The Hillsborough disaster was the worst tragedy that English football has ever seen. Words cannot explain the effect it had on those families affected and the football community as a whole. The families of the 96, the City of Liverpool and the whole of football have finally found out the truth, a truth that was known by the people affected, but covered up by the authorities. The lies that have now been exposed are some of the worst in history, a cover-up of mass proportions, whereby the people again took the blame for the authorities shortcomings and it is a lie that has defined football for too long.
Hillsborough was initially reported as an incident involving/caused by ‘football fans’, blame was shifted on to fans shoulders and, until Wednesday, this is what the history books reflected. This disaster wasn’t caused by hooligans or intoxicated football fans as initially reported by some, but football fans have had to live with the stereotype and ramifications every weekend at football grounds around the country.
Hillsborough was an event everyone knew about, whether you were a football fan or not. Coverage of the event, such as the lies told by a certain red top newspaper, defined people’s opinions on football fans. People outside of the football sphere saw anyone who was a football fan as potential ‘scum’ and Liverpool fans specifically as something even worse.
The stereotyping of fans and people forming opinions based on such stereotypes is a classic example of how people do not have their own opinions, but merely believe what is fed to them by the media. If Twitter for example (or the internet for that matter) had been around back then, the truth could have spread a little easier, but the only facts people had to go on were the ones the media and police put out – lies which formed incorrect opinions.
Liverpudlians have long suffered media derived stereotypes that were personified by the reports that came out of Hillsborough; the apparent ‘stealing from the dead’ jibe reinforced the reaction to label anyone with a Scouse accent a ‘thief’. This may well be more like banter now, but the reports out of Hillsborough at the time meant the nation viewed Scousers going forward from that day with severe disdain, an injustice to many, especially those who were heroes that saved lives that day. The police’s treatment of fans at the time did nothing to dispel such accusations and the majority of society was influenced by police reports that depicted Liverpool fans as criminals rather than victims.
Liverpool fans have no doubt suffered the most, but there has been a big effect on football fans in general. A long association started between the general public viewing football fans as ‘hooligans’ and ‘lager-louts’ in the wake of Hillsborough. Previous form didn’t help after similarities between the Heysel stadium disaster and Hillsborough fuelled the fires and thickened the plot that Hillsborough was in fact caused by football hooligans. The irony of this was, if the narrative of Heysel had not been so focused on hooliganism and more so on the quality and safety of the stadium, then Hillsborough may have been avoided all together. The Taylor report was reactive to the events at Hillsborough, but if authorities had been more proactive in the wake of Heysel, improvements could have been made sooner, but the Taylor report changed football culture forever.
Let’s get this right, changes were needed at stadiums, but some changes that affected matchday culture were implemented because of the false reporting that stemmed from Hillsborough about football fans. No alcohol at grounds is probably the most obvious. We all know a few alcoholic beverages for men or women in any walk of life can have a negative affect, but the long association between alcohol and hooliganism seems to be based on hearsay more than it is on fact. It is more likely in today’s football culture that people who attend football matches looking for trouble are fuelled by cocaine rather than alcohol. There is an inequality that stops football fans enjoying alcohol whilst viewing a match that is unrivalled in any other sport.
An alcohol ban changed the way football fans watch football as did the introduction of all-seater stadiums. Although terracing was not deemed to be ‘intrinsically unsafe’, the government deemed that it would not be part of the football landscape in the top divisions going forward. Friends and family were split up, and atmosphere at the grounds suffered as football increased its costs. The only plus was the naughty kids at the back of the terraces were disrupted from going about their usual matchday activities.
With rising costs to football clubs, came a rising cost to the fan and the transition started whereby football became a more ‘middle class’ spectator sport. The ‘scum’ that were perceived to be the root of all evil at Hillsborough would start to be pushed away from the game that they underpin. In reality, it is the communities that exist around stadiums, who support their local side, that make football what it is, but Hillsborough was the catalyst for all of this to change.
Football has changed to a more corporate orientated structure. With ticket prices so high, original fans are isolated from the clubs they lived for and were brought up watching. This change would have always happened and England would have followed the lead of sports stadiums in America, but Hillsborough accelerated the process and with it part of football culture was lost. Stadiums in Germany, such as the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund or RheinEnergieStadion in Cologne, have kept their football culture, atmosphere and nostalgia alive in German football by keeping terracing in the grounds and also ticket pricing low – Hillsborough meant English football couldn’t undergo such an organic transition.
A lot can be learnt from Hillsborough, not just about football, but also about life in general. Hillsborough united player, manager, fan and rival on one common ground, in an environment that put football in to perspective. Players and managers should look at the example set by Kenny Dalglish and all the Liverpool players that supported a community as men and equals, standing side by side with the families of those affected, a football team being part of the community is important. The distance that now exists between fan and the professional side of the game has reached unequivocal levels and their needs to be a conscious effort to bridge that gap.
For those immediately affected by Hillsborough, another battle for justice is just beginning and the support of football family will once more be needed, but long after that is over, a war will be raging to stop football forgetting its roots, a war the football fan is already losing.