Thatcher and Soccer

After the Heysel deaths, the former British Prime Minister, who died recently, was in favour of obliging all English football supporters to carry identity cards. Her reported demand to implement a five-year ban on English clubs taking part in European competitions would predictably result in abysmally negative effects on the English game. By Brian Glanville.

I cycled to 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s residence, wearing a pair of football shorts. The police officer at the gates was cordial enough. “You can chain your bike to the railings like Lord Hailsham does,” he said, letting me pass through. Lord Hailsham was a leading Tory politician at the time.

It was the morning after the shocking disaster of the Heysel Stadium in Brussels where, on the occasion of the European Cup final between Juventus of Turin and Liverpool, 39 Italian spectators had been crushed to death, chased by drunken Liverpool fans across the terraces, into a fatally crumbling wall. Mrs. Thatcher, that formidable Prime Minister, had asked to see a deputation of seven football journalists of whom I, as the Sunday Times football correspondent, was one. I had in fact been due to fly that morning to Mexico City with the England football team, which would take part in a mini tournament that included Italy.

It was the second time I met Mrs. Thatcher in Downing Street, the first being at a reception she hosted for the England football team and various journalists, after which she was photographed outside 10 Downing Street, being kissed on either cheek by Emlyn Hughes, then the England captain, and Kevin Keegan. The same Keegan who, when filmed on a private jet flying to Germany to film a commercial, had, with no sense of irony, declared that he could never be anything but a Labour supporter, his father at General Election time having always displayed a large Labour banner in the front window of their modest Yorkshire home.

On that occasion Mrs. Thatcher had been an amiable and ever cheerful host; there was no sense of condescension. Nor was there now, when she began by telling us as we seven sat in front, “I want to hear what you think; I want to hear your opinions.” Which, in the event, turned out to be a little doubtful.

True, she had no cause to feel sympathetic to English football and the colossal problems evoked by the Heysel disaster. Previously, the Secretary (meaning chief executive) of the Football Association, Ted Croker, arriving in 10 Downing Street, had inexplicably and insultingly told her, “We don’t want your hooligans in our stadiums.” Her hooligans! What could he possibly have meant?

Unsurprisingly, perhaps Thatcher, after the Heysel deaths, was in favour of obliging all English football supporters to carry identity cards. An obligation guaranteed to delay huge queues of waiting supporters outside the stadia. But her reported demand of Bert Millchip, Chairman of the Football Association, who I nicknamed “Bert the Inert, to implement a five-year ban on English clubs taking part in European competitions, would predictably result in abysmally negative effects on the English game.

That Liverpool should be barred seemed logical enough given the brutality of their fans at Heysel but, by a great irony, the other celebrated Liverpudlian Club, Everton, only a week before the Heysel match had played and won the European Cup Winners’ Cup final in Rotterdam in perfect tranquillity. As one who was in Rotterdam, as I was, later, in Brussels, the most culpable thing I saw was an Everton fan walking out of the restaurant where I was eating lunch without paying his bill.

By then, properly attired in trousers, jacket and even, untypically, my old school tie, I was able to join what there was of the discussion. “I think we want to get the decent fans,” said the Prime Minister, “to express their disapproval.” If only! The image would occur to me of one of those decent fans expressing his disapproval of a hooligan kicking the prone body of his victim; with the inevitable response.

I suggested to Thatcher that perhaps no one at bottom disapproved of themselves more than the thugs themselves; they were alienated. “I don’t think I’d use that expression,” she replied.

At one point, I mentioned the reputation for violence of Liverpool’s fans, which shocked the several journalists from Liverpool who were present. They had seen no evidence of this, I told them, it was because such thuggery was largely confined to the surrounding streets; inside the Anfield Road stadium and we in the Press Box would see nothing.

In fact, both Liverpool and Everton hooligans of that time were notorious for the brutal use of Stanley Knives, with which they ruthlessly slashed the faces of rival supporters. Yet the cruel irony of the Heysel disaster was that those who died were not the hardcore Juventus followers, who were all stationed at the other end of the ground, but for the most part peaceful families who had acquired tickets for that terrace through Italian guest workers, who procured them in Belgium.

True, Liverpool’s fans, themselves viciously attacked a year earlier by Roma fans after Liverpool had just beaten Roma on penalties in the European Cup final at the Olympic Stadium, may have thought they were taking some kind of revenge. Moreover, had “normal” Juve fans been on that doomed terrace, they would probably have fought back rather than be routed. Liverpool’s thugs were unlikely to be intent on murder.