Tedious / Multiplication

At some point in the future football supporters are going to realise that they know more about football than the media that make money out of them.

Today this can be seen in serious terms in Marseilles following violence around the England vs Russia Euro 2016 game. The initial attempts to write stories about “the English disease” seem to have struggled against social media showing events as they occur.

Perhaps the best way to sum this situation up is that the media which took 25 years to tell you the truth about what happened to football fans at Hillsborough are trying to tell you the truth about what happened in Marseilles last night.

More light is the story this morning that Bradford City – which is to say Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp – have decided that Neil Redfearn is the choice for the vacant manager’s seat at Valley Paarde. The Daily Star reported this. That is the Daily Star that reported “I saw the killer smoke bomb” in 1985. Keep it light, Michael.

What are the chances that after a month in England Rahic has decided that the ineffectual former Leeds and Rotherham manager is not only a choice, but the choice, for the new managers role? I’d suggest that Rahic and Rupp might not even know the man’s name. How many twice sacked 2. Bundesliga managers do you know?

The Daily Star’s report is not even good rumourmongering. They have – one suspects – looked at the fact that Redfearn has no job and added to the fact that he once played for the club and probably not noticed the change in ownership. Perhaps Redfearn’s people want to remind all and anyone reading that he is available and some writer owed them a favour.

It is no more educated a report that all the reports linking Phil Parkinson to Reading were, and almost certainly no more accurate.

It is guesswork. And not even inspired guesswork.

Yet we, as football supporters, lend these fumbled in the intellectual dark a level of interest that they ill deserve. Because it is “int’ paper” we think it must have some truth to it. The media understand this and act accordingly taking our money as they do.

And it is easy to say that this is no problem at all. “It is just a bit of fun” but these people earn money by leeching of the interests of football fans and inserting themselves between clubs and supporters.

If we, as football supporters, decide we can do it all better ourselves (which I think we can, and that when this website was it is 25,000 a day pomp, we did – see comment below) we could cut out the people who make money by making things up and have the clubs talk directly to us.

Which, along with some honesty, would be a welcome change in how football works.

Sir Oliver Popplewell, Bradford, Liverpool, Hillsborough and the obstructions to moving on

I was sitting in the back row of the old wooden stand on that fateful May afternoon. Four years later, when Hillsborough was the scene of the next football disaster, I was living in South Yorkshire. In 2004, while I was researching what became ‘Four Minutes to Hell’, I spent a number of days in a room at Bradford University reading the original papers from the Popplewell enquiry and even corresponded briefly with the (by then) retired judge about using quotes from his 2003 book ‘Benchmark’. I moved from Yorkshire to sit as a judge and by now I have lived on Merseyside for the best part of seventeen years. So I suppose it was inevitable that I would get the media phone calls.

For those who haven’t read the letter from Sir Oliver Popplewell, published in The Times on Wednesday of this week, it can be summarised as praising the dignity and courage shown by the citizens of Bradford in 1985 and asking whether there is ‘a lesson there for the Hillsborough campaigners.’ Crucially, Sir Oliver uses a short phrase about those of us involved in the fire, to sum up what the lesson might be; he says we ‘moved on’. There is no way to exaggerate the effect those two words have had on so many people in this part of the world.

I was asked several times to comment on what he had written. Some of my comments were used as sound bites, others given a little more air time. But I always feel happier writing than speaking, not least because I can re-read what I write, whereas I can never pull the spoken words back into my mouth to re-arrange them. So here is what I did say to various media outlets, except this time it’s better constructed.

I was proud to see again Sir Oliver expressing his opinion on the city where I grew up. I had read it before, both in his report and his book, but we don’t get too many compliments of that sort these days, so it’s always good to read one. Letters to newspapers are often reduced, sometimes vastly, to the point where the author may wish he’d never sent it. Perhaps that happened to Sir Oliver. I don’t know. ‘Moving on’ is a risky phrase to use in these circumstances. Making such a direct comparison between two disasters also has its problems. Valley Parade and Hillsborough are different, but not just because one was a fire and the other a crushing. Valley Parade is unique as the only football disaster in this country where the fatalities were caused by fire. Hillsborough followed Burnden Park and Ibrox, either of which might have been a more relevant comparison.

