How a football tragedy redeemed the game
By Simon Kuper
Published: April 10 2009 14:36 | Last updated: April 10 2009 14:36
On Sunday April 16 1989, thousands of people packed Liverpool’s cathedral and the plaza outside for a requiem mass. Overnight, a nun had made a large “Liverpool FC” banner, and it hung by the altar. The previous day, 95 Liverpool fans had been crushed to death at Hillsborough football stadium in Sheffield.
As the crowd waited, wrote the sociologist Tony Walter (in his 1991 essay “The Mourning After Hillsborough”), “one lad haltingly darted to the front” and laid a piece of football regalia beneath the nun’s banner. Soon, people were queueing to do likewise. Bruce Grobbelaar, Liverpool’s then-goalkeeper and team clown, read the lesson in a shaking voice. A lone choirboy sang the club’s anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.
It was one of the scenes – along with the million visitors in the following week who turned Liverpool’s Anfield stadium into a fragrant floral shrine – that began to redeem football. Before the Hillsborough disaster, football fans had been treated as a menace to English community. After Hillsborough, it became apparent that fans create much of English community.
The FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest kicked off at Hillsborough (all FA cup semi-finals are played at neutral grounds). The game was to end in the sixth minute.
What happened at Hillsborough that afternoon became something more than a game or a disaster. It was a turning point. “The game that changed [the nation/sport/world]” is now a commonly used subtitle for sports books but it applies indisputably to this one. At its most fundamental level, Hillsborough remains a human disaster. It changed the lives of the people who lost family and friends that day, such as Trevor Hicks, who travelled to Hillsborough with his daughters Vicki, 15, and Sarah, 19, and went home without them. Hicks later became chairman of the Hillsborough Families Support Group.
And that day changed British stadiums: the crumbling fenced-in terraces where Hicks’s girls died have been replaced by arenas as prestigious as opera houses or cathedrals. That change has sparked an ongoing, anguished debate about what sort of nation England is: authentically working-class, or rootlessly middle-class. Most of all, though, Hillsborough’s aftermath gave football an honoured place in English life.
“Hillsborough”, as it’s become known in disaster shorthand, was probably inevitable. It was British football’s fourth major fatal crowd disaster since the war. (Four years earlier, in 1985, a fire at Bradford City’s stadium had killed 56 people.) The disaster of 1989 happened because British stadiums were decrepit, and British police were obsessed with hooligans. Liverpool’s visiting supporters at Hillsborough were treated as monsters to be controlled, herded through an underground tunnel into pens behind one goal. A terrible crush developed in the pens before kick-off; and then police opened two gates to let other fans waiting outside the ground in en masse. People in the pens began to die. Many were crushed into the fence that barred them from the pitch. They begged policemen to open the gates and let them on to the field. The police, still on guard against hooligans, refused. In fact, when the crush forced open an emergency gate at the front of the pen, a policeman shut it. Fans turned blue, became incontinent, vomited, died, while policemen shouted at them to “push back”. Bodies – many of them children – began piling up. Meanwhile the football continued before being abandoned at 3.06pm.
Finally, some policemen helped fans pull holes in the fence with their bare hands. Grief-stricken supporters, narrowly saved from death themselves, surged on to the pitch. The football writer David Conn says in his 1997 book The Football Business: Fair Game in the ’90s? (Mainstream): “This brought about that eternal, shameful image of Hillsborough, of football at the time, the line of police officers pushing the Liverpool fans back, then standing on the halfway line doing nothing, as people died in front of them.”
The horrors continued. Inside the ground, writes Nick Varley in Parklife (Penguin, 1999), another book about football’s transformation in the years after Hillsborough, “there was a ripple of applause as a man lying prone on the pitch responded to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation with a twitch of his feet. It died as he did.” Much of the nation watched all this unfold live on the BBC. Now the nation had to respond.
