Football's ugly excesses must never be mistaken for passion
21:42 GMT, 15 September 2012
21:42 GMT, 15 September 2012
The details unfold, casual and
devastating. The blood of dead 10-year-old children is tested for
alcohol levels. The names of all the victims are scrutinised for
criminal records, in an attempt to smear and defame. The hovel of a
football ground bears a safety certificate which is a decade out of
date. Such is the obscenity of Hillsborough, and such is the evil for
which Official England has belatedly apologised.
The ugliness of that era comes seeping
through the pages of the Hillsborough report. There was a miserable
paucity of expectation. Hillsborough was not seen as a decrepit and
dangerous stadium, quite the reverse. It had staged 13 FA Cup
semi-finals in the previous 20 years and its selection for 1989 caused
no adverse comment.
For football treated comfort and
safety as optional extras. Every ground was the scene of confrontation.
Violence was routine, extreme violence a brooding possibility. Hence,
the prime aim of policing was suppression; keep the public away from the
pitch, hold them like animals behind fortified fences. This was the
mindset and its dull inflexibility contributed significantly to the
Justice: Liverpool fans show their feelings at the Stadium of Light
Yet while the reputation of the South
Yorkshire Police may not survive the current allegations of
incompetence, evasion and self-serving deception, it is salutary to
recall our own attitudes in the Eighties. Those of us who regularly
covered the game at that time developed a distressing tolerance towards
crowd violence. We would watch a crowd surge and see the police plunge
into the terraces to bring out belligerent bunches of young men. We
would shake our heads as they were dragged from the ground.
But we said nothing because we knew it
would happen many times more during the match, and we told ourselves
that reporting such antics would simply offer them the oxygen of
Similarly with the street battles,
when shattering glass and wailing sirens became part of the pattern of
Saturday afternoons; familiar as the Sports Report signature tune or the
football results as read by James Alexander Gordon.
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True, we managed the odd burst of
disapproval when the scuffle was particularly savage or the stadium
especially squalid. But our voices lacked genuine outrage because we did
not comprehend the terrible course which had been set. Then the dominos
started to fall. At Bradford, 56 died when flames consumed an
antiquated wooden stand. At Heysel, 39 fans perished when Liverpool
supporters ran wild. A hazardous climate had been created, yet still we
did not recognise the signs. But then came Hillsborough, when grossly
inadequate facilities combined with grotesquely incompetent policing and
96 innocent people died long before their time. Whereupon everything
changed. At least, for a while, that was how it seemed.
Italia 90 set the game back on a saner
path, while the infusion of television money which attended the birth
of the Premier League launched a period of unprecedented prosperity.
But some of us, feebly ineffective
during the dark and violent days, started to recognise familiar signs.
Of course, the police raids and the mass skirmishes were mercifully
rare; all-seater stadia had seen to that. Yet the notion that football
grounds had suddenly become havens of intelligent enthusiasm was no more
than a public relations illusion. For the aggression still flourished
but it was portrayed as ‘passion’. And the notion that a more exclusive,
more expensive game would somehow render its audience more civilised
was swiftly seen to be baseless.
For football conforms to its own,
perverse code. It is an exercise which requires vigilant squads of
police and stewards at every potential point of contact to prevent rival
fans from attacking each other.
The idea that they might co-exist in sanity, the way people do in every other sport, is never entertained. For it is ‘tribal’, which is a trite excuse for dim excess.
And the neutral is forced to endure those excesses, the despicable taunts about Munich or Hillsborough, the songs about gas chambers, or the chants about the opposing manager being a paedophile. All bawled by addled fools in vile hope of giving offence.
The truth: A Liverpool shirt hangs from the Shankly Gates
The idea that anybody could voice that kind of filth defies decent belief. But, of course, it is that ‘passion’ thing again. Apparently, it shows that they really, really care who wins.
Even beyond verbal abuse, consider those moments when the camera picks up the viciously contorted faces of fans at a throw-in or a corner. Grown men, sometimes women, often accompanied by children, are captured screeching grotesque insults and making abhorrent gestures which would have them arrested in the street. And all because they disapprove of a player wearing a different-coloured shirt.
Some attract more vitriol than others. John Terry, for instance, has rarely enjoyed a kind word from this column but the personalised nature of the insults offered to him and his family are far beyond excuse or endurance. It is totally unacceptable, yet we are encouraged either to ignore it or to shrug it off as the way of the world.
It is false counsel, one which does the sport no service. The world need not be that way when we possess the power to change it. We merely ask for a show of moral leadership, of honest courage from those who run the game and the country. Something better than they have given us for far too long.
For if we turn away from the problems, then we risk tragic, unintended consequences of the kind which descended upon that criminally inadequate ground in Sheffield. When 96 innocents perished and were forced to wait for 23 years before they could rest in peace.
Boris takes the gold medal for buffoonery
Well, you can’t say we didn’t warn you. A few weeks ago, when the Olympic Flame arrived at the Tower of London, Boris Johnson made a speech of such crass insensitivity that we shuddered at the prospect of what lay ahead. Our fears were miserably justified.
Throughout the Games, the buffoon seized every opportunity of self-projection. Knowing nothing about Olympic sport, and caring a good deal less, he clearly saw the Olympics and Paralympics as an endless photo opportunity.
Not since Jeffrey Archer was in his excruciating pomp has anybody worked so hard at becoming a ‘character’, a bit of a card. And he maintained the ego-driven pace to the end.
In the spotlight: Boris Johnson claimed his place on the victory parade
At a time when the city and the nation had earned the world’s congratulations for their generosity of spirit, Johnson grabbed the chance to show off just one more time. At the post-Olympics parade, he was Mr Toad with a captive audience.
And so, with hair carefully dishevelled and eyes madly staring, he told a nudge-nudge little joke about sex on sofas, then brayed a stereotypical boast about how we had beaten the French, the Germans and the Aussies.
Nothing could detract from the glow of our marvellous Games but Boris Johnson did his oafish best.
Time for another letter, Sir Oliver…
Amid the torrent of reaction to the Hillsborough report, one voice remained silent. Which was strange because, in October 2011, the retired judge Sir Oliver Popplewell (85) had a good deal to say.
Sir Oliver chaired the inquiry into the Bradford fire disaster and in a letter to The Times he said: ‘The citizens of Bradford behaved with quiet dignity and great courage. They did not harbour conspiracy theories. They did not seek endless further inquiries. They buried their dead, comforted the bereaved and succoured the injured … Is there, perhaps, a lesson there for the Hillsborough campaigners’
Sir Oliver may now wish to reconsider those reflections. Perhaps another letter is on its way, containing a humble apology for his arrogant impertinence.
When Manny Pacquiao laid Ricky Hatton flat as water inside two rounds in Las Vegas, he was trying to tell him something.
That the prize ring is no place for a man with a powerful thirst, indifferent application to the gym and a propensity to pile on slabs of weight.
The message Manny Pacquiao flattened Ricky Hatton
To the enthusiastic approval of his various acolytes, Hatton has just announced that he will return to the ring after a three-year absence.
His decision, of course, and we wish him well. We may also wish that he’d listened to Manny.