Wednesday, September 12, 2012

FROM MACCLESFIELD TO MADRID IN A CHANGING FOOTBALL LANDSCAPE

The Champions League draw has pitted us against the might and majesty of Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax, to many the “perfect draw”, allowing us to see City play in the homes of the champion clubs of Germany, Holland and Spain, in large capacity stadia, in countries that are all attractive and easy to get to in these days of high powered hovercraft and genetically enhanced ferries. The cultural side of things can sort itself out, however, what is occupying us right now is the act of being involved in this Champions League monster for a second consecutive season. For a second consecutive season, we also have the honour of participating in the eternally gloomy Group of Death. Many might hazard the opinion that this year's Death is even worse than the one inflicted on us twelve months ago.

Thatcher + Douglas Hurd keep a straight back in Sheffield
As it turns out, history has played a neat little trick on us too. City will play in three of the cathedrals of world soccer on more or less the same dates that, in 1998, we played in Macclesfield, Darlington and Lincoln, places of worship too, but for slightly more parochial congregations than the smiling nobility on the Castellana. 

Swapping Marstons Pedigree in a muddy alleyway for Krug Grand Cuvée on the great avenues of Europe has left some of us panicking slightly at the onrush of bubbles. Looking back at the masochistic fun we had at Northampton and Wycombe can make it hard to move on sometimes. As André Gide once said, “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” Quite so but when the oceans are so full of champagne bubbles, it is difficult to know whether to start for the distant beaches doing the backstroke or the doggy paddle.
In the light of the Hillsborough inquiry, it is perhaps poignant to stop for a moment and consider where we have come in this time. This has been a period where football has changed irrevocably, mainly for the better, but to such an extent that, if given the blueprint for Premier League 2012-13 as a free handout with your programme in September 1988, most people would have wrapped their chips in it mumbling something to the tune of “I’m not much into science fiction myself...”.

Waiting for the 1035 to Kings Cross
Yet here we are, shambling casually into season 2012-2013, with ticket prices at an all-time high, unable to stand to watch a football match, unable to drink alcohol anywhere near the pitch, with football turning itself willingly into a customer experience rather than a sport and making damn sure it charges us top whack for the pleasure. We welcome big business where once it shunned us. Politicians bask in its limelight where once they queued to throw fish at it. From Blair to Cameron, you are without your people if you do not profess allegiance to one club or another. Football, it seems, has had such a big face lift that its ears are on the top of its head. Despite this sometimes unwholesome new makeover, we are all still mad keen to devour it.

Could you point me to the urinals, officer?
In that dark smouldering year 1988, I remember well my relation with the sport. It was intense, as now, sometime overpoweringly so. But it was also very different to today. There was palpable fear on away days, the casual acceptance that violence could play a part in your day, that it could come from opposition fans but also from police and figures of authority supposedly there to aid you. There was an acceptance that you would stand in rivers of urine if you needed a leak, that the programme would be small, thin and sparsely monochrome, that the food would have you sitting awkwardly on the toilet before the day was out. You just hoped it would not have immediate effects on your bowels, because having a dump at the ground was out of the question. If you were female, the facilities in this respect would have driven you to tears and to a place behind a tree in the local park. Policemen on horseback would take indiscriminate swipes at any raucous behaviour; steaming piles of horse excrement were everywhere. I remember being greeted by medieval scenes arriving from the Scottie Road to queue at Goodison in the pouring rain, police horses battering thousands of us into tighter and tighter corners as the queues snaked around the ground in a forlorn wait to pass through those dark, grim tunnels..

In those days the boys often went by train to the away match; the train station was an early focal point for the day’s possible confrontations. You were met by lines of police, mistrusting eyes falling on each of us as we ambled past. Away fans, you see, were even dodgier meat than home support. I well remember the tense atmosphere as we stumbled bleary-eyed down the platform at New Cross, in Hull, or in Wolverhampton glancing anxiously to see where the home fans were waiting. Any gathering of bony local wastrels would have you on heightened alert. The noise of a breaking bottle or a tight adolescent yelp would have the City fans gathering ominously into tightly knit bundles of aggressive energy. A trip to Middlesbrough around that time saw a convergence of various mob-handed groups, amongst them City’s Governors, Young Governors and a big crew of Cardiff casuals dressed in blinding white Tacchini tracksuits on their way to a fashion dust up in Newcastle. Our lot descended from the train on a whim in Darlington, in order to “surprise the Boro”. Unwilling to stay on board a train now completely occupied by Cardiff casuals, we were swept along in a raging, bubbling phalanx of hormonal males in a rush of directionless shouting and wailing.