Four days after Hillsborough, The Sun newspaper infamously labelled Liverpool’s fans “animals”, and falsely blamed the disaster on drunken hooligans. However, what’s now forgotten is that in the days after the disaster, much of the British media and establishment blamed the fans, too. The novelist Anthony Burgess, writing in The Daily Telegraph, called crowds “primitive beasts”, and complained: “For many thousands of Britons there is nothing more important on a Saturday afternoon than watching 22 men kicking a piece of leather about. There is something wrong with our culture if we have come to this.” Auberon Waugh, in The Sunday Telegraph eight days after the disaster, wrote – wrongly – of supporters “rioting outside the gate” before kick-off. As for the prime minister, “Margaret Thatcher regarded football supporters as the enemy within,” said one of her few football-loving ministers, Kenneth Clarke, years later.
In the 1980s, hooligans were an embarrassment to Thatcher’s rhetoric of law and order. To use the vocabulary of the sociologist Stanley Cohen, from his 1972 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Routledge), they were the British “folk devils” of the era, the feared equivalents of mods and rockers in the 1960s or Islamic fundamentalists today.
But within days of Hillsborough, the image of the fan had changed. That change began in Liverpool. Thatcher had said in 1987, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” Liverpool’s response to Hillsborough demonstrated that this city was a society, and more than that, a society held together largely by football. The run-down port town with its Irish-Catholic heritage had always felt slightly apart from the rest of Britain, wrote Walter. Now it banded together. Liverpool’s players attended funerals, counselled the bereaved, became ordinary Liverpudlians like everyone else.
Two local taxi drivers, one of whom supported Liverpool, the other their local rivals Everton, organised a “chain of scarves” knotted together symbolically along the mile that separated Liverpool’s ground from Everton’s. A week after the disaster, at 3.06pm precisely, Liverpool’s city centre – and those of Sheffield and Nottingham – fell silent as shoppers stood and mourned the dead. When Liverpool played Everton at Anfield soon afterwards, the home fans at the famous Kop end of the stadium held up a banner that said, “The Kop thanks you. We never walked alone.”
Hillsborough happened in a Britain already reeling from three major disasters within two years, all caused by lax safety procedures or decaying infrastructure, or both. First was the capsizing of the Herald of Free Enterprise car ferry in the English Channel (193 dead, March 1987), then the fire at King’s Cross underground station (31 dead, November 1987) and the explosion of the Piper Alpha oil rig in the North Sea (167 dead, July 1988). Yet none of these prompted equivalent communal rituals.
The mourning after “Hillsborough” showed that British football wasn’t a socially dysfunctional entertainment for stupid people. It could also be a beautiful, sustaining thing. It could give people a community.
Twenty years on, football’s social meaning is now widely understood. Nearly 25m people watch the English national team’s biggest games on TV, about three times as many as see the Queen’s Christmas Day speech. In most European countries, the most popular TV programmes – often the biggest communal events of any kind – are football matches. As I discovered when researching my forthcoming book, Why England Lose, suicide rates in European countries fall when a country’s national team plays in a world cup or European championship. But back in 1989, the game’s impact was scarcely understood.
On the Monday after the disaster, the government asked Peter Taylor, a judge in the court of appeal, to write a report on stadiums. The judge, who had stood on the terraces at Newcastle United as a boy, wanted to save football, not to bury it. Above all, he wanted the police to stop locking up fans like “prisoners of war”. Determined not to let a crisis go to waste, he recommended that fences and standing terraces be scrapped. Grounds had to become all-seater.
The clubs had intended to keep receiving customers in run-down Victorian sheds. Forced to renovate, they discovered that customers preferred comfort. In the season of Hillsborough, fewer than 20m people had attended English professional matches. By 2006/07 about 30m went, in spite of much higher ticket prices, far more matches being shown live on TV and many new forms of entertainment.
It’s often said that football became fashionable in the 1990s. It’s more accurate to say that it became safe. It wasn’t merely that British stadiums improved – though jointly with German grounds they are now the best in football – but football policing was also transformed. British police forces recognised that hooliganism was a sideshow. Hooligans looked spectacular on television but crushes, not thugs, have killed well over 1,000 spectators around the world; another 19 people in Abidjan just a fortnight ago.
