Early Doors

Football’s final revenge on Thatcher for holding the sport in contempt

Early Doors

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As a nation absorbed Monday's monumental news, the flags at Buckingham Palace were respectfully fluttering at half-mast, the TV stations were flooded with warm tributes and the newspapers cleared their front pages to mark the passing of a political giant. But football, unusually, stayed mute.

The national sport is not always so reluctant to honour the dead. Minute's silences are usually offered enthusiastically, while Remembrance Day poppies have become a matter to go to war with FIFA over. Yet the death of Margaret Thatcher elicited nothing but stony silence.

The Premier League decided against asking Manchester United and Manchester City to observe a minute's silence - perhaps imagining the response from notable socialist Sir Alex Ferguson - while the Football Association has reportedly done likewise ahead of the weekend's FA Cup semi-finals at Wembley. Choosing not to mark the death of a figure who is to be granted a ceremonial funeral, with military honours, is rather notable.

The Daily Mail, rather predictably, has referred to the decision to ignore Thatcher's passing as a 'Shameful snub to lady who saved English football', but the truth is rather different. Football can be forgiven if it fails to react to the passing of the most divisive political figure of the post-war period.

Strange as it may seem in an era when football holds politicians in its thrall, providing the perfect ground on which to seamlessly identify with common folk, Thatcher and her colleagues seemed to hold the sport, and more specifically its supporters, in contempt.

There were no games of head tennis with Kevin Keegan, a la Tony Blair; no trips to help England try and secure hosting rights for a World Cup finals, as David Cameron did when forming a luckless triumvirate with David Beckham and Prince William. While politicians now seek to latch on to football, then they seemed to want to disown it.

It is right that we should not speak ill of the dead, but it is also important that a genuine appraisal of their life is offered. Given the huge impact Thatcher had on all levels on English society and global politics, this may be a minor, parochial portion of such an appraisal, but it is still worth recording that her government's attitude to football was disdainful and at times antagonistic.

The modern game's evolution into a supporter-friendly, sanitised consumer experience where a global brand will pay £150 million to sponsor a training ground is a galaxy away from football's dark days under the Thatcher government.

The death of 39 fans at Heysel - after some Liverpool supporters charged at their Juventus counterparts and a wall collapsed - was clearly reprehensible. Thatcher fully backed the subsequent ban on English clubs competing in Europe, and few could argue with her assessment that those directly involved "brought shame and disgrace to their country and to football. We have to get the game cleaned up from this hooliganism."

Heysel was the worst instance of supporter misbehaviour at this time and there is no doubt that English football had a very big problem in the 80s. Yet the response of the Thatcher government was apparently to attack all football supporters, to demonise normal fans.

Very real concerns over very real incidents of extreme violence and hooliganism were used to brand a whole demographic as troublemakers, the vast majority of whom were, as they are now, merely interested in watching their team play on a Saturday.

It was her government who tried to instigate a compulsory ID card scheme for all football fans - which would have been the first such repressive system in Europe. The Labour party described the proposal as "an offence against common decency."

Many of those in positions of authority were minded to contain and control football supporters. Safety had gradually become a secondary concern - a state of affairs that had deadly consequences.

The Bradford Fire claimed 56 lives in 1985 after a wooden stand caught alight due to a dangerous build-up of rubbish underneath it. Then, in 1989, came Hillsborough, when the negligence of the Police resulted in the deaths of 96 Liverpool supporters.

Hillsborough, more than any other issue or event, explains football's reluctance to join in the mourning process today.

It was the government's own Police who were responsible for all those deaths. Disgustingly, having tested the dead bodies for traces of alcohol in vain hope of evidence to discredit those who had just been crushed to death, the authorities then embarked on an extensive cover-up and smear campaign, resulting in possibly the most abominable miscarriage of justice in British history as ordinary, innocent fans were told they were the culpable ones.

Only last year were Liverpool fans finally offered a formal apology by the British government. The lies and slurs had persisted for 23 long and painful years.

Liverpool fans used to display a banner that read, 'Expose the lies before Thatcher dies' - and the families did just that, finally beginning to heal a huge wound inflicted on British society.

The publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report in September did not contain a 'smoking gun' that some had suspected might implicate Thatcher. As yet there is no evidence that she played any part in the cover-up beyond being fed the Police line.

But the events of Hillsborough and the smear campaign that followed were born of a culture that depicted football fans as an ungovernable and irredeemable hooligan mass. The government of the time allowed untruth to take hold and allowed the Police to act with apparent impunity.

By 1990, the year of Thatcher's inglorious exit from Downing Street, the mood in football was changing. The Taylor Report, published in January in response to the events at Hillsborough, would result in all-seater stadiums and the gentrification of the national sport, eventually allowing it to become a global marketing behemoth. But lamentably it took the death of 96 supporters before the authorities would make the changes needed to keep supporters safe.

Meanwhile, in July of 1990, football enjoyed an emotional redemption to match its structural one when Paul Gascoigne broke out in tears deep into the night in Turin and Bobby Robson's brave Lions were vanquished by Germany in a penalty shoot-out defeat that left a nation distraught, but once again ready to welcome football back to its bosom.

Pete Davies - in his majestic 'All Played Out', which chronicles Italia '90 - poignantly captures the prevailing attitude of the time, when the Thatcher government showed such contempt for football fans and at one stage even considered withdrawing from the World Cup altogether.

Of England's glorious failure, he writes: "It wasn't just the fact we got to the semi-final, it was the nature of the journey and the transformation of the image of the game and the centrality of Paul Gascoigne – the fact we evolved into a team that played some really beautiful, heroic football and the fact that the nation was able to gather around that. It was an awful time – poll-tax riots, Thatcher at the fag end of her premiership, recession. What sort of state was England in? But the England team brought everyone together."

Without question, 1990 was a year that changed English football, and England, forever. As Thatcher left office, football was simultaneously freed from the shackles that restrained it.

Tom Adams - @tomEurosport

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