By Tim Charlesworth
The world of football is full of talk of, ‘the good of the game’ and other meaningless epithets. Football is mostly, however, what economists describe as a ‘zero sum game’. Every winner creates a loser. If you get together a group of Arsenal devotees and a group of Tottenham devotees and put them in a room, they will tend to focus on their differences rather than the numerous things that they have in common. It’s a curious thing to overhear a conversation between rival fans. An undertone of teasing contempt is never far away.
As a result, it is not really true to speak of a ‘community’ of football supporters. It is not often that football fans can find it in their hearts to admire each other. However, I like to think that most of us have the humanity to empathise with, and admire the Liverpool fans, and the way that they have handled the tragedy of Hillsborough.
The Liverpool supporters were the victims of one of the most shameful attempted Police cover-ups I have ever come across. The actions of the South Yorkshire Police would have been outrageous in a banana republic. In a democratic nation, they are unforgivable. I can understand people who make mistakes in their professional lives, even if those mistakes have terrible consequences. But the attempt to cover it up and blame the Liverpool supporters can only be seen as criminal, and I hope the perpetrators feel the full force of British justice, even at this late stage.
The survivors and their families, despite the terrible effects of trauma, maintained a dignified, persistent, civilised and noble campaign to reveal the truth. The finding of ‘unlawful killing’ at the inquest this week, was the final vindication of that battle. I take my hat off to each and every person involved. The 96 people who lost their lives, were people who went to a football match to cheer on their team. It was a different world to the football of today, a world in which something as elegant, efficient and modern as the Emirates Stadium, couldn’t even be imagined.
As a teenager in the 1980s, I stood on the bleak North Bank terraces of Highbury with my schoolmates. Those terraces were similar to the Hillsborough terraces in many ways (although, to their eternal credit, the Arsenal directors refused to install fences between the terraces and the pitch). Those games were amongst the most memorably thrilling experiences of my young life. They are experiences which future generations will never share.
When the crowd surged forward, you went forward, carried in a wave of irresistible humanity. You were acutely conscious that if you lost your footing (on the poorly surfaced concrete, complete with the occasional steps that gave the terraces their name), you were dead. The people behind you were as helpless as you were, and couldn’t stop surging forward any more than you could. If you fell to the floor you would be mercilessly trampled.
Trying to stay on your feet whilst having no idea what direction you are going to move next, is a disconcerting experience. Of course, most of the time, falling was not an option, because you were too tightly packed. But every now and then, fleeting holes would open up in the swirling crowd, a bit like an eddy in a swollen river. If you were on the edge of such a gap, falling suddenly became a real possibility and you needed to keep your wits about you. Such anomalies prevented you from simply relaxing and ‘surfing the crowd’
As the crowd surged, it would be compressed and breathing would become momentarily impossible, but the moment would soon pass, and the sensation just added to the thrill. The overall effect, was a thrilling one for teenage boys like me and my friends. The excitement of football was combined with the raw masculinity of the terrace community and its inherent dangers.
Add to that, the thrill of trying to get in and out of the ground and its environs, in the days when football was routinely an excuse for neo-fascists to engage in organised ‘leisure violence’ (how is this fun?). Many a time, we dodged down side streets to evade charging opposition fans, screaming hate and viciousness, or colossal steel hoofed police horses. It was a heady cocktail, and it felt like being initiated into a man’s world.
Deaths on football terraces were not unknown, but they were almost always as a result of people falling and being trampled. As far as I can recall, we never seriously considered the possibility of being crushed to death whilst still standing. The real risk of trampling accidents was on the way in and out of the ground. When a crowd was moving purposefully, such as at the beginning or end of a match, sudden gaps could open, allowing one to fall to the ground if tripped or pushed. The entry and exits were genuine moments of danger, especially when cramped staircases or tunnels were added into the mix.
I suspect that the Liverpool fans at Hillsborough felt much the same. Once they were in the ground, they probably felt safe. It is often told that the problem started as a result of a Peter Beardsley shot striking the bar. It was perfectly normal for a surge to accompany such an event. As the victims felt the first pressure of the crush which would kill them, they probably weren’t overly concerned. And may not even have been particularly distracted from watching the game. As the problem persisted, they would presumably have become aware that this was not a normal incident.
The Police have come in for much criticism for the way that they failed to respond to the danger in front of them. It is a frequent complaint of the fans there that day, that the police ignored the tragedy developing around them. I think the police were guilty of many failings that day, but the callousness of the pitchside officers, in the face of this disaster is curiously understandable. The police would have been just as accustomed to crushes on football terraces as fans were. They were probably no more sensitive to the real risk of death or injury from crushes than the fans.
