Thatcher did not care much for football and football did not care much for her

The Iron Lady, who passed away on Monday, oversaw a period of enormous tragedy and change in the game with which she had a rocky relationship during her time as Prime Minister

By Oliver Platt

On Monday, April 8, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher passed at the age of 87. She was, and still is, Britian’s sole female incumbent of No.10 Downing Street and will be remembered in a funeral with full military honours at St Paul’s Cathedral.

The death of such a high-profile Briton usually prompts recognition from the Football Association – but a minute’s silence was absent from last night’s Manchester derby and the Premier League has confirmed that no such remembrance will be enforced during the upcoming weekend programme … but this is hardly a surprise.

Less than a month after Thatcher was elected on May 4, 1979, Nottingham Forest beat Malmo at the Olympiastadion in Munich to win the European Cup for the first time in their history.

That was the third of six consecutive seasons between 1976-77 and 1981-82 in which English clubs were crowned champions of Europe; after Liverpool had won back-to-back titles, Forest repeated the trick before the Reds and then Aston Villa won in Paris and Rotterdam respectively.


Thatcher fully backed the suspension of English clubs in European football following the Heysel disaster.
Following on from the disaster, the Conservative Party tried to instigate a compulsory ID card scheme for all football fans.
“Expose the lies before Thatcher dies” became a motto for families of those affected by the disaster as some believed she was part of a police cover up.
Published just a few months before Thatcher’s exit from power, the report lead to all-seater stadiums in England.

It should have been a golden period for English football and, on the field, it was, but all was not well underneath the surface. During the 1970s, organised firms of hooligans had emerged up and down the country and Thatcher was determined to eliminate them. The problem was not easily solved.

“We have to get the game cleaned up from this hooliganism at home and then perhaps we shall be able to go overseas again,” she said after Uefa banned English clubs from European competition following the Heysel disaster in 1985. By 1988, little had changed: “We really must eradicate this blot on our reputation.”

While Thatcher honed in on hooligans, other issues persisted; namely, the poor condition of stadia nationwide and, as would become clear in the Heysel Stadium, across the continent. The English football authorities felt the full, tragic effects of their failure to address the problem on May 11 1985, when 56 people were killed at Bradford City’s Valley Parade stadium.

The main stand at the West Yorkshire ground had barely been altered since its construction in 1911, and gaps in the flooring resulted in the accumulation of litter below. One lit cigarette, or a match – it is, of course, impossible to know for sure – dropped into that underbelly and had devastating consequences.

Heysel followed just three weeks later when Liverpool met Juventus in the European Cup final in Brussels. This time, crowd trouble did play a part, as Liverpool fans charged a neutral area containing, primarily, Italian fans. Baffling errors in organisation and planning again, however, set the stage for catastrophe. Instead of being given their own end, Reds fans were split either side of the neutral area, which did not turn out to be very neutral at all.

“We were assured that zone should be neutral and that lots of Italians live in Brussels and had bought tickets,” Liverpool’s chief executive at the time, Peter Robinson, told the Liverpool Echo. “It seemed a totally unsatisfactory reply … I drew [the Uefa observer’s] attention to the two sets of supporters and the lack of any police on the dividing line. Something needed to be done – and done quickly.” The Juventus fans in the neutral area retreated to the back of the terrace, resulting in a crush and the collapse of the outer wall. 39 spectators, mostly Italians, died.

English clubs and supporters returned to European competition in a better way when their ban was lifted in 1990 (although it was not fully removed until 1995). How much credit Thatcher deserves for that is debatable. Her measures included the introduction of a football membership scheme as part of the Football Spectators Act 1989.

The scheme essentially involved the introduction of ID cards for fans nationwide, but, at the first deadline after its implementation, only 13 of the 92 Football League clubs had adopted the system. It is difficult to imagine anything other than disastrous consequences for the game had it been more readily taken up. As the Taylor Report pointed out following the inquest into the Hillsborough disaster, the scheme was wildly disproportionate, punishing all fans for the actions of a minority; would exclude casual supporters who would not go to the trouble of acquiring membership, therefore decreasing crowds and revenue; and was questionable in its ability to improve the hooligan problem given that much of the trouble occurred outside of stadiums.

Failures stretching back more than 20 years came to their final, terrible culmination on April 15 1989, at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. The Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) report, which at last gave a full account of the disaster in September of last year after more than two decades of campaigning by the tireless families of the victims and those that supported them, noted that clear dangers, such as those associated with perimeter fencing, had been identified as early as the 1968 Harrington Report into hooliganism.

Members of Thatcher’s government perpetuated the myths exposed by the HIP report, with the Prime Minister’s press secretary, Bernard Ingham, claiming that “[t]here would have been no Hillsborough if a mob, who were clearly tanked up, had not tried to force their way into the ground. To blame the police is a cop-out.”

Thatcher, in all likelihood, never would have taken an active affair in football at all had it not overlapped into her world; the welfare of the country’s leagues and its fans was secondary to issues such as the ugly face of hooliganism abroad, or considerations of a boycott of the 1982 World Cup due to the Falklands War. The Iron Lady never cared much for the game, and the game never cared much for her.

Follow Oli Platt on

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *