Sweet FA

Posted on September 13th, 2012 in Football

I’ve just read the FA’s ‘statement‘ in response to the Hillsborough Panel’s report.

I’m still trying to work out whether it’s an artless piece of insensitive nonsense, or a litigation-avoiding non-statement. Either way, it stinks.

It comes a day late, after their twitter feed pushed out inanities related to the previous night’s England match; no-one with responsibility seems to have suggested that a period of silence on their part would be appreciated as the Panel actually presented its report.

Recall that the FA didn’t check that the ground’s safety certificate was in place. It chose Hillsborough – which they knew would see the Leppings Lane End for Liverpool fans – on the fact that the last year had gone well. It was far more concerned to ensure that Sheffield Wednesday understood the need for the Director’s Box and executive seats to be given over for the FA Council.

Recall that Graham Kelly, then-Chief Executive of the FA repeated the lie from Duckenfield about Liverpool fans opening the gates; the last thing the FA would have is actual intelligence of its own to gainsay that.

Recall that Kelly’s predecessor, Ted Croker, made a fortune afterwards in a company selling plastic seats to football clubs, who boomed because of the legislative changes compelled by the deaths of 96 people which his own organisation was partly responsible for.

Many of these things have been remedied. Big matches feature observers (though they still are often seated in the plush seats) and safety considerations are rightly at the forefront. But the FA deigns to be a governing body. It seeks to have a legitimacy that comes from being founded in 1863 as the world’s first.

Next year, the Champions League Final will be again held at Wembley to honour the FA’s 150th birthday. That’s because the FA is an institution.

Being an instituion means that historical amnesia is not an option. You have to be big enough, confident enough, moral enough, responsible enough to stand up and admit failings, admit duties of care were abrogated and that it was a nadir in the FA’s history.

Sadly, every sign is that the FA is moving back to the bad old days. From the resignations of Graham Kelly and Keith Wiseman in the late 1990s, the FA was led by people who seemed to have a sense that the FA’s role including a public dimension. One by one, they were chopped down, because that role forced them into the heart of the big debates about power and money in the game.

The current generation of leaders gives the impression of concluding from all of this that the proper response is to keep one’s head down, and wait for the football to give everyone a shiny new news story to be distracted by. It’s the mentality we had over 100 years of before Hillsborough. It’s the mentality which – in the absence of any governing mission – allows the institutional culture to reassert itself, a culture based on the idea that the people to whom football matters are at one remove. The ‘never apologise, never explain’ culture Leveson unpicked in another accountability-free zone, the press.

That culture, deeply embedded, hasn’t changed at all that much since 1989. Fans are still pretty much ignored (there’s one fan on the FA Council, where he diligently raises point about issues that have been decided already in meetings he’s not allowed into).

The FA Council is full of people who do not in any way burn with a passion to make the national game better for the matchgoing fan (Disclosure – in a previous job, I enjoyed the FA’s hospitality at matches where I sat in the Royal Box with these people. I speak from experience, not easy prejudice).

There will be people in the FA’s inner counsels nodding their heads with the statement; as far as they’re concerned, it does the job. Would that the national governing body with responsibility would done theirs. Would that they would understand it even now.

There’s been much said about the state’s failure – the police, the ambulance services, the legal system – and its all true. It’s terrifying to be at the mercy of the state which has closed ranks against you. But there are ways in, thanks to the legal system, thanks to political power. You can force the bastards to change, as the Hillsborough families demonstrate better than anyone ever has. Now we know the truth, justice can be pursued, using those same methods.

But football isn’t the state, but it was culpable. It sat on decades worth of profits and didn’t undertake investment in death-trap grounds (recall that the undercroft of Valley Parade which burnt down so quickly contained ashes of rubbish that had been swept there for 17 years, at least). It didn’t stand up for fans treated like animals by the police in the 1980s. It didn’t really care, and shared the analysis of much of the police that fans were first an foremost a public order problem, a mob in which they ceased to exist as people with personalities, abilities, hopes and dreams.

The Taylor Report excoriated these men of limited vision and even-more limited empathy with the matchgoing fan; their punishment in most cases was to become fabulously wealthy on the back of the Premier League’s creation.

There’s a revealing letter in the Hillsborough archive from the then-chair of the Football Supporters’ Association to Ted Croker. I’d really, really love to say that – along with all the other things that have changed – things like this don’t happen any more, but they do.

They happen at clubs up and down the country, at the FA, at the various leagues. Sure, there’ll be lip service paid, and the token meeting here and there, but the rights of fans and their involvement in decision making is still fundamentally the same as it was in 1989, as it was in 1969; yea, even unto 1863.

The thought that entering a football crowd strips you of your human specificity is still very, very much alive, and was the backdrop to nearly every discussion about football fans I had over a decade with the game’s officials.

As politicians begin to look at what can be done to provide justice, they should revisit the flawed response to the latest – failed – attempt to bring the game’s governing bodies to heel, and redouble efforts to change it.

Update at 2pm

FA Chairman David Bernstein has given a video apology; I was hoping that what with the video being released 4 hours after the risible statement, it might integrate some of the concerns many had expressed, mostly on twitter.

But no. There’s an apology, but no statement of what they’re apologising for. They’re either unaware of their culpability, or have chosen to draw a veil over it. They’re not stupid, so we must conclude they want to ‘move on’, that weaselly corporate appropriation which translates as ‘can’t we stop talking about this thing because we’re in the wrong and we’re all a bit sick of it, frankly’.

Geunine moving on requires a reconciliation, which also requires a reckoning. It’s about being confident that the FA really, truly, understands where and why it failed so miserably 23 years ago.

There are no fitting tributes or memorials possible to the dead, save a time machine to go back and change it to spare the lives. But what ultimately killed the fans – as this brilliant and excoriating editorial from When Saturday Comes from the time nails – was a culture in which fans were the problem, to be seen and not heard, the people who came very far down the pecking order in decision-making, thought-processes and so on. That is still, sadly, the case; if it wasn’t, Bernstein’s and the FA’s response wouldn’t have been so appallingly insufficient and unknowing.

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  1. Hillsborough: Apologies, Truth & Justice | Twohundredpercent - [...] however, an official statement was released and it was… wholly unsatisfactory. Dave Boyle takes the statement to pieces here …

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