The death of 39 fans at the 1985 European Cup final was the culmination of an era when, as Mike Ticher recalls, English football appeared to be in terminal decline

It’s the timeworn right of each generation to complain that things are not what they used to be. In 1983, Geoffrey Pearson’s classic work Hooligan: A history of respectable fears showed how at any given point in the past 150 years public opinion held firmly that society’s current state of violence and mayhem contrasted with a peaceful “golden age”, consistently located about 20 years previously. Oddly, the very time he was writing has proved the exception to his rule. In football at least, no one in their right mind would want to risk a return to the mid-1980s.

Football now has diseases of affluence: too much money, too much TV, too much sitting down. It has become common to use words such as “bloated” to describe it. We have got so used to the excesses of the long Premiership boom that it is sometimes hard to believe that in the 1980s intelligent observers doubted whether the game could survive in a recognisable form. Surely they were scare-mongering, victims of the “golden age” syndrome. Could things really have been that bad? Actually, they were.

In his 1986 edition of The People’s Game, the social historian James Walvin pointed out the “temptation – to which most observers succumbed – to impose on [Bradford and Heysel] an inexorable inevitability; to see the disasters of 1985 as the unfolding of irresistibly long-term trends”. It certainly wasn’t inevitable that they would happen exactly when, where and how they did. But there were at least two good reasons in the early Eighties to sense that something apocalyptic was around the corner.

First, the long-term decline in attendances took a sudden lurch for the worse. In 1977 an aggregate of 26 million people watched league football, only slightly fewer than in the early Sixties. But the total fell gradually, then shockingly. By 1982-83 the figure was down to 18.8 million – football lost almost a quarter of its paying public in just three seasons.

The reasons seemed obvious. On the one hand leisure patterns were changing drastically, made possible above all by cars and television. The editorial for the 1983-84 Playfair Football Annual, pondering gloomily on the figures, noted that television sets were now “as common as teapots” in British homes. Perhaps more potent (especially with hindsight) was the “push factor” of seemingly untameable hooliganism, with all its associated aggro of heavyweight policing, primitive conditions on the terraces and the poisonous atmosphere inside grounds. Playfair’s editors concluded: “It is extremely unlikely that 25 million people, let alone 30 million, will ever pass through the turnstiles in a single league season again.” (In 2003-04, 29.1 million did just that.)

The second cause of nightmarish premonitions was the political climate of the early Thatcher years. The economic destruction of the old industrial areas seemed to mimic the failure of their struggling clubs. In 1988 the Guardian ran a series called “Fourth Division England” on what Matthew Engel called “the sad-sounding towns of uttermost England. The Fourth Division of the Football League has come to seem like a repository of the Britain left behind in the 1980s: uneconomic, dated, provincial and kept going out of unfashionable sentiment.” Thatcher herself complained immediately after Heysel that “we have far too many football clubs – in any other industry the inefficient would have gone to the wall years ago”.

In tandem with the raw economic winds that suggested football itself was ripe for closure came alarming political violence, such as the 1981 riots in Brixton and elsewhere, and the miners’ strike of 1984-85. Fighting also raged across youth and music cultures that had become explicitly political, overlapping with football primarily through the enduring skinhead cult – when the Specials got to number one with Ghost Town in 1981, “all the clubs are being closed down” seemed like a prediction for football as well as music. Britain was deeply uneasy with itself, divided along old and new fault lines, and increasingly resigned to violence and decay.

It was hardly surprising that football became infected with profound pessimism and helplessness. When the first post-Heysel season began with a five-month TV blackout, it seemed as though the game was slipping entirely from mainstream consciousness, except as a venue for death and destruction. Even Simon Inglis, in the first edition of The Football Grounds of England and Wales (1983), wondered whether “football could become as much a curiosity of the past as those gladiators in the Colosseum”.

The 1984-85 season might have begun refreshed by the wonderful matches at the 1984 European Championship in France, but instead British writers drew the conclusion that both the atmosphere and the football there – not shown live on UK TV – had benefited enormously from England’s absence. What followed was a familiar pattern of clubs teetering on the brink of collapse (notably Wolves), unwanted attendance records and constant outbreaks of hooliganism. The 2,976 who watched Cardiff play Wimbledon was the smallest crowd at Ninian Park for more than 50 years. Only 890 made it to Halifax v Torquay. Current Premiership contenders Charlton, Middlesbrough (both then in the Second Division) and Bolton (Third) were well and truly in the ranks of the “inefficient”, all struggling to draw an average of 5,000.

Serious violence broke out at games as diverse as Celtic’s troubled Cup-Winners Cup tie with Rapid Vienna (goalkeeper attacked by fan), Man City’s defeat at Coventry (500 seats ripped out), the Cup tie between Burton Albion and Leicester (replayed behind closed doors) and the Milk Cup semi-final between Chelsea and Sunderland (Clive Walker dodged police horses to lay on the winner). That game led to the famous dispute over electrified fences at Stamford Bridge, while the even more notorious riot by Millwall fans at Luton in March 1985 prompted Thatcher to take a keener interest in football’s crisis.

The violent disaster that football had been half expecting came on May 11, when a boy was killed and nearly 100 police injured as Leeds fans rioted at St Andrew’s, though it was almost totally overshadowed by the Bradford fire on the same day. Heysel, 18 days later, was a numbing shock, but by then few could claim it was a total surprise. In fact, as Walvin suggested, it came to seem inevitable because it combined all the rotten elements that had been ringing alarm bells for years: fan violence; dilapidated stadiums; official bungling and neglect; bull-headed policing; and the full range of instant solutions offered by TV pundits (Terry Venables recommended the head-cracking example of the police in Spain, where fans were “really frightened”). The fact that it was broadcast live on television at Europe’s showpiece event of the season cemented its symbolism as the apocalyptic climax of all that had gone before.

The most frequently quoted report on Heysel was written by the Guardian’s Frank Keating: “One more corpse was carried from the Brussels stadium last night. Soccer itself – draped in the Union Jack. It deserved to be spat upon.” In fact, as some protested at the time, the game itself deserved to be rescued and restored to national respectability. But it would take an even greater disaster before that could happen.

From WSC 219 May 2005. What was happening this month

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