First the truth. Now justice for the 96

87496328_getty
©BBC

On Saturday, April 15, 1989, I was home alone nursing a monstrous hangover – the night before had been my sister’s 16th birthday and I’d hosted a mad teenage party to celebrate her big day.

My brothers went for a hair of the dog to the local pub and I went for an afternoon nap.

Just after 4pm, my brothers rushed back in and told me to get up because “there’s a disaster happening at the Liverpool game”.

What unfolded at Hillsborough that afternoon has been the defining injustice of my generation.

96 fans who went to watch Liverpool play a game of football never went home. And 96 families who have spent the last 27 years battling every intransigent, arrogant cog of the British Establishment today finally began to get the truth and justice for their loved ones.

I admit that Hillsborough has always pained me more, affected me more deeply because my first thought, from the instant I switched on to see the horror unfold live on Grandstand, was “this could have been us.”

That applies to anyone who went to football matches anywhere in the UK in the 1970s and 80s.

Dilapidated stadiums, metal barriers, heavy-handed policing, clubs who only cared about soaking fans for their cash and were prepared to cram in as many as possible for big matches with scant regard for safety.

How there weren’t more disasters on a similar scale is a minor miracle.

On Sunday, April 16, 1989, I had a ticket to see Celtic take on Hibs in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup at Hampden Park. My siblings and I gathered at my parents the day after Hillsborough to prepare to travel to the game together.

My mum, still red-eyed and reeling from the scale of the tragedy, grasped our hands as we sat at the kitchen table: “I could lose all of you. I could lose all of you.” She wasn’t just referring to me, my sister and brothers but to our extended family, cousins and all, who regularly met inside the ground at the same spot.

Today going to a football match is a much safer, infinitely more comfortable experience.

But there are still too many examples of how football fans are treated as second-class citizens and considered lesser by politicians, by the police and by the game’s rulers.

That attitude is what led to the horrific events at Hillsborough and the easily-accepted claims (in fact, downright lies), in the immediate aftermath that, of course, these were just drunken yobs whose own reckless behaviour caused the disaster in the first place.

Look at the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act brought in by the SNP government in Scotland, an Act that deliberately criminalises football fans.

Look at the cost of going to a game – fans in England have organised protests against spiralling ticket prices in the Premier League that price them out of supporting their team.

Look at how television dictates when games kick off, even when that means travelling fans can’t get home from the game.

The beautiful game is a lot more tarnished than it used to be.

Today’s verdict isn’t going to restore football’s lustre any time soon. But it should – it must – make the authorities pause and remember football fans deserve as much care and consideration as any other section of society.

And the game’s bigwigs should heed the words of the great Jock Stein: Football is nothing without fans.

#JFT96

Holding out for a hero

It’s 16.02 on September 1 and I’m watching Sky Sports News on a seemingly endless loop of news on transfer deadline day.

It’s almost 25 years since Sky “invented” football – or at least reinvented English football with enormous wads of cash – and 12 years since UEFA introduced the transfer deadline system where clubs are limited to trading players to two specific windows across the calendar year.

Cue Harry Redknapp at the wheel of his Range Rover giving meaningless soundbites to eager reporters and over-exuberant and possibly over-refreshed fans mooning live on TV as the 11pm deadline approaches and the transfer window slams shut.

I’ve already confessed I’m sitting here half-watching this nonsense, but in truth, as a football fan, I loathe this day.

The whole transfer deadline system is not only a sham of the highest order, the money flashed by the clubs in the Premiership is as obscene a display of wealth as you’re likely to see outside of The Great Gatsby.

On SSN’s garishly yellow and black screen, the total amount spent by England’s clubs – across all divisions, it has to be said – ticks ever upwards. Right now, at 4.07pm, it stands at £813,750,000.

sky

That’s £800 MILLION.

On footballers.

I love the game, but this is insanity of the highest order and I can’t be the only football fan who looks forward to the Premier League’s Lehman Brothers moment.

Celtic today sold Dutch defender Virgil Van Dijk to Southampton – in the English Premier League, natch – for a fee estimated at £11.5 million.

In just three seasons, Southampton have sent northwards of £30m to Glasgow for just three players – all of them talented, all of them good enough to star in the Greatest League in the World (© Sky Sports).

