Mrs Thatcher’s death not only marks the passing of a leader, the like of which we may not see again, but it also marks a watershed in sport.

Thatcher was the last of the British Prime Ministers who did not care about sport. Her husband Denis was passionate about sport, particularly his golf and was a former rugby referee, her son Mark played cricket for Harrow’s first XI but Mrs Thatcher could not understand why people cared about sport.

This story is best told by Colin Moynihan, one of her many sports minster. As he prepared to leave No 10, having been told he was the new sports minister, Mrs Thatcher warned, “For some extraordinary reason the press are fascinated by sport and it’s likely this will lead on the Six O’Clock News and could you please keep it quiet until then.” It did not work according to plan for as Moynihan emerged from No 10 he discovered the press knew and, as Mrs Thatcher had feared, it led the Six O’Clock News.

No Prime Minister since Mrs Thatcher would confess to such ignorance of sport. Indeed all of them, starting with her successor John Major, have told us not only how much they love sport but how much they know about sports. Major, after losing the 1997 election, went to the Oval to see Surrey play and both David Cameron and George Osborne, despite seeing themselves as Thatcher’s disciples, parade their love for their respective teams: Aston Villa and Chelsea.

Yet, unlike these political leaders, Mrs Thatcher had the greatest influence on football. Indeed we in Britain live in the football world created by Mrs Thatcher. What makes this story fascinating is while her political enemies were from the left, in football she made enemies of people who were life long Tories.

But before I comment on Mrs Thatcher’s influence on football it is worth mentioning how despite not caring for sport, her shrewd political instincts meant she was eager to exploit its influence. So she was very keen for the British team to boycott the 1980 Moscow Games as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Colin Moynihan and other Tories like Seb Coe defied her but what made this political demand very interesting was when it came to South Africa she took exactly the opposite stand. There, until very late, she was all for building bridges with the apartheid regime, opposing sanctions and also the Gleneagles agreement banning sporting links. In this she may have been influenced by her husband Dennis.

Here Moynihan is again interesting. Moynihan, who got to know Dennis Thatcher well – they had a celebratory drink of large gins hours after he was appointed – admits there “was a contradiction” in opposing the Olympics but supporting links with South Africa. But he shrugs it away saying, “It was a very different world 30 years ago. I didn’t agree with him on Gleneagles and apartheid but that’s okay. In politics there’s respect for different people’s positions.”

Indeed so. But it does make nonsense of the claim by Thatcher admirers that her stance contributed to the demise of apartheid. It did not. This was due to other factors. Mrs Thatcher played a huge part in bringing down communism but the victory over apartheid was inspite of her, not due to her.

But what about football?

Let us start with Graham Kelly, the former FA chief executive. In his memoirs Kelly described Margaret Thatcher as “a bully who despised football”. He thought that few of her ministers cared about the game and those that did were afraid to speak out in its interest. Unlike her opposite number Michael Foot, a passionate Plymouth Argyle supporter, there was no one in her close circle who afforded her any insights into the game. Nottingham Forest supporter Kenneth Clarke might have but he was not “one of us”. Moynihan apart, Thatcher appointed a series of anonymous sports ministers with little or no knowledge of football. The Home Secretaries who introduced her football legislation, Leon Brittan and Douglas Hurd, had no knowledge of the game. Her main influence on football was the idiosyncratic right-wing MP for Welwyn and Hatfield, David Evans, who, as owner of Luton Football Club, promoted a controversial ban on away supporters.

So football always felt Thatcher was on the other side, a view best summed up by Irving Scholar, then chairman of Tottenham.

Now Scholar was no leftie. Indeed, he is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. However Mrs Thatcher’s ban on sale of alcohol at football grounds and on coaches and trains carrying fans, just six weeks before the start of the 1985-86 football season, followed by demands that fans carry identity cards made him furious. He got Moynihan to admit that the real driver behind the ID cards was Mrs Thatcher and in Behind Closed Doors, the book I wrote for him, he said, “It took almost the rest of the 1980s to get it right (football hooliganism) and in the process we had to struggle through stupid government panaceas, temporarily encouraged by an extremely short-sighted away-fan ban by Luton. Mrs Thatcher threatened to be one of the most destructive influences on football, and David Evans was not far behind. I’m not sure who was the worst.”

Mrs Thatcher had come up with the ID cards idea because she saw football’s problems as essentially a law and order problem. One of the main reasons for this was that Thatcher’s first intervention in the game had come as a result of football hooliganism by English fans in Turin at the 1980 European Championship. Mrs Thatcher apologised to the Italian government for the misbehaviour of the fans. After that Thatcher left football alone for the first six years of her Premiership, although her free market economic policies did impact on football.

Her economic strategy in the early 1980s threw thousands of working-class football fans out of work in traditional industries, especially manufacturing, and led to major shifts in the nature of work in the economy. These developments meant that many traditional supporters, especially in football’s heartlands, simply could no longer afford to go to football matches, even when basic admission prices for a First Division match were as low as £3.50. Average First Division gates fell from 30,000 to 20,000 over five years. Moreover, the traditional jobs which vanished in the early Thatcher years were those which engendered a strong sense of community and hierarchy, and where seniority commanded respect. Their disappearance robbed football of some of its authority figures who helped to keep crowds in order, and therefore left football more vulnerable to the affluent or would-be affluent young hooligans.

