Tag Archives: Sport

Reflections on London 2012

English: Mo Farah after 5000 m final - World c...

Mo Farah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

OK, I know that in the main this is a history blog, but I couldn’t let the momentous events of the past few weeks pass by without saying a few words about the performance of Team GB, and how it compares with the performance of the players of our supposed national sport.

 

The funny thing about the Olympics is that a plethora of minority sports captivate our imagination for two weeks every four years, and then that’s it for another Olympic cycle. We would almost be forgiven for thinking that cycling, athletics, swimming, sailing and rowing do not even take place outside of an Olympic year.

 

Yet they are very much taking place. Olympic cyclists regularly train for 12 hours a day, beginning at 7am. Mo Farah runs anywhere between 100 and 120 miles a week. Add into that things like special diets that most of us would find distinctly unappetising, altitude training at camps far from home, in many cases a dearth of facilities and funding, and you can see that the lot of an elite athlete is hardly a glamorous one.

 

Compare that to the average day of a professional footballer, people who are held up as national heroes and role models. Get up at about 9am, roll in training at something like 10am, sit and have breakfast with your mates, and then do a few tricks and flicks and play some six a side for a couple of hours. Spend the afternoon playing golf, looking at cars or buying the plastic missus some (more) new clothes.

 

And to think we wonder why England always fail in big international tournaments. It’s not hard to see why – by and large, football has lost the charm, the inspiration and the hunger of athletics. Players don’t work hard and then we wonder why they fail. We pay them exorbient amounts of money and don’t ask them to do much for it, and we then wonder why they end up misbehaving and losing sight of why they play the game in the first place. And to cap it all, isn’t it a bit sad that the greatest moment of England’s supposed best player of the last two decades was scoring a last-minute equaliser to scrape world cup qualification against a football backwater?

 

The success of Team GB makes me wish that I was 12 again. If only I could try some of these sports, who knows how things might have turned out? Yet all I can remember from PE at school is playing endless indoor football. Looking back, I could have made a half-decent distance runner, but who at 15 really wants to be a runner? The overwhelming peer pressure, and wider culture, places football on a pedestal. Mo Farah was obsessed with football, and dreamed about playing left-back for Arsenal. Thankfully his PE teacher saw his potential as a distance runner, and the rest is history.

 

I will always like football, or, rather, the memories of the sport before it became tainted by money and celebrity. Football still retains the ability to enthuse and move people more than any other sport, if only it could rediscover them. The problem is, all the time people keep watching on Sky TV and paying the extortionate ticket prices, nothing much will change. But I am pretty sure there are some characters in the FA- hell, even in FIFA- who have watched the past few weeks events and will have realised that football has to begin to raise its game and clean up its act sooner rather than later if it does not want to be left behind.

 

 

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The History of Fratton Park

English: Entrance to Fratton Park football sta...

Much as actors can become typecast, one of the inherent risks of a career as a historian is that you end up becoming typecast in the same manner. Of course, specialising in a subject is one thing, but on the other hand, pursuing some slightly diverse fields do show flexibility, and not only that, it keeps things interesting.

With that in mind, and inspired by recent developments with Pompey, I have been giving increasing attention to the feasibility of writing a comprehensive history of Fratton Park, and Pompey’s traumatic search for a new home. I’ve always been quite interested in football stadia – not just in a technological sense, but in the context of social history too. And if you’re looking to study the history of football stadia, Fratton Park probably gives as interesting a case as any.

The plot of land off Goldsmith avenue was originally purchased in 1898, soon after the clubs foundation. In the manner of most late 19th century grounds, a pavillion housed the dressing rooms and offices, and the other three stands were open terracing. The pitch was surrounded by a quaint white picket fence. The first main stand at Fratton was in the south west corner, the origins of the famous mock tudor entrance that is still there today. At the time, the ground was bounded by houses in Carisbrooke Road and Specks Lane, but was open on the north and west sides – parts of Portsmouth were still relatively open at the time, given that urban growth had not completely taken hold. The massive increase in shipbuilding in the dockyard, and the wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-45, probably precipitated the building of more houses, which in turn hemmed in the ground. But this was certainly not unusual for the time.

In 1929 the present South Stand was built, by the famous architect Archibald Leitch, and is one of the few examples left of his work. The South Stand featured a small paddock, partly sunk below pitch level, and an upper tier housing the directors box. Sadly, the famous iron lattice work on the facade of the upper tier was covered over in the 1980′s. In 1934 the current North Stand was built, mainly by the income raised from the sale of defender Jimmy Allen. A tier of seating was placed on top of the North stand terracing, which was left largely uncovered. At some point a basic roof was placed over the Fratton End. And that is pretty much how the ground stayed for almost 50 years. In the so-called ‘boom years’ of English football, an unbelievable 51,000 packed into Fratton Park to watch an FA Cup Quarter Final with Derby County in 1949 – still a record attendance.

