The good news: Liverpool fans cannot be smeared in 2022 in the way they were in 1989

Date published: Wednesday 1st June 2022 7:10 - Ian King

A Liverpool supporter at Stade de France

Lies from French government officials about Liverpool supporters in Paris are easily disprovable. And for some of us, it’s personal.


It’s an uncomfortable question, but it’s one that will need to be answered in the fullness of time. How close did we come to tragedy at the Champions League final? UEFA have already launched what they say will be an ‘independent and comprehensive’ review, but some of the footage on social media looks uncomfortably close to those that stain the history of the game. That it should have involved Liverpool again is particularly poignant.

As the days pass since what looks increasingly like the narrow avoidance of a disaster at Stade de France, many of the reactions have demonstrated just how little we’ve moved on since 1989. The reflex reaction from the French establishment was to blame ‘the English’, but their problem was that they sought to do so with an easily disprovable lie, repeated by two different government ministers. It is notable that there is as much criticism of this stance coming from the French media as here.

It is immediately obvious that there were nowhere near ‘30,000 to 40,000’ ticketless fans converging on Stade de France with the intent of smashing down the gates and breaking into the stadium. UEFA have stated that 2,800 counterfeit tickets were scanned, but that’s a conversation for another day. What is significantly different in the here and now has been the extent of the pushback against these lies.

In the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, the lies were immediate and they were widespread. Fake stories were planted in the media to cover up a complete failure of crowd control which was backed up by years-long policy of containment and treating football supporters as a ‘problem’ that needed to be ‘solved’. Members of parliament were involved. The police were involved. Major newspapers were involved. A narrative was set that those who died on April 15 1989 were in some way responsible for their own deaths, and that those who survived behaved in an animalistic way as the dead lay around them.

None of this is intended to sound self-congratulatory on behalf of the media. The reporting of the last few days is no more than what should have happened in the week or two following the Hillsborough disaster. While there has been excellent reporting on this subject over the last few days, it should also be remembered that ‘not establishing a false narrative in order to smear the dead and protect the establishment’ is a bar so low that a limbo is impossible. And there doubtless will be contrarian hot takes on the subject. We all read Mediawatch, yes?

But it is worth pausing to consider why this should have proved impossible for French officials to propagate. There are two main reasons why they simply haven’t been able to push the blame for what happened on Saturday straight onto Liverpool supporters. The first is technological. Most people have a video recording device in their pockets all the time and can stream what is happening live and unfiltered to as many people as wish to see it. In 1989, the media was in the complete stranglehold of newspapers and the TV and radio news. Newspapers controlled the narrative in way that is now unimaginable, even though they obviously retain considerable sway.

But the second is somewhat more personal. For many supporters of around my age – just shy of 50 – Hillsborough was personal, an attack on all supporters, regardless of club. I can’t speak for everybody, obviously. Your mileage may always vary. But I have spoken to plenty of others who feel the same way as I, that from personal experience, April 15 1989 – and, for the avoidance of doubt, I’m not a Liverpool supporter; in general terms I consider myself to be Liverpool-agnostic – was a defining moment in my perception and understanding of the game, and what followed all the more so: the smears, the cover-up and the incredible tenacity and bravery of those who fought to get to the truth.

I was at a non-league match of little to no consequence that day, a Vauxhall-Opel League Premier Division match between St Albans City and Barking, and I remember every detail. I remember the little fat guy behind me with a transistor radio pressed to his ear at about ten past three, tutting, and saying, “crowd’s on the pitch at the Liverpool game”, and a few groans. I remember the game, a 1-0 home win decided by a Dean Austin penalty. I remember the crowd drifting away as snatches of news came through. I remember the pace of the game slowing to a crawl in the second half and wondering how much the players knew, and how much any of us knew. I remember sitting on the terrace behind the goal for a good half-hour after the game, not really wanting to go home. I remember hearing it might be as many as 20 people that had died. But I also remember that number fluctuating up and down all afternoon. I remember holding out some sort of hope that everything that had come through over that guy’s transistor radio had been false. I remember getting home and the TV news saying that it was 93, and I remember that feeling that you get, that punch in the stomach that sends your heart into your throat, when you know that something terrible has happened, and that things will never be quite the same again.

So yeah, it’s personal, even though my connections to Liverpool FC are pretty much non-existent.

There is a message in all of this, to official bodies, to governments, the police, to all those who seek to lie to protect their positions, both in a general sense and in terms of the more specific events of the days following the Champions League final. In a football sense, it isn’t 1989 anymore. Although football supporters are still treated as easy scapegoats (and we don’t help ourselves, too much of the time), the world has moved beyond the point at which we’re going to unquestioningly accept demonisation.

Power can be held to account. In 1989, the French government would have got away with this sort of lie, but in a substantially different media environment, it is impossible for them not to be caught out with their lies. What matters is what the consequences of being found out turn out to be. And for a large number of us, it is personal, regardless of who we support. We all deserve to know how close we came to a tragedy at the Champions League final. The mistakes of the past cannot be allowed to haunt us again.

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