Formative Years: 1985

Thanks for all the kind good wishes. I’m on the mend, and hoping to catch up on my email over the next few days. What follows might be somewhat garbled.

This isn’t a footie blog, and it’s not a fan blog. In fact, quite a lot of what I write here reflects a cynicism and suspicion of “fan culture” and its various forms. Take one example: the idea that football can reflect something of “traditional working class values”, whatever those might have been.

I spent the bulk of the first eight years of my life in an area of Bedford called “Black Tom” in a variety of two-up, two-down terraced houses. (So did Reuben Addis! Speakers on..) My first school (Reuben’s alma mater also) was the one my grandmother attended along with all of her sisters, daughters of a gardener who had run away from his apprenticeship to join the Metropolitan Police in the 1880s. He came back a knuckle-duster wearing veteran of the Ripper case and a violent alcoholic. By the time I came along, most of the houses had inside toilets, although we still used coal fires for heating, and some of my earliest memories feature everything sheeted down for the chimneysweep.

I can’t speak for turn-of-the-century working class culture. I can say that in the late ’60s and early ’70s, we wouldn’t have dreamt of leaving doors unlocked, that our neighbours were violent to each other and to their kids, and the area as a whole was an uncared-for mess. At that time, if you can believe it, people were competing fiercely for flats in the new-built high-rises a hundred yards down the road.

But it was a pleasant, lazy place in the summer sunshine, my friends were local, and there was a local butcher and chippy. They are still there – the butcher now owned and run by the friendly redheaded man who must have been in his twenties and training when I used to look up at him, thinking him as old as the hills.

I’m not left with any impression of superior moral culture or additional solidarity or rootedness in real life. I sometimes wonder whether such things aren’t the invention of middle class people with rose-tinted memories. We’re all in the university of life, every last one of us, and in truth, no one can skip class forever. (Not that kind of class.. pay attention).

By 1985, marriage and work had taken that part of my family out to a suburb justly called Brickhill. It wasn’t a great landscaping success, you understand, but from my point of view it benefitted from being on the other side of Bedford Park, a genuine pearl, from Black Tom, so I could continue my football education (and my cycling education, and running, and, briefly, rugby league – courtesy of the son of a Hull KR player)away from traffic.

I was a keen fan of my team then. Until the summer of ’85 came, and a series of events that put all that into sharp perspective. I haven’t really seen football support, or football fans, in the same way since.

I’m going to show you four videos that might explain why. Some of what follows is genuinely disturbing, so please don’t feel obliged if it’s not a good time for you.

The first video is of the Bradford City fire. Bradford were playing Lincoln City on 11 May 1985, and were celebrating promotion to the then Second Division, now the Championship. 11,000 supporters attended, of whom 56 never made it home. There were 265 other injuries, and among bravery awards given to rescuers, 22 were awarded to spectators. That last is important. Because, as you watch the fire develop, it’s important that you listen to the fans – listen, and try if you can to understand. I’ve never been able to. Two years after the disaster, I was shown the Fire Brigade film of the event, something I sincerely wish hadn’t happened, as it’s much worse even than this.

Eighteen days after that – Heysel. After this, I ignored football for quite some time. It wasn’t just me. My stepfather, a Manchester United supporter since the early 1950s, decided that he’d had enough. When my team won their next trophy, some years later, I found out only via a note shoved under my door by someone with a stronger stomach. Again, this isn’t pleasant to watch.

Bradford was an unintended disaster brought about by neglect and misadventure: my reaction is not to the heroism that took place or to the accident itself – you may be different in this, of course, and you don’t have to share my reaction – but to the behaviour that continued around it for such an extraordinary time. Heysel was an unintended disaster brought about by the meeting of the kind of thing you’ll see in the next two videos, and circumstances. It’s been said before, but it still has force: rugby fans – Union or League – do not fight each other. At one time, neither did football fans: unsegregated terracing was only phased out as trust and safety and friendly rivalry gave way in the face of violence.

This was filmed in the mid -80s from a police van in the Old Kent Road:

And this I’ve shown before: MUFC and WHUFC fans, again in 1985:

This kind of thing hasn’t gone away, of course. And it’s a worldwide problem, as recent events in Italy and elsewhere show. But click through the last two videos, and read some of the accompanying comments.

Here’s a closing thought. After the England-Spain match, a commentator on 606 said that only when the England players felt the same way about things as the England fans – only when they displayed the same passion – would England win again. Since then, George Szirtes has drawn attention to Robert Crampton’s “piece criticising the politely effete middle-class crowds at Twickenham, comparing them unfavourably to working class football supporters almost anywhere.” Both the 606 gent and Crampton are right of course. No passion, and the rugby team haven’t won anything since.. but anyway, I know they’d both find this last piece of video stirring and inspiring. I hope you enjoy it too. Twickenham, of course.

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5 responses to “Formative Years: 1985

  1. I’ve been at Rugby internationals at Murrayfield (often), Vancouver and Brisbane. Football fans don’t know what they’re missing. To be surrounded by Frogs when they sing the Marseillaise, or Taffies when they sing anything, is a superb experience. The joking and teasing are pretty good too. I’ve not been to a football match since the early 70s – I have no taste for the boorish celebration of ignorance, stupidity and wickedness. I do enjoy the highlights on the telly on a Saturday, though.

  2. I watched dozens of rugby league matches in which extremely tough and violent men demonstrated how tough and violent they were for eighty minutes. Few of the crowd were in any doubt as to who the truly hard men in the vicinity were, and few felt inclined to try to prove themselves as a hardman. It was all rather humbling in a way. In a rugby ground, the frustration inherent in a crowd is transferred to the pitch and dissipated there.

    In football, the perception from the crowd is that there is a bunch of pansies on the pitch who roll about clutching their ankle at the slightest tap, and everyone gets very frustrated and thinks they’re harder than anyone else.

  3. It’s not like the Valley Parade and Heysel disasters served to modify fans’ behaviour either, what with Hillsborough happening 4 years later.

  4. Tim, Hillsborough was nothing to do with fan’s behaviour. That’s why I didn’t include it here. Hillsborough was about overcrowding and poor policing on the day. Press claims of trouble leading up to the tragedy have been shown not to be true.

  5. James,

    Fair enough, I stand corrected.