In the mid 1950′s, the club took the remarkably forward step of constructing one of the first pre-fabricated concrete structures in the country. The ‘old’ Fratton end – as we call it nowadays! – was a remarkable structure, and subject to quite a bit of interest in the architectural community. Unusually, the upper tier provided extra standing space, on top of the existing terraced banking. I actually attended my first football match at Fratton Park stood on the lower tier of this stand in about 1988. Sadly, the stand was condemmed shortly after due to concrete cancer. After a couple of years of dilapidation, the upper tier was taken down, leaving the ‘hump’ of the low tier as a small terrace.

With the rise of hooliganism in football, from the 1970′s onwards, the first winds of change began to blow through football stadia. Steel fences and segregation of fans were introduced. This had the effect of cutting capacity. But stadium disasters at Bradford in 1985 and Hillsborough in 1989, and the subsequent Popplewell and Taylor Reports, changed the face of football stadiums forever. Capacities were cut dramatically in the interests of safety after Bradford, and new fire escapes were introduced. But after the Hillsborough disaster capacities were cut yet further, and the steel fences were taken away. The biggest changes were motivated by introduction of all-seater stadia by 1994. With a lack of space, the club could not easily adapt Fratton to seating, and the only option was to bolt seats onto existing terracing – reducing the capacity to 15,000. Almost exactly 50 years before, the same ground had held 36,000 more people.

With the constraints of the Fratton site, the club looked at relocating to a new site at Farlington. Called Parkway, the proposal was for an exciting new stadium, similar in design to Huddersfield and Bolton’s new stadiums; a retain park, and a new train station. The plan was widely supported by most of Pompey’s fanbase and the city as a whole, but the local residents – presumably not football fans – campaigned vigorously against it. The planning application was turned down by the City Council’s planning committee, and then overturned by the full council. The application was referred to the Department of the Environment for a public inquiry, which eventually turned down the plan on the somewhat spurious basis that it would remove important grazing land for Geese. Is it possible that residents in the most affluent area of Portsmouth found an unlikely ally in these feathered migrants?

Stuck in an outdated, vintage stadium, and in financial problems, Portsmouth spent the 1990′s at Fratton Park. There was neither the will nor the financing for any kind of large scale redevelopment. Under the ownership of Terry Venables – whose name is still a swear word in these parts – the new Fratton End was built, a large single tier stand holding 4,500 seats. a roof was also put on the North Stand covering the lower tier, with the stadium having an overall capacity of 19,000. However, Venables did not put the necesarry finance in place, and the cost of these works almost bankrupted the club. But as a silver lining, the new Fratton End improved what was already a famous atmosphere. Famous nights such as a home match against Stockport in 1998, when the crowd sang continually for 90 minutes, cemented this reputation.

When Milan Mandaric bought the club out of administration in 1999, securing its medium term future, thoughts turned once again to the stadium. With the problems of relocation, the immediate plan was to rebuild a new stadium on the Fratton site, along with a retail development on the Fratton Goods Yard land that was being vacated by British Rail. Mandaric, however, dithered. He did not wish to build a large new stadium, that whilst Pompey were in the lower leagues would have swathes of empty seats. The retail development went on, leaving the football stadium behind. Meanwhile, Mandaric began looking at alternative sites, and practically every available open space in Portsmouth was mooted – from Hilsea Gasworks to Port Solent; from Tipner to King George V playing fields in Cosham; even Farlington (again!). Yet nothing happened.

When Pompey won promotion to the Premier League in 2003, Mandaric announced plans for Pompey Village – a 34,000 stadium, turned 90 degrees on the existing stadium, incorporating three new stands, and a retail and residential development. This development gained planning permission, and at one point Mandaric even demolished a wall ceremonially to mark the beginning of work. The wall was later rebuilt. Once again, Mandaric procrastinated. Nothing happened, whilst Pompey stayed in the Premier League for seven seasons, playing in one of the smallest and oldest grounds in the top flight.

Eventually Mandaric sold up to Sacha Gaydamak, without ever delivering on his promise of providing Pompey with a new home. Gaydamak did not like the Pompey Village plans, and forwarded an even more radical plan – constructing a landmark bowl (or bedpan) design on reclaimed land at The Hard. This plan, unsurprisingly, did not get off the ground, and attention shifted towards a new Stadium at land on Horsea Island in Portsmouth Harbour. Although Horsea is miles from a train station, it is close to the M275, and free from any constraints such as local residents or lack of land. However, with the clubs well documented recent problems, the Horsea plan is a distant memory and the club is fighting to survive.