The death of 39 Juventus fans at the Heysel stadium in Brussels in 1985 is commonly attributed to hooligans, and the Italians were indeed fleeing attacks from opposing Liverpool fans. However, the 39 died only because a side-wall in the crumbling stadium collapsed beneath the weight of escaping supporters, causing a fatal crush.
Stadium officials used to focus on repressing hooligans. In the mid-1980s some British matches featured as many as 75 policemen per 1,000 fans. Today, says a Scotland Yard detective who works on football, many clubs no longer need any policemen. “If anything happens, they can just dial 999.”
Yet the game’s rebound has prompted widespread disquiet. Higher ticket prices, greater comfort, even better food, have all attracted a new middle-class audience to the “working man’s ballet”. As Nick Hornby, author of Fever Pitch (Penguin), the groundbreaking memoir of life as a football fan, later noted, the picture is of “a lot of horrible pretentious middle-class gits descending on our football grounds and elbowing out the true salt-of-the-earth cloth cap fan”.
But the grumblers are missing the point. Many middle-class people have always loved football. A month after Hillsborough, when Liverpool played Arsenal in a match that would decide that year’s English title, the common room at my university was packed to bursting. In spite of their class, most had been following the “working man’s ballet” since childhood.
So it wasn’t that the middle classes snatched football away from the working classes. Rather, since 1945 Britain had become ever more middle-class, measured by education and income. At the time of Hillsborough, about 15 per cent of Britons entered higher education. Just five years later, the figure was 30 per cent. Real incomes have trebled between the early 1960s and today, according to figures from UK National Statistics. As a consequence, large numbers of British people who were born into the traditional working class later left it. For many, it was a traumatic uprooting.
The remaking of football stadiums – highly visible British gathering-places – has exemplified the national shift in class. Hence the many laments for the lost cloth-capped proletarian crowds. Many Britons are simply mourning their lost roots.
The final death toll for Hillsborough was 96 (one man died four years later, having been in a coma). This Wednesday at 3.06pm, 20 years to the minute after “Hillsborough”, Liverpool will stop again. The city’s bells will chime 96 times for the victims of Victorian stadiums and authoritarian policing. For two minutes of silence, Liverpool will become a community. Football can do that, in terrible times and, more usually nowadays, in good times too. The new community is different from the old one. It features fewer cloth caps, and many more women and non-white people. But it does show that Thatcher was mistaken: there is such a thing as society.
Simon Kuper is author of ‘Football Against the Enemy’ (Orion, £7.99) and is a columnist for the FT
Football’s growing fortune – and fans
● In the 1988-89 football season, the top English clubs played in what was then known as Division One. (It became the Premier League in 1992). Eleven of the 20 top-flight clubs in 1989 are no longer in the Premiership, among them Luton Town, Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest and QPR.
The 1989 league champions, Arsenal, and runners-up, Liverpool, are still among the country’s strongest teams.
● A total of 7.8m people attended English top division football matches in the 1988-89 season. By last season, this had risen to 13.8m.
● Deloitte published the first of its annual surveys of football clubs’ finances in 1992. Then, Tottenham Hotspur had the highest turnover (£18.2m), followed by Manchester United (£17.8m). Notts County, with a turnover of just £1.9m, were in Division One.
Twelve of the 22 top division clubs made a profit, compared with just five of 20 Premiership clubs in 2006-2007. Between them, the former Division One clubs had revenues of £170m in 1992. The revenue of the combined Premier League clubs in 2007/8 is projected at £1.9bn.
● In Deloitte’s 2009 Football Money League survey, Real Madrid is ranked first in the world, with revenues of £289.6m (2007/8). Manchester United is second (£257.1m). The other English clubs in the top 10 are Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool. Tottenham Hotspur, the richest club in 1992, is now in 14th position (£114.8m).
● In the mid-1980s, ticket prices in the English First Division were around £2.50. Today, in the Premier League, they are nearer £30. That implies a growth rate of around 11.5 per cent a year for nearly quarter of a century, far above inflation.
