This past September an independent panel commissioned in 2009 by the British government released its 395-page report on the Hillsborough Stadium disaster of April 1989. The published findings and the accompanying release of documents confirmed what had long been charged: the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans at the grounds in Sheffield were the result of unsafe stadium design, insufficient crowd management, and failed policing and emergency response. Most significantly, the report gave proof that authorities in Sheffield had covered their failure by casting blame on the supposedly drunken and unruly fans. This line had been carried in the papers, most notoriously by The Sun, which published false reports that Liverpool fans had picked the pockets of the dead and wounded and even urinated on corpses. Such stories gained traction because they fit a general narrative that the press and politicians, both Labour and Conservative, had been repeating since the 1960s: football fans were delinquents, and their violent behavior at grounds in Britain and abroad was a black mark on the nation’s reputation
Brett Bebber investigates the origins of this narrative and the corresponding government measures against fan violence in his book Violence and Racism in Football: Politics and Cultural Conflict in British Society, 1968-1998 (Pickering & Chatto, 2011). As he acknowledges, much has been written about football violence in the UK. But Brett brings a fresh approach to this familiar topic. As an American who admits to having been cool to soccer, he has an outsider’s perspective to the deep passions and divisions in English football. And unlike the journalists and social scientists who have focused on the fans, Brett is a historian whose research brought him to the archives of government offices and the records of police departments. What these documents show is that the Home Office and other government departments adopted strategies that typically exacerbated, rather than reduced, the tense atmosphere at football grounds, and planted seeds that would bear ill fruit in 1989. The Hillsborough report stated that Sheffield authorities viewed the task of crowd management “exclusively through a lens of potential crowd disorder.” This hostile perspective was guiding government policy already in the 1960s, when officials began to mandate the penning of spectators, and commissioned tests on how much force a human body could endure when pressed against a steel barrier.