It would be hard not to come to the conclusion that the lack of a large modern ground has cost Pompey dearly. With such a small capacity, and in poor facilities, it has been difficult to grow a fanbase. There are no lucrative corporate boxes, and very little commercial opportunities with a dearth of conferincing venues. A larger stadium would enable the club to cut prices, which would then encourage more to attend. Yet, Fratton Park is loved by the vast majority of Pompey fans. It plays a large part in making the club what it is, when other clubs have been transplanted into bland, soul-less bowl type meccano stadiums.

Complaints from visiting fans abound. Particularly when the Milton End didn’t have a roof. Historically, and socially, how did we go from dockies and sailors standing up on a saturday afternoon off, to cossetted fans whinging about getting wet and a lack of leg room? To what extend do these changing attitudes reflect wider society, and football’s commercialisation? Perhaps as ticket prices have gone up, we have expected more for our money. Whilst this is understandable, it has led to football – and fans – turning their back on the games heritage. I suspect, also, that we have gone soft. I can remember standing on the old open Fratton End, surrounded by weeds, with only rudimentary toilets and one solitary burger van for a couple of thousand people. And you know what? I preferred it.

Given the manner in which Portsmouth is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, and its small size and island location, Horsea Island probably remains the only long term option for a new ground, alongside the option of redeveloping Fratton. The option of redeveloping Fratton, however, hinges on the possibility of resolving land ownership issues with Balram Chainrai (who holds a debenture on the ground) and Sacha Gaydamak (who owns much of the land around the stadium). Given its built up location, however, Fratton presents significant transport problems. Personally, I think that Horsea Island is probably the ‘ideal world’ option.

If a club such as Brighton can turn things around – witness their fantastic new Amex stadium at Falmer – then there is no reason not to dream that one day Pompey might not be walking out into a new home fit for such a famous club.

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Cricket: The Empire strikes back

The British Empire in 1815, aka the Cricket World

The British Empire in 1815, aka the Cricket World (Image via Wikipedia)

Cricket. Now theres a sport that stepped in history, heritage and culture. From the evocative names such as Lords, Headingley, The Oval and the ‘G, to the origins of the game itself, Cricket is literally dripping in tradition and history.

Look at the teams that play Test Cricket – England, Australia, India, South Africa, West Indies, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Pakistan, Bangladesh. All former British colonies. Cricket was exported as a genteel game for the well-to-do by Brits abroad in the mid Nineteenth Century, during the height of the British Empire. In the same manner, Polo became popular in the Indian-Subcontinent, and Rugby in South Africa and the Antipodes. Fine example of sport having strong cultural roots.

Empire History is even evoked in song: ‘Captain Cook only stopped for a shit’, ‘You all live in a convict colony’, and even ‘we come with rucksacks, you came with a ball and chain’. The banter even goes into national stereotypes – one Barmy Army t-shirt has on it ‘Your nation has been found guilty of being a barbecue-obsessed, Olympic-whinging, rugby-choking, mullet-sporting lazy bunch of convicts. I hereby sentence you to another 200 years of having a chip on your shoulder’. Classic.

Cricket tends to remember and cherish its history better than most games. While most Pompey fans have no idea who Jimmy Dickinson was, all English cricket fans will know hallowed names like Grace, Trueman, Cowdrey, Boycott and Botham. Stands at Cricket Grounds are almost always named after ex-players. The Pavillions hark back to the old days of the sport, reminding us of roots long before newer larger steel and concrete stands. Lords in particular is a cricketing world all of its own – the Long Room, old father time, the Museum, and even the new media centre.

The other thing about Cricket is that due to the way its played – and its long history – its a statto’s wet dream. Virtually every match sees some record or other being broken, be it individual, team, partnership, or batting, bowling, fielding or whatever. There’s even a Society of Cricket Statisticians out there. I don’t think it would be inaccurate to say that players play with one eye on their statistics – their averages and their place on the honours boards, for example. And even in a moral sense, events such as the miracle of Headingley in 1981, the infamous Bodyline tour in the 1930′s and even the story of the little urn itself… they hang over the sport like some kind of mystical cloud.

The Culture of Cricket is also legendary. Hence the phrase, ‘its just not Cricket’, implying that certain things are just not on. Such as claiming a catch when you know it didnt carry, or staying at the crease when you know the ball took a nick. These sorts of values encapsulate the old-fashioned British sense of fair play, and for many people transcend the sport. Sadly these have been less in evidence in recent years – Australian arrogance in success and bitterness in defeat (see Ricky Ponting, also see ‘worlds worst loser’), and numerous ball-tampering, match-fixing and spot-betting allegations. But there are still examples of sportsmanship – how Adam Gilchrist used to walk of his own accord, and Freddie Flintoff consoling Brett Lee after the second test at Edgbaston in 2005, for example.

