In the mid-nineteen eighties, the Sunday Times ran an editorial that damned football as ‘a slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people’.
It was a profoundly shocking and inexcusable proclamation made infinitely worse by its timing, published in the days following the Bradford stadium fire that led to 56 supporters losing their lives. That afternoon, thousands of Bradford City fans were enjoying the final game of their promotion-winning season that had already seen them crowned Third Division champions.
Just prior to half-time a spectator attempted to stub a cigarette out on the floor but it rolled through a gap, landing on a forgotten mound of debris and paper beneath the main stand. He and his son poured coffee through the small gap and believed they had successfully extinguished the cigarette but they were tragically mistaken because at 3.40pm an isolated fire broke out. Due to the wind and the debris acting as kindling and the highly flammable bituminous felt roof it took mere minutes before the entire stand was engulfed in flames.
Many supporters who attempted to leave at the rear of the stand found the exits locked. There were no stewards around to open them.
It is very difficult to excuse the newspaper for their callous commentary on this atrocious event but to provide a degree of integrity of which they wholly lacked we should at least offer some context. T
he same day as the disaster, a 14-year-old boy died at St Andrews following violence between Birmingham City and Leeds United fans. A fortnight later came Heysel and two months before that rioting at Luton’s Kenilworth Road plumbed such awful depths that it shocked the nation. Heysel resulted in English clubs being banned from Europe while the violence enacted by Millwall fans in Luton prompted Margaret Thatcher to form a ‘war cabinet’ to combat football hooliganism.
That summer Chelsea chairman Ken Bates advocated the introduction of electrified fences to keep supporters off pitches. “People may howl about it being dangerous, but it’s been used in farming for a long time.”
That’s where we were in 1985. For ‘slum’ read ‘scum’ while proposed deterrents had us compared to cattle and such was the non-existent regard the wider public had for football supporters during that period that when an archaic stadium completely unfit-for-purpose went up in flames it was still somehow partly the fault of the supporters who perished in it.
An awful lot has changed since, and thankfully mostly for the better. Italia 90 and the formation of the Premier League saw the game undertake a dramatic image makeover and the same went too for match-going fans who were now finally starting to be viewed for what they always were: ordinary members of the public who happened to enjoy watching a game of footy at the weekend.
In due course, hooliganism fell by the wayside, almost feeling like antiquated behaviour in the modern age and it’s interesting to note how the sporadic incidents that still spring up are covered these days. A recent fracas between Leeds and Manchester United fans in Manchester city centre had them deemed as yobs, their allegiance merely an extension of their sullied character, not something that defined them.
While the many unsavoury incidents at Wembley and Leicester Square during the Euro 2020 final were painted as a societal problem caused by the easing of lockdown restrictions. Among the coverage sympathy was prominent for the ticket-buying match-goers who had to endure the ordeal of sharing the stadium with society’s ills.
There is a separation now. A separation there should always have been.
Yet that is not to say that football fans in the 21st century are respected, even if we are now dignified with the basest of perceptions.
From the games authorities and our own clubs, we are no longer demonised but taken for granted instead, with ticket prices forever escalating and kick-off times arranged to suit the great god of television, not us. Where once we were portrayed as the proverbial twelfth man, now we’re customers; the most loyal among us demeaned as ‘legacy fans’. It could be argued that our support and our money used to be so much more valued back when our character wasn’t.
As for the media, their sanctimonious and supercilious attitude towards their readership and viewership may be tepid compared to the frothing condemnation of yesteryear but it’s still there in shade. Speak your mind on social media to any journalist and they will disregard your opinion as ‘tribalism’ because apparently, we’re not capable of nuanced thought or taking in the whole picture. We’re merely fans.
But perhaps, this begrudging acknowledgment of our normality, that can take the form of patronage when offered up as rare praise is changing for the better. Perhaps we are finally being seen, heard, and yes, even held in genuinely high esteem.
“The fans are the most important thing in football, they have to be respected.” That’s what Eric Cantona said, in the short two-day period when the proposed, egregious Super League seemed to be going through last year and though respect will always be in scant supply from club owners who only admire four individuals – Sir Winston Churchill, Jane Austin, JMW Turner and Alan Turing – they were certainly jolted back into the real world by the welter of disgust from fans united.
This was an instance of supporters taking the moral high ground over club owners and keeping them in check; a marvellous role-reversal of thirty years ago. Perhaps we should have suggested electrified fences keeping them in the boardroom?
For Liverpool FC this was the second time in a short period when they had ceded to fan power. A few weeks prior, the then-reigning champions of England announced their intention to furlough 200 non-playing members of their staff, a move that struck serious discord with their fan-base who regarded it as ‘tory’ and going very much against the fundamental principles the club traditionally held dear.
“We believe we came to the wrong conclusion last week,” CEO Peter Moore wrote in an official statement before declaring the club was ‘truly sorry’.
Once again, football as a body erred into an unethical area. Once again, the fans acted as football’s beating heart and kept it on the straight and narrow.
And if anything proved beyond doubt that’s exactly what we are, last week saw the return of spectators into grounds after a prolonged absence that left the sport bereft of atmosphere, bereft of life.
At the beginning of lockdown empty stadia was a novelty and from this came numerous articles, slightly condescending in tone, insisting we were being missed. Only then, as the months hauled themselves into a full year, it became painfully clear we are considerably more than a soundtrack, more than the proverbial twelfth man.
At the tail-end of last season meaningful fixtures were played out in a meaningless fashion, devoid of drama amidst a soulless vacuum. Whereas last week the game was reborn again, with opening matches thunderous and exciting as if the whole world rode on the outcome of Burnley v Brighton. We are infinitely more than colour. We, as much as the players, are football.
Do not expect miracles. Do not expect ticket prices to tumble and fixture schedules to factor in the difficulty of travelling to Newcastle on a Friday night. But right now, the standing of football supporters has never been taller, and that means instead of being looked down upon we are looking at the government, FA, Premier League, and our club of birth, square in the eye.
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