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
From riots to Gazza’s tears, the 1980s of English football. Photo: Prospect composite 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. The Bradford City fire. Photo by I.T.N./REX 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. In the eight years leading up to that crowded 1985 Millwall game, an English side won the European Cup seven times. But two weeks after the Bradford fire, tragedy struck again. At the European Cup final, following an evening of simmering tension between the two sets of fans, Liverpool supporters broke through a police line and charged at the Juventus end. The crumbling stand collapsed under the pressure and crushed the Italians to death; 39 fans in total. UEFA—supported by the British government—handed down a then seemingly indefinite European ban to all English clubs. *** The morning after Heysel, the Prime Minister called for hooligans “to be isolated from society,” linking the Liverpool fans to violence seen in Northern Ireland and the picket lines of the miners’ strike. Encouraged by the success of the tough policing of the miners, Thatcher pushed for legislation that would give the police greater control over all football fans. She asked FA chief Ted Croker, “What are you going to do about your hooliganism?” Croker replied: “Not our hooligans, Prime Minister, but yours. The products of your society.” (Notably, Croker became the first FA secretary in 100 years not to be knighted.) By the late 1980s, the government had become increasingly concerned about the “similarities between the rural rioter and the football hooligan.” In a memo to the prime minister in June 1988, the Home Secretary Douglas Hurd claimed the football hooligan had “a latent capacity for violence,” adding that alcohol “removes their inhibitions and pushes them over the edge … there are few internal disciplines or external restraints to rein them back.” It is within this hostile environment that the events of 1989 are best understood. *** It did not take very long for the deaths of 96 people at Hillsborough to be pinned on the Liverpool fans. As people were being lifted over the fences, David Duckenfield, the police match commander, told the FA Chief Graham Kelly that the Liverpool fans had broken the fences. It quickly reached the news bulletins that the crush was as a result of a “large number of ticketless fans.” When the Prime Minister and Press Secretary Bernard Ingham visited the ground, Ingham was apparently told of a “tanked-up mob” causing havoc. To add credence to the story, the coroner ordered that the blood alcohol level be taken for each victim, including children—unheard of in a human disaster—and criminal record checks were undertaken. Ingham would later write to the mother of one of the victims repeating this myth, saying “they caused Hillsborough and I am amazed that anyone could think otherwise.” It would be another 26 years before David Duckenfield admitted that he lied about the gate. Today it is only the Sun that is boycotted on Merseyside. But newspapers—from all sides of the political spectrum—covered the story in great detail: ‘Dead Fans Robbed by Drunk Fans’ (Daily Star); ‘They were drunk and violent and their actions were vile’ (Daily Mail) ‘Police Accuse Drunken Fans: Police saw sick spectacle of pilfering from the dying’ (Daily Express); ‘Fury as police claim fans robbed victims’ (Daily Mirror); ‘Fans “made sex jibes at body”’ (Sheffield Star); Police tell MP of attacks on them as they helped injured’ (Daily Telegraph); ‘Scouse kills Scouse’ (Liverpool Daily Post). The journalists who wrote the stories have always argued that they were victims, too; of police misinformation. Yet the aftermath perfectly encapsulates how the football fan—particularly a Liverpool one—was judged by the public in 1989. Just one of the headlines published after Hillsborough. Photo: Sheffield Star The issue isn’t just that the police lied about fans urinating on police and pick-pocketing the dead. It is that the people hearing it —the newspaper editors, the politicians, the commentators—instinctively believed it. To see Liverpool fans characterised this way confirmed a preconceived view of football fans as animal-like. Kelvin MacKenzie had intended to write the headline “YOU SCUM” about the survivors, but was talked out of it by his political editor. He went for “THE TRUTH” instead. The lie quickly gathered momentum within the footballing world. The UEFA President Jacques Georges condemned Liverpool fans as “beasts” while FIFA General Secretary Sepp Blatter urged English clubs to maintain their exile from Europe. A week after Hillsborough, the Economist claimed the game of football—“tied to the old industrial north, yobs and slum cultures of the stricken inner city areas.” They urged the prime minister to take action and build new stadiums “with middle-class families in mind.” *** At the next year’s world cup, the government struck a compromise. England fans were interned on the Island of Sardinia, away from the temptation to riot. Yet by the May of 1990 it wasn’t just football fans taking to the streets. A