Thats not to say that I agree with all things to do with Cricket. The ‘old boys club’ part of it does make me feel like projectile vomiting – especially at Lords when you have the wonderful spectacle of row upon row of portly gentleman sat in MCC Blazer, who couldn’t chase a ball across the outfield if their life depended on it. I abhor snobbery in all its forms, and especially in sport. The snobs who criticise the Barmy Army for standing up and daring to support their team should just go home and listen on the radio. They’re the same ilk who years ago held that batsmen were ‘gentlemen’, and bowlers were ‘amateurs’. Pathetic.

But yes: to cut a long story short, I’m looking forward to watching England knock the Aussies all over Sydney again, it will be particularly sweet.

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The Taylor Report unpicked: the terracing debate

Fans of Borussia Dortmund support their team e...

Dortmund's Westfalen Stadion (Image via Wikipedia)

In 1989 virtually all football grounds in Britain contained a sizeable portion of terracing. In fact, terracing was so synonymous with football, that it would have been impossible, prior to 1989, to imagine football without it.

Originally earth or cinder banking, rows of railway sleepers were placed on top to give a firm footing. Some earlier stadiums had had scaffold-like stands, until a collapse at Ibrox in 1902 killed many spectators. Gradually earth was replaced by stepped concrete. The wide expanse of these concrete terraces were broken up by metal crush barriers, which prevented surges and crushing – and also gave fans something convenient to lean on! Far more fans could be packed into an expanse of terracing than the equivalent area of seating, so the advantages to the clubs was obvious – more people, bigger crowds, more gate receipts.

Terraces were particularly popular among working class fans. It became traditional for a clubs most vociferous fans to stand on the terrace behind one of the goals. Standing is pro-active, whereas sitting is passive. Some terraces were covered and some were open, but no-one was particularly bothered if they got wet – it was all part of the experience. End terraces became held with great affection by fans – the Kop at Liverpool, the Holte End at Aston Villa, the North Bank at Arsenal and the Stretford End at Manchester United for example. At Fratton Park of course we had the famous Fratton End. There was also an area of the North Stand Terrace known as the ‘boilermakers hump’, where dockyard workers would gather (back in those days going to Football was a legitimate reason for leaving the yard early!).

During the boom years immediately after the Second World War thousands would crowd onto the terraces: one had to turn up at lunchtime to get a good spot for a three O’clock kick off. Clubs even employed crowd packers to move the fans around and get as many people in as possible. Footage exists of small children being passed over the heads of the crowd down to the front to get a better view. At the time few fans travelled to away games, but those that did could travel around the ground at will, moving from one end to the other at half time.

It is strange indeed that the Taylor Report outlawed terracing, especially after Taylor had stated that terracing is ‘not intrinsincally unsafe’. Terracing did not cause Hillsborough – bad policing of terracing caused Hillsborough. Sadly, it does all support the conclusion that Taylor was given a brief by the Government to ‘sort out’ football. Part of gentrifying football was the attack on its working class roots, and the terrace and its inhabitants were the most visible target for ‘cleaning up’.

Most German Football Stadia have what are dubbed ‘safe standing’ areas. One, the Westfalenstadion at Dortmund, houses almost 30,000 behind the goal. Usually one end, or a couple of blocks in one end, are terraced. This is highly safe terracing, with wide steps, a crush barrier for every couple of rows, and a sensible capacity so fans are not jammed in. FIFA and UEFA games must be all-seater, so clubs get round this by the simple expedient of either having ‘hybrid’ terracing, or terracing that is easily converted into seating. The Olympiastadion in Munch has terracing that gives each spectator a designated spot, and there is a seat built into the crash barrier behind that can be used if necessary. Even for standing games, this is convenient for half time. The Espirit Arena in Dusseldorf has terracing, with basic seats covered with a metal panel – this panel can be easily removed by ground staff. Dusseldorf is a particularly interesting example, in that when the stadium was completed in 2004, it was completely all seater. Terracing was retro-installed in 2010, due to pressure from fans. This shows that terracing CAN be retrofitted into modern all-seater stadia.

Given the Germans penchant for efficiency and health and safety, do we really think they would have terracing if it was that unsafe? I doubt it very much. I have felt far more safe standing on terraces in Germany than I do seated in England. Terracing is much more safe than having seating, but where fans stand up throughout the game anyway. If people want to stand up, why not just have terracing anyway, but do it properly?

The terracing of 1989 and Hillsborough cannot be judged against that of 2010. The perimeter fencing, excessive capacities, barbaric pen arrangements, poor policing and stewarding, lack of turnstiles, few crush barriers, poor crowd distribution and non-existant emergency procedures are light years away from the terracing I have seen in Germany. All of the aforementioned problems can be remedied without recourse to seating.

