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The evolution of English football fan culture

During the good-old-bad-old days of five hundred strong hooligan mobs and minimal fan segregation, the police were often outnumbered and overwhelmed. Most football grounds had been built in an era when people used to do nothing more vigorous than wave cloth caps or crank wooden rattles in the air to celebrate a goal.

In the 1970s and '80s a goal scored became license to go radio rental. Fans were regularly injured by sudden, violent terrace surges. They’d crunch at rib cage level into solid steel crash barriers. The old Liverpool Kop surged constantly throughout games and was never a place for the fainthearted. Down in London a raucous, jump up and down version of the old music hall favourite; Knees up Mother Brown became hugely popular at games. The chorus of "Oh my, what a rotten song!" would always be accompanied by a massive push down the terracing. Old Mother Brown chalked up countless casualties in her terrace heyday. They’d be left sprawled on the steps or jack-knifed over crash barriers, with just seconds to scarper clear before the chorus was repeated. Stewarding and crowd control techniques in England were pretty basic back then, and as was often the case for English football fans during this period, there was serious bother lurking just around the corner.

​On a blustery Saturday afternoon in May 1985, Bradford City Football Club turned out for a home game at their Valley Parade ground against Lincoln City. The Bradford faithful were more excited than usual, as they’d recently clinched the old third division title. Just before half time flames appeared, flickering up from beneath the terracing of Block G in the main stand. Jubilant fans chanted and jumped around what at first seemed like a small terrace bonfire, unaware that below them the flames were out of control.

An evacuation order was circulated, just seconds before a strong and prolonged gust of wind blew directly into the fire. In that instant a monstrous rolling wave of flame and dark acrid smoke exploded through the roof of the stand. The hitherto orderly and somewhat jovial evacuation descended rapidly into a chaotic life or death exodus onto the field of play. In the ensuing mass panic, people rushed to the back of the stand and down to the main exits. The exits were chained and bolted, there was no way back for them. The wooden stand burned to cinders. Fifty-six people didn't make it out.

Eighteen days later football went horribly wrong again at the prestigious European Cup Final. Defending champions Liverpool were up against Italian champions Juventus at the less than prestigious, literally crumbling Heysel Stadium in Brussels. There were powerful undercurrents in the build up to this one. The previous year, Liverpool had travelled to Rome and defeated Roma FC to claim the title, and after the match homeward bound Liverpool supporters had been ambushed by Roma Ultras. The Ultras steamed into anybody English, women and children included. Many Liverpool fans were stabbed and slashed while the Italian police seemingly turned a blind eye.

May 29th 1985, Brussels will never see anything like it again. By mid afternoon 35,000 vociferous Liverpool fans had arrived. Initially they drank beer, waved flags and belted out songs alongside their black-and-white clad Italian counterparts. By late afternoon however, the mood in the city had switched, skirmishes broke out and shop windows went through. Two hours before the scheduled kick off the atmosphere became extremely volatile. Walking alone definitely wouldn’t have been a good idea. By the time both teams were limbering up in their respective changing rooms there were over 60,000 baying fans packed inside the decrepit stadium. Several turnstiles had been rushed by ticketless mobs. Masked Italian thugs broke terracing and hurled lumps of concrete, the Liverpool masses returned fire with relish. The two sets of fans were massed immediately next to each other behind one of the goals. Their only segregation being a waist-high length of chicken wire, a tiny no man’s land, and a thin blue line of severely rattled Belgian policemen. The tense situation crackled and brewed, and then boiled over.

A large mob of Liverpool supporters broke ranks and charged across the terracing into the massed Juventus hordes. The crowd in the tightly packed Juventus section parted alarmingly as the English marauders advanced. Hundreds of frightened fans spilled onto the pitch side racetrack, thousands more ended up crushed against a perimeter wall. The old wall collapsed. Thirty-nine people died and hundreds more were seriously injured. Belgian police lost control, and total mayhem descended. The Heysel Stadium became a full-scale tribal war zone complete with contorted, lifeless bodies, burning flags and vicious running battles. Incredibly the game went ahead. It was a Cup Final rendered utterly meaningless.

