Euro 96. A turning point in the modern British game.

by Jamie Whitehead

The disclosure of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s findings two weeks ago saw the Hillsborough Justice Campaign and Justice for the 96 groups taking the first steps for achieving their goal of seeing those responsible for the terrible events of April 15th 1989 made fully accountable. The unreserved apology from British Prime Minister David Cameron to the city of Liverpool, Liverpool Football Club and the families of the deceased will stay with me for the rest of my life.

But following a victory not only for Liverpool, football but the country as a whole, what now for those who went to support their team and never came home?

Football in the 1980s was in an exceptionally bad place. With the country in a state of political unrest, stadiums being pretty much death traps, and following the disasters of Bradford and Heysel, Hillsborough sadly was a disaster waiting to happen. A case proved in the report’s disclosure following Liverpool’s visit to Hillsborough just twelve months previously.

The Taylor Report, an interim report published in August 1989 showed the supporters of Liverpool in a positive light, adding further scrutiny to those responsible following the recent revelations, called for all-seater stadia, restrictions on alcohol sales within football grounds and new recommendations on ticket pricing.

When you look back at the state of football in 1986, with Bradford and Heysel so fresh in the memory, it’s strange to think that only ten years later, the country was riding the crest of a wave of newfound optimism. At the forefront of that movement? The England national football team at Euro ’96.

The Taylor Report had the opportunity to write football out of British life had it wanted to. With stadiums in a dire state of disrepair, hooliganism rife at grounds all over the country and the Thatcher government treating supporters like animals, football could have just gone away. Following Hillsborough, Lord Justice Taylor would have been well within his rights to close stadiums and have all league fixtures played behind closed doors, which without meaning to sound like a Conspiracy Theorist, was probably a conversation which happened somewhere down the line.

Let’s think about that for a second. Had stadiums had to close, the clubs in this country would have lost pretty much all of their revenue. The TV deal in place at the time, would have been reduced, as networks would not have wanted to broadcast from an empty stadiums.  What little coverage we did have in the 1980s was nothing in comparison to the wall-to-wall, five live matches every weekend with the added bonus of German, Italian and Spanish football to give us all our fix. With coverage limited to Match of the Day on BBC2 and ITV showing the occasional match as part of its Big Match Live series, live football was more of a treat than the right many consider it to now be. Had the clubs lost that revenue (and the Megastores of Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge were still almost five years away) English football would have been reduced into being a part time pursuit. The stars of the game would have gone to ply their trade in foreign climbs, as was already starting to happen following the five year ban on English clubs in European competition at the time. Funding would than have been cut on youth development, meaning that young players coming through would not have had the coaching opportunities afforded to the likes of Hansen and Rush would have knocked the national team back several pegs. Realistically, England could now be looked upon in the same way as the likes of Estonia and Latvia.

But it’s not. The Taylor Report wrote football a future. And although the plans were already in place prior to that fateful day in Sheffield, it sprang the plans for the formation of the Premier League into place.

England now boasts some of the world’s finest stadia. One visit to Old Trafford, the Emirates or Newcastle United’s St James’s Park and not forgetting the New Wembley proves this. Not only that, a look further down the divisions shows the quality of stadiums England can boast, Coventry City’s Ricoh Arena and Brighton and Hove Albion’s AMEX Arena being testament to this.

It’s not all rosy. There are many downsides to the Premier League, mainly being the perceived lack of competition at the top, huge ticket prices and kick off times being constantly moved to accommodate television scheduling.

Despite what Sky Sports want to tell you. Football was not invented in 1992. Although both the Premier League and Champion’s League entered the current guises in this Year Zero, football had a long and colourful history prior to this.

But looking back on the last twenty years, there have been some truly breathtaking moments involving both English clubs and the national team. Dennis Bergkamp’s hat-trick at Leicester, Manchester United’s last gasp European Cup win, Arsenal’s Invincibles, Sergio Aguero winning Manchester City the title with virtually the last kick of the season, England 4-1 Holland, Germany 1-5 England, Liverpool 4-3 Newcastle (twice) Wycombe Wanderers reaching the FA Cup semi-final, Owen’s goal vs Argentina, Beckham’s free kick, Liverpool’s trip to Istanbul, Keegan’s rant, Cantona’s kick, Liverpool 0-1 Bradford City, Arsenal 1-2 Hull City, the fabulous coming together of supporters from all teams following the tragic death of Gary Speed, Schmeichel scoring against Everton, the Scorpion Kick and not forgetting the incredible fight, strength and dignity shown by ninety five families over the last twenty three years.

Hillsborough allowed us to have these moments. And that is how the ninety-six people who perished as a result of that day deserve to be remembered. That they gave us the best stadiums, the best players, a very high standard of football to enjoy and the fact that all high profile events, from rock concerts to football matches are now managed and policed in a highly efficient and safe manner. No one should ever have to go through what happened at Hillsborough that day. They gave us the safety of knowing that we can go and support our teams and know we will go home to our families. And we should be eternally grateful to them for that.

For match going supporters too young to remember April 15th 1989, or those who are still unaware of the facts now that they are clear for us all to see, you have an absolute responsibility to educate yourself fully on the events of that day, regardless of whom you support.

Constructive debate is welcomed in the comments. Slating of the victims, their families and allegations, which cannot be backed up by the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report, will not be tolerated.

Justice for the 96. Always remember that you’ve never walked alone.

Jamie Whitehead is co-host of the 3for3 podcast which can be found on iTunes and is a Producer for the BBC’s World Service. Follow him on Twitter @jamiewh_