Terracing, with a sensible capacity, plenty of crush barriers, and well managed, is perfectly safe. I doubt very much whether there is any will to re-introduce terracing in English football – not from the clubs, the football authorities or the Government. Not only because it would restore football to its working class roots, but also because clubs have spent so much converting to all-seater, few would want the additional lay-out of bringing back terracing.

Have English football fans gone soft since the introduction of all-seater stadia? All the evidence would suggest so. It would have been unthinkable, years ago, for fans to complain about noise, or the lack of legroom, or if their seats aren’t nice and comfy. It was just part of the game. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, the move from standing to seated is along the lines of conscious to comatose; from supporter to consumer.

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The Taylor Report unpicked: the shadow of hooliganism

The Leppings Lane end after the tragedy

The Leppings Lane End after the disaster (Image via Wikipedia)

The term ‘hooliganism’ originated from the Irish diaspora who populated British towns and cities in the late Nineteenth Century, and in particular young Irish lads who would run about town making a nuisance of themselves. The term ‘hooligan’ – derived from the Irish surname of Hoolihan – has since been used as an umbrella term to describe any kind of violent disorder.

The Hillsborough disaster was caused overwhelmingly by poor facilities and poor policing, which led to catastrophic overcrowding. There is no evidence of hooliganism on the Leppings Lane End that day, and no more misbehaviour than you might expect from any high-spirited football crowd at a major game. Yet inexplicably, Hooliganism features centrally in the Taylor Report. Why was this?

We need to be careful of falling into the trap of thinking that Hooliganism suddenly appeared on the terraces in the late 1970′s – there are plenty of recorded incidents of violence at football matches, going back to the turn of the century. It is a complete myth to think that before the 1970′s everyone went to football wearing a cloth cap and a rosette and had a jolly good time. It is a common fallacy to think of the ‘old days’ as some kind of halcyon age, almost like a stick to beat the present with. And crowd disasters happened way back in time – Ibrox in 1902, Wembley in 1923, and Bolton in 1946. Why was nothing done then?

Several high-profile incidents took place in 1985 which brought matters to a head. Rioting fans invaded the pitch at a televised Millwall-Luton FA Cup Quarter Final tie. On the final day of the league season a 14 year old boy was crushed to death under a collapsing wall at Birmingham, after police had charged hooligans. At the European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels crowd disorder led to the deaths of Italian Fans. The Bradford City fire – although not caused by Hooliganism – also directed attention onto crowd safety. If ever there was a time for the Government to get tough on Hooliganism, it was 1985 – and few in Britain could have objected if Thatcher had taken football to task. Yet aside from lobbying UEFA to ban English clubs from European competitions, nothing happened. It could be argued that by shirking the issue in 1985, the Government made Hillsborough all the more possible.

In the interim period between 1985 and April 1989, the football authorities and clubs carried on with their laissez-faire approach to safety and facilities, while also strengthening anti-hooligan measures – most grounds had strong perimeter fencing, usually with an overhang, and some even with barbed wire or spikes on top. Terraces resembled Prisoner of War Camps more than sports venues, with their pen-like construction. These measures made disasters even more likely. Policing remained as rigid as ever, herding fans around like sheep, and with poor command and control. Hooliganism should have improved policing and crowd control, yet it seems to have remained as archaic as ever. Policing on the day of the Hillsborough disaster was pretty clueless, and there might have been an even bigger disaster if there had been crowd disorder.

Reading Taylor’s Interim Report, which dealt specifically with the causes of the disaster, time and time again senior officers from South Yorkshire Police spoke with a virtual paranoia about crowd trouble. The operational planning for the match on 15 April 1989 was solely focussed on preventing or dealing with hooliganism, with virtually no planning for crowd safety problems. This paranoia about hooliganism actually paralysed police action on the day – PC’s had had it drilled into them not to open gates, to the point where one said that he ‘expected a bollocking’ for opening a gate to allow fans to escape the crush. Even when it was clear that people were dying, some officers were more concerned about spectators being on the pitch – never mind that they were escaping a fatal crush. And even as the dead were being pulled out of the Leppings Lane End, Police reinforcements drew up a blocking line on the pitch to prevent Liverpool fans from reaching the Nottingham Forest fans at the other end of the ground. Whilst this was sensible in theory, did the Police divert too many resources?

It is quite inexplicable that having fudged the issue of safety at Football Stadiums for so long, the Government then went way over the top in 1989. Avoiding the issue had led to the deaths of 96 people. The ever-present thread of hooliganism in the Taylor report is a mystery. There is not necessarily a link that all football ground disasters are caused by hooliganism, something Taylor would have stressed if he did not have a pre-conceived agenda. Reading the Taylor Report, it is probable – at least in my opinion – that Taylor ‘lumped in’ high-spirits, hot dogs and a few beers as one and the same as hardcore hooliganism – a typical top-down, class based misconception. Kind of the same attitude that would lead a Victorian middle class investigator to irrationaly link a working man having a few beers in an inn with serial killers.

