Up to the minute as ever, I’ve been wondering about the enquiry into the deaths at Hillsborough stadium in 1989, and the context in which it happened. To pick the enquiry and the report to bits would take a great deal of time and effort, so it’s a good thing for me that it isn’t my intention to do it. It would be both lazy and cynical to think that, just as at the time, and in the prevailing mood, it was easiest to blame the fans, now, when the public mood has changed, and everyone in a position of responsibility that day is dead or retired, it is easiest to blame the police. Lazy, cynical and possible false.
It is likely that none of those who died that day were directly responsible for the events that led to their deaths. It is not my intention to suggest otherwise. But one day it was going to happen, because of the culture in which football was played, and to a certain extent still is.
Football fans had for decades been accustomed to behaving like animals. The more they behaved like animals, the more they were treated like animals, and the more they were treated like animals, the more they behaved like animals.
I used to go to Highbury in the mid-eighties, and I saw the fans herded like wild dogs from the station to the ground, between lines of police, screaming abuse and making threatening gestures at passers-by. I saw them howling like crazed apes at opposing players, opposing fans, and each other, even when not much was happening. We ignored the lines and walked like human beings towards the gate, were greeted with a ‘good afternoon, sir’, which we returned, showed out tickets, allowed ourselves to be apologised to for having our pockets patted, and were invited to go in and enjoy the game. The police took no notice of us. Because we did not invite them to treat us as animals.
The cages that caused the deaths at Hillsborough were still there in part as a result of the brutish, sub-human thuggery of Liverpool fans at the Heysel stadium in 1985, who caused the deaths of 39 Italian fans simply because they realized that they could.
The decision to open the gate at Hillsborough was taken by the police to prevent a mob forming outside the ground, because they knew very well what a mob like that was capable of. I repeat, one day it was going to happen. In this the clubs and the league are no different from the trades’ unions and other organizations that call violent gangs out onto the streets in the knowledge that there will be trouble, and then wash their hands and pretend it’s someone else’s problem.
It should have been dealt with decades before. Grounds should have been shut, points deducted, clubs relegated even, when the fans didn’t behave. It would have meant legal battles, some clubs, the unlucky ones or those that didn’t take their responsibilities seriously, would have gone to the wall, the press and the public would have been against them, calling it an over-reaction. It would have taken courage, political and commercial courage, which is why the politicians and the FA were never going to do it.
I’m a teacher, and perhaps I see things differently from many people, but the idea of treating people as inhuman, even when that is how they see themselves, is disagreeable to me. The intention should have been to rescue the humanity of the fans, from themselves, rather than accept them at their own estimation, as wild animals. Football could have become what other sports are, entertainment, fun, rather than tribal warfare.