The forgotten side to Hillsborough

The focus on what happened after Hillsborough obscures what made it possible in the first place.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

Just over a year ago, the government-commissioned report into the Hillsborough disaster was finally published. For the bereaved, having long battled against the lies and misinformation of police, politicians and press, it represented a watershed. On 15 April 1989, the report stated, Liverpool fans ‘neither caused nor contributed to the deaths’ of the 95 who were crushed to death (a ninety-sixth, who had been in a coma, had his life-support machine switched off four years later). In fact, the main cause of death was not ‘accident’, as had been stated in 1991 following the original inquest; it was a ‘failure of police control’, exacerbated by ‘multiple failures in other organisations’.

The report itself was brimful with damning detail. We learnt that the coroner was declaring people dead before they were dead; we learnt that the police saw the calamity unfolding but stood back, viewing it as hooliganism; and we learnt that, afterwards, as the authorities sought to cover their backs, the police fed lies about fan behaviour to a pliant press and all-too-credulous politicians.

And now, thanks to an inquest into how each of the 96 died, a criminal investigation into police actions, and an internal Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation – all launched on the back of the Hillsborough report – the details keep coming. Just last week, for instance, it was revealed that 238 officers’ statements were changed, and that ‘significant amendments’ were made to fans’ handwritten accounts. In fact, it seems that today, 24 years after Hillsborough, the public focus on what happened, on establishing culpability and, in some cases, guilt, and the determination on the part of the authorities to reveal exactly what happened, during the disaster and afterwards, is becoming more intense, not less.

Which is no bad thing. The actions of the authorities both on the day and afterwards should be held up to the light, and criminal proceedings, where justified, should be pursued. But this obsessive attention on the shameful aftermath of Hillsborough will only ever reveal one side of the story. It will only tell us what various individuals did on the day and in the weeks afterwards, from senior police officers to unquestioning journalists. What it will not tell us, then, is why something like Hillsborough could happen; why, that is, it was deemed okay to treat fans like animals; why it was okay to cage them in grounds; why it was okay, that terrible April afternoon, to treat the fans’ physical suffering as a public-order issue. In other words, the seemingly indefatigable focus on Hillsborough in the particular obscures the historical demonisation of football fans in general.

And this is the other side of the Hillsborough disaster: the prevailing social and political context which made it possible. In the years before Hillsborough, with the hooligan panic to the fore, Britain’s political and cultural establishment increasingly viewed the people that went to football matches as a threat, as much of an ‘enemy within’ as striking miners were to Conservative governments of the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, the establishment’s estrangement from the so-called lower classes of British society was refracted through its attitude to football culture. It appeared as something to be feared and, in no small measure, loathed. ‘The game drifts slowly into the possession of what we are now supposed to call the underclass’, ran a Sunday Times editorial in 1983, ‘and a whole middle-class public grows up without ever dreaming of visiting a football league ground’. Following the Bradford City stadium fire in May 1985, which killed 56 people, the same newspaper reiterated its view of the social constituency attending matches: ‘British football is in crisis; a slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people, who deter decent folk from turning up.’

A few weeks after the Bradford City fire, the Heysel stadium disaster in Brussels, when 39 Italians died after a wall collapsed as Liverpool fans fought their Juventus counterparts, confirmed the establishment’s perception of the match-going lower orders: they were a big problem, a social mass that needed to be controlled. Heysel was all the excuse the authorities needed. Subsequently, mounted police were increasingly deployed at UK football grounds, an ID-card scheme for supporters was launched (aborted only in the aftermath of Hillsborough), and, tragically as it turned out, pitch-side perimeter fencing was routinely erected inside British football stadia.

What is usually forgotten in accounts of this era of near-open war on football fans, and the social constituency they symbolised, is that it wasn’t only the Tories and The Times willing to think the worst of the slum people enjoying their slum sport. The left seemed just as estranged from the class of people in whose name it still claimed to speak.

Indeed, throughout the 1980s, the right wing were increasingly joined by the right-on in the assault on the type of people who went to football matches. A 1988 article in Marxism Today attacked the under-reporting of the so-called football hooligan problem. Yes, the author admitted, the death of a 17-year-old Plymouth Argyle fan earlier that year had ‘stirred a few of the nationals to make space for a couple of lines in the inside pages’, but, he complained, ‘football’s overly masculine rituals were, in fact, remarkably out of the headlines’.

Marxism Today wasn’t alone in transforming match-going football supporters into an object of anthropological study, complete with ‘masculine rituals’. A 1988 article from the Christian Science Monitor quotes sociology professor Patrick Murphy along similar lines: ‘[The football fan/hooligan] has been raised in the cities where they were left to fend for themselves on the streets, and where aggression is valued as a sign of their masculinity. They learn aggressive, masculine behaviour on the streets and at home and it happens to manifest itself in the football stadium.’ From viewing fans as an object of anthropological study, a race apart, it’s a short leap to seeing them as an object of social control, to be disciplined by riot police and held in de facto cages. In fact, it was a short leap even for those who actually like football, such as Spurs fan Danny Kelly, who, in a piece for the New Internationalist in 1985 following the Heysel disaster, wrote, ‘all the laughing had to stop; it simply had to, because, long before the corpses started piling up in Brussels, it was plain that something was going to have to be done about the bootboys. As a Belsen-style electric wire was strung atop Chelsea’s eight foot high perimeter fence, that much was obvious…’.

And it was because of this pan-political hostility to football fans that the inhumanity so painfully evident in the Hillsborough disaster became possible.

In many ways, the Hillsborough disaster and the subsequent Taylor Report, published in 1990, represented the end of this era. The fences came down, and the all-seaters went up. And football became incredibly popular, a pastime which prime ministers, from Tony Blair to David Cameron, were desperate to be associated with, not set against. And yet something of that era persists, too. Football fans may no longer be treated as a subhuman species, a degenerate form of the British working class, but neither are they free of the elite’s contempt. It’s just that where fans were once treated as animals to be caged, they’re now treated as children to be told off – for their language, for their songs, for their still macho demeanour. The authoritarianism is far softer, but the denigration of a certain type of football fan continues.

Tim Black is deputy editor of spiked.

Picture: Liverpool fans are helped after being crushed against fencing, Hillsborough 1989. Ross Kinnaird/EMPICS Sport

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Topics Politics


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