The introduction of all-seater stadia, more professional crowd control and policing has undoubtedly led to a rapid decrease in football hooliganism in Britain. It is more expensive to go to football now – cutting out many young male working class supporters – and seating is not conducive to rioting. A preponderence of CCTV makes it nigh-on impossible to commit crime and get away with it. Hooligan firms still exist, but any violence is low-key and takes place away from the stadiums, even in car parks and industrial estates.

But even though football has become safer for the majority, something has been lost along the way. All-seater stadia were an excuse to hike ticket prices. Atmosphere is non-existant compared to the old terrace days. Football crowds have got soft, complaining if seats are too hard, if somebody stands up or if there is too much noise. This has all contributed to the supporter becoming a customer – disenfranchised and exploited. Watching football is now more akin to going to the theatre.

Could hooliganism have been eradicated without the draconian measures of the Taylor report? The primary causes of football hooliganism in the 70′s and 80′s were sociological – bands of disafected working class young men, many unemployed or in low paid work, grouping together and showing their disdain for authority. More intelligent policing would have paid dividends – not just erecting bigger and stronger fences, or deploying more police horses, Herding people around and penning them in like animals, it made it all the more likely that fans would behave as such. Police should have engaged more with fans, and thinking more strategically about how to manage large crowds rather than the same old route one policing.

By its illogical obsession with hooliganism, the Taylor Report was the wrong sledgehammer, used to crack the wrong walnut. And thus the Thatcher Government gentrified what was our national, working class sport. A failure to understand the causes of and nature of football hooliganism has had a lasting effect on the game, and those who follow it. I would like to advance the argument that all-seater stadia and the gentrification of football was not the only way to clean up the game.

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The Taylor report unpicked: Class bias

Liverpool fans desperately try to climb the fe...

Liverpool fans climbing on to the pitch to escape the crush at Hillsborough (Image via Wikipedia)

Motivated by my recent trip to watch German football matches, and my long-term interest in Football Stadia and Football culture, I have been taking a historical look at the pivotal Taylor report into the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. I’m starting with a look at the class bias of the report, and following on with a look at hooliganism, the terracing debate, and stadium architecture.

On 15 April 1989 a crush at an FA Cup Semi Final at Hillsborough resulted in the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans. The subsequent report into the disaster, the Taylor Report, led to all major football stadiums being all-seater. This meant the end of terracing at football stadiums, and along with the introduction of Sky TV at around the same time, has probably done more to shape English football than any other development.

Although the report was supposed to be focussed on the Hillsborough Disaster, the recent history of football in England had a chequered past. The 1985 Bradford Fire had led to the Popplewell Report into Fire Safety at Football Grounds. In the 1970′s and 1980′s crowd disorder had culminated in English clubs being banned from European Football after the Heysel Disaster in 1985.

Yet, reading the Taylor Report, you do not have the feeling of a Lord Justice trying to investigate the causes of 96 deaths. Taylor goes much further, almost as if he has been given a tacit remit by the Thatcher Government to ‘sort out’ English football, even elements that had nothing to do with Hillsborough and didn’t need ‘sorting out’. In short, was the Taylor Report a sledgehammer to crack a walnut?

Taylors remit from the Home Secretary was as follows:

“To inquire into the events at Sheffield Wednesday Football Ground on 15 April 1989 and to make recommendations about the needs of crowd control and safety at sports events”

The ‘and’ is important. Previous inquiries had looked into the specifics of a disaster. The Hillsborough inquiry was different – Taylor was instructed by Douglas Hurd to go further than the events of 15 April 1989, and to report on the state of the game in general. The inquiry took place from 15 May to 29 June 1989, and heard evidence from 174 witnesses, as well as much written evidence. 31 sports ground were visited, including in Holland and France, and other sports grounds such as Rugby, Cricket, tennis and golf. Part I considers Hillsborough; Part II wider safety at sports grounds; Part III crowd control and dealing with Hooligans; and Part IV the proposed national membership scheme.

The Taylor report was the NINTH such report into saftey at football grounds. In 1973 the first Green Guide on safety at sports grounds was published, largely prompted by the 1970 Ibrox disaster. That Hillsborough happened, after such scrutiny, does suggest that the Government, football authorities and clubs had failed to take safety seriously enough. Measures that would have prevented Hillsborough had been proposed as early as 1924. This was due to a combination of cost, a laissez-faire attitude, and a pre-occupation with dealing with hooliganism. Taylor stated that ‘there is no point in holding inquiries or publishing guidance unless the recommendations are followed diligently’.

