The End of the Affray: How The Football Factory's ending is just incorrect

Ed Williamson

7th October 2015

I rewatched The Football Factory on Film4 last night. I don't harbour any real dislike for it as many do; elements of it are misunderstood and better realised than it gets credit for. I want to talk about its ending, though. You cannot end a film like The Football Factory does. I don't mean it ends badly. I mean it ends wrongly.

Some background, if you've never seen it, or only saw it once on DVD at a bloke's house ten years ago and realised you weren't going to be friends. Tommy Johnson (Danny Dyer) has spent the film in a state of uncertainty about how he is living. Heading for 30, caring only about the weekend, fighting for no other reason than the thrill of it. He experiences violent dreams and sees - in a nicely stylised touch - signs and billboards all over town telling him to have a word with himself. His granddad has a spare ticket to go and live in Australia: a way out.

So the film's asking questions about whether Tommy should change his life. It isn't judging him for his choices particularly. In fact it rather paints him and a chosen few in a good light by showing the real bad guys to be racists, and he rejecting this. The Football Factory takes pains over its anti-racist stance. It would be more persuasive if it had any ethnic minority characters who weren't drug dealers or mute victims of discrimination, but the intent is commendable. There is no real need for it to judge its characters, though; it isn't a morality tale and shouldn't be expected as one.

Anyway, this all culminates in a big organised dust-up between Tommy's Chelsea firm and Millwall, at which he gets "fuck" kicked out of him and ends up in hospital. There, his granddad asks him: "Was it worth it?" Tommy seems to consider this. An obvious ending would see him heading off to Australia and leaving hooliganism behind. It doesn't take this path, and fair enough. It's only one option. In the next scene, recuperating, Tommy heads off to the pub on a crutch. And then:

This would be a subversive ending if The Football Factory was set up as a morality tale and stopped here. With Tommy rejecting all the film's lessons, it would upend you, making the point, if a little bluntly, that the draw of male camaraderie and the feeling of belonging is too strong to resist, and give a suggested explanation for why hooligans fight.

This idea (unpacked very well in Bill Buford's book Among the Thugs) is raised throughout, in fact. Cleverly, football itself is entirely absent from the film. The characters are never inside a stadium, we never see action on a pitch, no one watches or even discusses football. Even when Billy Bright and Fred go to watch their sons play, the shots we see are above the kids' head height, of the two men arguing their way into a fight. The kids shake their heads and trudge off wearily.

There's a sense, too, of the same sort of comradeship that the army brings with it. Harris organises the firm's "rows" like a military general. Bright is seen to have let the side down because he beats up someone in a car park and gets arrested, "spoiling" the later fight that has been organised in advance against Liverpool. That the planned fight is more important somehow than the unplanned one should demonstrate what they feel the appeal is: a discipline and order in violence they've failed to find in everyday life.

So ending it there could've been quite effective. But then this happens.

The guy who kills Zebedee is a drug dealer he beat up earlier. It's revenge for getting out of control; a reminder of the violent life he chose and how it was always going to end up here. And Tommy sees it happen.

I'm not putting forward that this is a bad ending, that it's misjudged or unsatisfactory, though it is all of these things. I'm not saying, hey, it's not traditional, but it's a bold break with convention that doesn't quite pull off but should be commended for trying. I'm saying that this isn't how film endings work.

Anyone who watches films semi-regularly understands narrative structure, even if unconsciously. It's how you know when a superhero film is 20 minutes from the end because the second big battle scene is starting up, and discard your thought of a toilet break in favour of seeing it through. If you're like me you would've accepted the ending in the first clip. You probably also would've accepted an extra final scene, in which the murder then convinces Tommy to go to Australia. You'd then look on the initial "Course it fucking was!" scene as a false ending to set up the real one.

But it just ends. Immediately. There is no development or discussion of Zebedee's murder or its ramifications. Tommy isn't shot dead straight afterwards, which would offer some closure. The drug dealer doesn't turn the gun on him before the credits roll, allowing us to at least imagine what the ending might be. The film just stops being on, as if they ran out. (A quick search on Google turns up a forum thread where someone who probably thinks about narrative structure less than I do says "I torrented it and I wasn't sure whether the file was cut short. Is this the actual ending?")

I think this is jarring because it isn't how films end. They either wrap things up, deliberately don't wrap things up, or suggest that they might be wrapped up at some point in the future. The Football Factory doesn't have to show us that Tommy has grown or that he's realised the error of his ways. It just needs to give us a minute less, or an extra minute more of something, anything. It wouldn't be a masterpiece if it did. But I don't think I've ever seen a film so drastically undercut by its final minute.

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