It almost goes without saying that the near-death – and very much beyond – experiences suffered by English football during the 1980s shaped the game that we watch today. There was a time – a period from the middle to the end of that decade – when the definite feeling that this was a game on its last legs became tangible. Crowds dwindled to somewhere beyond what might have been considered the bare bones, whilst an unhappy trinity of disasters carried both a literal and symbolic loss, with deaths that represented scores of personal tragedies alongside a wider sense of corrosion in what had been the nations number one pastime.
Yet well within a decade, the hype was telling us that all was right with the world again, and the 1996 European Championships became a celebration of this rebirth, whether we liked it or not.
With the benefit of almost a generations worth of hindsight, it is possible to consider that the most shocking thing about the Bradford fire, the Heysel Stadium disaster and the Hillsborough tragedy is not that they happened in the first place – each of this three had their roots in systematic neglect of the game from those charged with the responsibility of ensuring the safety of spectators – but that they happened within such a short space of time. After Bradford and Heysel, sticking plasters were applied to safety which singularly failed to address the main root causes of the reasons why ninety-five people died in the space of two and a half weeks in Yorkshire and Brussels in May of 1985, and four years later in Sheffield one single disaster more than doubled the number of those that went to watch a football match either in England or involving an English club and didn’t return home afterwards.
The first, tentative moves towards English football’s free market future had come two years prior to Bradford and Heysel in 1983, when Tottenham Hotspur became the first English football club to float on the stock market. The Football Association had a rule in place – Rule 34 – which had been there since the 1890s in order to prevent clubs from being run to profit individuals but Irving Scholar, the man behind the Spurs floatation, merely bypassed these rules by setting up a holding company which could reward investors with handsome dividends and made Tottenham Hotspur FC a wholly owned subsidiary of it. Rule 34 was in need of modernisation by 1983 – much of the FA was by this time – but allowing this bypass was not merely recognition of this on the part of the FA. This was acquiescence, the breaking of a fundamental principle of football club ownership in England. Indeed, with the allowing of sponsored shirts for televised matches and the first league match shown live on the television under a new contract in the same year, it could be argued that it was 1983 and not 1992 that was English footballs true watershed year in terms of commercialisation.
Through these nascent years of change, however, nothing changed in terms of the infrastructure of the English game. Attendances had been falling for a considerable amount of time, but by the early 1980s they were plummeting. To modern eyes, the extent of this decline is shocking, as some sample attendances from the 1983/84 season – 14,106 for the match between Everton and Norwich City, 26,331 for the match between Liverpool and Southampton (who ended the season in first and second place in the table respectively), 33,616 for the match between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, 9,040 for the match between Birmingham City and Notts County, and 6,611 for the match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Ipswich Town – demonstrate. Yet the Bradford fire came as a result of rubbish collecting under an unsafe stand which hadn’t been cleared for decades, and Heysel because of hooliganism, almost non-existent policing and a stadium that was not fit for purpose, to the extent that it was crumbling before our very eyes.
UEFAs reaction to Heysel – to ban English clubs from Europe – was understandable but reactionary, and it did little to improve the conditions under which we watched the game either in England or elsewhere. Back in England, meanwhile, decades of a policy of containment coupled with a police force that froze on the day cost the lives of ninety-six supporters at Hillsborough. This time, though, action was taken and The Taylor Report was commissioned to ensure that no repeat of what happened on that particular day could ever take place again. The most obviously noticeable of the reports recommendations was the introduction of all-seater stadia, a development which was, over the next three or four years, willingly lapped up by the biggest clubs, but an even greater change was coming, the ramifications of which were so great that they perhaps weren’t even fully understood at the time.
