Wednesday 15 April 2009

Hillsborough: a personal reflection

Today, a memorial service at Anfield marks the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy in which 96 football fans lost their lives. I had never before been so shaken by something in the national news. Twenty years on, that shock remains. Watching the moving tributes at the Liverpool match on Saturday, and listening this morning to Alan Green and the clips from the live broadcast that day, I still can not take in how so many people who went out to watch a football match died.

In April 1989, I was as football mad as any fifteen year old in the country. That very Saturday, I had been playing football in the park at lunchtime before heading home to listen to the football. The semi-finals were one of the most exciting days in the football calendar, with both games played on the Saturday at 3pm. Neither was televised, but football is much more exciting on the radio. Liverpool versus Nottingham Forest was the bigger game but my focus was not on Hillsborough but on Villa Park, where Everton were playing Norwich. When the Hillsborough match was abandoned after six minutes, the radio switched to commentary of that game, interspersed with confused fragments of reporting from Sheffield. There were injuries and then reports, unconfirmed, of deaths. I put the television on: Grandstand was broadcasting pictures of fans on the pitch, ambulances and advertising hoards as stretchers. Everton reached the Cup Final. It barely registered. By the early evening, it became clear that fifty or more people were dead.

I am an Evertonian. It is a deep allegiance which I acquired by accident. I must have been five - possibly six - and was growing up in Ellesmere Port, in Cheshire, but very much within the Scouse rather than Mancunian sphere of influence. My dad was cricket-mad. I think my mum thought it might be important that we knew about football too: she says that I could say 'Kevin Keegan' when I was three. My mum brought two football mugs - one with the Everton crest on it and one with the Liverpool one. I chose the Everton one; my brother (three years younger) would inherit the other. I was a blue. He was a red.

I got the bug - and the full replica kit, shorts and socks included. I was an avid collector of Shoot! magazine. I knew what the FA Cup was when I was seven. I remember being really upset on hearing that Everton had lost to Manchester City, and so were knocked out in the quarter-final. I had thought it was like Roy of the Rovers. I really didn't realise that the other teams could win. That year's FA Cup final was the first one I remember. I was allowed to stay up to watch that brilliant replay between Manchester City and Tottenham. I hadn't forgiven City and I was thrilled by Tottenham. Glenn Hoddle became one of my great heroes, as a player at least.

But what I wanted more than anything was to go to a football match. My best friend Andrew - another blue - had been to see Liverpool with his dad and older brother. I had to be a bit older, I was told. This didn't seem fair. Of course, I had no idea why my Dad - who is from India - might be reluctant to take his young sons to a game. But three days before my tenth birthday, he did take us to a match. Not any match either. He had tickets for Everton v Liverpool in a cup final: the Milk Cup final replay at Maine Road, Manchester. We lost 1-0. But it was a moral victory: we had been robbed of a clear penalty at Wembley as Hansen handled the ball on the line. (Evertonians were proud we had been at least as good, having been secretly fearful of a drubbing: we had lost five-nil at Goodison, with the dreaded Ian Rush scoring four, the previous season). This was a new Everton who went on to win the FA Cup that year, and the League the next. All Merseyside had taken pride in 'the friendly final': fans flying blue and red scarves from the opposite windows of cars, and sitting together as the whole ground sang 'are you watching Manchester?'

That August, I went to Wembley for the first time for the Charity Shield. We were on the terraces, behind the goal, high up to one side, getting there early to nab a crash barrier. This time, Everton beat Liverpool. I couldn't see much of what happened when we scored (a back-heeled Bruce Grobbelaar own goal), but the ground shook under our feet. I was back for the 1985 Cup final, too overawed by the occasion to be disappointed by the result as Manchester United beat a knackered Everton in extra time. And I was too young to understand the Heysel disaster a weeks later. I watched the game, which should never have been played. I am sorry to say that my major grievance the following season was that, with all English clubs banned from Europe, Everton had been unfairly robbed of the European Cup by Liverpool's hooligans.

By 1986, I had a junior season ticket at Goodison Park. It was £40 for a seat to watch every home game for the team who would be Champions. This might have been the hooligan era, but nowhere could have felt safer than the family enclosure at Goodison Park. Halfway through the season, the family moved to Essex. On a floodlit Friday night, I saw Southend play Hartlepool in the snow and had acquired a second team. My dad, brother and I were on the terraces at Arsenal's magnificent Highbury stadium to see Everton gain a crucial edge, and stood behind the goal at Norwich to see Everton clinch the title (though I couldn't see the goal at the other end).

