In the first part of his personal history of the formation of the Football Supporters' Association (one of the forerunners to the modern day FSF) Rogan Taylor talks about the Heysel disaster and the first step at organising football fans in the UK. Part two, covering the ID card debacle and Hillsborough disaster will follow later this week.
The Football Supporters’ Association (FSA) was accidentally born out of a disaster. But it wasn’t the suffering of fans and the incompetence of the police at Hillsborough that provoked its birth pangs. It was another terrible event four years earlier: the Heysel Stadium tragedy, in 1985.
The European Cup Final between Juventus & Liverpool FC in Brussels that year brought together two major European clubs whose combined home attendance any weekend you cared to choose was in the region of 120,000. Yet these clubs had to play the blue riband match of the season in a broken down, old Belgian stadium in Brussels, with a capacity of a mere 45,500.
Long before kick-off, aggravation broke out between Liverpool fans and Juve fans who had found themselves in a supposedly ‘neutral’ block behind the goal at the ‘Red’ end of the ground; (the other end was entirely given over to the Juve fans). The aggro led to panic amongst the Italians, and a desperate attempt to get away from the violence collapsed a wall which crushed 39 football supporters to death; almost all of them Italians.
As a Liverpool fan, for me, and many thousands of others, it was acutely painful and heart-rending to witness. And our horror was mixed in with a profound sense of collective shame, as the world and its dog turned on our city.
Heysel was in many ways the culmination of almost two decades of the unleashed ‘English disease’: football hooliganism abroad. It had become commonplace for groups of English fans (both of club and country) to fight their way around Europe whenever the opportunity arose. Ironically, LFC fans did not have much of a reputation for violence; our ‘lads’ preferred to rob their way round Europe rather than fight the locals.
Various attempts since the mid-1960s had been made to find a solution to the hooligan problem, but none found. The Government – led by that renowned football fan, Mrs Thatcher – was increasingly demanding that football ‘put its house in order’ or they would legislate to do it themselves.
In the aftermath of Heysel, I sat at home in Liverpool wondering what it all meant. I was a budding writer, and my first book had been published just a month before the tragedy in Brussels. I was also just completing a PhD in the field of psychoanalysis and primitive religion (hence my focus on the meaning of events and actions).
I decided to read everything I could find that was written about Heysel and Liverpool, and football fans in general, with a view to writing something for a newspaper before the start of the following season. I wanted to concentrate on unpacking the intrinsic meaning of the images which the world had seen at Heysel. Thirty-nine dead football fans in a stadium; purple faces on a green pitch; dead pilgrims in a place of worship. What does it all say about the world’s most popular game; those who run it, and those who watch it?
So I found myself on the last Saturday before the kick-off of the English season 1985-86 (in which no English clubs would be allowed to enter any of the European competitions), sitting down with pen and paper, presenting an analysis of what it all meant, and calling for the fans of the nation who invented the game to organise and draw together in one, single fans’ organisation to produce a coherent voice and a role in the organisation and running of football.
I certainly had no intention of getting involved myself other than as a potential member. I had other fish to fry (and a 100,000 word doctoral thesis to write and present), but when a few other fans from the city (both Red and Blue) heard I was writing the piece, half-a-dozen of them came round to my house on the Sunday to read it over and make suggestions before I sent it off.
One of them was Peter Garrett – a fellow Kopite who stood in the same group as me – and it was Peter who saw very clearly what the piece I’d written implied. The gist of Pete’s comments was: "It’s no good just writing about this; we have to do something about it. We have to organise."
I said I wasn’t a ‘joiner’ of organisations (the Black Hand Gang was the only outfit I’d ever joined and I was eight-years-old at the time).
I told Peter he was welcome to have a go, but it wasn’t for me, but then he said something which changed my mind. In essence, he insisted: "It’s our responsibility to do something; our fans were involved in the deaths of dozens of football fans; we are all from Liverpool. We must act. It’s the proper thing to do."
I remember the impact that last sentence had on me to this day. And it certainly changed the direction of my life, that’s for sure.
