This article first appeared in Issue 16 of The Football Pink fanzine
As English football passed from its great depression of the 1980s to a period of rebirth and reinvention in the 1990s, times began to change; and we had to change with them, as IAN CUSACK explains.
“A slum sport played in slum stadiums increasingly watched by slum people, who deter decent folk from turning up” - The Sunday Times, editorial May 12th, 1985
“The sport has become increasingly gentrified and ordinary people have been deliberately priced out of attending football, once a cultural ritual in working-class communities.”- Professor John Russo, Georgetown University, research paper February 27th, 2017
The second Saturday in May 1985; Newcastle’s solitary season under Jack Charlton is stuttering to a dreary conclusion with a fittingly mundane 0-0 on my one and only visit to Carrow Road. A year after we’d been promoted with a degree of pomp under Arthur Cox, things were on the stagnant to fetid continuum. Cox had left for Derby, Keegan retired, Waddle was packing his bags for White Hart Lane and Peter Beardsley had been emasculated by Big Jack’s one-dimensional tactics. It was football fit for the era; grim, ugly, attritional, confrontational and aggressive. Nothing about the mid-80s Saturday match day experience felt safe; train stations, pubs, strange streets in unfamiliar towns and piss-reeking terraces were all dark, sinister and fraught with hidden dangers, both real and imagined, even in bucolic East Anglia. Behavioural psychologists call it hypervigilance; to us regular travellers, it was simply keeping your wits about you. Three months earlier I’d taken the worst kicking I ever had following the Mags away; 2.30pm in the Stanley Park pub outside Goodison Park, a squad of angry Coppers burst in to clear out the away fans. Because I didn’t drink up immediately and make for the door, one of them truncheoned me across the back. I doubled over and his pal grabbed me by the hair, then kneed me in the bollocks. We lost 4-0, but I barely remember the game, as I teetered on the brink of unconsciousness while waves of pain radiated through me the entire game. Thankfully, things were calmer in East Anglia and we got away from Norwich unscathed.
Of course, many others that day were not so lucky; the quotation that prefaces this article appeared in the next morning’s Sunday Times as an unfeeling obituary for the 56 who perished at Valley Parade in the inferno that engulfed the main stand on what should have been a day of celebration as Bradford City clinched promotion to Division 2. When compared to the vile, outrageous lies printed about Hillsborough, the inaccurate, kneejerk reaction to the Bradford fire smacked more of cruel snobbery than organised propaganda, despite the proximity of the 1984/1985 NUM strike and the role of the right-wing media in undermining that heroic working class struggle. Perhaps, on reflection, a more relevant event that could have coloured media response was the garish footage of the Battle of Kenilworth Road in March 1985, when Millwall fans invaded the pitch after losing an FA Cup replay. However, in all honesty, I can say I heard nothing about events at Valley Parade as I made my slow, ticketless way back from Norwich to Peterborough and thence to Newcastle, with only a carrier bag of McEwan’s Export for company. On April 15th, 1989, having seen Newcastle lose 1-0 at Highbury, the number of people with transistors as we left the ground meant news of Hillsborough spread, albeit in a very confused form, by the time we reached Finsbury Park. Four years previous, half full Inter City rattlers on Saturday nights weren’t renowned as Oracles of unfolding current affairs.
Despite the tragic loss of life at Bradford and the Heysel Stadium tragedy of May 29th, 1985, when another 39 innocent lives were lost inside in a football ground, little if anything changed for the average football fan in the years following. The apportioning of blame for Heysel must be discussed elsewhere; suffice to say it was not the greatest night in the history of Liverpool FC and allowed the accepted narrative of football fans as being barely civilised thugs to be reiterated by the ruling elite and their pals the Press Barons. Football Saturdays continued in a predictable way; oppressive policing that assumed guilt as a default position for travelling fans, shoddy rolling stock that wouldn’t have been fit to take heifers to the slaughterhouse, crumbling grounds with inadequate facilities and the constant, malevolent threat of violence that dampened the air.
In the context of the times, it seemed faintly ludicrous to see the FA attempting to ignore both the squalid conditions and the ban on English clubs in Europe, by organising a series of pointless competitions; the Screensport Super Cup, the Simod (later ZDS) Cup, the Mercantile Credit Centenary Trophy, as well as the 16-team Football League Centenary Tournament in April 1988. Frankly, these were the sporting equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes; farcical, inappropriate and born out of the kind of shallow ‘let them eat cake’ vanity that ignored reality. If this wasn’t crazy enough, Greg Dyke on behalf of ITV organised a deal with the “Big 5” teams to show live games on Sunday afternoons, apparently to head off talks about the formation of a Super League. Well, that worked, didn’t it? The “whole new ball game” of the Premier League kicked off less than 4 years later, on August 16th, 1992 with Nottingham Forest 1 Liverpool 0. However, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Hillsborough changed everything. Immediately it had the effect of uniting all fans in a common cause, against police oppression, league intransigence and owner venality. The Taylor Report, absolving fans of any blame and holding the authorities to account for the atrocious condition of most grounds, no doubt unwittingly began the process that lead firstly to the establishment of the Premier League, the broadcasting coup d’etat led by the Murdoch Empire, the supposed gentrification of the people’s game and the pricing out of those who made up the backbone of matchgoing fans. I’m sure Lord Justice Taylor’s motives in phrasing the report in the way he did were utterly impeccable; he was a decent, thoughtful man (yes, I met him once) whose life was underpinned by a sense of duty and public service, but he will be remembered for enabling a course of events that has led to the likes of Saido Berahino trousering £60k a week.