The essential difference is in the immediate aftermath. There was one reporter, whose words I will not dignify by naming either him or his newspaper, who insisted that he ‘knew’ that the fire had been started by a smoke bomb, an act of vandalism so common in football grounds of that era. There were other reporters who intruded into the recovery of hospital patients, even to the extent of erecting ladders so they could look through first floor windows. But by and large the press was not a problem.

The most significant difference was in the way the enquiry was conducted. Sir Oliver heard the evidence he needed to hear within little more than a month after the fire and produced his first report within another month. The reason he could do all this is familiar to those of us accustomed to the way courts work. You only go in detail into the evidence that is disputed. Hardly any evidence was disputed after the fire, although there were disagreements about what inferences should be drawn from the admitted facts. In particular, Stafford Heginbotham, the club chairman at the time, admitted publicly all the things that might have been done better or more quickly. The experts and the other witnesses made it easy for Sir Oliver to conclude that the fire had been caused accidentally. It was equally straightforward for Mr Justice Cantley to conclude the proceedings in the civil courts, which resulted in the payment of damages, and for the Coroner to hold a fairly non-controversial inquest.

Within a few weeks most of us felt we knew what there was to know, that such blame as there was had been apportioned and that we could now look to the future and decide how to ‘move on’. Moving on is a very difficult phrase. First and foremost, it quite decidedly does not mean ‘forgetting’. We will never forget. It seems to me it involves finding a way of going about our day-to-day lives without allowing the events of 1985 to intrude unnecessarily or inappropriately. They will come back – and very sharply – at the most unexpected moments. I remember sitting one day in 1999 or thereabouts in a courtroom in Liverpool. There was some work being done outside to a building with a flat roof. Bitumen was being heated to apply to the roof. The smell took me right back to that melting bitumen on that Saturday afternoon. I took over another courtroom.

So ‘moving on’ is not an exact science. It means different things to each of us. Some, I know, cope with the fire only by blanking it out. Others feel better for talking about it. But most of us in our personal and individual ways have ‘moved on’ since 1985. We were given the opportunity to do so because we felt that we knew what had happened. We need not go back over past events to discover the truth. We could draw a line and were given the chance to look to the future. In the more modern parlance, we had closure.

Hillsborough is just not like that and therein the essential difference (and the problems with Sir Oliver’s letter) lies.

Lord Justice Taylor’s enquiry took much longer. There were no clear cut admissions; the evidence had to be gone into in greater detail. He made his findings, particularly about the inadequacies of the policing on that afternoon, but the families of the deceased were not satisfied that they had discovered the whole truth. It became clear, for example, that the senior officer, David Duckinfield had at one time said the gate was forced and later accepted that he had given the order for it to be opened. Duckinfield and his immediate junior, Bernard Murray, were the defendants in a private prosecution, which was halted on the grounds of Duckinfield’s health. But by this time the families had evidence that the police had not told the whole truth.

They also had to face ‘The Truth’ from another source, a headline in The Sun, a newspaper which many shops in Liverpool refuse to sell to this very day. Unnamed sources made claims of disgraceful actions on the part of some supporters. That particular obloquy remains the subject of another campaign, still in the news this week.

Sir Oliver’s letter was, of course, published because of its newsworthiness, following close on the debate in Parliament about the pending release of further papers. But it is the very release of those papers that ensures that the Hillsborough families will not be ‘moving on’ just yet.

Twenty two years later, they do not feel they have heard all there is to hear about why those fans died. Despite the detail of the Taylor report, they do not believe that blame has been fully and finally apportioned. They do not believe they have been told the whole truth. They do not believe they can draw a line. They do not believe they have been given the opportunity to look to the future, to ‘move on’ in their individual ways.

When the documents are released next year, they may be given that opportunity. They may, however, still feel that they have not been told the whole truth, that blame still has not been properly apportioned and that their campaign for ‘Justice for the 96’ must continue. If that is the case, they will still be unable to ‘move on’, which will be even more sad. I can only say that it took me and, I’m sure, many others at Valley Parade a very long time to reach an accommodation with the events of that day. We had the benefit of being able to start on that process quite quickly and yet it still took many of us half a lifetime to make such progress. You have to feel sorry for those who, so long after their own loss, still have not been able even to begin that process.

The Hillsborough families will be given the opportunity to ‘move on’ only when they are satisfied that they know the whole truth. I hope that day arrives soon for them.


Retired Judge Paul Firth is the author of Four Minutes to Hell which presents the details of the fire of 1985.