The successful Falklands War reinforced the nationalism and xenophobia of English fans overseas. During the war itself, English football fans in Spain for the World Cup carried banners calling themselves “Soccer’s Task Force”. Inspired by the success of The Sun’s “Gotcha” headline, after the sinking of the Argentine cruiser the Belgrano, popular newspapers started to adopt the language of warfare for football matches. Before England’s match with Germany at Euro 96, The Sun declared “Let’s Blitz Fritz” but the Daily Mirror outdid them with its “Achtung! Surrender” front page. By the mid-1980s English hooligan “firms” that followed their clubs domestically, regularly negotiated mutual truces overseas to form a “coalition force” to take on foreign fans and police.

It was only in 1985 that a series of disasters, which Thatcher watched on television, led her to intervene actively in English football. This included a massed battle between Luton fans and visiting Millwall fans, in which heavily outnumbered police had been forced to retreat. It caused 47 injuries, a new record for English hooligan violence and dreadful images on television including that of a Millwall skinhead kicking a policeman attempting to give the kiss of life to a colleague. Thatcher summoned senior figures from the FA and the Football League to Downing Street and demanded that the FA should change its rules to make all clubs responsible for all incidents at grounds. She also wanted clubs to accelerate the introduction of CCTV, to bring in stronger perimeter fences and called for tougher sanctions on misbehaving players.

Worse followed in May with the Bradford Fire. A stand in the Valley Parade stadium, dilapidated and shockingly maintained, caught fire, killing 56 fans and injuring more than 260. On the very same day a brawl between Birmingham City and Leeds United fans led to the collapse of a wall which killed a teenage fan attending his first football match.

Then on May 29, 1985 came the decisive event which shaped Thatcher’s attitude to football: the Heysel disaster in Brussels. A massed charge by Liverpool fans at rival Juventus supporters at the European Cup final led to 39 deaths, all but one of them Italian. There were other important contributory factors to the disaster, especially the dismal state of the ground, thoroughly inept planning by UEFA and the Belgian authorities, and the inexperience of the Belgian police on the spot. These were generally ignored, not only in Mrs Thatcher’s response but also that of other politicians and most media commentary. The focus was on the behaviour of the Liverpool fans.

The FA withdrew all English clubs from European competition and Mrs Thatcher apologised to the Italian government (again assuming personal responsibility for fans’ misconduct). In a Commons statement, on June 3, 1985, she opined, “Violence is caused partly because there is now more money and far more mobility than there was in the past, and that enables people to move from one soccer club to another much more quickly.” After Heysel there was a four-year standoff between Mrs Thatcher and the football authorities over her demand that all football fans should carry some form of identity card.

ID cards would have meant English football supporters would have become the first people since the war to be obliged to identify themselves on demand to the police. On match days they would have been subjected to stop-and-search powers if a police officer thought that they might be journeying to a football match. They could have been banned from public places and public transport and denied the right to buy alcohol. They would have had to undergo this regime for the dubious pleasure of watching a football match in dismal, disgusting and dangerous conditions, crammed into pens and ordered about by police and stewards. Such conditions could well have finished English football as a spectator sport.

It is also worth stressing that many in the media were also prepared to write off football. 10 days before Heysel the Sunday Times produced its leader denouncing English football as a slum game for slum people. The Sunday Times “slum” leader continued: “If people do not want to watch a match there is no reason in the world why 22 men should be paid to play it. Football, like any other professional entertainment, is nothing if it does not draw crowds on its own merits. Subsidising entertainment is a contradiction in terms.” A few days earlier, The Daily Telegraph had suggested that “the time is approaching when only a handful of big clubs, such as Tottenham, Liverpool, Everton and Manchester United, will earn sufficient money to cope with renovation and replacement”. In the wake of Heysel, The Sunday Times followed up its attack on the “slum” game by calling for a new breed of entrepreneurial owner: “As long as local worthies in sheepskin coats can sip their gin and tonic in the directors’ box at half-time and gain a bit of status and profit in the process, what does it matter what is happening among the masses on the terraces?”

But then came Hillsborough. The worst disaster in English football killed 96 Liverpool fans at the FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest on April 15, 1989. The survivors then had to endure the Daily Mirror’s intrusive photographs of the horrors they had undergone and The Sun’s dishonest reports of their misconduct. But the reality was incontrovertibly established by the inquiry under Lord Justice Taylor. The disaster had nothing to do with crowd misbehaviour. It was brought about by unsafe conditions at the ground and bad decisions by the police. All the government’s apparatus of public order and crowd control measures were shown to be either irrelevant to the disaster or actual contributors. By trying to prevent what they thought was an attempted pitch invasion, and a public order offence, the police had actually prevented fans from saving the most vulnerable people from being crushed to death. In recent months much more has emerged to show how dreadfully the police behaved.

And while it is no consolation to the victims or the survivors Hillsborough did set English football on a new course. The immediate result of the Taylor inquiry was the suspension of plans for ID cards. The subsequent report blew them out of the water with Taylor bluntly concluding, “I fear that, in the short term at least, it may actually increase trouble outside grounds.”

In place of the Thatcher government’s obsession with football as a public order problem, Taylor’s prime recommendation addressed the conditions of English football spectatorship. He demanded all-seat stadiums, setting a new agenda for English football.

It took time for this new football world to emerge but it has. Mrs Thatcher neither saw it coming nor much cared for it but, in a curious way, she played a huge part in its establishment.


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