In the week where we commemorated 25 years since the Hillsborough tragedy a few things have struck me. First and foremost what has struck me has been the solidarity and dignity of the people of Liverpool, who for 25 years have stood firm in the face of vilification from police, media and parliament and whose refusal to be cowed finally resulted in the new enquiry that is at last taking place. The way the population of Liverpool has steadfastly refused to let the lives of their brothers and sisters be buried under an avalanche of bureaucracy and lies honours their memory in a much more practical way than all the words of people, who at the time would have happily brushed their deaths under the carpet. It’s shameful that they needed to do this – but very telling that they have.
Meanwhile social media has been awash with the badges reminding fans to show solidarity with the Hillsborough families. As someone who heard the news breaking through radios on the North Bank at Highbury, I have never needed reminding to show solidarity with the Hillsborough families. I have never known any other football supporters who needed reminding of this either. And the fact that someone thinks I might need reminding is insulting both to myself and the memory of those who died. Football fans know it could have been any of us. We were aware of previous tragedies such as Ibrox. We were also painfully aware of the dangerous bottlenecks (many of which still exist in grounds today!) and police crowd control techniques in which people of all ages were crushed up against walls by mounted police – not when there was any trouble but just because that was their default way of dealing with us. So whether it was 1989 or 2014 we instinctively showed solidarity with the Hillsborough families. The odd moron who failed to understand that was quickly shown the error of their ways. So why do some people think fans need reminding? Because they still hold us in the very same contempt that led to the deaths of 96 people in the first place!
This is exemplified by a seemingly much more trivial matter whereby Manchester United announced that they are again trying to set up a singing section to improve the atmosphere at Old Trafford. Loyal supporters who have sat in the same seat for years are being forced to move. The club claims that this is ok because they are being given “priority choice on seats available elsewhere.” But disgruntled fans have pointed out that the seats available elsewhere are in inferior positions. The question has got to be why the club feels they need a singing section at all? The answer is that, in common with most other premier league clubs, they sterilised themselves of any atmosphere when they went all-seater. You might be able to hide these failings when you’re riding a wave of success but when the team goes through a bad patch, as they inevitably will, it becomes more difficult to paper over the cracks. Smaller grounds, where fans are close to the pitch, sometimes fare a bit better with this but, in truth, you can often experience pin-drop silences at grounds of all sizes and in all parts of the country. You cannot create an atmosphere on demand – but what you can do if you are not careful is destroy an atmosphere.
With terraces fans were able to stand among their friends, congregate with others who wanted to sing and move to get their preferred vantage point. Quite disgracefully, after the Hillsborough tragedy, egged on by a government who hated all aspects of working class culture, many in football took the opportunity to engage in social engineering rather than simply addressing the health and safety failings at the root of the tragedy. Models of safe terracing and angled barriers designed to spread crowds across terraces were hastily dismissed in the rush to go all-seater. While some clubs were forced to do this through a change in the law, others had been itching to do so for years and had only been stopped from doing so by the fans opposition. Now anyone opposing all-seater stadia was accused of failing to learn from history, of recklessly risking the safety of themselves and others and even disrespecting those who had died at Hillsborough. Of course none of this was true. There was a debate to be had around the retention of terracing. The alternatives were there. The Taylor report had not called for all seater stadia but an increase in the number of seats in the ground. That terraces were still allowed at rugby matches proved quite what a selective response this was.
There were a group of clubs who were eyeing the easy money on offer from TV deals and saw the fans as little more than a backdrop to the marketing of their global “brand”. They also saw in all-seater stadia the potential to go “up-market” and attract a more middle class following with more disposable income. If you don’t believe me you just have to look at the futures they painted in their glossy promotional leaflets – which also air-brushed any ethnic diversity from the crowds as well. It is not surprising, after all these were the same sort of people who just months before Hillsborough had been calling for us all to be penned in behind electric fences. But now, twenty-five years on, now they’ve got what they wanted, it appears they don’t much like it! Designated singing areas, little plastic flags and all the other gimmicks they use to try to create an atmosphere will come to nothing. Football is fighting a losing battle brought on by its own opportunistic greed. The average age of the football supporter is going up and up – as the cost of being a supporter goes up and up. Football is living on borrowed time. With every muddle-headed intervention from club managers, who treat their fans as so many head of livestock to be herded from one place to another, the atmosphere will get worse. More clubs will go to the wall and football will become increasingly divorced from its roots. The increased money at the top creates an imbalance with the rest of football. Players become mercenaries and loyalty becomes so rare as to be held up as remarkable. Distanced by frequent moves and an ever-growing wealth gap, solidarity has given way to the elitism of, “Do you know who I am?”
Disrespect for the supporters has been a creeping blight for many years – maybe from the very start. After all, the White Horse Cup Final is only celebrated because the total failure to protect the crowd didn’t result in a tragedy – much more by luck than judgement. It was this disrespect that was mostly to blame for Hillsborough. It was this disrespect that has seen the families still fighting for justice 25 years on. And it was this disrespect that saw the tragedy of Hillsborough and used it to change the face of the game forever, when all that was really needed was a more considered approach to health and safety. I don’t think anyone would be so cold and calculating as to deliberately use the tragedy to their own ends – but the patronising ,”we know what’s best for you,” approach has all the echoes of the old paternalistic relationship which has always been at the heart of football. Where Chairmen assume the right to relocate the club, change its name, change its colours on a whim; to keep pushing prices up, to charge 2 or 3 times the going rate for a drink and a burger, to issue 2 or 3 new kits a season at a time when real wages are falling. To issue lifetime bans to fans who use racist language while excusing the same racism if it come from the mouths of the players. I think my definition of respect might be a little different to that of those who run football. That’s why I’ve stopped going – and why I know many others have done the same.
Top flight clubs might be able to get by on TV money for a while – but if the fans are driven out the culture changes and the “product” on offer becomes harder to sell. And, take it from me, as an ex-season ticket holder, once you stop organising your life around a fixture list you very quickly find other things to do. Cheaper things, that you can do with all your family and friends, where you can all sit or stand together – and still have a few quid left for a drink or two afterwards. Where coppers and stewards don’t automatically assume they have the right to push you about – and where you aren’t herded around like cattle with little consideration for your feelings or well-being.
For twenty five years, the response to Hillsborough has shown everything that is best about football fans. It has shown what loyalty and solidarity really mean. And it’s not about club colours. It’s about community and class solidarity. At the same time the establishment, be they in football, the police force, the courts, the media or in government have failed to show any understanding of loyalty and solidarity at all. Most importantly, they have failed to learn the lessons of Hillsborough. Because when you get right down to it, Hillsborough was nothing to do with seats and everything to do with how you treat people.