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.
- The ism of the week: Hooliganism (economist.com)
- “Jogo Bonito”…The Beautiful Game: Hooliganism Is Here To Stay! (bleacherreport.com)
- The Taylor report unpicked: Class bias (dalyhistory.wordpress.com)
- Argentine head denies connection with hooligans (usatoday.com)
- Goal.com Exclusive: Liverpool Hooligans Went On Violent Rampage Before Napoli Game As Goal.com Reporters Fled To Safety (goal.com)