Sport did a lot to shape my emerging politics. Norman Tebbit's cricket test was confusing, because I supported England (though not against Viv Richards' West Indies) though my Dad didn't, and now I felt I didn't particularly want to either. I discovered the emerging fanzine movement, subscribed to When Saturday Comes, and used to buy and browse others at Sportspages in Charing Cross in those pre-internet days. My first act of civic activism was in 1988: against ID cards, the project of the late and unlamented Tory MP and Luton Town chairman David Evans. (I felt even more strongly about plastic pitches, on which we always lost). I got a Football Supporters Association petition against and hawked for signatures at Roots Hall.

Football did a lot to introduce me to racism and to anti-racism too. John Barnes scored the greatest ever England goal against Brazil in the Maracana. England won 2-0but the National Front contingent chanted one-nil. Barnes' goal didn't count. All hell broke out as John Barnes signed for Liverpool, captured in Dave Hill's brilliant book Out of His Skin, with the famous picture of Barnes' back-heeling a banana off the pitch at Goodison Park. Everton had a racism problem. At one Everton-Arsenal game where the Gunners had four black players, the racism was the worst you could ever hear. (At another, Arsenal were given a standing ovation at the end for playing Everton off the park on the way to the title).

Outside Selhurst Park in my Everton tracksuit, the voice behind me "Even the Pakis are supporting Everton now". And Everton had no black players. At a Southend game, racist abuse of a Wolves player was challenged behind the goal: "Oy, mate, what's Andy Ansah going to think about that?". Skinheads and sarky sixth-formers chanted "Ansah's black, Angell's white, we are f-ing dynamite". Andy Cole was the King of Newcastle. As Jean Marie Le Pen was to find out in 1998, the far right has to choose between the new reality of national and local pride as it now was, or the all-white fantasies which meant they had no club or nation of their own.

(And there I was, on my own, on the terraces at the wrong end at West Ham at an FA Cup quarter final in 1991 (ticket from a tout, expensive at £25) as the chant went up "I'd rather be a Paki than a Scouse". So was I safe? I wasn't sure this was progress. I hadn't entirely lost my accent so I thought I had better keep my mouth shut. My heart jumped as we scored, but I tried to keep my head down as we lost a thriller).

Hillsborough led to activism as well as anger. I was a great admirer of Rogan Taylor, articulate spokesman for Liverpool but for football fans. When Saturday Comes ran an iconic cover. Four images. Graham Kelly, Margaret Thatcher, the police all had speech bubbles declaring It wasn't our fault. The fourth was the crowd: 'I suppose it must be our fault again'. The articulate editorial doubted whether lessons which had been ignored before would now be learnt.

Policing football in the 1980s was difficult. But that does not excuse what happened. The assumption of hooliganism saw fans, trying to escape the death trap, pushed back over the fence. It was the fans themselves who tried to save lives. There was incompetence and negligence. Most unforgiveable were the briefing and lies. The Sun declared these to be 'The Truth'. It took years to apologise, and the memories remains.

But more changed than many anticipated, for good and ill. The government said it would push ahead with football ID cards, but the Taylor inquiry showed that ID cards would have made it worse. The ghettoisation of football was avoided, though few anticipated its renaissance after Italia '90, Gazza's tears, the Fever Pitch phenemonenon which allowed thinking fans to 'come out', the (different) new laddishness which arrived in parallel, and many other changes which made football much more family-friendly, for those who could still afford it.

The fans' movement never took off as it might have done. It had some enormous achievements at club level - taking Charlton back to the Valley - but not enough people got involved to give it a national voice. The ideas of supporters trusts has made some progress. There were many imaginative projects. I was part of a voluntary group of organisers of football fan's festivals at the South Bank ahead of Euro '96 and the 1998 game, the brainchild of the enormously imaginative and energetic Mark Perryman. A number of times I was part of his team of volunteers on the 'Raise the Flag' initiative at England games, putting down cards to make up a St George's Cross, and also their flag for England's opponents with a message in German or Swedish too. Football unites. The great cultural shift of Euro '96 and Football's Coming Home - when we could play a positive role as hosts of the festival, not be ashamed by idiots chanting 'if it wasn't for the English, you'd be Krauts' at anybody foreign - had been worked at by many people from below too.

But I now think some of my instinctive responses after Hillsborough were wrong. I am looking forward to reading Jason Cowley's new book 'The Last Game', the thesis of which is that the Liverpool-Arsenal game which ended the 1989 season marked the watershed moment for football. I imagine it will present a measured nostalgia, which is fine. But lots of us were too traditionalist, and too worried that football would change too much.

