Why I think Hillsborough still matters

One of the most troubling things about the reactions to the Cohen boycott is the misunderstanding of what the Hillsborough disaster actually meant. There are two fundamentally incorrect reactions to the topic. Let me take two examples from Ollie's most recent comment thread.

Both "It was a long time ago" and "******** Liverpool" are understandable reactions. If we were talking about European Cups of the 1980's, they would be almost unanswerable.

But Hillsborough wasn't about Liverpool. It was about soccer fans.

Hell, it wasn't really about soccer. It was about what happens when owners and promoters look down on their audiences. Just like, to pick one example, what happened to Who fans in 1979. By the 1980's, football fans in England were seen as the dregs of society.

You look at the Premier League today, and it's unthinkable that games used to be played in substandard facilities to audiences considered a couple of steps below pond scum. But this isn't a coincidence. The reaction to the Taylor Report in the 1990's wasn't about hooliganism or Liverpool. It was about stadiums. Remember, in 1989, Hillsborough was still one of the best facilities in England. That's why it was picked for an FA Cup semifinal in the first place. The fact that such a decrepit stadium was deemed suitable for such a match shows how moribund and slothful the game had become.

Nowadays, of course, the English game is rich and happy, and a powerful favorite to host a World Cup. If you look at 1989 through a 2009 prism, of course Hillsborough doesn't make sense. But between 1966 and 1989, there were greater profits to be made through inertia than through improvements. The longer things went unchanged, the greater the risk. A disaster was inevitable, it was just a matter of who and where.

For the technical aspects of what went wrong, you can read "Hillsborough for Dummies."

Which is why blaming Liverpool fans is doubly asinine.

Technically, this is Arguing From Authority, but Nick Hornby at least was in England at the time.

Hornby quotes The Economist's contemporaneous article a few pages later, further damning the powers that were.

For an Arsenal fan, Hornby is soft on Liverpool fans throughout "Fever Pitch," to be fair. But it's hard to fault his logic, or his facts. Earlier in the book, he himself was an unwilling pitch invader at Highbury, because of precisely the sort of incident that happened in 1989. The disastrous difference was perimeter fencing in Hillsborough.

Again, that reads like an archaeology textbook now, because the Football League has been elbowed aside in favor of the Premier League. Do you think all those changes would have come about if the only problem that caused Hillsborough were Liverpool drunks? This is history now, but not ancient history. There's no excuse for not knowing this stuff.

Which brings us to the Taylor Report. Speaking for myself, I've had a neckful of people impeaching the Taylor Report without answering any of the specifics of the report. Comparisons to the Warren Commission or the 9/11 Commission are depressingly hilarious. While you could at least make a bad case that the US government benefited from a coverup in those instances, it's laughable that the Thatcher administration was somehow whitewashing the facts to protect Liverpool fans, of all people, at the expense of the police and the Murdoch press, of all people. It would literally be like saying the 9/11 Commission was trying to cover for Al Qaeda.

Yes, there are people who blame George Bush and Dick Cheney for 9/11 - as in, masterminding the whole operation. How does rational society treat those people, again? That's how Taylor Report conspiracists are treated in the UK. When we give them the time of day here, we only make ourselves look ignorant.

In any case, a quick review of the final report, and a quick glance at the differences in English football from that day to this, should be more than enough to prove that the issues of Hillsborough ran much, much deeper than drunk Liverpool fans showing up late.

As far as it being a long time ago - I think part of that comes from an assumption that the victim's families were compensated anywhere remotely what we in the United States would consider normal. That's far from the case.

Well, except for one of the policemen.

I don't think it's generally understood that this is the reason the HJC keeps harping on about Hillsborough. They're not doing it because they're attention whores. We're not talking about Cindy Sheehan or Nancy Grace here. They have by any reasonable light a legitimate reason to keep their cause going. They are fighting against official police conduct and coverup, which means this is way beyond a Liverpool FC fan spat and into the area of UK civil rights and liberties. Seen in this light, condeming Liverpool fans for memorializing the tragedy is more than a little misguided. (Thank you, Conor, for giving me the BBC link.)

