Farewell to The Bear, the fan who became folk hero

Camden New Journal 11 October, 2007

HE was known as The Bear. Big D. Or just Denton. The undisputed leader of the gang. And there was hardly a fan who stood on the Clock End terraces at Arsenal’s old Highbury stadium who hadn’t heard of him or the fables of his bruising scrapes with rival fans.

One man’s hooligan, he was a folk hero to others – and for many of the young supporters who followed the team home and away in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Dainton Connell seem­ed, as one fan put it this week, “indestructible”.

Yet, on Sunday, friends who would normally have shared a few pints with him before a big Arsenal game gathered instead to mourn his death.

Mr Connell, 46, a father-of-two, died in a car crash in Moscow late on Thursday night. He had been working as a bodyguard for the Pet Shop Boys, a band he had forged a close friendship with over 20 years.
The pop duo said they were “devastated”.

On Sunday, closer to home, more than 1,000 Arsenal supporters left their red and white shirts at home and wore black for the lunchtime match with Sunderland.

In an extraordinary tribute, they joined a procession from some of Mr Connell’s favourite pubs in Finsbury Park, past his beloved Highbury stadium and on to circle the new Emirates Stadium.

All the way, friends and relatives sang his name, some of the terraces’ biggest bruisers walking through the streets of Highbury with tears streaming down their faces. “We love you Denton, we do,” was their chant.

At the two bronze canons outside the new stadium in Ashburton Grove, they toasted three cheers to their old friend, leaving behind flowers and teddy bears.

One message left at the shrine said, if Mr Connell could see the emotional scenes, he would call his old friends “moo moos” in his familiar booming voice.

His funeral is expected to attract thousands of fans from all clubs and possibly a few of his celebrity associates.

Close friends said that, despite his fearsome reputation, he had “mellowed” in his later years as he had become a family man as father to two daughters.

“The 1970s and the 1980s were a long time ago,” said one old friend, in tears on Sunday. “He had mellowed and a lot of his reputation was from another time. He was just Arsenal through and through – and, if you were an Arsenal fan, he was a friend of you. He never hit a scarfer [an ordinary fan]. He looked out for the younger fans when the team would be playing in the north.”

His reputation, however, preceded him and extended beyond the pubs around Highbury. Bulletin boards have included messages from Millwall, Spurs, Chelsea, Celtic and Middlesbrough supporters, who all say Mr Connell “demanded respect” on the terraces.

He is named in books written by self-confessed hooligans who clashed with Arsenal fans before and after matches in the 1980s.
Mr Connell was described as a “main face”, albeit with his name misspelt, in Hooligans, a book by the leader of a “firm” of Everton supporters, Andy Nicholls, published two years ago with the help of Searchlight journalist Andy Lowles.

He wrote: “Arsenal’s mob enjoyed a resurgence between 1979 and 1983 as a result of this new generation of lads coming through. Two separate mobs emerged, the Gooners and the Herds. The main face of Gooners was a man called Denton Connor [sic], known throughout the hooligan scene simply as Denton.

“The name Gooners actually originated with a group of Spurs hooligans who intended to chant it as a term of abuse [a play on the Goons and Gunners] but this was overheard by an Arsenal fan and adopted before it could be used by their opponents.”

In the same book, Stoke fan Mark Chester is quoted as saying about a match against Arsenal in the early 1990s: “We had a bit of a shock when 400 game-as-f*** Gooners steamed us back into the paddock. I remember everybody shouting, ‘Where’s Denton, the big black bastard?’ as he was singled out as their top lad.”

Accounts in the book have been contested and Mr Connell was reportedly concerned that he had been unfairly named. One associate said: “He had the right hump about it. He didn’t think it was fair that people were naming names because it was such a long time ago. The world had moved on.”

Mr Connell, who lived in Shacklewell, east London, certainly never tired of following the club. He would turn up to youth and reserve team matches, trek up to forgotten lower league outposts of Grimsby and Shrewsbury and travel across Europe.

The big man in the jester hat seen on television jumping around when Arsenal scored a vital goal at Liverpool in the 1989 championship decider is Mr Connell. “That was Denton,” said a friend. “He was a genuinely nice man who lived for Arsenal. They should name part of the ground after him.”

There are differing accounts of what happened in Moscow but the driver of the car, young Russian DJ Anton Antonov, is said to have invited Mr Connell to his club, the Roof of the World.

But as they made their way there, Mr Antonov’s BMW skidded at speed on wet roads, hit a tree and flipped over railings running alongside the Moskva river. The car ended up in the water. Both men died.
Away from the terraces, Mr Connell had links with the pop world and fans of the Pet Shop Boys would look out for him at gigs.

The duo, Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant, paid tribute in a statement, describing a man who appeared too warm to be involved in football-related violence.

They said: “Dainton was a warm, kind, loveable friend, a huge Arsenal fan and a larger-than-life character, famous in north London and beyond.”

The Bear’s funeral

Islington Tribune, 25 October, 2007

SOME of the faces in the churchyard bore scars from battles better left forgotten, ridges and dents across the forehead and cheekbones from Middlesbrough away, a night at Everton, or a clash with rivals from West Ham.

Some were better preserved – the unmistakable faces of former Arsenal players like striker Ian Wright and celebrities from the worlds of television and music, including Little Britain comics Matt Lucas and David Walliams and Chris Lowe from the Pet Shop Boys.

Some had bought new suits for the occasion. Some thought it more appropriate to wear Ar­senal red and white.

Whatever you thought of Dainton Connell, the leader of the Arsenal hooligan mob by day, bodyguard to the stars by night, his funeral service on Friday morning was a rare sight.

More than 2,000 took to the streets, marching from a shrine outside Arsenal’s new Emirates stadium to Mary Magdalene Church stopping traffic in Holloway Road. Inside the chapel, every seat was taken, with at least 1,000 listing to the prayers and tributes on speakers outside.

Mr Connell, 46, better known across north London as The Bear, or ‘Denton’, died two weeks ago in a car crash in Moscow. There were cheers and tears, and plenty of phwooooarrrrrring (the booming noise that friends said Mr Connell used to make on the terraces).

At one moment when Reverend Brooke Lunn said Mr Connell would have been delighted that Arsenal were currently riding high in the Premiership, there was terrace-style chanting in the church.

Pet Shop Boys keyboardist Chris Lowe, a close friend, recited a prayer. Other familiar faces in the chapel included boxer Frank Bruno and former Arsenal defender Lee Dixon and journalist Janet-Street Porter.

Mr Connell’s daughter Tiffany chose to read out an internet tribute which said national newspapers had ignored her father’s death because they were consumed by the celebrity of professional footballers.

The New Journal and its sister paper the Islington Tribune were the only newspapers in the country to run an obituary.


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