Football was a bridge too far

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I like to think I understood the late Baroness Thatcher; as someone who is an ardent adherent to her creed, a member of the party she helped to shape and someone who respects her and her legacy, I would hope that I do grasp what she achieved. However, as a keen supporter of football I wonder if Lady Thatcher would get me. Within the bowels of Ibrox Stadium there is quite a relic from the 1980s which sums up Lady Thatcher’s relationship with football; impeccably presented as always she is surrounded by the Rangers team from 1989, towards the end of her time in office.

However, she strikes an awkward figure, not really enjoying having to pose with these spice boy footballers. This pose is repeated with monotonous regularity in any of the embarrassing pre-tournament photo calls Lady Thatcher deigned to do with the England team before they departed for inevitable defeat. Thatcher stood out from football and football from her, and as with many differences in her life this was irreconcilable.

Football in Britain was in an unfortunate malaise off the park. Since the early 1970s it could be argued that through several damaging incidents – the riot at the 1980 Scottish Cup Final between Rangers and Celtic, the antics of England’s support at major tournaments, the now infamous battle at Kenilworth Road when a pan-London alliance of Millwall, Chelsea and West Ham fans wrecked Luton during a tie between the Hatters and the South London club and the general mayhem and destruction which was delivered to British high streets and train stations every weekend – football supporters had managed to dehumanise themselves. Far from being something which carries little social baggage now, being a football supporter in the 1980s carried certain unappealing connotations. Amidst the wailing and gnashing of teeth following the recent skirmishes at Wembley and at Newcastle, it would be sensible to keep in mind that they were polite tussles in comparison to the riparian and prevalent violence which blighted the game during that time.I doubt Lady Thatcher viewed the civil disturbances created by football supporters as at all different from Arthur Scargill’s illegal strike of 1984, yet another enemy within that needed dealt with. It was in this area that she failed. Despite being a leader who did so much for freedom, not only in this country but on the world stage, the response to the incident at Luton was so draconian and so illiberal that it appeared as though it had been conceived at a gathering of the politburo in East Germany or the Soviet Union.

Badly advised by the then chairman of Luton Town and Conservative MP David Evans, the National Membership Scheme, an identity card system required for those who wanted to attend football matches, was advocated. It was an affront to the personal liberty which she so cherished and only sought to add to the characterisation of football supporters as somehow a feral beast to be taken control of. A combination of CCTV, better tactics when it came to crowd control, clubs engaging with their supporters, banning orders and, dare I say it, the price increases following the establishment of the Premier League, have all helped stem hooliganism in this country, not a practice which has created difficulties in the countries where it is mandatory, namely Holland and Italy.

Hillsborough was the nadir of football’s relationship with Mrs Thatcher. Arguably she was ill advised by several members of the Yorkshire constabulary who wished to cover up their own horrendous failings, yet the response of the government which held the Liverpool supporters culpable was morally and factually wrong. While David Cameron may have apologised for the cackhanded response to the deaths of the 96 people that fateful day, the smearing scars of misinformation, shame and injustice embedded on the collective memory of the families of the victims will never abate. The emotion exhibited at the recent service at Anfield shows that in certain homes in Liverpool and the north-west of England that the virtues of Thatcherism and indeed the Conservative Party will forever be given the cold shoulder, an electoral folly which will take a quantum shift to reverse.

Yet it would be glib to ignore the more positive impact of her legacy on the game. While many of the observations of Lord Justice Taylor’s report on the disaster at Hillsborough have been unravelled over time, one benefit has been the upgrade in facilities at grounds across the country. My male relatives of a certain vintage and distinction who spent unquantifiable hours on the terracing of Glasgow’s vast and daunting arenas in the 1960s, 70s and 80s all agree on one thing: while it was exhilarating, energetic and fuelled on adrenaline, watching a game of football was a dangerous activity, an accident waiting to happen. One uncle who was at the Scottish Cup semi-final played between Rangers and St Johnstone at Celtic Park on the same day as Hillsborough asserts with some steel and conviction that the crushing experienced upon exiting the ground that day could have resulted in fatalities. One thing we can associate with Thatcherism is progress, and her one valuable and vaulted legacy to football is that all seated stadiums are now standard practice in this country, and that the human loss of Hillsborough will hopefully never happen again.

Dave Whelan and John Madejski both advocated that a minute’s silence should be observed at matches in an act of respect towards Lady Thatcher. While I agree that typical human decency should be deployed when dealing with the death of not only a public figure but a frail, old mother and grandmother, staging a silence at Elland Road, Anfield or St James’ Park would have been as appropriate as staging one at the Durham Miners’ Gala.

This was a difficult piece for me to put together. I am a child of Thatcher; everyone from my generation in Britain is. Yet as someone who will forever remain fascinated and attached to this one-woman revolution on a political and personal level I feel a particular claim to her legacy; to say that she is the nearest thing I have to a hero would not be far from the mark. However, in her dealings with football supporters she endured one of her few failures, a bizarre failure for a woman who had such a deftness of touch with so many sections of the population. Politicians, from Major to Blair, Brown to Cameron have all now grasped that those in the stands are humans and voters too. By listening to the men in suits who she had so majestically brushed aside in three general elections, the Iron Lady disconnected from those whom she knew the best, the people.

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