The Theft of Football

Premier League Chief Executives are right now casting an intrigued eye on the future. It is fan-free.

No-one should be surprised.

In the early 60s unfamiliar football grounds were located by the smell of cigar and pipe smoke wafting
on the breeze. Children like me were routinely grasped by the strong hands of friendly strangers and
lifted over the turnstile. If it was an away game these ordinary gestures of kindness would be
accompanied by comments to the effect that we were going to get a hiding, that we should never
have had that penalty last season, and so on. If it was a capacity crowd and we had arrived late I
would be picked up again and handed down the terrace at head height, then plonked at the front,
where I would stay for the entire match, finding my father afterwards. There was no segregation of
supporters. During the game I would be asked every few minutes if I was ok and frequently told what
a filthy player our centre half was. When the home team scored adults would instinctively brace their
bodies in front of me, protecting me from the surge.

Leaving the ground at the end I was a sapling amongst mighty oaks. A hand would go on my shoulder
or head from time to time, together with a reassuring comment. All the little lads were looked after in
this way. No-one made a fuss. It could take twenty minutes to travel 30 yards. I have never felt so safe.

Very occasionally football fans weren’t safe.

An impromptu, wooden stand collapsed at Ibrox, home of Rangers, in 1902. 25 people died as they
fell onto concrete. At Burnden Park, Bolton, in 1946, two crash barriers gave way on a packed terrace.
The crowd rolled forward, crushing 32 to death.

In 1971, again at Ibrox, a last minute goal was scored. Many of those fans leaving the ground turned
to go back and some fell. 68 were trampled and lost their lives.

I attended an FA Cup semi-final a few months later, standing on the terrace behind one of the goals.
There was the usual crush at the end. The exit gave onto a narrow street down which a multitude was
slowly marching. I tried to go the other way but was picked off my feet and carried for some yards. I
fought my way to a brick wall, and waited. If I had fallen – difficult, really, given the congestion – the
throng around me would have been unable to help.

The venue was Hillsborough, the home of Sheffield Wednesday.

What the press called ‘hooliganism’ had begun to play a part. Fights between rival fans, often
premeditated, became more frequent. Despite standing in the areas where these were likely to occur I,
in the several hundred games I attended, avoided violence by not looking for any. The battles were
largely demonstrations of bravado, notable for pulled punches and the parading of colours. Clubs
began separating supporters. By the end of the 70s the away contingent was usually imprisoned in a
pen from which escape, including onto the pitch, was impossible.

There was hatred between police and fans. It was no-one’s fault exactly. Both brought a presumption
of persecution. Stone faced officers, standing in a phalanx or sitting on horseback, would endure
constant abuse as they shepherded the away cohort from, for example, the railway station to the
ground. Very occasionally a copper would dive into the melee and extract an individual, who would be
badly treated. On each encounter, both sides saw enough to reinforce their preconceptions of the other.

In April, 1989, 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at the start of their match with Nottingham
Forest. It became known as the Hillsborough Disaster. The supporters who died were located at the
Leppings Lane end, where I had stood 18 years earlier. As kick-off approached many thousands were
trapped in a crush outside the ground, too many for the turnstiles to cope with. The police solved the
problem by an illegal tactic that was also common practice. They opened the wide gates normally used
to allow the crowd out at the end of the match. The ticketless surge that resulted caused the deaths,
both in the tunnels leading to the terrace and on the terrace itself. Many if not all of the latter would
have been avoided if it had been possible to climb onto the pitch and if the end had not been divided
into three secured pens The middle section was fatally overcrowded. The police were slow to react,
treating what was happening as a riot not a medical emergency. Their relationship with supporters, it
might be argued, was partly to blame. But even unlocking the small iron doors at the front of the
terrace may have made little difference. In apportioning fault I have always felt it is ignored that both
police and fans only did what had been done many times before.

The next day fences restricting movement were spontaneously torn down at grounds up and down
the country.

The police hierarchy then orchestrated a statement containing lies about the sequence of events.
Largely because of this they are now, somewhat simplistically, regarded as totally to blame for what
happened.

Up to this point – for nearly 100 years – official attendance figures were a fiction. There were the kids
let in free with a nod and a wink and those that had pushed their way in or climbed in without tickets.
The use of cash at turnstiles presented endless and easy opportunities for fraud. A gate of 60,000 was
more likely 75,000 or more. That in so long just four fatal incidents as a result of crushing or
overcrowding occurred, and that, given the numbers and the passions involved, there was so little
violence and so much good humour, is staggering.

Anyway, all this now came to an end. It may soon be possible to retrospectively argue that
Hillsborough was the day football died.

Standing hadn’t caused the disaster, but this was what was first seriously restricted and then virtually
banned. Not for the last time authorities were keen to be seen to take decisive, drastic action. That it
was inappropriate didn’t matter.

