The Bradford City fire disaster. The Kenilworth Road riots between Luton Town and Milwall fans. Hooliganism, Heysel, Hillsborough. These are some of the darker images that linger in the mind when we think of football in the 1980s when the reputation of British football fans had sunk so low that they had apparently seeped out of the bottom of the barrel to the extent that their clubs were banned from playing in European competition.
When the Hillsborough disaster occurred on the 15th April 1989, leaving 96 Liverpool fans dead, it quickly became apparent how the British establishment viewed the average football fan; as scum. As uneducated and anti-social young men who got their kicks from inflicting maximum violence and destruction upon whichever unfortunate souls should cross their path. They shaved their heads, wore tattoos and urinated in public before hurling their glass bottles away and stumbling drunkenly into dilapidated stadiums to chant hurtful bile in the direction of the day’s opposition.
It got worse. After Hillsborough Liverpool fans were subjected to the cruellest and most hurtful accusations imaginable, accusations stemming from the tabloid press in particular that were subsequently proved to be totally unfounded. Looking at the footage and images from that day, and similar images from the other disasters outlined at the beginning (the Heysel stadium disaster also involving Liverpool FC), it is clear to fans what football needed.
Looking at the level of grief and the subsequent outpouring of support and solidarity from supporters all over the world, it poignantly illustrates that what was needed from the powers-that-be at the time was a plan to address safety in grounds; a plan to help the families who were affected by these tragedies; and above all some understanding. Unfortunately Britain in the 1980s was Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, and it is obvious to anyone who is inclined to look, that Thatcher’s opinion of the average football fan was very much in the same vein as the rest of the establishment. She had her views, as ill-informed and ignorant as they were, and they were deeply entrenched. In the same way as she viewed the miners, who bore the brunt of her myopia, she saw football fans too, according to cabinet colleague Kenneth Clarke, as the enemy within.
Those of us who attend premier league matches today would scarcely recognise the 1980s equivalent. Today policemen and women, stadium staff and most other fans are treated courteously and kindly. These top class stadiums are safe and clean and the vast majority of games are totally free from crowd violence. There are of course still some vile and hilarious and some just plain vile chants knocking about, but for the most part attending a football match is generally a pleasant experience. Unless of course you happen to be a Stoke fan or follow any team managed by Sam Allardyce.
Around the time of the Hillsborough disaster the football landscape was very different. The stadiums were much more primitive. Men urinated against walls, or where they could, when going to and from matches and at half-time, due to the lack of toilets. Women fans were few and far between and would have definitely struggled to find a ladies toilet. Fans were corralled and squashed together like sardines on unsafe terraces.
Sometimes the concentration camp look was completed with wire mesh fences placed in front of the fans and around the pitches. Football fans were treated like animals and modern sociologists say that this treatment caused a level of de-humanisation amongst football fans that eventually manifested itself in a minority of hooligans.
One prominent football writer “remembers an away game at Nottingham Forest where he was kicked by a policeman for trying to go a different route to the police escort. [He] was heading back to Luton but the police wanted [him] to travel en masse with those going back to Liverpool!” Another says “When you went to a football match you checked your civil liberties in at the door. The police treated you however they wished.”
Thankfully most of that has changed and football is now very much mainstream and family-friendly. So what happened? How did this change in perception and reality occur? How did football’s Dr Jekyll slay the beastly Hyde that lay within? The game may have rebuilt and revived itself after Hillsborough,not because of Thatcher, but in spite of her and her negative policies.
Thatcher’s first noticeable meddling in football was in 1985 after a riot at Luton Town FC involving rival Milwall fans. A “war cabinet” on football hooliganism was quickly established and a number of controversial proposals were made to “contain” and “control” supporters. Thatcher’s government was certainly no friend of football and treated their own national sport with the same disdain that Mr Blonde has for the cop in that scene from Reservoir Dogs.
Mr Justice Popplewell’s committee reporting on the matter,along with some other previous tragedies,stated that “Football may not be able to continue in its present form much longer”. Banning fans from traveling to away games and even forcing all who attend football matches to carry ID cards were proposals that are not a million miles removed from wearing yellow stars. Of course the holocaust is incomparable but the branding and stigmatisation of an entire social group is all too familiar, although usually reserved for fascist dictatorships and not liberal democracies such as Britain.
After the Heysel disaster Thatcher’s government again failed to bring about sensible measures to make football safer. Instead, blinded by her own prejudices and ignorance, she approved a raft of meaningless and ineffective legislation in a misguided attempt to curb the behaviours of these ‘miscreants’.
Instead of addressing the problems they were exacerbated. Proposals to ban alcohol from anywhere near games; increased powers for the police (i.e. legalised brutality); and the introduction of compulsory ID cards were seen as methods of containment and exclusion. They seemed determined to strangle the joy and the life out of football at a time when the game needed to be carefully mended and mentored. Yet under the guidance of Margaret Thatcher the game declined throughout the 1980s to its nadir, to one of its lowest and most tragic points, in April 1989.
After Hillsborough, thanks to the Taylor report based on the inquiry into what happened in Sheffield, football went some way to reviving itself. The period 1990-1994 is sometimes referred to as the football revolution because the focus on improving the safety standards around football matches shifted from the fans to the facilities. There was hooliganism and there is no doubt about that, but the categorisation of all fans in the media, and their treatment by the police, was grossly unfair and Taylor recognised this immediately.
He realised that fencing people in like animals behind cages would only encourage people to behave as such. The Taylor report was in fact a devastating indictment of how British football was being run. He put forward the argument that if people were instead treated humanely, in appropriate purpose-built stadiums that are safe and family friendly, then people will subsequently behave better.
And of course this is exactly what happened and football is now probably the number one entertainment package on the market in relation to ratings, revenue, and water-cooler talking points. It is a family occasion, at least for the families that can afford it. Lord Justice Taylor thankfully exposed the myth that major tragedies and disasters that occurred during the 1980s were primarily the fault of the fans and instead required the clubs by law to improve the safety of their facilities. There hasn’t been a similar disaster since.
Thatcher and her government treated all of their enemies alike. The Hunger-strikers; the Belgrano; the Miners; all fell victim to the cold-heartedness fostered during that era. And football also suffered. The ironic thing is that even though Thatcher was certainly unfriendly to football, it is her economic policies that led to the free-market breakaway of the Premier League in the early 90s, and the floating of clubs on the stock-exchange, coupled with tough negotiating with the TV executives, is what has propelled football to unimagined financial heights. Football has become the corporate manifestation of the 1980s Harry Enfield creation Loadsamoney (if you’re over 35 you know who I mean).
However, football has no reason to be thankful to Thatcher, as the audible discontent at the notion of a minutes silence at games in order to mark her death has shown. The clean-up and redemption of football was a long time coming and it was not until Thatcher had begun to loosen her rigor-mortise-like grip on power that things really began to change for the better.
British fans should be glad that she lived to see their national game grow to such a position of strength that everybody, from the paperboy to the politician, wants to be associated with football. Everyone’s a fan, everyone’s a follower and the Premier League has become one of the world’s most recognisable sporting and commercial brands. But this is as far away from her vision of football as could be. Where we see a glamorous and exciting product she saw an unruly underclass. Where we make connections with people she tried to erect barriers. Where we find inclusiveness, entertainment, joy and culture she could only see the enemy within. A wiser person once said “I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives… but will never rejoice in the death of anyone, not even my enemy”. It is doubtful if Thatcher would have shared those sentiments if she had succeeded in killing football.
by Paul Cahill