Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Minute's Silence for Margaret Thatcher

Earlier this week Dave Whelan called for a minute’s silence before matches in the Premiership and Football League this weekend as a mark of respect following the death of Margaret Thatcher. The Wigan chairman, a multi-millionaire and union buster, insisted that, “We have got to appreciate that Margaret Thatcher was a world leader who did so much for this country. So much that she deserves a minute's silence.” The response from the Football Association was as swift as it was pragmatic. Their answer was no. Officially the reasoning is that the FA is a non-political organisation. In reality of course it was understood that any attempt to mark the untimely death of Maggie Thatcher – coming, as it did many years too late – would draw a chorus of boos, cheers and a reaction that looks a little like this video.

Following a week of scenes which have driven the right wing press into a state of agonisingly amusing apoplexy, some voices on the left have joined the right in decrying those of us who have celebrated Thatcher’s demise. Perhaps if a minute’s silence had been held and then vociferously disrupted football fans would have also felt their ire, criticised for speaking ill of the dead. Yet football fans have always seen fit to honour their own. No doubt there are those outside what the highly paid administrators of the game like to call the “football family” who view the scenes of a dedicated minute’s silence (or as has become the norm, sixty seconds of applause), the black armbands, the shirts emblazoned with messages, with sceptical disdain. But remembering fans, players and managers has long been central to the culture of football.

On one level it is a manifestation of a distinct strand of working class masculinity, one in which emotional expression is stunted or denied in much of our day-to-day existence before bursting forth on the terraces. The autobiographies of footballers are awash with players recounting similar tales along the lines of: “I never saw my father cry, that was until the day Dixie Dean died and then he was in mourning for a week”. For many football has become both an outlet and an opportunity to feel; passion, anger, excitement, joy, disappointment, even grief are packed into those 90 minutes each week before the stultifying alienation of reality kicks back in again.

More than this, while multinationals and billionaires may hold the power, and increasingly stadiums prioritise corporate hospitality for the prawn sandwich brigade, most fans still consider football something of a community. Therefore when a member of that community dies, their passing is marked. It may be riddled with contradictions but being a football supporter still elicits an elementary sense of camaraderie, collectivity and solidarity. Thatcher was the antithesis of this. Huge swathes of football fans would break any minute of silence in honour of Thatcher not because they have no respect for the dead, but because they were full of hatred for her life.

Thatcher’s impact on the world of sport was in-keeping with the very many other reasons to despise her. The political support she offered the Apartheid regime gave cover to rebel cricket tours of South Africa during the 1980s, and was the reason 32 nations boycotted the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. Her attitude to football was one of instinctive distrust of the working class assembled en masse. Football hooliganism became another example of the enemy within; certainly not a symptom of a desperate society broken by Tory policy. Fans were vilified, ID card schemes touted. Then came Hillsborough. 96 Liverpool fans died in 1989, the victims of a police force, trained and steeled in the miners’ strike and the Wapping dispute, who saw working class football fans as little more than scum. To cover their guilt they constructed an elaborate story: the fans were drunk, they did it themselves, they pissed on the dead. It had to be real, because The Sun told us all that it was the truth. Thatcher knew from the start that the police were lying. One day the full extent of her collusion in the biggest state cover up in British history will be fully understood.

This weekend marks the 24th anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy, and a minute’s silence has been held at the Madejski Stadium where Liverpool are playing Reading as I type. It is a silence that was impeccably observed, because everyone in the ground knows that each of those 96 people who died was someone’s sister, daughter, brother or father. And not one of them was a friend of General Pinochet or responsible for the death of industry, stop and search or Section 28. John Madejski, chairman of Reading FC and a Conservative Party donor, was broadly supportive of Whelan’s call for football to pay its respects to Thatcher. Liverpool FC were having nothing to do with it. Brendan Rogers said the silence for the victims of Hillsborough is "the only remembrance there should be" this weekend, before adding that the Reading supporters would want the “opportunity to show their support for the families and the 96 supporters who are no longer here". In contrast, the only chance Dave Whelan had of getting a minute’s silence for Thatcher this weekend would have been to call for a minute’s applause.