Taylor states that when touring grounds after Hillsborough, the inquiry encountered an attitude amongst football clubs that ‘it could not have happened here’ – this was exactly the kind of complacency that allowed disasters to happen in the first place. What is most sobering, is that Hillsborough was regarded as one of the best and safest stadiums in the country. These are all sobering and salient points.

Yet in his section ‘A Blight on Football’, Taylor belies his intentions:

“Football is our national game. We gave it to the world. But its image in our country has been much tarnished”.

There was indeed a malaise amongst football clubs before 1989. Ground improvements were minimal, as there was no pressing need to improve. In the 1980′s most clubs occupied the same grounds as they had at the turn of the century, and many stands were almost just as old. Any changes were half-hearted or not motivated by safety. In this respect, Taylor DID bring about a change in focus on the part of football clubs, and a willingness to demolish, build and improve that was not there before.

In terms of facilities, Taylor laments the poor condition of football grounds, from a spectators point of view. He describes the terraces as ‘squalid’, yet I doubt that many people who stood on the terraces in 1989 thought of it that way. Going to the football on the saturday afternoon was different to going to the Opera. In classic victorian terms of social control, Taylor states that ‘it directly lowers standards of conduct’. Unbelievably, Taylor sees fit to comment on the quality of the Burgers available to fans – ‘on sale from shoddy sheds’ – as if that really mattered. Was he comparing football to a day at the races or a night at the theatre, one wonders? The classic line, however, has to be ‘there is a prevailing stench of stewed onions’. How about if fans liked having onions in their burgers? I hardly think that stewed onions caused Hillsborough.

Taylor also mentions the lack of quality pre-match entertainment, which is pertinent. However, it is difficult to imagine what the football clubs could have organised – even nowadays, the usual pre-match and half-time entertainment is best filed under ‘cheese’ and is widely ignored by most fans. Taylor had clearly failed to grasp the attitude and background of the average football supporter.

Taylor recognised in his report that ‘football created special problems’ not to be found at other sports grounds – namely, the numbers in attendance and the atmosphere. Within two pages, football was being singled out for special treatment. Amongst the sports listed, it is noticeable that Football is predominantly the most working class sport, and the one that generates the most visible passion and support.

Conclusion

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Taylor Report was a part of wider class issues in 1980′s Britain – the report is couched in ‘top-down’ class semantics. Clearly, Taylor was no football fan. The language is evocative of a victorian philanthropist investigating inner-city slums, holding firm to pre-conceived agendas and prejudices. Not just from a personal perspective, but we cannot expect a Lord Justice – instructed by a hard-line conservative Government – to be too bothered about understanding the culture of Football, THE working class sport. Thatcher had shown a willigness to ‘take on’ football earlier in the 80′s – it is believed that pressure from Thatcher herself led to UEFA banning English clubs after Heysel. For Thatcher and her Government, was Hillsborough part of the wider class struggle, much the same as the miners strike and the Poll Tax riots? It is hard to come to any conclusion other than that Taylor and the Government used Hillsborough - and the deaths of 96 people – as cover for gentrifying football and firing another shot across the bows of ordinary working people.

 

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The decline of English football: a German perspective

Dietmar Hopp

Dietmar Hopp, backer of TSG 1899 Hoffenheim (Image via Wikipedia)

Regular readers will be under no illusions that I have a very low opinion of the state of English football. In my opinion, it is far too commercialised, bloated, devoid of atmosphere and passion, weighted far to far in the direction of the wealthy few, inaccessible to ordinary working people. Its virtually at the point of eating itself. Its not even as if the overpaid, overhyped players we are told to idolise are really any good – witness South Africa earlier this summer.

By contrast, I’ve been to a few football matches in Germany over the years, and the contrast is striking. 90 minutes spent on the terraces at Borussia Monchengladbach is like going back 20 years to the uncovered, terraced Fratton End. Not just in terms of architecture, but in terms of the culture, and the experience. Why is this so? How has our national game declined to such a pathetic level, whilst in Germany it is thriving?

Ownership and Management

Lets just take a look at the ownership of the 20 Premier League clubs – the vast majority are owned solely by wealthy foreign oligarchs, people who have little or no understanding of football or English society. Rich person’s playthings. By comparison, the majority of clubs in Germany are just that – clubs. Not only football clubs, but full blown sporting clubs, with amateur, junior and womens teams, athletics, basketball, and all kinds of other sports – Unterhacing’s logo is a bobsleigh, as the club also has a winter sports heritage. Bayern Munich, the biggest club in Germany, has 162,187 members. The football part of the club is run by a spin-off company, of which 81.82% is owned by the Club itself, and 9.09% each by Adidas and Audi. The club is not listed on the stock exchange, so is therefore a private company controlled by the members of the club.

