I was four when ninety six football supporters left their houses for a semi-final and didn’t return home again. I wasn’t yet a supporter, the game hadn’t sunk itself into me at that point. But even as I grew up, blinking in the light of the Premier League’s blinding self-promotion, Hillsborough was there.
The official story – the drunk supporters, the breaching the gate – was supplemented by the memories of Heysel and a crumbling wall – if it wasn’t their fault, how could it happen twice, eh? It was believable. It was believed.
It was a lie, immediately spread while bodies lay in a nearby gymnasium. Passed onto an MP in a bar full of officers supping pints as they got off shift. Wired to The Sun and unquestioningly published by a self-satisfied toad of an editor, seeking favourable view from a Government that was no friend of supporters. No friend of supporters, but intimate with the aggressive, corrupt and incompetent South Yorkshire Police upon whom they’d relied to bust heads a few short years earlier during the Miners Strike.
It shaped the game, it warped the game. The Taylor Report, which blamed the Police, took into account Heysel, the ‘81 semi-final crush and recommended every stadium become an all-seater. The was the death knell of Roker Park, Ayresome Park, the North Bank Highbury and the Liverpool Kop. Every fan had their seat, every fan had their place to sit, every fan was expected to sit. Ticket prices rose, as did rules and regulations.
Supporters are customers, they’re consumers. Charlton Athletic’s Chief Exec calling fans ‘weird’ because they fail ‘to see themselves as customers…it’s quite funny…they feel this sense of ownership’ in December last year. Liverpool’s U.S owners seemed utterly perplexed by the fury they were subject to, as were the Glazers at Manchester United. But that’s nothing compared to the way 1980’s supporters were treated in the UK. Like the miners, they were ‘the enemy within’.
Let’s get one thing straight. Hooliganism was a problem in the 1980’s UK in the same way it continues to be so in many countries today – including the UK to some degree. I’ve seen the sad remnants of some of the old firms and crews, ageing bores talking proudly of their former street scraps like war heroes reminiscing, while younger men roll their eyes.
Not all mind you, there’s still enough hyped on Green Street and lager who seek out ‘aggro’.
They’re a fraction, barely a decimal nothing, of the thousands who go to games though. The thousands who spend their brief out of work hours supporting their team, taking their partners and children along with them. Belonging to something bigger, something immersive and escapist in nature.
But at Hillsborough they were treated the same. To the press and the politicians, they were all the same. A mass, wild and untamed, needing to be brought to heel. They could only be seen as a threat. As a whole. Both before and in the aftermath. Drunken yobs. Pickpockets. Animals. The lies were believed because the lies preceded Hillsborough, the story was already rooted in the public mind, carefully tended to by police, politicians and the press.
Even with the exploding of the lies, the final disintegration of the conspiracy to smear the dead and protect the living, the shadow of Hillsborough falls across the game.
When A-League supporters are castigated by the press and the police, there’s an echo of those times. Labelling criminals those who have committed no crime, labelling supporters savages and grubs, even making equivalences to gun toting terrorists in Paris – it’s a shiver through history. They’re all the same, these wogs, poofters and Sheila’s.
Ray Hadley, Alan Jones, Rebecca Wilson and many others who – in the fine tradition of Kelvin McKenzie – build their profiles on attacking supporters, only football supporters mind you, and the game itself.
Wilson even went so far as to use Hillsborough as a reason to ‘weed out (the) criminal element’ in the Australian game, as close to ‘the enemy within’ you’re likely to see. This use of a perversion of justice against the innocent dead in order to smear the living was swiftly edited, but it will not be swiftly forgotten.
Neither will the fight, the plight of the families of the 96 dead at Hillsborough. They fought, the families of the innocent dead. They fought backed by fellow supporters, a city and few others against police, press and government.
Eventually they gained political support, but it was a long time coming and there were too many failures of nerve to do the right thing by the established. They lived the battle to clear their loved ones names, and some died before they heard the truth established as fact, before justice was eventually delivered. Twenty seven years is far too long to wait. And all the while, the game was changing.
Because Hillsborough changed the game. The all-seater stadiums with numbered seats for each spectator borne from the Taylor Report. Supporters standing firm, standing together, and organising to defend themselves against opponents from outside of the game itself. The enemy without, you could say, with irony aforethought.
While I am certain not every football supporter is an angel, nor every media mouthpiece a horned devil, I am sure that there are far more examples of supporters and supporters groups as community and social good than the opposite. Certainly far more than to deserve the smears and the aggressive, ruthless propagation of lies presently aimed at them. Perhaps we’ll hear more of them, to bring some truth and reality into the discussion.
There’s no equivocation to the fight of those seeking justice for the 96 here though, there are only supporters who see those like themselves who left home never to return. And their families who fought so hard for their memories, against all the odds. Justice denied, justice delayed. But finally, justice.
John Palethorpe lives in South Auckland which is very far away from Fratton Park and Champion Hill. Having been told there was no football in New Zealand, he was delighted to find that there is.