For once, Alan Davies is right
He’s a twit, yes, but the comedian is right to question the compulsory mourning over Hillsborough.
Let’s get two things straight before we continue. First, I’m a Liverpool supporter and I remember watching with horror the news reports of the events at Hillsborough football stadium in Sheffield on 15 April 1989. I have the greatest sympathy for the families and friends of the fans who died at that FA Cup semi-final. Secondly, I think ‘comedian’ and professional Gooner Alan Davies is an overrated twit. (I don’t want to feed his ego with a stronger but potentially more appropriate term.) But, it pains me to say it, for once Davies has got a point.
Davies has got into hot water by complaining about Liverpool’s consistent refusal to play games on 15 April, a refusal made in memory of the 96 Liverpool supporters who were crushed to death at Hillsborough.
Events that day went something like this: After delays on the trip from Liverpool, large numbers of fans arrived shortly before the match started at 3pm. Panicking about the numbers outside, the police opened large gates at the stadium’s Lepping Lane End and supporters flooded into the already-crowded central, caged area, trapping fans already in there against the fence. As a result, many died from compressive asphyxiation. If the fans had been allowed to enter in a more controlled manner and then directed to emptier sections of the ground, there would have been few if any problems.
This piece of incompetence was, however, greatly compounded by the reaction of the police as events unfolded: essentially, to continue to treat the many injured people as a public-order problem rather than as victims in desperate need of hospital treatment. Police initially blocked attempts to move the injured on makeshift stretchers and allowed just one ambulance on to the pitch, even though many more waited outside. Only 14 of the dead survived long enough to make it to hospital.
The ultimate culprit in this dreadful situation was not the stupidity of the police at the ground – though they certainly deserve their share of the blame – but the wider atmosphere in which football fans were treated as no better than animals.
There was, of course, very serious trouble at football matches from time to time. Liverpool fans had been culpable for the deaths of 39 supporters of Italian side Juventus at the European Cup final in 1985 at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, which led to all English clubs being banned from European competitions. (That said, crowd trouble does not normally lead to dozens of deaths – the decision to hold the biggest match of the European club season in a crumbling and unsuitable stadium was a major factor, too.)
There would have been no deaths at Hillsborough if the authorities had not acted in the way that they did. There would surely have been a calmer response to the build up of fans outside the gates. There would have been no ‘safety fences’ to create the crush. There would have been ample and speedy medical care for those injured. But the then-prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, regarded football fans as the ‘enemy within’; she was a wholehearted supporter of the ban on English clubs playing in Europe. The Sunday Times described football as a ‘slum game watched by slum people’. It’s a far cry from the glossy and sanitised Premier League of today – though, as Peter Lloyd points out on spiked this week, the fashion for treating football fans as scum is alive and well.
But back to Davies. It’s time for the FA Cup semi-finals again and Liverpool are playing local rivals Everton. Thanks to the FA having a stupidly expensive national stadium to justify, both the semi-finals must be played at Wembley, when in the past the two games were played at big club grounds like Villa Park in Birmingham, Old Trafford in Manchester or Highbury in London. Since Liverpool would have refused to play on 15 April – Sunday – their match had to be played on Saturday, leaving the game between Chelsea and Spurs to be played on Sunday. The trouble is that Chelsea have a Champions League semi-final against Barcelona three days later, leading to complaints that the FA should be helping out English teams in Europe by giving Chelsea as much rest as possible – that is, by playing their game on Saturday.
That said, Liverpool’s preferences in the matter were probably a moot point in this situation. After all, there is no footballing reason not to play both games on the same day. Only the combination of ITV’s scheduling and the insistence on using Wembley for both games has created this situation. Indeed, for a rich club like Chelsea, to play two big games in three days is not that big a deal – they are at least playing both semi-final matches in their home city.
Still, those wider issues didn’t stop Davies. On his football podcast, ‘The Tuesday Club’, he let rip at Liverpool’s unwillingness to play on Sunday. ‘Liverpool and the 15th, that gets on my tits that shit. What are you talking about? “We won’t play on the day”? Why can’t they? My mum died on 22 August. I don’t stay in all day on 22 August. Do they play on the date of the Heysel Stadium disaster? How many dates do they not play on? Do Man United play on the date of Munich? Do Rangers play on the date when all their fans died in that disaster whatever year that was – 1971?’
Now, Davies’s tone was bound to annoy many of those involved. And it’s true that many Liverpool supporters (and fans of other teams) support the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, which argues that there has been a whitewash of events at Hillsborough to let the authorities, and the police officers in charge on the day, off the hook. For many fans, the real heat around the issue comes from the unfinished business of recognising officially what happened in 1989.
Yet it is also clear that Hillsborough has been turned into something untouchable that must be remembered in earnest every year, that suggests that life must stop, that the desire to mourn or to get official recognition of the mistakes made that day must stand in the way of everything else. To suggest that it is now time to move on is not to understate the gravity of what happened or to belittle the feelings of those directly affected. As Davies himself added in that podcast: ‘Hillsborough is the most awful thing that’s happened in my life, in terms of football. It’s one of the worst tragedies in English peacetime history. But it’s ridiculous that they refuse to play on that day any more.’
The reaction to Hillsborough today fits into a wider pattern of public, almost compulsory mourning that reached its apogee after the death of Princess Diana but continues to this day. And, as Duleep Allirajah has pointed out elsewhere on spiked, football has got a particularly bad case of this mourning sickness: ‘I have no problem with football clubs occasionally commemorating the death of a player or a club official. The problem is that fans are asked to observe a minute’s silence at the drop of a hat these days… But the regimented displays of public mourning don’t just stop at dead footballers. In recent years, football fans have been asked to observe minutes of silence to commemorate the 9/11 dead, the murdered Soham schoolgirls, teenage shooting victim Rhys Jones, Pope John Paul II, Iraq hostage Ken Bigley, the victims of the Asian tsunami and Radio 1 DJ John Peel.’
The result of this epidemic of conspicuous compassion is to leave those who do not have a connection with these various sad events feeling cynical about this promotion of fake grief.
For me, the real mistake Davies made was in offering to make a donation to the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, which was quickly refused. It looked like a tacky attempt to cover up a faux pas when in reality his criticisms were valid, even if they were, in Davies’s own words, made in an ‘inappropriate’ tone.
I think it’s fair enough that Liverpool Football Club should want to mark the anniversary of Hillsborough in some way each year. But I do think that it’s unhelpful to create an atmosphere in which even discussing the validity of refusing to play is deemed unacceptable. It doesn’t help the families and friends of those who died to impose a tyranny of emotional correctness on the situation. Have a memorial service, have a minute’s silence. But in future on 15 April, Liverpool FC should be willing to do what they do best: play football.
Duleep Allirajah is away.