They told him it was all a con and we'd never get anywhere. Well let me tell you something - I would not be doing all this if I thought I was in that character's pocket.

"They won't even talk to me - the last conversation I had with them was when Karren Brady came to me and said 'we wish you luck with your football club' and I replied 'wish me luck? You've closed us down and we've been around since 1890!' Anyway, we ended up in court battling it out with them.

"What many people don't realise is that I fell out with them because they shut our football club down. Now I have to be careful with RWHFAG, because I don't want people to think it's a vendetta as a result of what happened at Grays."

Whatever particular path the fledgling yet rapidly-expanding Action Group takes from here, it is clear that Swallow is determined to win at least one more big fight with the authorities - and despite claims to the contrary, he insists both his and RWHFAG's ambitions and aims are quite clear.

"The goal for me is to have a stadium we can be proud of," he states. "A stadium that is squared off, like a proper football stadium. I want the memorabilia to come back and the castle from the old badge to be recognised, somehow. I want to get rid of 'London' from the badge and get people who've stopped going to come back.

"If we could genuinely see that the Board would give us something with the stadium then I think we'll have achieved our aims. We'd then drop the action group and continue with the Real West Ham Fans, where people could still come to us if they've got problems.

"I bump into lots of people who I no longer see other there. We want to get these people back and the Board to stop lying. They believe they've delivered but maintain the stadium owners haven't delivered to them. That's like me buying a car with only three wheels because the picture only showed one side!

"Finally we need to make the ground feel like you're going to football - and not to a concert. At some point the Board need to deal with the Council - and if they won't listen, then we'll go and demonstrate at the Council. If they're responsible, we'll march on them.

"If they are in court battles, why not tell us? What's the problem? Why the secrecy, lies and deceit? That's it really."

With that said, our conversation is almost at an end. We talk briefly about some of the other projects currently sucking up Swallow's time, including his film biography - "you'll enjoy it if you like the music, or the scene; it's about the fashion, it's our journey through music, acid house parties, Centreforce Radio."

Then there's the impending play referred to at the start of this piece: "The plan is to use footage from back in the day, original recordings from Centreforce Radio which would be played live in the theatre; they'd like to take it to the West End, I'd like to take it the Theatre Royal Stratford where I was born... A bit like Buddy Holly's shows, I hope you'll get that party element with people dancing in the aisles".

Finally, I enquire at what point does Swallow Snr intend to begin stepping away from his vast array of business and social commitments, which draws a laugh. "When do I get to rest?" he asks himself. "When one of the bleedin' things takes off and I can say I've done it!" Meanwhile son Danny, in full agreement, quips: "When we're making enough money so he can employ another me!"

Andy Swallow: top three Centreforce tunes

Ten City - That's The Way Love Is (1989)

Joe Smooth - Promised Land (1987)

Adeva - Musical Freedom (1989)

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