The birth of the FSA (part 2 - ID cards, Hillsborough and beyond)

The Kop Hillsborough tribute 1989 Action Image 0193021

In the second 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 ID cards, Hillsborough, and beyond. To read part one of his blog from earlier this week, click here

In the aftermath of Heysel, no English clubs could play abroad but England could.

When the Euro '88 competition in Germany came along, and the arrest levels of England fans within the first 24 hours so shocked Mrs Thatcher (who knew nothing about the German police tactic of ‘pre-emptive arrest’) that she announced the Government would legislate to force all football fans to buy computer-reading ID Cards to get into any match. The FSA organised a national campaign to fight it.

Nobody, not even most Tory MPs, except Mrs T. and a small coterie of her mates (especially the “small but imperfectly informed” Sports Minister, Colin Moynihan, and the execrable Luton Town chairman, MP David Evans) thought this was a good idea. Nobody in football wanted it; the referees; the players (PFA); the FA; the Football League; the clubs; the fans.

In fact, most sensible people saw it as a recipe for disaster.

The FSA even received its first money from the game when the FA, the FL, and Wembley Stadium Ltd responded to our requests for financial support to run the ‘Anti-ID Card’ campaign. We hit the media; organised meetings all over the country, challenging local Tory MPs and others to join in the public debate. Most of them were so terrified of Thatcher they refused to turn up, though a notable few did. They knew it was indefensible.

The FSA was in the House of Commons virtually every week from October 1988 onwards, to help fight the ID Card legislation passing through its parliamentary process. Though nobody except a few wanted it, the process was inexorable. By the time it came to spring 1989, the ID Card Bill had jumped all its hurdles and was about to become law in time for the following season.

Then something happened at the FA Cup semi-final on the 15th April that changed everything.

The Hillsborough Disaster took place against this particular political background. In many ways, Hillsborough represented, in the most horrifying manner, a version of our worst fears about the imposition of the ID Card scheme: Thousands of fans eager to get into a big game clutching their ID ‘swipe’ cards; a few computerised turnstiles go down (the technology was pretty primitive back in those days); you’ve got a big crush of fans outside trying to get in – and the coppers have to take a quick decision about what to do…

Here we are, 25 years later, only just beginning to deal with the realities and consequences of what happened that day. It shook the nation and it shook the world. And it shook English football to its very core. Within two days, the fans were blamed for killing each other and the Hillsborough Inquiry was set up within a few weeks.

On the first day of the Inquiry, the FSA presented its case for inclusion in the process. Everyone and his dog was there with highly-paid barristers (costing up to fifteen grand a day) to put their case. The list included the police; the bereaved; the club; the FA; the local authority; the ambulance service, and many more. The FSA argued that the crowd should be represented too.

Lord Justice Taylor agreed without hesitation and when we explained we didn’t have the money to take part, the judge awarded our costs to the state to pay. We could have our own legal team and barrister to present our case. Amongst all the horror and suffering of that time, one flicker of light emerged. For the first time in the long history of formal inquires and reports into football disasters in Britain (on average, one a decade for 100 years), the fans themselves would be officially and properly represented on every single day of the process and the Government would have to pay to facilitate it.

It was a kind of victory for organised supporters, bought at unimaginable cost.

Lord Justice Taylor’s Interim Report blamed police failure for the disaster, but his Final Report, with its 76 recommendations, redrew the physical geography of professional football in Britain. Almost all fences at football grounds were pulled down; crowd densities were reduced and all-seater stadia imposed, initially in the top two divisions. Taxpayers contributed more than £100 million towards the clubs’ costs.

Lord Justice Taylor also threw out the crazy ID Card scheme which Mrs Thatcher had hung all her hopes on. Within a year, she was gone – ousted by her own party and replaced by John Major. The Premier League was launched, and the world of ‘post-modern’ football was born.

As for me, the days – stretching into months – following Hillsborough were the most stressful and insanely demanding of my life. I was at the match, of course, and the FSA’s ‘work’ began even before stunned fans had left the stadium. We counted the bodies going into the ‘gymnasium’ at the ground; the temporary mortuary.

After a few journalists had told us the police were saying ‘fans broke the doors down’, we stayed behind to examine the doors at Leppings Lane, and discovered there was no damage.

By the time we drove back to Liverpool mid-evening, the death toll was already above 70, but the enormity of what had happened hadn’t hit me yet. I was too busy ‘on-the-case’ to fully take it all in. In fact it wasn’t until I reached the Shankly Gates early on the Sunday afternoon (with an ITV crew who’d followed me round since 7am) that I suddenly broke down and wept uncontrollably.

Over the following weeks and months, the TV engagements alone were at times overwhelming. Without exaggeration, I would start at 6am for both breakfast TV shows; head on to BBC1 at 9am; do all the lunchtime news programmes; fly back to Liverpool; contribute from a local studio to the early evening local channels; then Channel 4 at 7pm; World Service at 8pm, and finally the 10 o’clock news. I’d probably do a dozen or more radio interviews on the day too.

And throughout it all, every word I said was ‘live’; transmitted instantly far and wide. Besides leading the FSA, I was simultaneously representing (whether I liked it or not) Liverpool people; the club’s fans, supporters in general, even (mistakenly) sometimes the bereaved. And in live interviews, once you’ve said the words, you can’t pull them back from the ether; they’re out there forever; there’s no ‘take two’. And you’re talking, literally, about ‘life and death’ issues.

It was – for someone totally untrained in public presentation – an ordeal of fire. I have never, since then, ever been frightened again of speaking in public. I knew nothing could ever be as testing as those days were.

By the end of summer 1989, I’d given everything I had. I was completely knackered. I was pulled from the fire by an offer from the Centre for Football Research at Leicester University, and I stepped down as chair of the FSA and started writing again; the first of five football books to come in the following seven years.

The FSA, under great leadership from Craig Brewin who had chaired the London branch for years, went on to grow stronger and more deeply engaged with the running of the game. The year after Hillsborough was, of course, the Italia 90 World Cup, and it was there that the ‘Fan Embassy’ was pioneered; developing an idea which had emerged out of the Euros in 1988.

The FSA/FSF Fan Embassies have become a fixture at all football competitions abroad since then, making an often unheralded – but nonetheless vital – contribution to the good running of these great events. The current campaign for safe standing (which I support entirely) appears on the brink of success too.

The early FSA proved to be a great pool of talent; many of whom have gone on to occupy significant professional roles, both inside football and without. It would be invidious for me to name them, in case I missed someone out. I remain a member of the FSF, of course. (My FSA Membership No. was 1; but that should really belong to Pete Garrett!).

For myself, I guess the culmination of my own ambition to make a significant contribution to the running of the game has been my development of the world’s first – and only – Football Industries Masters in Business Administration (Fimba) at the School of Management in Liverpool University.

Every year, dozens of mature graduates from all over the globe come to my home city to study and think about almost every aspect of the running of the game. Over the past fifteen years many hundreds of them have gone on to work in the football business all round the world, and I hope they take with them a profound understanding of the essential importance of football fans to the good health and vitality of the game we love.

  • 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 info@fsf.org.uk.

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.