The Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985 cost 39 Juventus fans their lives. Fans were jailed and politicians began to stir, but the crumbling grounds and crowd-control tactics would not be moved. Instead the weight of the state began to come down on supporters.
The mid-80s weren’t just a changing time for football supporters. As Thatcher declared the game a ‘Law and order issue’, striking miners were drawing lines in the sand and police were drawing their truncheons. Everywhere people were taking sides.
At the time Luton, never knowingly publicity shy, had a Tory MP in the Chair. In response to the Millwall riot of the same year, the Heysel disaster and Thatcher’s forthcoming Football Spectators Act, David Evans banned away fans and made Kenilworth road a members only club for 4 years.
Football with no away fans for four years. Hard to imagine at Luton these days, eh? (sigh)
Liverpool fans’ part in Heysel cost 20 English clubs their place in European competitions. Some would get another chance on the continent and others would not. At the time of writing, Luton still have not.
Since Heysel meant our one and only shot at European glory (the UEFA Cup when it counted) was snatched away, Liverpool fans have occupied a particular place in the Lutonian psyche, and pub debates about the Scousers remain coloured by it to this day. Including Hillsborough.
96 completely innocent supporters went to a football match that day and didn’t come home, in the biggest single tragedy ever to befall English football supporters. But with events in Heysel in the background and The Sun, the Prime Minister and the police conspiring to blame ‘hooligan’ fans, supporters from many clubs forgot which side they were on.
The Hillsborough disaster casts a long shadow in football. The Taylor Report into events that day laid the blame on the ground, the police and crowd control. All-seater stadiums, intrusive police intelligence and a more sanitised and marketable supporter experience is what we’ve been left with. Or Modern Football, if you’re new here.
The 90s came and went. Grounds changed, politics changed and the game changed. But Liverpool fans would not be moved; the loss too great and the injustice still as raw as the first insult.
The sheer duration of the fans and the families’ fight for justice seemed to lead some supporters of other clubs to mock and even berate the campaign for its cloying emotional stubbornness. 20 years down the line, the rest of the footballing world had seemingly had enough of Hillsborough, and Liverpool were on their own.
But last week showed something had changed. With the truth out and Taylor’s conclusions finally vindicated, drawing apologies from the mouths of a new Tory Prime Minister and an old Sun editor, no one was in the mood to goad the Scousers anymore. Instead, for the most part it was solidarity and respect that mumbled its way across bar stools, message boards and terraces.
Is it the Tory government and their spending cuts? The new recession? The Leveson enquiry? Whatever it is, supporters are once again deciding it is time to take sides.
After Hillsborough, a group from Liverpool got together and started the Football Supporters Association to try and give fans a united campaigning voice. At the same time, groups of fans from clubs around the country started magazines to try and connect with others, sick of the way the game was going.
Today that movement has become the Football Supporters Federation, Supporters Direct and the various fan trusts fighting the good fight for the people that pay the players wages and line the TV companies' pockets.
While the government, the media and the police are forced to finally learn the lessons of Hillsborough, supporters could do worse than look back on that time and see if we can’t find a way to chuck in a bit of solidarity with our Saturday afternoons.