On the back of this brooding malevolence in our national sport, the police and government decided to tar us all with the same brush. In the late 80s it was impossible to be a football supporter and have the respect of authority. 

Welcome to Maine Road
Inside the grounds we were greeted by police dogs with yellow teeth, surly coppers who didn't take no for an answer and unending reels of barbed wire. I remember being held up on entry to the Leppings Lane, of all places, by a policeman who refused to let a six year old City fan enter with a small plastic bottle of Coke. His father incredulous, was forced to listen to the copper as he became more and more adamant and less and less polite. The man, clearly doubled with frustration, turned for home, his poor lad an uncomprehending accomplice.

Go anywhere near the front of your “paddock” and your view would be destroyed by double rows of huge metal fencing, behind which we were meant to feel safe and protected, until Hillsborough proved we should have been on the other side of the divide. Stamford Bridge smelled of decay and violence, Ayresome Park with its curious tubed stand roof was falling apart in front of our eyes, Oakwell was a mass of ancient terracing, The Den (old not new) was a warren of potential mugging opportunities for the feral youth of New Cross. I was there for a couple of games with Millwall, both in the cup in 1989 and I will never forget the feeling of walking those streets at night, the barbed wire pens we ended up in and the atmosphere afterwards heading to the train station.

We stood in the acid rain at Boundary Park, Home Park and Boothferry. We got half a gnat’s view of proceedings at Filbert Street, Dean Court and Valley Parade, oblivious to the fact that everywhere was held together with spit and shoe laces. These decrepit old temples of yesteryear.

9,300 watched us at Oakwell. Football was being gradually, casually strangled to death. And then came Hillsborough. That very same season.1988-89.

I had stood on the Leppings Lane several times in the 80’s supporting City, getting wet through, getting pushed around, getting abused by Wednesdayites and the unsurpassably morose South Yorkshire constabulary alike, getting diminishing value for money but returning season after season. The “accommodation”, a broad, low, shallow-stepped sweep of terracing was par for the course in those days; certainly not the worst in the division. You had to see what we went through at Oxford and Walsall to really appreciate how far football had fallen. These places were death traps but it was perhaps ironic that it took Hillsborough, our iconic FA Cup semi final venue, with its cantilever West Stand, its giant Kop and its 60s styled “opulence and space” to sound the deadly wake-up call. This was a place we had all been to,we had all shouted our heads off from that expansive and tidy terrace, but now it was claiming its innocent victims. 

As we ghosted around, transfixed by the ghastly news coming out of Sheffield, football fans knew the truth: it could have happened to any of us. The catalogue of errors and dereliction of duty by the authorities on that April day served up a terrible disaster. Bradford and Heysel would follow, both intricate parts of a dreadful story of contempt and neglect.

"...and over there is where they rioted..."
Thatcher’s treatment of football in the mid eighties was as misdirected and uncouth as her government’s treatment of the miners and steel workers. Her puppet dwarf at the Ministry of Sport, John Moynihan, squeaked her nonsensical commandments whenever a camera swiveled apologetically down to his level. It was the worst of times. We were the scum of the earth and what we deserved was overflowing urinals and the stench of violence and danger. We were being squeezed out of society, along with the miners and anything else marked human detritus. What nobody deserved was the denouement at Hillsborough that afternoon. 

Little did we know, though, thanks to a revolution brought on by the Taylor Report, accelerated by the wave of fanzines and consolidated by an England side that reached the World Cup semi finals in 1990 (despite the last gurgling shrieks of mob rule in Sardinia), football was about to rediscover itself and reinvent itself as the nation's darling.

