Tag Archives: Hillsborough

Thatcher’s footballing legacy

In an ironic twist of fate the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher comes on the same week as the 24th anniversary of Britain’s worst football disaster, the Hillsborough disaster.

The Daily Mail claimed on Tuesday that football owed a debt of gratitude to the woman who “saved English football.” Wigan chairman Dave Whelan has backed the Daily Mail’s call for a minute’s silence before next weekend’s games, including before his club’s FA Cup semi-final against Millwall.

However many football fans, including the Hillsborough families, have claimed a minute’s silence for the former Prime Minister would be insulting.

The Iron Lady had a combative approach to football. Credit: Robertthuffstutter

The Iron Lady had a combative approach to football. Credit: Robertthuffstutter

Legacy

The Iron Lady’s time in Downing Street coincided with one of the darkest periods in English football’s history.

Thatcher took over as Prime Minister in 1979 shortly after Nottingham Forest had lifted their second successive European Cup and she was forced out of her job in 1990 a few months after the publication of the Taylor Report into the Hillsborough disaster. During her tenure English footballing success dried up on the field and chaos ensued off the field to the point where it endangered the sport’s future in England.

When Thatcher took over from James Callaghan in May 1979 English clubs were outperforming the rest of Europe and celebrating unprecedented success. But under the surface football was losing its battle against hooliganism.

As unemployment grew and the age of protest swept across Britain, young football supporters saw hooliganism as a way of venting frustrations and rebelling. Football violence had been growing throughout the 70s and by 1979 it had become highly problematic.

Another problem was the deteriorating state of the country’s stadiums. Most football grounds had become outdated and inadequate for the problems of the late 70s and early 80s. Stadiums were crumbling, health and safety was non-existent and supporter safety was routinely jeopardised.

In her early years in office Thatcher paid little attention to football, apart from when she considered a boycott of the 1982 World Cup due to the Falklands situation. She was not a football fan and had little time for the national sport, especially since the sport’s image at the time was appalling at home and abroad.

But 1985 saw a change in approach by Thatcher and her government.

Tragedy

On 11 May 1985 Bradford City were due to lift the Division Three trophy after their game against Lincoln City. Towards the end of the first half a discarded cigarette lit a pile of rubbish underneath the old wooden stand and the fire spread quickly.

There were no fire extinguishers in the stand as the authorities believed they were likely to be used as weapons by hooligans. Many of the emergency exits had been locked as part of a Football League directive to prevent ticketless fans from sneaking into stadiums after kick-off.

In total 56 fans died in the blaze. It highlighted the pressing need to update stadiums and make them safer for fans.

Later that month the Heysel disaster further exemplified the problems surrounding English football. Liverpool were preparing to face Juventus in the European Cup final in Brussels’s Heysel Stadium. Before the game there was rioting which culminated with Liverpool fans chasing Juventus fans across a terrace. A crush ensued and a supporting wall collapsed, with 39 Italian supporters declared dead.

English football’s reputation abroad was in tatters and there was condemnation across the continent. UEFA eventually banned all English clubs from participating in European competition, a move which Thatcher rightly agreed to.

After six years of inaction Thatcher’s government made efforts to combat the problem of hooliganism, but still did nothing to improve fan safety. Thatcher routinely described football hooligans as “animals” but her attitudes and actions seem to suggest she thought the same of all football supporters.

The proposed introduction of Football ID Cards was met with horror by lovers of the beautiful game, who saw them as an insult to decent, law-abiding fans. Attempts to ban away supporters from grounds also drew fierce opposition. Thatcher’s approach seemed to be to tar everybody with the same brush, and even considered erecting electric fences at the front of stands and terraces in order to keep fans off the pitch.

But Thatcher, or more specifically her government’s connection to football will forever be remembered because of Hillsborough.

Hilsborough

On April 15 1989, 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death on an overcrowded terrace during an FA Cup semi-final between their club an Nottingham Forest at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium. The oldest victim was 67-year-old Gerard Bernard Patrick Baron, the youngest was 10-year-old John Paul Gilhooley (cousin of Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard)  and 37 teenagers died at Hillsborough.

The Taylor Report which followed the tragedy found the Lappings Lane end of the stadium had been woefully inadequate for such a high volume of fans. The report recommended wide-ranging changes to stadiums in Britain, including the eradication of terracing from top football grounds.

 While Thatcher and her government had focused attentions on combatting “the English disease” they had ignored the problems highlighted by the Valley Parade fire in 1985. No attempt had been made to improve stadium safety and the consequences were tragically felt at Hillsborough.

