IN 1989 I was sports editor of the Sunderland Echo newspaper and editor of the town’s Saturday evening Football Echo.
On April 15, Sunderland were away to Oldham in the old Second Division. About halfway through the first half I took the unprecedented decision to take the running match report off the front page of Wearside’s equivalent of the Green ’Un.
Events at that afternoon’s abandoned FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest were simply too grim for a mere football match to seem that important. Even for football fans.
Especially for football fans.
With a few hours’ reflection, I might have chosen not to run the photo that dominated page one instead.
Taken by a Press Association photographer and distributed in what was then the usual way by wire service, it told the story of Hillsborough’s horror more vividly than any number of words.
Few, if any, national papers used it in the days that followed. An internet search now brings it instantly back to view, copied, tellingly, not from any British papers but from foreign ones.
What it shows – the twisted bodies and distorted faces of ordinary people crushed against a metal grille – was soon deemed here too tasteless to show.
But horrifying as it was, it was also deeply, deeply shaming.
And not just to the police, the ambulance service, the Football Association and Sheffield Wednesday FC, all of whose shortcomings have been brought to light by last week’s publication of the long-delayed independent panel report.
Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was also guilty.
Not just for its participation in the ensuing cover-up of official culpability which has now at last been aired. But for helping to create the appalling conditions which caused the tragedy.
Four years earlier I had written an angry article condemning the then new practice of fencing fans in.
I recalled a match at Newcastle in 1974, when as a 16-year-old I had taken part in what was called “a pitch invasion”. That is to say I, and a number of others – mostly youngsters – in the Leazes End of St James’s Park had scrambled onto the field to escape the sheer weight of people surging behind us.
It was an FA Cup quarter-final – also, coincidentally, against Nottingham Forest – and the ground was simply not adequate for an emotionally charged crowd of 54,500 people.
As I wrote in 1985, had we been fenced in, those of us at the front would have been crushed.
Of course, I was not the only one voicing such fears. But then, we were only football fans, not people to be taken seriously.
The fatal fencing was FA policy because it was government policy. And it stemmed from an attitude right at the top.
David Mellor, who was a junior minister for most of Thatcher’s time as PM, gave it away on Radio 5 last week.
Asked about her part in the Hillsborough cover-up, his first words were: “Of course, she didn’t like football fans.”
Her attitude, that of her government, and – fatally, as it turned out at Hillsborough – that of the police, was that football supporters were hooligans, the enemy within. Policing them was a security issue, one of containment, not of safety and welfare.
The attitude was summed up by the Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Hill-Norton, when he called football “a slum game played by louts in front of hooligans”. You could hardly express class prejudice more clearly.
Thatcher’s press secretary, Bernard Ingham, notoriously detested football and its followers. The day after Hillsborough he spoke of “a tanked-up mob” that allegedly caused the disaster.
If that wasn’t his own lie, he was passing on someone else’s.
But it was a lie the government, the police – and, as we know, The Sun – were all predisposed to believe.
As president of European football’s governing body UEFA, Jacques Georges should have known better. But he was quick to pass on the lie, describing the Liverpool fans as “beasts waiting to charge into the arena”.
Unlike others, he soon apologised for his words, but he had already betrayed the attitude.
Football fans were animals. To be herded. And caged.
Things have changed since Hillsborough. The cages went, all-seater grounds came in, the policing of supporters is – mostly – far less antagonistic than it was in those bad old days.
The whole atmosphere of match days is different. The old Bovril, meat pie and urine smell has been replaced by the fine-cuisine aroma of the corporate dining suite.
Grounds are certainly safer. But it has come at a cost. About £30 per ticket in the average Championship ground, considerably more in the Premier League.
A year after Hillsborough, fans in Manchester United’s Stretford End paid £3.50 to watch a game. Allowing for inflation, that’s around £6.50 in today’s terms. You couldn’t see professional football anywhere in Britain for that today.
If football was ever a slum game, it isn’t now. The slum-dwellers have been priced out.
And the teenager I was in 1974 would have been priced out too.
If football in the 1980s was a battleground in the class war, it was the working-class that lost. Not just the battle, but the game.