● In 1988/1989, English clubs were still banned from European competitions because of the violence by Liverpool fans at the European cup final in Brussels in 1985. Today, four of the eight quarter-finalists in this season’s Champions League are English teams.
Sources: Deloitte, FT.com, Rothmans Book of Football Records, Soccernet, Football365.com, Cass Business School
Research by Peter Cheek
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009
The Last Game
Review by Neil O’Sullivan
Published: April 6 2009 06:03 | Last updated: April 6 2009 06:03
The Last Game: Love, Death and Football
By Jason Cowley
Simon & Schuster £14.99, 288 pages
FT Bookshop price: £11.99
The “last game” of this book’s title took place on May 26 1989, when Arsenal played Liverpool at their Anfield stadium for the final match of the English football season. Arsenal needed to win 2-0 to deprive their illustrious opponents of another league title and win the championship themselves. In a dramatic finish to the season, the north Londoners won 2-0, scoring their decisive goal with practically the last kick of the game.
Jason Cowley wasn’t at Anfield. He had a ticket for the original fixture but that was before history changed course six weeks earlier at Hillsborough stadium, where 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death on the terraces. After a two-week suspension, the season carried on. The match between Liverpool and Arsenal was rescheduled as its final act.
Cowley had university final exams and couldn’t make the rearranged date. But he felt the significance of his team’s victory immediately. Now an experienced journalist and editor of the New Statesman, he explores the idea of the match itself as a symbol. Not just the last game of an extraordinary season, but the last game of football as it had come to be seen by the establishment – a decrepit working-class pastime watched by hooligans. A world away from today’s cosmopolitan circus of overpaid players, overpriced tickets and oligarch owners.
He resets the scene, describing the young Arsenal team that stood on the brink of greatness – or disappointment – and evoking Anfield’s famous terrace, the Kop, which in the post-Hillsborough switch to all-seater stadiums would lose some of its awesome, swaying humanity. On the horrors of Hillsborough, Cowley is sensitive, though a little brief given that this was the incident that ultimately ushered in the end of an era.
The May 26 game itself forms the book’s centrepiece and Cowley provides a textured account of how the day’s events unfolded, detailing everything from the Arsenal players’ afternoon naps to their conflicting accounts of which north London nightclub they visited on their victorious return home.
Cowley plays this section straight, perhaps conscious that he didn’t personally witness the match, and aware that Nick Hornby’s 1992 novel Fever Pitch cornered the market in Arsenal fans’ memoirs. It is a pity though that he doesn’t incorporate the memories of some of those fans who were present at Anfield that night.
After the main event, the narrative widens. Was a new kind of football on the way? Cowley identifies the cultural forces that started to transform public perception of the game, from rave culture’s mellowing effect on the fans, to New Order’s hip England World Cup anthem a year later. He neatly skirts the issue of the World Cup itself, in which England’s heroic near-miss and Gazza’s tears arguably provided a more literal watershed moment than the game at Anfield. By the 1996 European Championships, the whole country appears to be singing “football’s coming home”.
However, it is in this section that the book’s often uncomfortable attempt to juggle memoir and analysis takes its toll. Cowley wanders between reflections on the game as it is now (“too detached from its old class and cultural associations, its regional specificities”) and updates on the torpor he fell into after graduating. It takes the death of his father, who introduced him to football as a boy, to imbue a sense of purpose and kick off his career as a writer.
Almost 20 years after the “last game”, Cowley attends a function at Arsenal’s giant new Emirates stadium. The guest of honour is Michael Thomas, scorer of that immortal second goal. Cowley is at a table with someone who has named his two sons Mickey and Thomas. The real Mickey Thomas is asked, as he has been most days since May 1989, to explain how he felt when he was through on goal in the final minute. “Surreal” is his slightly overwhelmed response. For him, as for football, things have never quite been the same since.
Neil O’Sullivan is deputy editor of Life & Arts
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009