Margaret Thatcher, Football & Hagiography
There was no minute’s silence at Old Trafford last night. The Premier League may be voracious and a little mercenary at times, but it isn’t stupid. The death of Margaret Thatcher has, if nothing else, revealed something approaching the full depths of the disunity that exists in this country nowadays, but if there is one thing of which we can be reasonably certain, it is that there would not have been a unanimously respectful sixty seconds of contemplative reflection for the former Prime Minister prior to a match played in a city that was as damaged as many others by the policies of her governments. Furthermore, the Premier League has subsequently confirmed that there will be no minute’s silences for her at any Premier League fixtures this weekend. In a sport in which the shrillest voices are usually the most likely to be heard common sense has, for once, prevailed.
Grief, though, can have a strange effect on people, and it was up to the Jeff Powell of the Daily Mail last night to seize the baton of hagiography in relation to her death and relationship with the game late on Monday evening. ‘There have been enough 60-seconds of silence at football grounds lately to fill many a 90-minute game, but there was not so much as a flicker of recognition for Margaret Thatcher at Old Trafford on the evening of the day she died,’ howled Powell, both in print and online, before embarking on a thorough rewriting of history so syrupy and disingenuous that even her most ardent of supporters could be excused feeling the faint flush of embarrassment on their cheeks.
How best, though, to sum up the former Prime Minister’s relationship with the game? Well, her attitude towards it is probably best described as being somewhere between dismissive and contemptuous. It was Thatcher’s government that came up with the ID card scheme for football supporters, a piece of legislation so reactionary that it felt only one stop short of tarring and feathering us, while there have been strong suggestions that she played a role – she was subsequently found to have considered Taylor’s report to be a “devastating criticism” of the police even though she was briefed that the “defensive – at times close to deceitful – behaviour by the senior officers in South Yorkshire sounds depressingly familiar” – in the disgraceful cover up in the days and weeks that followed the Hillsborough disaster, and at a somewhat more tangential level, we might even wish to consider that her government was ultimately responsible for the lax attitudes to health and safety of the time which led to fifty-six deaths at Valley Parade in May 1985 and, of course a further ninety-six deaths at Hillsborough four years later, although it is probably fair to add as this lax attitude was as much a reflection of the times as anything else.
Powell is aware of this divisiveness, of course, and he also seems to be aware of the fact that this will influence any marks of respect that clubs may or may not wish to pay. ‘Not when the grizzled old gang from the ugly terraces can rise up growling and twittering their kindred prejudice,’ he sobs (and bear in mind, football supporter, that this is , apparently unaware of the irony of making this sort of sweeping statement in defence of somebody for whom creating a culture of ‘us and them’ was a default setting whilst in power. ‘Thatcher took up arms against the mob who were killing the game in the Eighties,’ he claims, but how does this claim stack up against what actually happened at the time? Well, there can be little argument that attending football matches during the 1980s could be a grim experience, and in May of 1985 ninety-seven were lost on the terraces and in the stands, fifty-six when a death trap of a main stand caught fire at Valley Parade, another one on the same day at a similarly decrepit St Andrews when a wall collapsed during rioting which preceded, accompanied and followed a match between Birmingham City and Leeds United, and another thirty-nine when another wall collapsed, this time in Brussels and under the weight of panicking spectators trying to flee another riot which was, however much it was painted by many different parties as an example of the behaviour of the ‘enemy within’, thoroughly Made In Britain.
The main fruit of these combined policies of containment and blame-shifting was The Football Spectators Act 1989. Parts of it survive, but its most contentious section, the National Membership Scheme, never made it to law. Reading through it now is an arduous exercise, but it’s a worthwhile peek into that parallel universe known as ‘the past.’ All supporters would have to carry Identity Cards if attending matches, and anyone caught inside a football stadium without one within two hours of the beginning or end of a match would be ‘liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one month or a fine not exceeding level 3 on the standard scale or to both’. It was a grotesque piece of legislation, one which would have been an affront civil liberties on an astonishing scale in making a clear assumption of our criminality for no more than being at a football match without the appropriate documentation. All of this would be overseen by the government, under the thinly-veiled auspices of a new body called the “Football Membership Authority”, which would “comprise a chairman and six other members, of whom the chairman and four of the other members are persons approved by the Secretary of State before their election as chairman or as member.”
Powell states that, “The more draconian option of compulsory identity cards to be carried and checked by all supporters attending all matches in England was held in reserve in case football caved in to the pressure and failed to implement the all-seat stadium reforms,” but this is simply untrue. The Football Spectators Act 1989 was on the table until it was overtaken by a disaster which can comfortably regarded as an inevitable conclusion of years of a policies from both within the game and outside which treated supporters as no more than an inconvenience to be contained. On the fifteenth of April 1989, ninety-five people were killed at Hillsborough stadium and a further victim died in hospital four years later. For Powell, though, a loss of human life seems to be fairly low on the list of concerns over what happened that day and its aftermath. “It [“The long haul towards all-seat grounds, monitored by closed-circuit television cameras,” as he so charmlessly puts it] was a battle which would not be won until, by a terrible irony, the people of Liverpool became entrapped in an even greater disaster of their own, at Hillsborough four years later” is about as much as he has to say about the death of ninety-six people that day, apart from to follow on with some cheap, nasty point-scoring against what he describes as “the forerunners of the devious safe standing (at grounds) campaigners and their allies of convenience on the trendy Left.” He has nothing else to say about it. Nothing at all.
Just as there wasn’t at Old Trafford last night, there should be no minutes of silence for Margaret Thatcher this weekend, but there are plenty who, like the odious Jeff Powell, feel that we should be forced to mourn someone the death of somebody whether we wish to or not. The Wigan Athletic owner Dave Whelan certainly thinks we should, and has called for one prior to his club’s FA Cup semi-final against Millwall at the weekend. Another man with the same feelings is the Reading chairman John Madejski feels the same, all of which causes problems because his club is playing, of all clubs, Liverpool at, of all times, the twenty-fourth anniversary weekend of the Hillsborough disaster. Considering what the likely reaction of Liverpool supporters would be to being asked to observe silence for Margaret Thatcher of all people, his comments on the subject have dug his club into an unnecessary hole in which it didn’t need to find itself. What is striking about the comments of both Whelan and Madejski, however, is that neither of them relate to football in any way. If Dave Whelan, John Madejski, Jeff Powell and anybody else wish to pay their respects, then that is their choice. But if they seek to drag in thousands of others, a sizable number of whom will want nothing to do with paying her any respect, then they will likely come to regret their public pronouncements on the subject. Manchester United made the right decision on Monday night, and in spewing his bile all over the Daily Mail’s website and print editions, the man who complained so hysterically about what he described himself as a “miserable little decision” has merely told us more about himself than he perhaps ever intended to.
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