May 26th 1989: the Turning Point

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Retour sur l’évolution contrastée des supporters de football en Angleterre depuis les années 1980 avec en point d’orgue le match Liverpool-Arsenal du 26 mai 1989, il y a exactement 25 ans.

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After a golden era during the end of the seventies and the beginning of the eighties (English clubs won the European Cup 6 times in a row!), English football faced an unprecedented crisis. The stadiums were time-worn, there were more and more hooligans and these two components led to tragedies.

On the 29th of May 1985, Liverpool played against Juventus in the European Cup final in the Heysel Stadium. Before the match, insults were exchanged and Liverpool fans invaded the seats of the Italian fans. The sway in the crowd turned into a manslaughter when a wall of the stadium collapsed. 39 people died and 600 were injured during what should have been a time of celebration. The English clubs were excluded from European competitions and the English fans regarded either as animals or murderers.

Other disasters occurred during these dark times. The Bradford fire in 1985, related to the old Bradford City stadium, also weighed English football down. And then, the tragedy of Hillsborough happened on the 15th of April 1989. A massive squeeze during a match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest gave rise to the worst disaster in English football history: 96 people were crushed and 766 were injured. Everybody felt shocked and football fell from grace: many people were disgusted by the violent background. Football was stalled and some people just wanted to stop the season.

But football kept going in a strange atmosphere. Arsenal and Liverpool fought for the title. Arsenal led the league for 5 months (leaving Liverpool 15 points behind) but had a bad run of results at the end and just lost the lead while Liverpool remained unbeaten since New Year. The title would be decided on the last day of the season during a Liverpool-Arsenal at Anfield (Liverpool stadium). To win the title, Arsenal had to win by at least a 2-goal margin which would have been a miracle: statistics were unequivocal (Arsenal had never won at Anfield since 1974 and had been failing for the title for 18 years), Liverpool had many famous players and the Daily Mirror even titled “You haven’t got a prayer Arsenal”. On the other hand, Liverpool had a great chance to win the double in the most tragic year of the club. Whatever the result, May 26th 1989 had to be special.

The incredible scenario made history and changed something in people’s minds. Arsenal players had brought bouquets of flowers to pay tribute to the victims of Hillsborough. At the end of the game, the fans of the losing side bore their terrible discomfiture and applauded the champions, stunning public opinion. The magnificence of the game combined with the respectful reaction of the crowd redeemed the image of football. Jason Cowley aptly called the event “the night football was reborn”, in a kind of catharsis after a tortuous path.

During the following years, English football fans became wiser. They drank less, the stadiums were modernized and the general mood changed. Of course, laws were passed against hooliganism and security was consolidated. Unfortunately, the ticket prices have increased which led to questions about the atmosphere. But it was essential to avoid such tragedies in the future.

English fans behaved well during the 1990 World Cup so the clubs were authorised again in European competitions. Besides, the clubs decided to reorganise the structure of the championship with the creation of the FA Premier League in 1992: a new era thus began.

English football has become one of the most followed championships in the world and the fans are often taken as models when it comes to passion. Fans change football but some games can change the fans too and Liverpool-Arsenal 1989 was cut out to be that kind of events. The future will tell us if the fans have memory: it’s up for grabs now.

Anthony BIZI & Nicolas CAULT

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