Before Hillsborough, such things were virtually unheard of during a match. Whilst it quickly became clear to fans that this was not an ordinary crush, this turn of events would have been less obvious to the attending police officers. It isn’t possible to see that someone is not breathing just by looking at them, especially not in the context of a noisy packed football stadium.
And so, a tragedy of unimaginable proportions unfolded. As a father of two girls, I will be forever haunted by the idea of Trevor Hicks watching, from one of the lateral stands, the disaster that killed his two beautiful daughters.
And after Hillsborough, the season continued. After a break of 21 days, Liverpool played football again. They won the replay of the fateful FA Cup semi-final, and fittingly went on to win the FA Cup Final, during which the Everton fans showed a touching solidarity with their opponents.
In the league, Liverpool, the leviathans of the English game, put together a fabulous run, slowly reeling in the runaway leaders, George Graham’s young Arsenal team. Because of the delay to the league fixtures resulting from the Hillsborough disaster, Liverpool’s final league game, to seal the double, was against Arsenal and was played after the FA Cup Final. For us, it was all but hopeless. We had to win by two clear goals. In the previous four seasons, Liverpool had lost six home games, only one of which was by two goals, and that was over three years earlier. We hadn’t won there for 15 years.
It had been obvious for a while that the outcome of the league would hinge on this fixture and my friends and I planned to go. It may seem unreal to modern supporters, but it was relatively easy to get tickets for this game, even though it was clearly the closest and most exciting finish to a league season of all time. As the game approached, Liverpool seemed like a dark, distant and dangerous place to visit on a late Friday night. Our courage was further dampened by the fact that we felt that this was mission impossible. We resolved [sighs] to watch it on television. Interestingly, even at this point, the danger of being crushed to death on a football terrace didn’t play any part in our decision.
I think the moment of Michael Thomas’ winning goal will never dim for me. At the time, I thought of nothing but the pure joy it bought us. I was a young man consumed by the narcissism of teenagehood. My mind was full of the sense of a title thrown away and then rescued at the very last moment. Our hopes were strangled, only to be reborn, and our 18 year wait for a title was ended (I was 16 at the time).
But when I look back, with the wisdom of years, and the bitter tinge of grey hair, I reflect more and more on the vanquished. The numbing disappointment that the Liverpool fans must have felt was, at once, both cruel and irrelevant. It wasn’t even the worst thing that happened to them that season, and yet it seems pitiless to have heaped another source of sadness on to the Liverpool fans that day. This was a time when the ‘double’ still held legendary status. 96 fans would have gone to Hillsborough dreaming of another step towards the Liverpool double of 1989. I can’t help but feel sad that those dreams were not posthumously realised, snatched away in a single moment*.
Despite all our tribal differences, there will always be a place in my heart for the lost Liverpool 96. And in that sense, at least, they never will walk alone.
*Interestingly, the iconic baseball team, the New York Yankees suffered a similar fate to Liverpool in the 2001 World Series, following the 9/11 attacks. Many baseball fans consider this the greatest World Series of all time. After a freakish run to the final, with numerous last minute heroic wins, the Yankees seemed destined to be world champions for an incredible fourth consecutive year. It would be a fitting sporting tribute to the thousands of murdered New Yorkers. Like 1989, the baseball season had been postponed to accommodate a period of mourning, and was finishing late. With the series tied at 3-3, the Yankees led 2-1 late in the seventh, and deciding match. They brought on Mariano Rivera, the greatest ‘closing pitcher’ of all time. Rivera had to close out two innings. He predictably closed out the first, but in the bottom of the ninth and final innings, with national emotional pandemonium about to break out, the unthinkable happened. Rivera conceded two runs to lose 3-2. If you aren’t a baseball fan and hadn’t followed Rivera’s career, it is difficult to understand what a bizarre occurrence this was. It was the equivalent of a Gus Ceasar clean sheet or an Alan Hansen hat-trick of own goals. Just like Michael Thomas’ goal, you could never get away with making this stuff up. Like Liverpool, the Yankees have never recovered their dominance of the sport.
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Untold Arsenal has published five books on Arsenal – all are available as paperback and three are now available on Kindle. The books are
- The Arsenal Yankee by Danny Karbassiyoon with a foreword by Arsene Wenger.
- Arsenal: the long sleep 1953 – 1970; a view from the terrace. By John Sowman with an introduction by Bob Wilson.
- Woolwich Arsenal: The club that changed football. By Tony Attwood, Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews.
- Making the Arsenal: a novel by Tony Attwood.
- The Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal by Mark Andrews.
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