The FAs response to The Taylor Report came in the form of The Blueprint For The Future Of Football, and one of its key recommendations was for an elite top division of eighteen clubs to break away from the Football League. The biggest clubs couldn’t at the time have unilaterally broken away from the rest of the game. They needed the support of the FA and the governing body, sensing a chance to score a decisive victory in their age-old internecine battle with the Football League, were happy to grant it. Not everybody was in favour of it – upon the launch of The Blueprint in 1990, the new England manager Graham Taylor commented that, “I’m not totally convinced that this is for the betterment of the England team. I think a lot of this is based on greed”, but on the whole it passed without significant criticism – within the game, at least – with even the stipulations that might have benefited the national team ending up being watered down to the point of non-existence. The Premier League, financially plumpened and philosophically emboldened by a £305m television deal with Sky Sports, began in August of 1992, none of which any longer had to be shared with those pesky smaller clubs.
Looking back, the formative years of the Premier League were a time of literal as well as metaphorical rebuilding. Manchester United, previously twenty-six years without a league title, won the opening two championships with a swagger that would come to be very familiar to the supporters, whilst many stadia came to resemble building sites, as terraces were torn down and all-seater replacements sprang up in their place. The national team, meanwhile, was entering one of its periodical troughs. After a dismal time of things during the 1970s, the 1980s had been a stop-start decade. They failed to qualify for the 1984 European Championships and lost all three matches four years later, but they were eliminated from the 1982 World Cup unbeaten after the goals dried up and, after a ropey start, pushed a brilliant Argentina team all the way in the quarter-finals of the 1986 World Cup. It was 1990, however, that proved a breakthrough of sorts, as a moderate team scrambled through a mediocre tournament to the semi-finals before losing to West Germany in the semi-finals on penalty kicks.
From here on, though, came a downward trajectory. England scrambled to qualification for the 1992 European Championships but only managed one goal in their three matches there and were knocked out by Sweden in their final match. Worse was to follow over the next fifteen months, as Graham Taylors team were eliminated from the World Cup at the qualifying stages for the first time since 1978. Taylor, found wanting at international level and subjected to previously unparalleled levels of abuse by the press, was soon on his way and Englands preparations for the forthcoming European Championships began under Terry Venables.
This tournament was a showpiece for the Premier League and this was matched by a renewed confidence in the national team that was based on a newer generation of players than those that had huffed and puffed to failure a couple of years earlier, albeit a new confidence that was tempered by lurid tabloid tales about the team in the run-up to the competition. The rebuilt, all-seater stadia were taken as proof of a league and national game reborn, while Venables, for all the questions over his business arrangements, played his charm card with the media to the fullest extent possible. The draw was reasonably favourable, England would probably play all their matches at Wembley, the sun was shining… what could possibly go wrong?
The opening match of the tournament should, perhaps, have resulted in a comfortable win for England, but they stuttered after taking a first half lead through Alan Shearer, and a late penalty from Kubilay Turkyilmaz earned Switzerland a draw that their tenacity deserved. Next up for England was a match that carried a greater significance than merely the possibility of three European Championship points – the oldest international match in the world, against Scotland. Again, though, England started poorly and at half-time the match was goalless. Their direction in the tournament would change, however, in the space of two minutes late in the second half. They had taken the lead early on with a close range goal from Alan Shearer, but Scotland responded forcefully and with a little over ten minutes to play won themselves a penalty when Tony Adams clumsily tackled Gordon Durie. What happened next would change the course of Englands tournament. Gary McAllister’s powerful shot thumped off the elbow of David Seaman, up into the air and away from the goal. In what seemed like a thrice, England broke and the ball was lobbed through to Paul Gascoigne, who lifted the ball over Colin Hendry and volleyed it past Andy Goram and in to wrap up the points for England.
