Thatcher's Footballing Legacy
Margaret Thatcher courted controversy. Wherever she went, whatever the subject, she divided opinion. In her death, as in her life there is debate, only this time it will be over how she will be remembered. What is for sure, she will be remembered as one of the most divisive Prime Ministers in British history. But what of her footballing legacy? Thatcher's government, presided over one of the most turbulent times ever in football's history and her opinion and view on football and it's fans was clear to see.
Margaret Thatcher swept to power in 1979 days. At this time football was gripped in a wave of hooliganism, public disorder was though a far bigger issue affecting Thatcher and she had bigger fish to fry. Firstly the unions, miners and other working class issues had to be dealt with before the Falklands War became her priority. However, 1985 was a watershed with her relationship with football. It was the year that hooliganism and crowd disasters saw her face football and its issues head on.
March 1985 saw the FA Cup game between Luton Town and Millwall descend into a riot, the like of which had not been seen in the public domain. The image of the game was, if not before, in tatters. The brutal scenes of fans charging at each other, knives being thrown at players, and injured policeman trying to keep the peace were sufficient for Thatcher to form a 'War Cabinet' on football hooliganism. Justice Popplewell was tasked with running a committee to come up with reforms to clean up football and its issues. Some of the ideas to come out of these discussions were banning away fans and introducing membership and I.D. Cards to all fans attending games. Luton Town chairman and Tory MP David Evans was a high advocate supporter of the proposals and he publicly lobbied for their introduction.
May 1985 saw two footballing disasters, both with differing causes, both with the same awful loss of life. At the start of the month a fire at Bradford's Valley Parade ground erupted like an inferno and killed 56 football fans. The TV footage shown live during Final Score, was harrowing and and proved what most footballs fans knew already, that a lot of football stadia had been left to rot and were in many ways, death traps. At the end of May, a different tragedy occured at Heysel prior to the European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus. Violent riots took place between rival supporters prior to kick off on the terrace and a charge between the two sets of fans caused a wall to collapse, trapping many Juventus fans and in the end killing 39.
After the second of these disasters, the Thatcher government went into overdrive, placing immediate pressure on the F.A. to immediately withdraw English clubs playing in Europe. Indeed the F.A. banned its own club's before waiting to hear what sentence UEFA would hand down on them. Thatcher called for called for tougher sentences on football hooligans. "We have to get the game cleaned up from this hooliganism at home then perhaps we shall be able to go overseas again". She followed it with "We really must eradicate this blot on our reputation". The findings from the 'War Cabinet' were that Popplewell initially advised the government that football might not be able to continue in its current guise. Football had to change and it had to seek a new initiative to keep it safe.
During the following years the Tory government were busy trying to pass the Football Spectators Act, which would see an introduction of I.D. cards for all football fans. Every fan would have a membership card to watch home games and there would be increased requirements, such as a passport number and photo I.D. for those fans wanting to travel to away games. The act was about to receive its royal ascent in 1989 when the tragic events of Hillsborough stopped the act in its tracks. Indeed it is for the way in which the Tory government and South Yorkshire police handled the Hillsborough tragedy that Thatcher's footballing legacy will probably be most remembered for.
From the outset, as it has now been proven, Thatcher's aides briefed her that it was drunken Liverpool fans who were responsible for the disaster. Documents provided to the Independent Hillsborough Enquiry show a repeated cover up by those in official and public office. In the aftermath of Lord Justice Taylor's report there are handwritten notes from Thatcher where she encourages the Home Secretary to change the way he welcomes the report to distance any blame apportioned to the South Yorkshire Police. Interestingly this was the same police force who helped her during the bitter miners strike a few years earlier. The independent enquiry into the Hillsborough disaster has found that there was a cover up by the authorities. What we do not know and might never find out is how much of the cover up over Hillsborough, Margaret Thatcher was actually aware of. Maybe this will come out now she has died, may be it wont.
Thatcher's footballing legacy will probably and rightfully so, be centred around Hillsborough and her part in the cover-up and the way her government failed all the victims and their families and it will overshadow any of her other involvements with football. Whatever your political persuasion, one of the most controversial characters in footballing history passed away today and with it a chapter in football history.
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