The 2012 inquiry into Hillsborough also found Thatcher’s government had been instrumental in covering up the failures of the police at Hillsborough. While the report declared there was no evidence of Thatcher herself being involved in the cover-up, the Iron Lady had created the culture which made police cover-ups the norm during the 80s. The Prime Minister wholeheartedly backed the police despite constant corruption and outrageously heavy-handed tactics when dealing with strikers and protestors. This fuelled a culture of complacency among the police and meant the Hillsborough families had to wait 23 years for vindication and an official confirmation of the truth.

Football the enemy

Thatcher never pretended to like football and regularly showed distain towards the national sport. To her credit she took on hooligans head first in the aftermath of Heysel but she didn’t understand the sport or the people who followed football. She made the mistake of viewing all football fans as hooligans and couldn’t see beyond the violent minority.

Just like the trade unions and the Argentinians she viewed football hooligans as the enemy, and was therefore determined to win at all costs. She failed to conquer hooliganism during her time in number 10 and her attitude towards football harmed the sport. The massive strides taken by English football at all levels since 1990 is astonishing considering the sorry state the game was in when Thatcher left Downing Street.

The suggestion working class football fans should be asked to observe a minute’s silence for Margaret Thatcher this weekend is rich to say the least. She paid the game no respect at all and it’s very questionable whether football should pay any respect back.

Yorkshire derby marred by fan’s attack on keeper

A Yorkshire derby between Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United was never likely to be a tame affair, but unfortunately a Leeds fan ventured way beyond the realms of acceptability and stole all the headlines for himself.

Michael Tonge had just scored a stunning equaliser in front of the 5,000 travelling contingent to send United fans wild. The appearance of Leeds fans invading the pitch to celebrate isn’t as uncommon as it may seem, although it’s never ideal to have supporters on the field of play. Out of the blue one young fan blindsided Wednesday keeper Chris Kirkland and landed a two-fisted punch in his face.

The thug ran into the crowd with a wide grin on his face, proudly looking over his shoulder at Kirkland lying on the turf, holding his face. The smug fan might not be so happy when he finds out that the entire attack and escape was filmed by Sky Sports, who zoomed in for a good look at his face, and will probably pass the footage on to the police.

Friday night’s clash at Hillsborough was the first time the two white rose giants had met in five years and from the off it was obvious that no love had been lost since their last encounter.

The first half was full of talking points.

Wednesday were very unlucky when a seemingly blatant handball in the Leeds box by Argentine striker Luciano Becchio went unpunished by the officials. Soon after the cameo by the Hand of God, Michael Brown, a player who likes to let his opponents know when they’ve been tackled, left his foot in on Owls striker Chris O’Grady, before falling to the ground and feigning injury to avoid suspicion.

Wednesday defender Miguel Llera was fortunate to stay on the field when he thrust his hands in Brown’s face in order to get rid of the combative midfielder.

Jay Bothroyd’s 44th minute headed goal was almost overshadowed by the more unsavory incidents in the bad-tempered first half, which remarkably did not produce a single yellow card.

Sheffield Wednesday were the better team in the first half, and they continued to outmanoeuvre their lacklustre opponents in the second half. Bothroyd, Antonio and Barkley all looked lively and creative throughout the messy affair.

The evening’s main talking point came in the 77th minute, but unfortunately it wasn’t Tonge’s superb 25-yard strike. Once the former Sheffield United midfielder smashed the ball into the Wednesday net he sprinted off to celebrate. During these celebrations several Leeds United fans ran onto the pitch.

One fan, later described by Leeds manager Neil Warnock as a “moron” ran up to the distracted Kirkland and floored the former Liverpool keeper before making his escape.

Kirkland was treated by the club physio, but looked decidedly shaken by the punch.

The game ended 1-1, but after the final whistle, Wednesday manager Dave Jones criticised Warnock and his players for applauding their supporters after the game. Warnock defended his actions, claiming that “the majority of the supporters had acted impeccably.”

The match has once again highlighted Leeds United’s problematic hooligan minority. During the 70s and 80s Leeds fans had a reputation as some of England’s most violent. Though the club has worked hard to discourage football violence, there remain a few dinosaurs that have no interest in the football and simply wish to create trouble.

Thankfully there’ll now be one less thug to worry about.

Entering the pitch carries an automatic three year ban from football, but Kirkland’s attacker can expect a lifetime ban. He may even face a prison sentence after the inevitable court case is finished.

Maybe a stint behind bars can send a message to others like him that regular football fans have no time for this kind of nonsense.

Football has thankfully moved on. It’s just a shame that some fans are still stuck in the dark ages.