There are several German clubs that do not follow the club principle. Bayer Leverkusen are supported heavily by the Bayer pharmaceutical company. Although the club started as a social club for Bayer employees in the town, many fans of other German clubs consider Bayer Leverkusen to be an ‘artificial’ club. Ironically, however, perhaps the most prominent example in Europe of an artifical club is that of 1899 Hoffenheim. A fifth flight club in 2000, Hoffenhiem made a remarkable rise to the top rung of the Bundesliga ladderr in 2008, helped along the way by the wealth of software magnate Dietmar Hopp. The club only turned fully professional in 2007-08. Hoffenheim and Hopp have been roundly criticised in Germany, even being referred to as 18.99 Hoffenheim. The village of Hoffenheim only has 3,000 residents.

Schalke 04 were once known as perhaps the most down-to-earth, working class club in Germany. Hailing from the heavily inustralised Rurh city of Gelsenkirchen, in recent years Schalke has evolved into a slick business operation, with a brand new 60,000 stadium. Disturbingly, in in 2006 Schalke announced a link-up with the Russian energy giant Gazprom, who also own and sponsor Zenit St Petersburg. Gazprom apparently intend to invest up to 125million Euros over 5 years, something that has been seen as an attempt to gain political influence in Germany. It’s sad indeed for such a proud, cultural club to turn its back on its roots.

Although FC St Pauli are often held up as an example of a working class club with a strong fan culture, this reputation has almost become a victim of its own success, with thousands of random people around the world deciding that they are St Pauli fans. Whilst it is OK to go along with the ideals and the culture, I cannot help but feel that an English person randomly deciding to support St Pauli ‘because everyone else does’ is like a Londoner supporting Man Utd. Why St Pauli? Pick a different team!

But these examples aside, German clubs are overwhelmingly exactly that – clubs. Clubs are viewed by the size of their membership. The differences with English football are not just in ownership. In German football Clubs are often run by former players (it is not hard to come to the conclusion that English footballers, on the whole, are too intellectually challenged to run a hot dog stand, let along a football club). Figures such as Franz Beckenbauer, Karl-Heinz Rumenniegge and Uli Hoeness, and more recently Jurgen Klinsmann and Rudi Voller moved not only into team management, but also club management. Club boards are also larger, and made up with a far more balanced membership, from a wide range of backgrounds. Not just the rich owners handpicked flunkies.

Fan Culture

Not only is German football different in terms of the bigger issues. I have often felt that English football has sold its soul and fogotten the very people who made it so special – the gate-paying, ordinary working fans. Now, you have to sit down and shut up. Even at Portsmouth, ‘fans’ (no doubt called Norman or something like that) complain about the noise of the singing and the drums, or when someone stands up in front of them. A club with any bollocks would tell them to stick their season tickets somewhere uncomfortable. When did English football get so soft? (see Taylor report). Fans are no longer supporters, but customers. Fans have no real stake in the club, and are there only to be exploited and taken for granted. Clubs do nothing to encourage atmosphere, or stimulate passionate support. Spectators of English football are as removed from events on the pitch as a cinema goer is from the film on the screen.

I would like to see somebody complain about standing or excessive noise on the Nordkurve at Monchengladbach. At a German football match atmosphere is appreciated and encouraged. Tickets are cheap. Huge flags and banners and singing are encouraged. Many fans will be full members of the club, so are not just spectators, but really are part of the whole club experience. No wonder they are more likely to get more involved and more passionate about events on and off the pitch. At Monchengladbach there is a Fan Haus (Fan House) a few hundred yards from the ground. Decked out in flags and memorabilia, it is essentially a hub for supporters, selling beer but also putting on live music, and surrounded by food and clothes stalls. I know of nothing like it in English Football.

In England, the supporters clubs are normally run by eccentric bearded gentlemen, often called Roger or Norman. Their most important contribution to the operation of the club is giving their opinion on the number of toilets, or the quality of the meat pies at half time. You cannot help but feel that the Football Clubs view them as a nuisance. At Pompey we have the Supporters Club, the Independent Supporters Club, and now a Supporters Trust. The next step will probably be a supporters club branch from the People’s Front of Judea.

Whereas in Germany, the Fan Club is a real powerhouse. Although independent from the clubs themselves, the supporters clubs have real influence over what goes on. Most German clubs also employ fans liaison officers, who play a significant part in looking after supporters, both home and away. When I worked in youth politics some time ago, I came across something called the ladder of participation. At the bottom of the ladder, you are standing there watching; powerless. Whereas nearer the top, you are in the thick of the action, playing a part in what is going on. No prizes for guessing where on the ladder I place English and German football respectively.

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