THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

8 April ~ Politicians today seize any opportunity to associate themselves with football. To Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government of the mid-1980s, however, football fans were as much of a nuisance as striking trade unionists. At this time, years of greed and incompetence had brought English football to an all-time low. Fewer people were attending games while lurid press reports of fan violence would have led anyone who didn't attend matches to think that football stadiums were hazardous, potentially life-threatening environments. As the government then was fond of saying, football was "a law and order issue".

Two crowd disasters in 1985 became a watershed. A terrace riot had been the immediate cause of the deaths of 39 Italian supporters at Heysel stadium, Brussels on May 29, but several other contributory factors were overlooked in the rush to condemn football fans en masse, including the woefully decrepit state of the stadium itself and the badly mismanaged distribution of tickets that led to rival fans being placed in close proximity to one another. A month before Heysel, a fire in a wooden stand during a match at Bradford caused 56 deaths. The fire highlighted what football spectators had known for years; that many grounds in the UK, the majority of which were built during the previous century, had been allowed to decay to the point that they had become deathtraps. They were also monuments to the complacency of the game's authorities – spectators were expected to uncomplainingly tolerate the sub-standard facilities.

The post-Heysel resolve to "do something" about football hooliganism led to a woefully misconceived plan that would have required spectators to produce ID cards in order to gain admission to stadiums. Luton Town, whose chairman David Evans, was also the ardently Thatcherite local Conservative MP, introduced a prototype scheme which involved barring all supporters of opposing teams from their games. Luton duly became the most unpopular football club in the country but the outcry over their actions didn't deter the government. Indeed, the Football Spectators Act of 1989 made ID cards for spectators compulsory. The plan was only abandoned after the deaths of 96 spectators at the Hillsborough disaster later in the same year and the ensuing Report by Lord Justice Taylor which held the police's crowd control methods largely to blame for the loss of life.

The crisis in confidence that afflicted football at this time was at least responsible for a smallscale publishing boom. Independently of each other, a small number of fans started to produce their own magazines. Without expecting to find a commercial market for their product, the fanzines sought to establish contact with other football supporters around the UK who were dissatisfied with the way the game was run and written about. Many became small businesses, but not the sort that Thatcher would have approved of.

The growth of a zine culture was paralleled by the appearance of politicised supporters groups. Stirred into action by anger and despair in the wake of the Heysel disaster, a group of football followers in Liverpool set up the Football Supporters Association (FSA), which quickly developed into a national pressure group. For the first few years of its existence the FSA’s principal task was to defend football, and its fans, from the sustained attacks of the Thatcher government. No one then could have foreseen the wholesale revival that football underwent during the 1990s, partially fuelled by the income from satellite television – notably the network owned by one of Thatcher's most ardent admirers.

 

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