In the 1980s, as a series of tragedies marred the beautiful game, football was seen as a "slum sport for slum people." Banned from Europe and chastised by politicians, it took a World Cup to bring England backby Anthony Broxton / June 15, 2018 / Leave a comment
This week, the Labour Party called on the government to back safe standing in football stadiums. Giving power back to the clubs and local authorities, it is a far-cry from the political interventions of the 1980s when, following decades of negligence and hundreds of terrace deaths, the clubs were belatedly forced into action.
When England departed for Italia ‘90 ‘the beautiful game’ was said to be finished in its homeland. The country’s sporting highpoint—the 1966 World Cup—had ushered in the most destructive period of the sport’s history; what Margaret Thatcher claimed was a “blot on the fair name of our country.”
When the sport was hit by a succession of disasters in 1985, the very existence of football in Britain was questioned. In March 1985, an overcrowded Luton Town v Millwall match descended into a large-scale riot after fans spilt onto the pitch.
A non-ticketed affair, 10,000 supporters crammed into a 7,000 seater stand after organisers under-estimated Millwall support. When the police attempted to control the overflow, fans charged at them, triggering a night of fighting, looting and rioting in and outside of the ground.
Before substantial action could be taken, the sport was rocked by the Bradford City fire. Caused by a spectator dropping a cigarette, which fell into debris that had accumulated for 20 years under an old timber stand, the fire grew in just eighty seconds. The roof —covered with tarpaulin and sealed with asphalt and bitumen—was highly flammable and quickly ignited the entire stand.
On the terracing, a fire extinguisher had been removed due to “fears of misuse.” Then, as the fire grew and people attempted to escape through a turnstile, they found it to be locked, preventing an exit through the back of the stand.
Had the ground had high metal fences—as many did in the 1980s—the death toll could have reached an unimaginable level. As it was, the 56 deaths still represented the very worst of Britain’s health and safety standards.
In the aftermath, the Sunday Times ran an editorial which summed up the growing view of the game: “a slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people, who deter decent folk from turning up.”
Yet on the pitch, at least, English teams ruled in Europe.…