The land that football forgot 1989...
Travelling back from London after playing for Middlesbrough against QPR on April 15th 1989 I can remember we were listening to the radio all the way back to Ayresome Park and each new bulletin told us that the death toll at Hillsbrough was getting higher and higher.
We could not believe it and a week later we played Nottingham Forest, one of the teams involved in the disaster, in a surreal atmosphere at Ayresome and I remember that the usual intensity was missing as the shock and enormity of what had happened hung in the air.
The cold wet weather seemed to match the mood. Everybody at the ground and indeed every football fan in England had, at some time been involved in situations like Hillsbrough, crushes, surges, it was all part of the scenery of English football in the 1980's.
The Hillsbrough verdict has revealed incompetence and corruption on an industrial scale but it's important we look at this case in the context of the times and not in isolation. It took place in a time when Football was a dirty word, the general atmosphere of football around the game was dark and dangerous and football was held in genuine contempt in the corridors of power.
Football supporters were seen as vermin, this is not too strong a term, as usual the majority were tainted when it was the minority who were to blame but all the same the government at the time had no time for football, all it brought was headaches and trouble and I'm sure if they could have found a way to ban it totally they would have.
I'm not being flippant - a government report even stated that "football may not even be able to continue in it's present form much longer"
It's hard for young fans to believe especially those born into this glossy, SKY covered world, where games are on tap and association with anything Premier league is the best social climbing ticket in town. Back in those days football fans were seen and treated as animals that needed to be caged and the public had to be protected from them.
In the light of the report on Hillsbrough finally seeming to bring some measure of justice and solace to the families after their years of grief and fighting Its interesting to look at what football was like far, far back in that distant land, a land tucked away in the collective football consciousness:
The Land that Football Forgot
It's the 1980's and Football is in danger of becoming extinct, the government are looking at ways of bringing this wild animal under control. Television is almost ashamed of it and the general public are cowering behind the sofas and many are too scared to attend games. Maybe that's a bit dramatic but it's not far off. You could actually pay to get into games on the day, this was the norm and buying a ticket did not involve an application to your bank manager and a meeting with the credit committee to decide if you could afford one.
The 'beautiful' game had become the domain of rioting gangs fighting 'for' their clubs and it became harder and harder for fathers to justify taking their children to games.
All of these factors added up to give the government of the time a very dark opinion of the game and everything about it.
It was no longer serving it's purpose as a social outlet but instead becoming a real burden and a threat to normal and decent society. A 'War Cabinet' was set up to combat the threats posed by the hooligans.
Can you believe that? A War Cabinet! Sounds incredible now doesn't it?!
I grew up watching Aston Villa at a great time in the clubs history and when you grow up with something it's easy to accept it as normal. Just as much as I thought Villa would always be in contention for the league and European Cup (as it was known then) Football and violence seemed to go hand in hand, one feeding the other. It WAS the norm, every game was unofficially categorised in each fans head in terms of risk. If certain teams were coming you knew there would be more trouble than normal. Everybody knew the games where the chances of trouble were greater.
Those of a younger age probably wouldnt recognise a certain pitch of crowd sound that was very common in the 80's as you very rarely hear it today. A high pitch roar that travelled through the airwaves, getting louder and louder, sending a shiver through everybody who heard it. People looking around trying frantically to identify from which direction it was coming and how far away it was. Fans chasing or being chased, attacking or retreating, accompanied by this roar that sent most scrambling for the nearest hiding place. This sound WAS was as much a part of football in the 80's as Dalglish and Rush.
Many is the time that we hid behind cars and behind walls as gangs of fighting screaming young men 'plied their trade' and 'fought' for their clubs and territory along the streets of Englands football grounds.
The unbelievably terrible tragedy of Hillsbrough was, as we know now, caused by Police incompetence, ignorance but similar situations had occurred and been narrowly avoided many times. Standing on the terraces enabled huge crowds to attend. Crush barriers every 5 yards were intended to control crowd movement. I can still feel, after a near miss or a goal the crowd surging forward and being crushed but knowing and waiting that the human wave would eventually surge back into position. You accepted it as part of the game, a goal is scored, the crowd goes mad and you ended up where you ended up and then gradually you found your spot again. Very, very dangerous but as a young lad it was all you knew and it was tremendously exciting, we even used to replicate it in the school dinner queue!
But during this period the football fan, through the actions of the minority had been categorised as one level up from farm animals. Away fans were herded through cities under strict police cordons, kept locked in after games in pens for their own 'safety'.
As I write this it's incredible to see how the landscape has changed in such a relatively short time. Football has become the ultimate social kudos badge. In this respect SKY has done a grand job, a really incredible job. To breathe life back into the lungs of a dying dinosaur and give it wings again.
Of course they didn't do it out of the goodness of their hearts, it wasn't their primary intention, they saw a market and exploited it, fair enough and whatever anyone says about them dictating to the game which, of course they do, it's hard not to say that the overall effect been a positive one.
For all you younger fans, go on to YouTube and check out the Land that Football Forgot and look at a time when football was more about risk management and self preservation than comfy seats and singalong music when a goal is scored*.
Believe me, you have never had it so good.
*Does anybody REALLY like that?