It is true that some things in football have changed much for the worse. Above all, the money has skewed the competition. Brian Clough could not take Derby County to the title and conquer Europe with Nottingham Forest. It is difficult to see that enough will be done about this, but I would not write off Michel Platini's efforts.

Many things improved too. English football improved after Cantona, thanks in large part to engagement with Europe and immigration. I supported the campaigns for 'safe standing' - and there was a cogent case. I didn't want the Champions League, destroying the old European Cup format.

I rarely get to a game now, mainly because I have very young children. I will watch Sunday's cup semi-final on ITV. (A confident Evertonian friend - as he is against semi-finals at Wembley on principle, is insisting on waiting for the final). I may well pass the bug on. My three year old daughter can run around to the Match of the Day theme, very familiar now that she likes to wake me up at the crack of dawn on a Sunday. She can shout 'goal for Everton' (and 'yes we can' in relation to both Bob the Builder and Barack Obama) now does so if the replay shows the ball going into the net. It doesn't matter whose net though, so was equally enthusiastically cheering Aston Villa's goals when I was watching a recording of Match of the Day on Easter Monday. But she can make her own choices - in football as in politics. (My brother once he could make his own choice made the sacrifice of Liverpool for Everton, so that we could go to games together).

Hillsborough frightened me. It also made me less tribal and changed the way I thought about Liverpool. I had refused on principle to wear red before I was 15 (though politics was complicating that) and tried to remain cold to You'll Never Walk Alone. That all went. (I believed it stopped those disgusting Munich 1958 songs on Merseyside too). I didn't mind Liverpool beating Everton in the Cup final, though I was rooting for Arsenal in the final game so they didn't win the Double.

Partly, 'anybody but Liverpool' gave way to 'anybody but Manchester United', amended by 'except Chelsea'. Partly it was about the football, and the fact that I liked Michael Owen and John Barnes. And partly I grew up, a little bit at least. I'll still support most European teams against United or Chelsea, but I may be beginning to like United too. And I surprised myself by how much I wanted Liverpool to complete that comeback against Milan and win the shootout, and that I want them to break the duopoly in the league this season too.

Against Chelsea, I supported them enthusiastically last night. They lost a magnificent game. And everybody knew just how much - and how little - that mattered.


Captain Fun said...

Fabulous account. One of many I've read today - but most others on football lists/sites.

Today's been quite emotional for a lot of football supporters.

delcatto said...

I have to admit that I was never entirely comfortable in crowds but I continued to watch Spurs through thick and (too much) thin. After Hillsborough I just stopped going to matches. Recently I have started to go to the occasional Grimsby match; not too crowded especially given our current position in the league.
Good post by the way.

Newmania said...

English football improved after Cantona, thanks in large part to engagement with Europe and immigration.

You think ? The national team has under performed because we have been unable to get a balance even when there have been a few stars .The character of the game has changed not entirely for the better. The sight of one lot of foreigners playing another lot of foreigners managed by two more foreigners is not exactly gripping is it , they do play some lovely stuff but its flavourless it tends to the “So what“. Its like ballet. I went to the Emirates recently and while it will always be a great game there is a palpable distance between players and fans that there did not used to be . it’s a bit like going to one of those crappy sports they do in Milton Keynes , basket ball and ice hockey. I `d rather watch the telly nowadays ( as I have just done ). More cash for leisure has created boom but I certainly hear a lot of disenchantment ss well

In general you version of a football which has improved with each dilution of the country into an car park in Europe is not one with which I agree on any level of course .Interesting piece though as ever.

( You don`t think “'if it wasn't for the English, you'd be Krauts “ is at all funny then ….no no nor me , perish the thought snicker )

Newmania said...

the (different) new laddishness

Is this by any chance a caring sensitive left wing inclusive laddishness which approves of the smoking ban and reads the Guardian ?

Sunder Katwala said...


I wrote about the European influence on English football in The Observer back in 2004.

I am not a fan of the new laddishness. I think Nick Hornby is often indicted with having started it or having paved the way for it. "Different" was simply to signal that I think the Fever Pitch and Loaded phenomena were not the same thing at all. There were lots of deriviative publishing post-Hornby, some of which was more in the New Lad mould.

Sunder Katwala said...

The main point about "If it wasn't for the English, you'd be Krauts" is that it was a source of both embarassment and jealousy to many (and I think the majority) of English supporters that other supporters - take the Dutch as an obvious example - could demonstrate both national pride and an enjoyment of football by having a positive and enjoyable time watching football, whereas many of us felt we couldn't even go if enough idiots were going to make sure it was miserable.