Football hooliganism became known as The English Disease.

Back in England, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rolled up her sleeves. English teams were banned from competing in Europe for five years. Police then set about infiltrating hooligan firms using undercover officers and covert surveillance. High profile crack-of-dawn house raids came next. Front doors were smashed in and known hooligans were lead up the garden path. The authorities slowly but surely began to get a handle on it all. Drinking inside football grounds was banned, and plain clothed ‘spotters’ were deployed to mingle at potential flashpoints. Despite the Valley Parade tragedy, crowd control fences were erected at grounds to prevent pitch invasions. And then came the end game.

Leppings Lane, the smaller end of Hillsborough Stadium

Liverpool played Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semi-final at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. Liverpool’s colossal army of supporters were allocated the smaller end of the ground, the Leppings Lane end. With an hour to go before kick-off the stand was filled to capacity and there were still thousands more ticket holders outside. On entry to the stadium, each fan was subjected to a time consuming full body pat-down by the police. Pockets were turned out, bags were emptied and their contents examined, while the crowd behind outside grew bigger by the second. Officers had also stopped, boarded and meticulously searched Liverpool coaches heading towards Hillsborough, thus making them late. When the delayed coaches arrived just minutes before kick off, fans piled out and hurried for the turnstiles adding pressure to what was already a frightening crush. In the days before Sky Sports and town centre big screens, if you didn’t get into the stadium you had to slope off home and wait for Match Of The Day. The situation outside the stadium rapidly developed into a crowd control nightmare. Mounted officers became trapped in isolated positions, and desperate scuffles broke out. The decision was made to open a set of exit gates and funnel the surging mass of latecomers into the already completely full stand.

Inside the stadium people were crushed to death. Terrified fans clambered up the high perimeter fence and jumped onto the pitch - police officers initially assumed they were rabid pitch invaders. Eventually the penny dropped and the match was stopped. Emergency services were summoned and another major tragedy unfolded. The dead, dying and bewildered lay on advertising hoardings for the whole world to see. Ninety six people didn't make it out.

The old Millwall Den

Margaret Thatcher ordered an immediate full-scale public enquiry into crowd control at football matches. Lord Justice Taylor landed the job, his eventual findings became known as the Taylor Report and signalled the end for old school football culture in Britain. Crowd control fences came down, and terraces were phased out. Grounds were refurbished into smaller all seater stadiums. We waved good-bye to old Mother Brown. Football matches became all ticket affairs and, with more matches being shown live on TV, average attendances fell. Police used hi-tech surveillance equipment to scan crowds for any sign of the old aggro. Unruly fans faced harsh sentences and lifetime bans from their beloved clubs.

Modern day football matches became quieter affairs. Day-glow yellow stewards now occupy every aisle checking ticket stubs and showing people to their cold plastic seats. Wine-drinking businessmen sit in expensive corporate boxes, neatly cut prawn sandwiches piled high. The Lions of Millwall moved to a new Den. Long gone the crudely paint brushed graffiti on the low railway bridge approaching the old Den: WEST HAM UNITED TURN BACK, and the derisive warning daubed on the brick wall beside the Cold Blow Lane turnstiles: CHARLTON DONT BOTHER.

Highbury then and now

Arsenal's North London fortress Highbury is now Highbury Square, a housing complex where a one bedroom flat costs upward of £450,000. The Gunners have moved into the state-of-the-art Emirates Stadium where you might occasionally hear the home fans chant. The Boleyn Ground, Upton Park, is now Upton Gardens, another housing complex. London property developers are having a field day. The Hammers have moved to Stratford's vast London Stadium where day-glow yellow stewards run the show. The infamous Mile End Mob of yesteryear certainly wouldn't have tolerated stewards - but this is a new day.

Nowadays it's not uncommon to see a diehard fan being manhandled and ejected

by multiple stewards for committing the cardinal sin of standing up. The Liverpool Kop no longer surges dramatically throughout games, each fan is now numbered and fixed in place.

Ends don't get taken anymore.

Taxi for Mother Brown

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