few weeks prior to the start of the tournament, the Poll Tax riots in Trafalgar Square saw the country turn on the Thatcher government for the first time. Change occurred on a global scale: Nelson Mandela walked free, the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed—all within the space of twelve months. In England, a different type of revolution was taking place as the second “summer of love” saw the birth of rave culture. One its early pioneers, New Order, had managed to persuade the FA to let them record the official England song. In a nod to the rise of ecstasy that had fuelled their Manchester nightclub the Haçienda, the band penned the single “E for England.” Instead, “World in Motion,” with more subtle nods to ecstasy—“Love’s got the world in motion and I know what we can do”—scored the cult-band their first number one hit. The FA had asked New Order to replace “love’s” with “we’ve” but the band refused. They wanted the track to be seen as an “anti-hooligan song.” The poll tax riots. The success took everyone by surprise, including the England players (who forewent royalties on the track in favour of a £4000 lump sum for their World Cup kitty). Even the BBC upped its game. Ditching a traditional grandstand-style sports theme for its coverage, they introduced Luciano Pavarotti’s “Nessun Dorma” to the footballing public. Sound-tracking the nightly cinematic offering, it propelled Pavarotti to stardom in the UK and gave their coverage a high-brow feel. It proved to be an inspired choice and the song has been a staple part of pre-match sporting entertainment in England ever since. *** On the pitch, any optimism surrounding the England side—and there was very little—was quashed in the opening week of the tournament. The 10/1 fifth favourites played out a bore 1-1 draw with the Republic of Ireland, prompting the Italian paper La Gazzetta Dello Sport headline: “No Football Please, We’re English.” When fans clashed with the Italian police, the Mayor of Turin began lobbying for the semi-final to be moved to another city if England qualified. Nobody expected them to do so. Scraping out of the group, England faced Belgium in the first knockout game. Dominated by the Belgians—who hit the post three times—England somehow sneaked a win in the 119th minute. A rare stroke of good fortune, it marked a turning point in the history of the English game. With the Mayor of Turin’s fears realised, England was set for their first World Cup semi-final since 1966, against old rivals West Germany. The setting could not have been further from the dilapidated grounds of England. The Italian’s Stadio delle Alpi—purpose-built for the tournament—signified all that the Italian game had become; rich, flash and cosmopolitan. Ironically though, it would be the setting for the birthplace of the new era; from this night on, the fortunes of Italian football would decline whilst the English game reached unparalleled riches. The Taylor Report—released just a few months before Italia 90—offered a blueprint for the future of the English game, recommending that major clubs make their stadiums all-seater. A sense of change could be seen on the terraces of Turin as England supporters held up the banner: Pay No Poll Tax. Memories of English clashes with Italians at Heysel were replaced with a new chant of “let’s all have a disco.” Back in London, the prime minister hosted Nelson Mandela at Number 10 for the first time. The same night, the Rolling Stones played a homecoming gig at Wembley Stadium. But the audience was distracted by events in Italy, tuning in through radios and mini-televisions. They joined 26.2 million others—half of them women—for England’s biggest match since 1966. It marked the beginning of football as a TV sport and pub spectacle, with landlords fuelling another night of high drama. More dramatic than a West End play, the new fans didn’t need to understand the game to grasp its importance. The fine margin between tragedy and triumph only heightened by the spectacle of the penalty shoot-out. And so it came to pass; England lost, but returned home as heroes. Gazza’s tears struck the consciousness of a nation that had re-discovered some purpose. A few months after Turin the unthinkable happened: Margaret Thatcher was toppled by her own MPs. In her place was a new Prime Minister, John Major—a working-class Chelsea supporter—who claimed: “I want to see us build a country that is at ease with itself.” The Football League, needing extra money to re-vamp the stadiums, turned to Rupert Murdoch—whose Sunday Times had condemned it—to arrest their managed decline. *** Today, as we approach another World Cup, the government is advising fans not to travel for their own safety rather than the opponents. As for the stadiums, we now look set to move into yet another era. The seats that signified the age of the fan as the customer—rather than the caged animal—will be ripped out as a result of mounting customer pressure. Whatever happens in Russia, the fact that supporters are confident that the next Grenfell-style disaster will not happen at a football ground is something we should all celebrate.