Continuing Guest Post February, Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football revisits football before the Premiership
For two decades in the 1970s and 1980s English football had been dominated by serious crowd violence. This was an era of pitch invasions and rioting. Crowd favourite Spurs manager Bill Nicholson describing his own fans as “ A disgrace to Tottenham Hotspur and a disgrace to England. This is a football game - not a war.” English club sides banned from European competition, games forced to be played behind closed doors. Mounted police deployed on the pitch. Bobby Robson’s solution ? “ I would turn a flame-thrower on them.” Players knocked unconscious by missiles, fans seriously injured in the fighting. Chelsea seeking to build an electrified fence around their pitch, later ruled illegal. Much loved West Ham Manager Ron Greenwood appointed England manager and after his own fans are tear gassed responds with “Bastards. I hope they put them in a big boat and drop them in the ocean half-way back.” That was the 1980 European Championship, a decade before Italia 90, Platt, Gazza’s tears, an evening with Gary Lineker. Psycho’s missed penalty and the birth of Planet Football.
New Society Editor Stuart Weir one of the few writers back in 1980 to find out what the dynamics were that turned a peaceful football crowd into a violent mob. “ Practically every young English fan I met in Turin had been menaced, chased, spat at by Italian youths. Bricks and bottles were flung down on their tents at the camp-site from a bridge above.”
And then Heysel in 1985. The European Cup Final, Liverpool vs Juventus. What was expected to be a carnival of football turned into a scene of carnage with dead bodies piled up at the side of the pitch.With missiles, beer cans, bottles, glasses, stones being thrown by both sets of supporters at each other the inadequate barriers between them were soon broken down. Terrified Belgian and Italian fans in desperate frustration stampeded into a perimeter wall. It collapsed, killing 39, injuring 600 more. The morning after Daily Mirror front page ‘ The Day the Football Died.’
It is easy to forget what a violent and unstable place Britain was in the early 1980s and how poor the conditions were for football fans during this period.
English fans had been wreaking havoc in Europe, and at home, on each other. Their behaviour was received with platitudes and inertia from the media and the government. Those who ran the game, those who could do something about the bad grounds, the lousy security, the climate of hate and the racism, invariably looked away. Almost anyone who attended a match during this period knew that something was deeply wrong.
Five years after Heysel at Italia 90 English football began its long renaissance. And now almost a quarter of a century later we’ve moved on to the era of the post-fan, becoming consumers not supporters.
That collapsed wall at Heysel was a deadly metaphor for the gathering destructive culture that brought English football to its bloody knees. Most significantly, Heysel marked the culmination of a long trajectory of violence and neglect in England’s football culture, which despite the 1980s success of its clubs in Europe, was heading inexorably towards self-destruction.
Renaissance? Not on the pitch. Before Heysel English club sides had won 7 of the previous 8 European Cups, since Heysel (28 years) Man Utd have won it twice , Liverpool once, Chelsea once.
And this era of fans as consumers wasn't ushered in uncontested either. After Heysel the Football Supporters Association (FSA) founded by Liverpool fan Rogan Tayor. Within a year it had 10,000 members. The FSA in the 1980s was instrumental in challenging increasingly unfavourable views about supporters and in providing a coherent argument against the government’s unpopular football-related policies, most importantly the ID Card proposal.
The Fanzine When Saturday Comes was founded one year after Heysel too in 1986. Within two years it had become a monthly magazine, by the end of the 1980s there were more than 200 fanzines and an estimated circulation of one million.
Four years on from Heysel, Hillsborough. It is important to remember what Liverpool represented in the 1980s. A city that seemed to be at war with the rest of Britain. A city that symbolised mass unemployment. The city from where the 1981 People’s March for Jobs set off. The 1981 Toxteth riots. Derek Hatton and the MIlitant Tendency running the council. In popular culture Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff and Yosser Hughes, and later another Bleasdale TV series GBH.
Plus Manchester. ‘Madchester’, Liverpool’s great cultural and footballing rival by the end of the 1980s was on the rise. New Order, Happy Mondays, Stone Roses dominating a music scene once that had been ruled by The Beatles and all things Merseybeat
But football, Liverpool and Everton dominated the League. From 1981 to 1990 betwen them they won eight championships, just Aston Villa and Arsenal breaking the Merseyside grip with a single title each. As writer Andrew Hussey put it. “ Liverpool may have been a wrecked post-industrial wasteland, but football offered a source of local loyalty and pride.”
15.04.89. Liverpool vs Nottingham Forest, FA Cup semi-final, Hillsborough. Kenny Dalglish was Liverpool’s manager, Brian Clough Forest’s. Everton were playing in the other semi-final, an all Merseyside Final beckoned. 3.06 pm the referee blows his whistle and calls a halt to the game. The police demanded this.They were signalling that fans at the Leppings Lane end, where Liverpool’s support were clustered, were spilling on to the pitch. Overcrowding outside the ground had forced the police to open an exit gate and fans had surged on to the already congested standing terrace.
The immediate reaction around the stadium was that fighting had broken out and what they were seeing was a pitch invasion. Liverpool had a reputation, Heysel was only 5 years previously.
Yet quickly it became clear this was nothing of the sort. There was high pitched screaming as fans were crushed to death against the pitch perimeter fences erected to keep them penned in. On the pitch some of those who had scrambled over the fence in wild panic lay on the grass gasping for breath, and dying. Fans were dashing all over the place, ripping up advertising hoardings to turn them into makeshift stretchers.
There had been other stadium disasters. The 1971 Ibrox Stadium Disaster. But this was different, it was live on TV. And within days the hurt turned into an organised anger directed at the role of policing in the cause of the disaster. An anger that has persisted in the search for truth and justice ever since.
And then the Sun . Three days after 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives it ran this front-page editorial. “ Some fans picked pockets of victims.Some fans urinated on the brave cops. Some fans beat up a brave cop giving kiss of life”
Nobody had seen any of this, it was later established beyond doubt that none of this had happened, But the mood at the time was such it was almost natural to blame the fans for a tragedy of their own making. This was something Hillsborough was to change, at least in part.
Hillsborough was about the individual families that suffered. But it is also the story of a crowd being killed live on television in front of our eyes. These people were little different from the working-class Liverpudlians of the 1960s who had inspired Bill Shankly’s greatest teams with their passion and collective sense of belief. The scenes of singing and scarf-waving on the Kop had been shown in black-and-white newsreels across the world.
This was the mob, the crowd, the working class in a group and in action, but it was nothing to be feared. The humour and dignity of this crowd were iconic. These images announced to the world the cultural vibrancy of ordinary people and their pleasures. To this extent, Liverpool fans were as crucial a component of 1960s pop culture as the Beatles.
But by the end of the Thatcherite 1980s this same crowd had become the object of scorn and derision. To be working class, to be a football fan, to be unemployed and northern was to be scum.
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction, aka Philosophy Football.