Although few knew it at the time, this tournament was to be a glorious Indian summer for the career of Paul Gascoigne, with his goal against Scotland being its crowning glory. The feel-good factor carried over into the next match against a Netherlands side that was tearing itself apart with in-fighting, and it was this team performance that would prove to be the high point of Englands tournament, a win by four goals to one in which a dispirited Dutch team was torn apart by a performance of assertiveness that bordered upon arrogance, a brilliant team performance so one-sided that the Dutch team barely deserved the late consolation goal that they did manage in order to knock Scotland out of the group stages on goals scored. Against Spain in the quarter-finals, however, the English well ran dry again, and only a linesman’s – arguably incorrect – flag rescued the hosts, before a penalty shoot-out saw Fernando Hierro and Miguel Angel Nadal miss penalties whilst England scored all four of theirs to book a place in the semi-final and another match heavy in symbolism, this time against Germany.
For this match, the worst elements of the press bared their teeth, most notably the Daily Mirror, who conspicuously failed to reflect the mood of much of the nation with one particularly xenophobic headline which made tortuous reference to the war. The vague hysteria that came to wrap itself around the match also manifested itself in furious debate over England’s grey/blue change kit, which they would be wearing after losing the toss of a coin. As things turned out, though, the match did live up to much of the hype. Shearer have England an early lead, but Stefan Kuntz equalised within fifteen minutes for Germany. From here on a titanic battle played out, most notably in extra-time when, in spite of the golden goal rule, both teams pushed forward in the near frantic quest of a single goal to win the match. Darren Anderton hit a post for England, and a low cross from Shearer narrowly escaped Gascoigne’s toe. At the other end of the pitch, meanwhile, Kuntz had a goal disallowed for pushing. The teams couldn’t be separated and the match proceeded to penalties where, following ten perfect kicks, Gareth Southgate’s weak kick was saved. With the sound of a bursting bubble in the distance, Andreas Moller scored to send the host nation out. Four days later, with England recoiled in disappointment, Germany beat the Czech Republic with a golden goal winner to lift the trophy.
The England national team would not come as close to scaling such heights again. Two years later at the World Cup in France, they won just two out of four matches and went out on penalty kicks again, this time at the hands of Argentina. At the next European Championships, held in the Netherlands and Belgium in 2000, they would win just one of three matches while supporters rioted in Charleroi. Normal service – on-pitch mediocrity and more than a hint of menace amongst a vocal element of its support – had been resumed. The Premier League, on the other hand, continued to flourish, although the widespread floating of clubs on the stock market didn’t quite go as planned. With the clubs being massively overvalued, a lot of people – supporters included, of course – got their fingers burned. The generation of 1980s neo-capitalists, small businessmen who happened to be in the right place at the right time, not affected by this, and they largely made themselves quite wealthy off the back of the flux of the late 1990s. The stock market, however, was no happy bedfellow for football. Tottenham Hotspur, the trailblazers of this brave new world of speculation, had their shares suspended at the stock exchange in 1991, with the club £12m in debt.
Smaller clubs continued to hang onto the coat-tails of this revolution, but their year of denouement would come in 2002 with the collapse of ITV Digital, a story which is likely to come back into the headlines again at the start of next week. The gap between the richest and the rest grew to the point at which there was little competition for the biggest honours. If we are to be grateful for small mercies, then perhaps we should at least pause the celebrate the fact that these clubs, cast aside by the biggest with the formation of the Premier League, proved more resilient than many had expected and it is two decades since a Football League club actually folded while a member of the league. The FA, meanwhile, lost control of the Premier League that it had mandated and would go on to all but lose control of the English game in any meaningful sense. The one thing that they do keep control of, the England national team, was never greatly improved by the whole new ball game and continues to stagger from media-driven crisis to media-driven crisis.
As the Premier League celebrates its twentieth anniversary this summer, the England team, without a permanent manager, will travel to Poland and Ukraine with the primary object of avoiding abject humiliation. We will probably never know whether this was a calculated land grab or whether a series of coincidences in which several peoples’ coins repeatedly landed heads up. The effect of this, however, remained the same and perhaps the only solace that can be taken for those that still do care about the England national team is that at least fewer people are likely to be disappointed by this summer’s misadventures than were in 1996. It is, perhaps, cold comfort, but England supporters have become quite accustomed to clutching at straws over the last few years.
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