Some of the crowd are on the pitch…

For football supporters of a certain age the pitch invasion is possibly the most unwelcome sight in the game of football. It brings back memories of bad days when fans would pile over fences onto field and the match would become a secondary event to young men indulging in territorial disputes on the field.

Football hooliganism was a lot about charging at one set of fans to get them to run in the opposite direction as much as it was about the actual punches and kicks and to that mind set – to me it seemed – the playing field offered the ultimate in territory. There are many books about football hooliganism, not one of them I want to read.

So for fans of a certain age the sight of people spilling onto the field reminds one of bad days and or worse days. Of Valley Parade’s fire of course and of Heysel and Hillsborough. Why did it take until six minutes past three to stop the game in Sheffield when Liverpool played Nottingham Forest? Many people will tell you many reasons but the heart of most explanations is that keeping people off the pitch was the prime concern of the age.

The sight of people coming onto the pitch means nothing good, to football supporters of a certain age.

Younger supporters – with no lasting memory of those days not only of disaster but of distaste – have no such associations. They see the end of season pitch invasion as a jolly, a chance to mess about and share the fun and why should it not be? After City retained Premiership status – beating Liverpool the supporters of whom have reason enough to condemn invaders – the sight of supporters on the pitch was a joyous sharing of the triumph.

English football is – as we shall no doubt hear once or twice in the next six weeks – summed up with the words “Theres some people on the pitch, they think it’s all over…

Kenneth Wolstenholme – BBC commentator on the day England won the World Cup and he who utter those immortal words – would not have comprehended the idea that people would invade the pitch to act aggressively nor to harm the supporters of another club – or in the case of Luton Town on Saturday – the players of York City. Such aggression was simply not correlated with football at the time.

So why is a pitch invasion in 2010 different to one in 1966 before the fences and Hillsborough or in 2000 after them as evidently it is, or was at Luton, at Sheffield Wednesday and at Valley Parade?

We look for answers around football, around the regulation of football, around the Zeitgeist events of football but perhaps we have to look much closer to home to find how the pitch invasion has changed from joy that can be shared by Liverpool supporters to Northampton Town fans throwing tribute t-shirts back at the City fans in the space of ten years.

On this website we have talked many times about the atmosphere at Valley Parade and it would be remiss not to say that Saturday had a touching memorial and one of impeccably observed silence but it also had – around my seat in the Kop – the continued screaming of abuse from grown men at kids on the field. Leon Osbourne puts the ball through someone’s legs but shoots rather than passes and his is a “fucking greedy idiot”, Adam Bolder opts to not cross the ball and he is a “useless git”, Gavin Grant’s ignoring of (a much better placed) Michael Flynn see him called a “greedy, greedy, greedy waste of space.”

Matthew Clarke manages to get through a game without conceding a goal despite being described as both “clumsy buffon” and “utterly useless” but Gareth Evans is cheered from the rafters for his goals which is a contrast to a month ago when he was invited to “fuck off to Halifax Town, or back to Macclesfield, or both!” In-between play results from other grounds are checked to see how Leeds United – or L***ds as many would dub them – are doing with the hope being that they are not doing well.

When Bradford City were promoted to the Premiership it was almost in disbelief – people to us said as we set off to Wolves that “they will blow it again” – but in the years of decline that have followed the support around the club seems to have gone past simple belief into an arrogant expectancy. “We are Bradford City,” the attitude often seems to be “we used to be Premiership so we should be beating everyone in this league.” Perhaps the obvious, bubbling anger comes from that feeling. Wherever the origins are maybe it was a tiny fulfilment of that over blown belief – that we can beat anyone – that prompted Saturday’s goading of the visitors.

The point is that the aggression of City fans did not start when they ran over to the Northampton Town supporters, not as I see it, and while banning people for invading the pitch could be a good idea the ramping up of aggression at Bradford City in the last ten years that makes Saturday different to the final day of the Premiership season is not restricted to the people on the grass in front of visitors.

Bradford City – in common with many clubs – is suffering a resurgence of aggressive and yobbish violence after utterly failing to address the problem of aggressive and yobbish supporting. The mentality that sees a grown man screaming obscene abuse until his face goes blue at a 20 year old Joe Colbeck is the same mentality that runs over to the Northampton Town fans.