Nostalgia is a strange thing in football. The internet seems to be full of 40 and 50 something Dadsuals, squeezing their ample guts into Tuk Tuk shirts and selvedge Armanis, reminiscing about all those years when they didn’t brawl on train stations or take other firms’ pubs, but wish they had. Initially, this alpha storyteller phenomenon was seen as part of the AMF movement, which fissured almost immediately into the ideological faction, who seek fan engagement and affordable ticket prices, and the bona drag popinjays, resolutely apolitical and concerned only with Polyveldt reissues and canary yellow casual windcheaters. Craft Ale bores mumbling on bar stools about how the game has lost its soul. Frankly, such sentiments are the sporting equivalent of false memory syndrome.
The oft-repeated cliché that if you remembered the Sixties you probably weren’t there seems to have been appropriated in relation to football during the half decade after Hillsborough. Many accounts talk about the prevalence of E generation chemistry and Madchester baggy beats chilling the terraces out in 89/90, but that’s not how I remember it. The immediate post Hillsborough season was more a case of a shared, stunned disbelief that ordinary people could die watching football. Most of the time, we sleepwalked our way to grounds, in a kind of collective, delayed shock. Only at Leeds and Sunderland did I, predictably, notice serious tensions with home supporters, not to mention our season ending pitch invasion at St. James’ Park when Sunderland beat us in the play-offs.
Next up we had Italia 90, World in Motion and all that baloney. Suddenly, it was socially acceptable to like football, without being accused of genetic thuggery. For Newcastle United, the 1990/1991 campaign was the most banal non-event of a season ever; becalmed in lower mid-table, crowds were down to 13,000 and Ossie Ardiles wasn’t the tactical genius we’d hoped. We weren’t being gentrified; we were being anaesthetised. Thankfully, the music scene in the autumn of 1991 provided succour and inspiration. Nirvana’s first ever English gig was at Newcastle Riverside on Monday October 21st, 1990 when they blew headliners Tad off stage. On Saturday 28th September 1991, Newcastle came back from 2-0 down to grab a point at home to Derby County in front of almost 18,000; I was rather more enthused by my purchase at full time of Nirvana’s major label debut, Nevermind. It was to be the last vinyl album I bought for about 20 years, as the following month I invested in a CD player, having finally accepted there were more products available in this format than Dire Straits and Bryan Adams. My first two purchases were a pair of Creation Records classics; Loveless by My Bloody Valentine and Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque. Quarter of a century later, I maintain both of these releases would feature in my top 20 albums of all time, though I now choose to listen to them digitally rather than on CD; the reason being I feel the compact disc format saw music squashed and tamed by the bland reproduction levels produced.
Live, the two bands produced contrasting experiences; Teenage Fanclub are my favourite band of all time and I love their honest, friendly stage demeanour, as well as sounds that alternate between being achingly beautiful three-part harmonies and piledriving indie rock genius. Sure, they’re louder live than on record, but not deafeningly so. My Bloody Valentine in the flesh are quite frankly terrifying; endless waves of white noise and distorted, aural scree create feelings of genuine instability. On December 17th, 1991, they blew the entire power system at Northumbria University during the 20-minute sonic assault of Feed Me With Your Kiss. While the Dadsual view of cultural history would hold that post Baggy, the likes of Paul Weller’s solo tripe and the aptly named Charlatans were part of the three-stripe movement that created the conditions whereby Champagne Supernova could be hailed as a work of genius, there were those of us who opposed the Britpop gentrification of music, holding candles for uncompromising shoegaze and grunge.
The opening track on Bandwagonesque is the enduring crowd pleaser, The Concept; an amalgam of Glam stomping with a pastiche of West Coast soft rock, the daft lyrics that talk of an unnamed female protagonist who “wears denim wherever she goes” and intends to “get some records by the Status Quo” may appear to be a throwaway afterthought but attend any TFC gig and the entire audience sing along, word perfect. We have clearly bought into The Concept, as The Fannies influenced and improved the world with this album. I wouldn’t choose to go back to the music scene before I heard Teenage Fanclub, in a similar way to how I wouldn’t like to go back to football in the 1980s.
There is much I hate about modern music; not just Ed Sheeran and Beyoncé, but the karaoke culture, with a seemingly universal preference for endless cover versions over creativity, the minimal concentration span of consumers who can’t listen to an album all the way through and the marginalisation of live gigs. However, the musical world we inhabit is a product of the digital revolution I guess and to oppose it would be as fruitless as Canute attempting to roll back the waves. All I do is pick and choose what I want from music in the modern era, then ignore the rest.
Similar to music, there is football; what world would you rather inhabit? A fiver in on the day, or a £37 ticket bought a month previously on-line? Newcastle fans I know who went to successive away games at Brighton, Huddersfield and Reading spent the thick end of £700 in a week. A shiny plastic seat half a mile from the pitch, surrounded by people you’ve never met and have nothing in common with, or wedged onto a disintegrating 6-step terrace, running in piss, staring at the corner flag through a metal fence, while dodging flying coins and bottles? I’m 52; if safe standing does come in, it won’t be for the likes of me. Mute indifference by largely silent consumers whose only utterances are complaints, or endless racist chants? I risked life and limb shouting down NF boneheads among our away support at Grimsby in 1983; I’m glad I don’t have to do that these days.
The world has changed in the past 30 years; while politically it seems to be reverting to the 1930s, football is never going back. The Concept we’ve bought into may have been a Faustian pact, but I feel considerably better about being in the company of fans who donate several tonnes of produce to the Newcastle Food Bank every home game, rather than still being with away fans who believed nicking pub tab machines and robbing station off licences were all part of a good day out. As the likes of Jimmy Chargesheet, Daft Gary, Mad Stu of Blyth, The Throat and a thousand-other early 80s NUFC travellers were fond of saying; tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis…
IAN CUSACK - @PayasoDeMierda2