That was the speech that launched the Football Supporters' Association (FSA): the first national fans’ organisation in Britain which any individual fan could join. It would be a vigorous, independent, campaigning force (with the motto 'Reclaim the Game'), organised regionally (not around football clubs) which would promote and fight for the proper representation of all fans in the various corridors of power which governed the game.
One of the other fans who’d turned up at my house that Sunday, another fellow Kopite called Maggie Reid, made a very smart suggestion. She said I should rewrite the piece as a ‘Letter to the Editor’ of a newspaper. That way we could present the analysis; announce the birth of the FSA in the final paragraph, and include a postal address (Peter’s house!) at the foot of it.
I sent it off on the Monday; it was published on Thursday. At lunchtime, BBC2’s Newsnight got in touch with me by phone to ask if a few FSA members could appear on their Friday night programme which (the evening before the kick-off of the post-Heysel season) would look at the big question: Where does English football go from here?
Peter and Maggie (I think) went down to London and did a good job on TV. I sat at home, thinking, ‘the BBC had no one else to ask’. In those days, the only football fans we ever saw on national TV were big burly lads with their club tattooed on their lips being dragged backwards by equally burly coppers.
It became clear to me that there was a huge, unoccupied space in the unending national dialogue about football that needed to be filled by those who could effectively represent the mass of people who (in those days) paid everybody’s wages in the game, but had a say in absolutely nothing.
A few days after the letter appeared, and the Newsnight programme went out, the letters from fans started to come in. At first a few hundred; then thousands arrived at Peter’s house over the next two weeks.
His postman wasn’t best pleased, but we were amazed and enthused. Many of the letters included money in cheques and notes, alongside a message of encouragement, often with the sentiment: ‘What a bloody good idea. You’re going to need a few bob to get this up and running.’ One memorable letter said, ‘Enclosed a fiver. Let’s do for football what CAMRA has done for real ale!’
I became the FSA’s first Chair, and Peter its General Secretary.
We toured the country, holding meetings in pubs and clubs, presenting our case and inviting local fans, regardless of club allegiances, to get together and organise regional FSA branches. The names of football clubs did not feature. There was a ‘Merseyside Branch’; ‘Greater Manchester’; ‘Tyneside and Teeside’; ‘London’ etc. And if you were a Man Utd fan living in Liverpool you were welcome to join the Merseyside Branch and take part locally.
We insisted that the issues which divided us for ninety minutes a few times a season were overwhelmed by those which united us.
The few years that followed the launch were incredibly busy for the nascent organisation. Within a year there was an almost disastrously organised FA Cup Final between Everton and Liverpool. The ticket distribution system was verging on criminal, with considerably less than half the 100,000 tickets going to the competing clubs. It was the first ever Merseyside derby FA Cup final; generations of fans of both clubs had waited for this game.
On the day, the liaison between police inside and outside Wembley was shambolic. No queues were organised and the touts had a field day. The FSA produced its first substantial report, delivered to the FA, Wembley Stadium Ltd, and the Metropolitan Police. We quickly received replies from the latter two (and meetings were organised with both), but the FA remained silent; they didn’t even bother to reply.
We wrote again a few months later to say, ‘Did you read our report? Do you have anything to say in response?’ The reply when it came from the FA Secretary, Ted Croker, was laughable. The gist was: ‘Don’t tell me about tickets for the FA Cup Final…. I couldn’t get one when my brother played in one.’
We could hardly believe our eyes.
The politics of football got deeper and more complex as the decade moved on. Within weeks of the announcement of the ban on English clubs in Europe, the ‘Big Five’ clubs (in those days Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Man Utd, and Spurs) immediately got together to work out how they were going to deal with the sudden loss of income.
Their solution? ‘Let’s form a ‘breakaway’ super-league, and keep all the TV dosh for just ourselves.’
If you hadn’t realised it before: it was Heysel that gave birth to the Premier League. Another organisation born out of a tragedy.
- Note from the FSF: Huge thanks to Rogan Taylor for this remarkable piece of fan history. We're very keen pull together insights and historical archive material relating to the FSA, the National Federation of Supporters' Clubs, and the FSF. If you have anything to add, we'd love to hear from you. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed are those of the author and they don't necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn't be attributed to the FSF.
Thanks to Action Images for the image used in this article.