Three years later the Premier League was formed. Top division clubs now had the right to take
autonomous decisions based on their own interests only, not taking into account those teams lower
down the ladder. All seater stadiums, corporate hospitality, luxury boxes and five star cuisine were all
on the agenda, but most of all it was about TV contracts.

It is a well established capitalist custom to sometimes restrict money-making in order to preserve
other things of value. Old buildings and parts of the countryside are protected, for example, and all
commerce operates within some kind of framework. Football, an astonishing, working class and
cultural tradition, found itself defenceless in 1992. It had no champions, just supine and bribable
representatives.

In 1967 Celtic won the European Cup in Lisbon with 11 players born within a few miles of the centre of
Glasgow. In 2005 Arsene Wenger, a remarkable and visionary manager, fielded an Arsenal side without
a single member qualified to play for England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales. No individual signing or
selection was wrong. The end result was wrong. Whilst the red side of North London still showed up to
cheer, their alienation from those representing their patch, their stamping ground, was complete. There
had been a sensible regulation limiting the number of non-British players in a team to three. The power
of money and the autonomy of the Premier League caused it to be dumped. Fans weren’t asked. It
matters to a supporter that a few of his team grew up a few streets away, or went to the same school.
Football is legitimately tribal.

The European Cup used to be contested by the League winners of each country. Financially it suited
UEFA, the governing body, to have more teams, especially from the major nations, and more games.
And so now, for example, four English sides qualify for the Champions League, three of whom are not
champions. Etymological inaccuracy doesn’t bother those tasked solely with showing a profit.

A direct result has been the destruction of the FA Cup, once the most exciting element of a season for
players and fans of all clubs, especially those in the lower leagues. If a side from the old division four
could somehow scrape into round three they might draw Spurs or Liverpool, then play on a frosty, badly
prepared, January pitch in front of hysterically passionate fans. Having accidentally broken the heating
in the away dressing room and smilingly made their guests as unwelcome as possible, there was just a
chance of a famous upset. The mere hope of this sustained millions of fans through the winter months.
Now that aspiration is gone forever. The big clubs, having too many games to play anyway, send
reserve and youth teams to compete in the cups and are relieved to be knocked out.

There used to be a rule, now forgotten, that every team had to field more or less their strongest
eleven for every game. Getting rid of it suited only the very wealthy.

International football has suffered in a similar way. With the big clubs having 60-odd matches each
season, including lucrative foreign friendlies, call ups for the national side are an inconvenience, one
they often avoid by feigning injury to their players. There is no meaningful opposition to this policy
from regulators. England’s marginalised national side would now struggle to beat any Premier League
team.

It is possible to exercise benevolent control over sport. In America, not known as a hotbed of radical
action, there is something called the draft. Each year the college system produces a number of players
considered good enough for the NFL, and these are ranked. The franchise with the worst record in the
previous 12 months gets first choice, and so on. It is an attempt to artificially ensure that the
competition stays competitive and to prevent wealth being in itself a passport to success. Individual
owners don’t like it but they are forced to comply by an authority that has teeth and which, realising
that the dreams of supporters matter, is committed to looking after the traditions of the game.

In the 28 years of the Premier League the title has been won 25 times by 4 clubs. In the NFL during the
same period 17 teams have been champions. There, fans believe in miracles.

Here, they hope to finish tenth. The NFL, incidentally, is the richest league in the world. Actual money
isn’t the problem.

There are one billion people worldwide who claim allegiance to Manchester United. Most buy
merchandise and subscribe to television channels. The actual paying customer represents a tiny fraction
of the income the club enjoys. The possibility of expanding that income whilst playing without an
inconvenient crowd in front of a stadium filled with dummies is, I promise, one that appeals to them and
others. Cheers will be dubbed. Helpfully, the BBC is already doing this. The big teams have for decades
lived unfettered and unchallenged in a world where the sole consideration has been quantity of cash.
Nothing else has mattered. Their legitimate aspiration for success and wealth has not been moderated
by checks aiming to serve the greater good. It follows that if a way could be found to create more
wealth by playing to nobody they will go for it.

The behind-closed-doors experiment now taking place will, a few years down the line, prove a useful
blueprint. Fans, who once discovered autonomy, identity and expression at matches, have never really
been liked that much. Have they been targeted, or is it just bad luck? First they were banned from
standing, then they were banned from smoking. Next was swearing – not allowed anymore – and if
they are to make jokes they had better be careful what about. Gaining access to the ground is now at
least as traumatic as passing through security at Gatwick. It is an entirely natural development that
they be stopped from getting into the ground at all.

No ruler has ever looked at a football crowd without a shiver of fear. In 1914 generals on both sides
were seriously discommoded when spontaneous matches broke out up and down the front line on
Christmas Day. What if the camaraderie had gone further? There were no more truces.

They should all be reassured. Football is about to become a computer game. I hope they get on with
it.

Then we can start again.