(Yeah, I asked Conor from LFCNY for factual information about the Hillsborough aftermath. I sure as hell wasn't going to ask Cohen, was I?)

Hillsborough was the dark side of the game that forced change, the opposite side of the coin from the 1990 World Cup and England's inspiring performance. Either one or the other would have had significant consequences for the sport - together, it was a case of the sport re-discovering the massive support it had, the potential it had in the modern game, and the consequences of continuing to take that support for granted. It's a completely different situation now in England - probably the only nation that has seen such change in the game from 1989 to 2009 is, well, the United States.

Now, of course, you and I as soccer fans are on the right side of the class divide. Not because we've gone up in the world or because our intrinsic worth has been recognized, but because the good god Sponsorship is beaming his countenance upon the sport, and for the moment having its customers beaten and/or killed is bad for business. It's improbable that things will deteroriate to the point where we're in danger of another stadium crush disaster...mainly because people had to die to make sure we'd be in less danger...but yes, it's not something that we need to get up in the morning and go to bed at night worrying about. That's no excuse to forget what came before, and that's certainly no excuse to forget where we really stand in the grand scheme of things.

"Oh, it's the World Cup, they'll make sure nothing goes wrong." Yeah. You're probably right.

Okay, read this. It's got nothing to do with Liverpool or Hillsborough or anything, but as far as blaming victims, it's useful. Here's the conclusion, if for some reason you won't even click on a damned link when you're asked to:

So this is why it still matters, this is why it's still being talked about, and this is why it's important to get it right.

Okay, what else is there to cover - on a macro basis. I'm saving up a post about Cohen and the actual boycott.

"Yeah, okay, what about Munich chants?"

Yeah, those were pretty bad. That's another case where It Could Have Been Anyone. But bad weather is impersonal. I can feel the frowns from Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, Payne Stewart and Paul Wellstone, but small aircraft crash fall under the heading of bad luck, not criminal negligence. The Busby Babes were not sacrificed on the altar of convenience. They too happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, but there was no one to blame...let alone authorities lying about it after the fact trying to blame the victims.

Probably because of 1958 - and this is just my distant opinion - Manchester United fans by and large haven't responded in kind regarding 1989 with the equivalent volume, especially considering the thirty-year head start Liverpool had. Perhaps also because (a) Liverpool fans weren't exactly the only people in the country making Munich chants - Leeds fans made Liverpool fans look like angels in comparison - but also because (b) Manchester United fans know perfectly well it could have been them. United had gone twenty years without winning anything at the time - had they made an FA Cup semifinal, the crush would have been at least as tragic. The same was true of any club of any size in England. There but for the grace of God, and the sloth of the FA.

I mean - yeah, great, Liverpool sucks, ******** Liverpool, and so forth. No one's saying you have to cheer for them. But just because Liverpool fans cross a big, bright, obvious line doesn't mean it's cool to cross an even more obvious line.

"The Ivory Coast disaster was caused by fan stampedes, so isn't it reasonable to assume that Hillsborough was a similar situation?"

You mean, apart from the Taylor Report saying it wasn't?

Let's look at a few famous examples from music history. Ticketless fans weren't even suggested as an issue for the Who tragedy in Cincinnati in 1979. Ticketless fans showed up in droves for Woodstock...and that ended up fine. Altamont ended up in tragedy, but security was run by the Hells Angels, which was...

Say, you think maybe the common thread here is misconduct or negligence by authority? Let's look at the Ivory Coast tragedy.

Oh, well, I stand corrected, seems pretty open-and-shut to

Hm...the alleged definitive example of fan misconduct turns out to be the definitive example of official misconduct. The only issue is why this would surprise anyone - the same thing happened in Ghana in 2001.

"But what about Heysel? Was it a coincidence that Liverpool scum were at both places?"

Well, yeah. According to Hornby, anyway, and again, it seems to ring true to my ears.

It was Liverpool both times, because Liverpool was the best team in England at the time, so they were the team in a position to be at ground zero both times. Could have been Spurs, could have been United, could have been Arsenal, could have been Chelsea. Liverpool was dumb enough to be good in the 1980's. That's literally all there is to it.