You can find a history of talking about the rise of aggressive support here, here, here, here, here and here. To be honest it comes over in most conversations about following football these days. Manchester United hate Liverpool, Manchester City hate Arsenal, Spurs hate Sol Campbell, everyone hates Lee Hughes.

Back to Wolstenholme and his era of football and the idea of such reckless hate being spewed around would be alien. Talk to a City fan in his sixties or seventies and he will tell you about going to Park Avenue on odd weekends and supporting them, while favouring us. The idea that your football rivals are to be loathed is a modern conceit drawn from hooliganism and in many ways represents the lingering elements of those dark days.

Modern aggressive football support – be it the kind of external manifestations we see or the internal abuse of players described above – is a breeding ground for the scenes of the weekend at Luton, at Wednesday and in front of the Northampton supporters and while each fan involved is responsible for their own actions and should be punished as such the wider community around football clubs needs to address this tide of aggression.

Because if the 1980s tells us one thing is it that if we the fans cannot set our house in order then other people will try to put it in order for us be they the club, the police or the (perhaps same Conservative) Government. The last time that occurred results the results were, in very many ways, horrific.

Remember

“Remember” it said on the t-shirt that arced from the arm of a Northampton Town supporters at the young Bradford City fans who stood in front of them, taunting them, jeering at them.

“Remember” is what on the t-shirt of the man who jogged back towards the Kop moving with only a little pace past a father – one assumes – who took a photo of his daughter in front of the goal posts.

“Remember” is what it said on the shirts of the men who walked back behind the cordon of yellow high-vis jacketed stewards who would separate supporters from players as the team walked a lap of appreciation. Unlike the young people described in not too favourable terms elsewhere who charged the length of the field to and from the visiting fans these men walked back calmly, casually, arrogantly.

“Remember” it said on the t-shirts of the people who had remained in the stands and watched events on the field -a shameful ten minutes in the history of Bradford City where visiting fans were subject to utterly needless abuse – and they might have wondered why after years of watching this wretched ritual of misbehaviour that happens after the home game of every single season why the club are so lax on the offenders.

During the week, before the game, during the pitch invasion there were warnings about the legality of invading the pitch and the possibility of lifetime bands. Still, we know Mark Lawn’s thoughts on yobbishness and we know that he will pursue the people who invaded the pitch with the same vigour and promise of life bans that he did people who attacked his car. The Accrington Stanley car park might not have good CCV but the Valley Parade pitch does and a good hundred people could not see inside the ground again, with every justification.

Because “Remember” is not just a word, a word on a t-shirt, a word to talk about the people who died in the Bradford City fire and in a way it never should be. No one effected by 11th of May 1985 needs a t-shirt – no matter how well meaning – to tell them to remember.

“Remember” is a message. A message which rings through from a different age of football supporting where yobbishness was the plague of the age and football fans were penned in behind high fences to prevent them from getting onto the field in celebration, in exuberance, in emergencies.

“Remember” is a requirement for anyone who lived through the 1980s when at Valley Parade, at Birmingham, at Heysel, at Hillsborough, at Furiani to pass on.

“Remember” why it is easy to step from the Kop at Valley Parade onto the field, remember what would have happened twenty five years ago if it had not been. Remember what did happen and remember how the game changed to try ensure that people could go to football matches in safety.

Football changed after the 1980s and supporters were afforded – at long last – a respect that they were not a part of a homogeneous whole of misbehaviour. That happened so that facilities were improved, that safety was improved, that fans were not assumed to be animals to be caged in shoddy, dangerous environments and it happened because supporters and clubs made it clear that the behaviour that had taken use that point could no longer be tolerated.

Ultimately the offence on Saturday was not a sullying of the day where this club was supposed to remember it was a realisation that to some people – the people who invaded the pitch and not just those who taunted the visitors but the dad and his daughter and similar – “Remember” was just a word, hollow and meaningless.

If it is worth the football community – as opposed to the families – remember the fifty six people who died at Valley Parade then it is worth doing it in the context of how we make sure the circumstances that brought it about never occur again.

By bringing closer a situation where you and me when going to a game are less people and more crowds, are less individuals and more a mob, are less who we are more who they were then another Bradford or another Hillsborough becomes more likely.

That is what the people on the field needed to remember. The things these criminals did when they invaded the field was not just an insult to the people who did lose their lives twenty five years ago, they made it more likely that a loss of life at football will happen to fans again.

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