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16 January 2020 04:58

Hillsborough Stadium Jury Hillsborough disaster

Brexit, a threat to Britain’s sporting hegemony?

The imposition of "strict liability" on football clubs for the offending behaviour of their fans – with a ladder of sanctions including points deductions and playing behind closed doors – has been suggested as deterrent by various pundits, despite little evidence of their effectiveness. These risks have been evident in successive stadium disasters and barriers have been considered unthinkable since the Hillsborough tragedy of 1989, when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death during an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Former Birmingham City midfielder David Cotterill went as far as advocating the deployment of armed officers to protect players, recalling the time Bobby Robson suggested that police should "turn the flamethrowers on them", following the violence and disorder that marred a cup tie between Millwall and Ipswich in 1978. In 1971, the Football Association closed Manchester United's home ground, Old Trafford, for their opening two games after fans threw knives and darts at visiting supporters the previous season. In May 1985 all English clubs were banned from European competition in the aftermath of the Heysel Stadium disaster in Brussels, in which 39 people died and 600 were injured after fans were crushed against a wall that then collapsed during the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus.

These changes have had a significant impact on the experience of watching live football, deterring and restricting the "hooligan element" and attracting a new type of family audience. Mark Lawrenson has recalled spending the night in a hospital ward alongside dying football fans after the Heysel Stadium disaster that killed 39 fans in 1985. The incident occurred before Liverpool's game with Juventus and, despite around 600 being injured after a crush between fans and major stadium wall collapsing, the game went ahead - much to Lawreson's dismay as he recalled in a chat with Planet Football. "You go from hearing the news that fans had died on the terrace above us to being told the match was going ahead and we went through the motions of preparing for a game of football that would be one of the most important we would play in our lives." They underestimated them in an era when football fans were often regarded as hooligans or brainless "turnstile fodder", when a policeman could allegedly tell a supporter trying to raise the alarm about the unfolding Hillsborough disaster to "shut your f***ing prattle". That, however, does not diminish what the Hillsborough families and the people of Liverpool have achieved since a football match became a tragedy.

The 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster was fresh in many minds; Liverpool fans were held responsible for hooliganism that led to a five-year ban on English football clubs playing in Europe. The view that Liverpool "hooligans" must somehow have been responsible for Hillsborough might even have stretched all the way up to the entourage of Margaret Thatcher, a prime minister not known for her love of football, or its supporters. But in March 1991 the first inquest returned a verdict of accidental death, and Trevor Hicks, on behalf the Hillsborough Family Support Group, was left protesting that while the jury was blameless, the verdict was incorrect and "immoral". By now, the families were beginning to face a new sort of narrative, one admitting it had been wrong to blame the fans, but insisting it was time to stop talking about Hillsborough. The rapid development of the Premier League came on the back of the 1995 Bosman ruling which freed up players' movement in Europe, unshackled them from clubs and created the conditions of the current transfer market.

Other factors played a role, not least English clubs' five-year-long exile from Europe following the 1985 disaster at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels when 39 people were killed after Liverpool supporters attending the European Cup final charged into the Juventus section and a wall collapsed. The horrors of Heysel were compounded by the Hillsborough disaster four years later when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death during an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest. "Brexit has come at a bad time for the Premier League," Chadwick said, pointing out that Spain's La Liga and the German Bundesliga have made strides in recent years. But that broadcasting landscape is in a massive state of flux at the moment and nobody really knows what it's going to look like in five years' time," Chadwick said. "Part of the Premier League's brand proposition is that it is very diverse, very cosmopolitan and clearly you have got many of the best players in the world," said Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Salford University in northwest England.

The rapid development of the Premier League came on the back of the 1995 Bosman ruling that freed up players' movement in Europe, unshackled them from clubs and created the conditions of the current transfer market. Other factors played a role, not least English clubs' five-year-long exile from Europe following the 1985 disaster at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels when 39 people were killed after Liverpool supporters attending the European Cup final charged into the Juventus section and a wall collapsed. The horrors of Heysel were compounded by the Hillsborough disaster four years later when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death during an FA Cup semifinal against Nottingham Forest. "Brexit has come at a bad time for the Premier League," Chadwick said, pointing out that Spain's La Liga and the German Bundesliga have made strides in recent years. But that broadcasting landscape is in a massive state of flux at the moment and nobody really knows what it's going to look like in five years' time," Chadwick said.

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