The fences have come down, the idiotic policing has given way to a kinder more subtle approach, health and safety protects us all from ourselves, the gangs have edged into full-bellied middle-age, replaced by foppish computer literate young men sending smartphone images of the flexing substitutes to friends in Perth and Bogota. The Facebook Generation has no urge to run the gauntlet outside Fellows Park and Burnden Park. Fellows Park is, in any case, a DIY store and Bolton have long since moved beyond the ringroads. 

We sit expectantly in our Lego model stadia with shiny padded seats, watching inflatable mascots roam the perimetre, as children wave foam hands. Loud music plays, unfeasibly jolly young men tease out our enthusiasm over loudspeakers you can hear in Africa, the scoreboard shows dancing robots, everything is bathed in the silken light of opulence and order. This the canned 2012 version of what we used to be forced to put up with. We in the grounds are no longer seen as “tanked up hooligans”, as Kelvin Mackenzie’s Sun famously bellowed to the world the day after the Hillsborough Tragedy. We are no longer feral beasts, no longer a danger to society, no longer thugs and knock-abouts. 

Mostly we are now "valued customers". It says here in the latest of many emails I receive. The contempt that is shown now comes in the size of the cheque we must hand over in return for our fix not the size of the baton coming down on the back of our heads. Clubs still take us for granted, for we are still basically cannon fodder. Clearly, many lessons have been learned whilst others still remain undisturbed in the great scheme of things.

As we climb the steps to the top tier of the Bernabeu next week, many of us will be unable to stop ourselves making some of these comparisons. I will be thinking of Barnsley and Macclesfield, Lincoln and Darlington. Thinking of 25 years and the total transformation of our national sport. Football has come a long way since those dark days, but sadly, not all of us survived to experience the brave new world. We should be thinking of them too.

Behind the fences on the Leppings Lane

Additional reading: WSC post Hillsborough Editorial 
                           Spurs fan's recollections of Leppings Lane in 81
                           Brian Reade's recollections of Hillsborough
                           Harry Harris ESPN

6 comments:

  1. For those of us of a certain age you have captured those years and all those since in a nutshell. Great article. We should never forget those days, they weren't that long ago.

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  2. Cheers. I won't forget them in a hurry. Gordon Davies, pff.

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  3. Great article and a really interesting read. Enjoy the experience at the Bernabeu, and hopefully the game too!

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    1. The experience is guaranteed to be special. The rest is in the hands of the football gods! Here's hoping they know who are the good guys and who are the pampered ones who have never been to Lincoln, or its Spanish equivalent, in their lives.

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  4. a good piece as usual. im a city fan but my step-dad is a spurs fan. hes always told me about that semi final at hillsborough and how dodgy it was. cheers for that link ill have to show it him, he took me to the replay of that match at highbury. enjoy madrid.

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  5. Well, looks like you were right about Garcia. A yellow card and a headed goal from a correr. Stoke mustn't have heard about that. Or it could have been just bad marking. His second header that almost went in would seem to indicate that. So he's just about already matched Nigel in goals scored. And better than Rodwell on that one performance. Expect him to start with Yaya most games. Lovely read about the 80s. I remember it well. Cheap and nasty. But at the time we didn't know any better; it somehow seemed natural. I look back at my old programs and see the average home gate (now there's a term you don't hear any more) figures are about half that of today. City: 25,500. Arsenal: 25,00 WBA: 12,600. Villa: 16,900, Newcastle: 21,200. And you could watch a game for less than 4 quid. If all they did was make it safe, I'd be happy to pay even a reasonable 15-20 euros like they do in Germany and still put up with the crap food, pissing against a wall and being herded from and to the station like cattle. Funny thing nowadays is that despite it being so much more civilised to bring the wife and kid, who can afford it? In 1986 you could do it for less than a tenner. And the music was better too. Re Real: I'd be more than happy to get out of there with a draw after yet another come-from-behind, less-than-our-best performance. But it would be nice to turn it on on the big stage. It's about time.

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Victim of great Winona Ryder trouser theft; bitter, confused and maladjusted. Watching City since 1974 with fluctuating amounts of disbelief.

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