In 1989 football’s future was uncertain. Roger Titford looks at how Hillsbrough began a process which created a safer but less visceral experience for fans

Just as they had been in 1969, the 1989 FA Cup semi-finals were scheduled for simultaneous 3pm kick-offs at Villa Park and Hillsborough. Twenty years on in 2009 they will be both be at Wembley on different days, live on TV and under the banner of “E.on, bringing families and football together”. If you can remember 1969 and 1989 you will read a hidden sub-text in that banner; something like “keeping young blokes and football apart”.

Within three years of the Taylor Report and its principal “all-seater” recommendation we had Gazza’s tears, the Premier League launch and the Sky TV deals. It is hard to disentangle the effect of each of these hinge events on football’s new settlement. Nothing much looks to have changed at Saltergate and Griffin Park but at the top end of the game, call it “big match football” if you will, there are two deeper themes that flow more or less directly from Hillsborough: less tumult and more tidiness.

Years before the disaster I met a couple of Irish lads on the way to a big match in Manchester. They were fresh from Ireland that day or the day before and, astonishingly to me, not that bothered about being ticketless. Just being in the vicinity, being part of the throng, having a chance of getting in somehow was a satisfactory minimum. All they wanted was the big match at a purely visceral level, the drink, the excitement, the heroic scorer, the simple narrative; in short the tumult, the momentous din and uproar. Bugger the programme, the tactics and the good seat. For centuries people have been drawn in that same visceral way to events like the hangings at Tyburn and the executions at the Tower of London. In the 18th century the crowds flocked, often great distances, to prize-fights and the early open race-meetings at places like Epsom Downs.

Just when people first started attending football matches in their thousands, racing had its own Taylor Report moment. Many of the old, open, local courses, with their attendant drunks, pick-pockets, boxing booths and circus acts, closed down in the 1870s and 1880s under religious and moral pressure while professionalised and admission-charging enclosed courses like Sandown and Kempton Park opened. There is a view about human behaviour that our worse elements don’t change much, they just get displaced elsewhere in society. Maybe the tumult of the terraced football crowd replaced the uproar of the prize fight and the rowdiness of the racecourse? And perhaps, since Hillsborough, the lure of disorder has moved onto the city centre streets at closing time on Friday and Saturday nights.

The obvious consequence of Hillsborough is the all-seat stadium, the redefining of the demographics of football and the predicted loss of atmosphere. There has been a dramatic shift in the profile of match attenders – becoming older and more middle-class. As early as 1997 the Football Task Force concerned itself with the issue of the exclusion by price of traditional working class fans but in reality no solution needed to be found by the game. An increasingly numerous white collar audience suited the game’s supply of more comfortable facilities and efficient services. Rough, and for a time smoky, pubs with Sky screens in every corner became the new miniature terraces.

Twenty years on – and thankfully with no fatalities at either all-seat stadiums or the remaining terraced grounds – there is still a campaign for “safe standing”. The reality is that faint echoes of tumult live on in what my local club call “old school away-days” where there are plenty of away tickets available and allocated seating is disregarded in favour of constant, unauthorised standing. Inconsiderate it may be but the authorities have yet to convince fans that it is dangerous.

However, in the home areas of the big stadiums season ticket holding has become the defining characteristic. It is about order (everyone in their rightful place) and identification. The Taylor Report was supposed to have killed the ID Card scheme which in our immediately pre-Hillsborough issue (WSC 26) the editorial suggested would be a disaster for the game. Several MPs too at the time were concerned about alienating the casual supporter. But in effect we have now an ID scheme at the major clubs, match-attending is more difficult for the casual supporter and perceived to be almost impossible for that near extinct species, the neutral spectator (how rare it is to hear both those words now). Once upon a time it was acceptable to dispassionately watch, for example, Fulham one week and Chelsea the next. Since Hillsborough and the development of new, highly segregated stadiums the idea of spectating has been obliterated by a model of support based on directed and dedicated worship of one club or the other. There is literally no place for neutrals, nor paradoxically for home town tumult.

Football has become a more serious subject, frequently mentioned higher up the news bulletins. In another telling vocabulary shift, football is often simply referred to there as “the Premiership”. The new seriousness is rarely about disorder nowadays and not just about the money aspect either. It also encompasses less well perceived religious and moral overtones. It’s incredible when looking back at 1989 that major football matches should have become a significant public forum for correct and appropriate behaviour – literacy and community outreach programmes, offering in-stadium marriage services, Kick Racism Out campaigns, arresting fans for homophobic chanting. Yet top class football has become so big and rich it has had to behave fastidiously to keep its house tidy. If a top player doesn’t return a ball kicked out for an injury there will be much screeching and keening on the phone-ins.

The image of the Kop crammed with wreathes, scarves and floral tributes was startling – but it opened a path for the much more public observance of death in a football context. Football of late has become death-affirming. The rule of thumb seems to be, if in doubt have a minute’s silence just in case someone is offended. Football, for some, has been a welcome replacement for the churches as the forum for communal remembrance. It is a kind of New Age solution, whatever your gods.

Several stadiums have memorial gardens and/or plaques for dearly departed supporters. At my local club, in the past season, fans have paid for floral tribute-holding iron-rings to be fixed to the stadium wall, complained that there was no minute’s silence the day before Remembrance Sunday and been pestered by a local radio station with no knowledge of football history about religious objections to a fixture being moved to a Good Friday. In great measure it must be a tribute to the game and its authorities that big match football is now accorded this place and this respect; more cathedral than carnival, but in danger of being fastidious rather than fun. Recently I’ve heard season ticket holders from several clubs saying going to football at times is becoming a chore.

Before Hillsborough the easy metaphor for the match-goer was the soldier as suggested in the old chant “we’re on the march with so and so’s army”. Business analysis would say the equivalent metaphor now is the shopper. But it may be that the worshipper is more appropriate; our Church of Football – bringing families together (and keeping young blokes away). It’s certainly safer than the army.

From WSC 267 May 2009

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