Present and Correct? Roger Titford exam ines how footbal l has changed in the decade since Hillsborough, wh ich is also the subject of a new book.
IN TERMS OF IMPROVED PUBLIC PERCEPTION OVER THE LAST decade no institution can offer a greater success story than the game of football. Except, perhaps, the Labour Party, and the similarities do not end there.
Ten years ago English football was the source of three major disasters in four years, its clubs were banned from Europe and its followers under attack from the government. The central question that will puzzle followers of football in years to come is how did it get out of the dog-house and back to the nation's fireside so quickly and comprehensively. Was it by happy circumstance or by a design that other stricken institutions could imitate?
In truth, it was after Heysel, not Hillsborough, that the game was at its lowest point in public esteem. In the issue before Hillsborough the WSC editorial opined: "This season there is a greater sense of fun and collective enjoyment in the English game than there has been for a while. People who stopped going a few years ago seem to be coming back." It was the era of the early fanzines, the FSA, the inflatables, more balanced broadsheet coverage and growing crowds stimulated by the new play-off system. The fight to reclaim the game by the fans had begun and it had said to the nation that the game was worth saving. The effects of the Taylor Report were both a booster rocket to the modernisation of the game and a turning point in putting the agenda back in the hands of the clubs and the football authorities.
Both the Taylor Report and the FA's Blueprint for Football set out the paths ahead. Reviewing these documents today, as Nick Varley does in his new book Parklife, reveals their objectives were by no means fully met. Instead the key was that football at last got lucky, consecutively benefiting from the fortune ofGazza's tears, the simultaneous media flip on "hooliganism" (our brave boys could be victims too) and the sheer good luck ofbumping into Sky, desperate for a football TV deal to save their network in 1991.
The Premiership and the all-seater era was born, then legitimised and glorified by a decent performance, on and off the pitch, in Euro 96. Suddenly football, particularly its Premiership flavour, was everywhere: in the betting shops, on TV advertising endorsements, Fantasy League supplements, replica shirts, live matches on TV virtually every day of the week and with results announced on News at Ten. Everyone has an opinion now. And everything the traditionalists feared
Ove rl ooking H i llsborough in the early i 990~
Park/ife by N ick Varley M ichael Jose ph , £ 9.99
in the early r99os has happened; the all-seaters, the consequent lack of atmosphere, the rich clubs getting richer, the huge hike in prices that has excluded some groups and moved football more upmarket than at any point since about 1880. But the modernisers argue it has worked. It's OK to talk football now. Gates are up over 20 per cent and hooliganism has been driven back.
But in its place, or indeed alongside it, there is emerging a spiteful, name-calling culture, fuelled by the radio call-in, the club fanzine and the Internet noticeboards. Every club has to have another it calls "scum". Following a big club, rather than a weak one, becomes an act of self-defence for those lightly committed to the game. Supporting, say, Manchester City in the face of smug taunts from people otherwise no better or worse than oneself has become a test of personal character beyond anything to do with sport.
Lately we have seen the rise of the "virtual" fan, he or she who never contemplates getting a ticket for the match but participates entirely through merchandise and subscriber TV. The beauty of the "virtual" is that you don't give them a seat in the ground but they still pay. The revenue from the hundreds of thousands of "virtuals" distorts football. Rather than the old metaphors of the ladder or the pyramid by which to measure a club's progress we will have the Jacks (almost all clubs) and the inaccessible Beanstalks (the top half dozen).
The decade since Hillsborough has wrought unimagined change on the game, the effects of which are not yet fully apparent. One obvious by-product, how-
20 When Saturday Comes