The policing of fans is more insidious now

Before Hillsborough, football fans were treated like caged beasts. Today we are treated like wicked children.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

English football was changed forever as a result of Hillsborough. We can all agree on that. The Taylor Inquiry into the disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death, helped bring about a root and branch transformation in the way we watch football.

But was it for the good? Did Lord Justice Taylor’s report help drag football out of the dark ages or did it usher in a new era of sanitised, soulless all-seater stadiums?

Taylor was appalled at the neglected state in which he found England’s football grounds. His influential report found that: ‘The safety and comfort of those on the terraces has not been regarded as a priority.’ The report, it is true, kickstarted the much-needed modernisation of spectator facilities. In order to help clubs renovate their grounds and comply with Taylor’s recommendations, the UK government channelled over £500million into the game through the Football Trust.

It is also true that, 20 years after Hillsborough, many aspects of the match-day experience have improved. English football grounds are no longer ‘slum stadiums’, as they were once derided in The Sunday Times. No more crumbling dilapidated terraces awash with urine. Today’s grounds are safe, well maintained, more comfortable, less inhospitable. Fans are no longer squashed into iron cages like animals.

But the rebirth of football was driven by other factors, too, not just Taylor. Sky TV, the Premier League, the shared national experience of Italia ’90 and Gazza’s tears, Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch – all helped transform a game which had suffered from decades of underinvestment. English football became rich, fashionable and gentrified. The demographic make-up of fans changed: more middle-class supporters, more women, more children. The crowds, who had deserted football in the 1970s and 1980s, flocked back.

Was Lord Justice Taylor the saviour of football as many now claim? ‘What was extremely positive about Taylor was that he identified and strongly criticised the appalling way the football industry had treated spectators until then’, claims Malcolm Clarke of the Football Supporters’ Federation. Yes, Taylor was appalled by the ‘old grounds’ and ‘poor facilities’ that he found. But his proposals weren’t just about improving those facilities; he was also concerned with eradicating the problem of hooliganism and drunkenness. For Taylor, these issues were interlinked: if you treat fans like animals, they are more likely to behave like animals. As his report concluded: ‘This inhospitable scene tends to breed bad manners and poor behaviour. The atmosphere does not encourage pride in the ground or consideration for others.’

One of the most significant changes brought about as a result of the Taylor Report was the introduction of all-seater stadiums in top-flight football. Campaigners for safe standing at football complain that, in that respect, the Taylor Report has unwittingly helped destroy the raucous, passionate atmosphere generated by fans standing on the terraces. It wasn’t terracing that was responsible for the deaths of 96 fans at Hillsborough, the campaigners argue, but poor crowd control and the perimeter fencing that was designed to stop fans invading the pitch. As the Stand Up Sit Down campaign points out, 43 fans were crushed to death at the all-seater Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg in 2001.

The safe-standing campaigners have a point. Standing is not inherently hazardous. Dangerous overcrowding can occur in all-seater stadiums, too. But the Taylor Report wasn’t just about crowd safety. It also changed the way fans are policed. The old style of policing was essentially about crowd control; preventing or containing disorder. Fans were escorted by cops from their coaches and trains to the stadium. Inside the ground they were crammed into pens for the duration of the game. The police treated fans as a riot waiting to happen and considered it their job to prevent fighting and pitch invasions.

Today, fans aren’t treated like animals. The perimeter fencing has been torn down. The cops have largely been replaced by stewards. But the policing of fan conduct is arguably more intrusive and insidious than it was before Hillsborough. The old terraces might have been unsafe, and fairly insalubrious, but, as long as there wasn’t any fighting, the police didn’t particularly care what fans did. Fans weren’t ejected for swearing, chanting obscenities, smoking or drunkenness, as happens now. Today we’re under greater scrutiny. CCTV cameras are trained on us. Officious stewards patrol the terraces telling fans to sit down, stop smoking, stop swearing.

Before Hillsborough football fans were treated like caged beasts. Today we’re treated like naughty children. I have no great desire to turn the clock back to the past. But isn’t it about time we were treated like adults?

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume argued that Hillsborough was caused a view in government that football fans were scum and provided a short history of hooligan panics. Duleep Allirajah looked at Italy’s attempts to import anti-hooligan expertise, thought recent trouble at Hull City was not a return of the ‘English disease’, and noted how modern British policing is insidiously infiltrating football. Tim Black looked at the intrusive regulation of football fans’ behaviour. Graham Barnfield reviewed The Football Factory. Or read more at spiked issues Sport.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today