And the hard right element were ignoramuses: a group also photographed themselves in the newspapers making Nazi salures on a trip to Auschwitz when England played Poland. Firstly, that is sick. Secondly, can't we at least have some consistency. If you wanted the Nazis to win the second world war, don't go around bellowing at the Belgians and the French that the English saved them! (the British actually, with the Americans, the Russians, the Free French, the massive contribution of Commonwealth soldiers, etc - so its bad history all ways round I think).

There was a time when the England away support dwindled, and so the organised NF element had a louder voice, and I think those people in England Fans organisations and the FSA who put effort into challenging that (with Fans Embassies, etc) deserve a lot of credit.

I am strongly opposed to the IRA, but that doesn't mean I want (i) songs about the IRA all the time at an England football match; (ii) Combat 18 to turn up and riot and get an England match abandoned in Dublin (which proves what exactly).

Calix said...

Fascinating piece Sunder - a reflection of your childhood and indentity in the uneasy but vital world of football in the 80s.

I too grew up at the same time and was also obsessed by football. It becomes a world in which you can know everything (every player, every ground etc.) and hold together so that every spare waking (or sleeping) moment you are thinking about it. In this way it is similar to an obsession with politics. It also has the territorial, 'fight' element, although in our case it wasn't physical.

It's easy to forget in what a bad way football was in in the mid to late 80s - one disaster after another - Heysel, Bradford, Hillsborough. I remember a lot of people saying that football should be banned. But, in fact, Hillsborough seemed to change something. Perhaps the last straw had been broken, but instead of football in England collapsing further, it re-built into the money-machine it is now.

Looking back, it was mad to have fans in cages and was a disaster waiting to happen.

Tom Stratton said...

Interesting article Sunder,

I think the difference the Hillsborough disaster has made can be summed up in my experience of following Arsenal a decade later in the post Taylor Report/Premier League era. I have been to games at most of the top flight teams in London and many other football grounds in England and in Europe. My relationship with football has been one largely free from exposure to racism (apart from the ‘Yiddo’ chants aimed at Spurs fans which make me very uncomfortable despite my loathing for the club). I have seldom felt threatened in inside grounds, or travelling to and from them. The police and stewarding of games that have had the potential to boil over due to old rivalries – 2002 semi final of the cup against Spurs at Old Trafford, Man Utd away on a couple of occasions, Man Utd at home after Fergie baited the Arsenal fans by celebrating on the pitch – have all been handled admirably. Interestingly, queuing to get into the Stade de France for the Champions League Final of 2006 was one of the more frightening moments as the police herded Arsenal fans towards one set of gates and created a bottleneck that became increasingly uncomfortable as fans began to push the closer we got to kick off. It is not the only story of police inadequacy that fans of clubs in Europe have to tell.

Ultimately, having read and heard much about Hillsborough and after seeing some of the scenes in Europe more recently, I embrace the sanitized version of football we now. As a frequent punter at the Emirates I am all too aware of the lack of atmosphere and divide between players and supporters that is sometimes apparent. However, the fact that we have an eclectic group of supporters, women and children are able to attend football without fear for their safety, and the facilities are markedly improved should not be disparaged. I will be at Wembley on Saturday for the Cup semi-final, and the result will dictate my mood for the next week (at least until Tuesday when we travel to Anfield). However, I will take a moment to drink in the magnificent new Wembley stadium in and spare a thought for the 96 who were unfortunate enough, on the same occasion 20 years ago, to pay for supporting their team with their life. To a member of my generation that is unthinkable, and that is the way it should be.

Newmania said...

Secondly, can't we at least have some consistency. If you wanted the Nazis to win the second world war,What are you talking about ? No-one I know or have ever met wanted the Nazis to win the Second World War. You may equate a sense of National Pride at the time we 'stood alone' as support for Hitler but it will mystify most.
I would have good look at the extent of Soviet sympathy in the left into the 70s if you want to find serious treachery.
Noen of this means being rude to foreigners is not reprehensible immature and ever so slightly funny

Sunder Katwala said...


Sorry but of course that comment was not aimed at you or anyone you might now: it was a reference to the sick so-called fans who used Nazi salutes, and even photographed themselves doing so at Auschwitz. There is a cognitive dissonance there.

"And the hard right element were ignoramuses: a group also photographed themselves in the newspapers making Nazi salutes on a trip to Auschwitz when England played Poland. Firstly, that is sick. Secondly, can't we at least have some consistency".