The trio – midfielder Victor Wanyama, goalkeeper Fraser Forster and defender Van Dijk – are the most successful symbols of the business model Celtic have employed for much of the last half-decade.

Buy cheap, sell big.

It’s been a very successful way of doing business and helps keep Celtic out of debt in the years they don’t make the Champions League with all of its vulgar riches.

But to me, it’s robbing the club of something essential – the opportunity for a player to become a hero, for the fans to have someone they can idolise, a terracing legend.

When a player stays with the club for two years tops, there’s no chance to build that rapport – not for him, not for us.

The last genuine Celtic hero was Henrik Larsson. But the King of Kings left in 2004. Since then a succession of good but not remarkable players have followed the Magnificent Seven along Kerrydale Street.

Each has produced an exceptional moment or two but nothing to compare to the seven extraordinary years Larsson gave.

Football is popular because anyone who has talent with a ball has the chance to make it in the game, because many clubs are still an integral part of the communities in which they were founded, because the game itself invokes such emotions, such passion it can at times be overwhelming – and not always in a positive way, of course.

But 21st-century football is about money, not passion.

And who really wants to cheer on guys who couldn’t care less where they’re playing so long as the cash keeps rolling in?

Where are football’s heroes? They’re busy calling their agent to ensure they don’t miss out on their next big payday, unconcerned about whose shirt they’re wearing on the next matchday.

So hey, dismiss me as an old fogey mourning the loss of the good old days. I do get that football is a business and that players must make the most of what is a relatively short career.

But I doubt that many at the top end of the game, who will never win a thing in their playing lives, would swap even a week’s salary for the chance to claim a medal or to score goals in front of an adoring crowd who will continue to chant their name years after they’ve hung up their boots.

That’s why the sight of the SSN totaliser ticking over relentlessly towards another record-breaking total fills my heart with dread, not joy.

My own club may be cashing in on the bonanza right now, but if we no longer care about creating legends, how much longer will we fans care about the game at all?

Empty vessels …

I’m in seventh heaven right now with wall-to-wall coverage of Euro 2012. The first week of twice-nightly helpings of action from the group stages has been fantastic with barely a dull game and hunnerza goals.

What’s not to love?

I’ll tell you what’s not to love – the inanity, idiocy and overwhelming vacuousness of the commentators, that’s what.

Now, I know this is nothing new. For decades we’ve been irritated and irked by the guys (and they are always guys, the BBC’s Jacqui Oatley aside – and she’s nowhere to be seen in this tourney) with the mic.

But Euro 2012 has seen the commentary, punditry and analysis plumb new depths. BBC and ITV are equally culpable in assaulting our ears.

For obvious reasons, any commentary of an England game will generally have me climbing the walls within seconds – 1966 and all that. Like all non-England fans, I amuse myself by playing 1966 bingo and ticking off the clichés and patronisingly jingoistic remarks that invariably accompany the Three Lions and their media cheerleaders – you know the script, “England expects”, “the Premier League”, “Hand of God” etc etc.

However, what’s grinding my gears so much this time round is not the waffle and triteness of the commentary but the overwhelming negativity of everyone involved in the TV coverage.

And for me it reached its nadir yesterday with Craig Burley on ITV and Mark Lawrenson on the BBC.

Lawrenson, in fact, achieved what I would once have considered the impossible and actually made me cheer an England goal. Now, that is unforgivable.

I don’t know what Lawro’s problem is either, Theo

The job of a co-commentator is to offer analysis for the viewing public, to enlighten us as to the intricacies of the game from the point of view of someone who played at the highest level – he’s there to explain about formations and tactics, to analyse changes made by the manager and to add colour to the action that we see unfolding in front of us.

If only, if only.

For the last couple of seasons, Burley has been making the ears of ESPN viewers and 5Live listeners bleed with a relentless stream of cynical and snide comments about EVERY game he watches.

The man has nothing positive to say about the game that gave him a bloody good living as a player and is now providing him with a new career. Instead he offers only invective.

Why he’s used by TV and radio producers is beyond me because I cannot recall a single match in which he’s offered any kind of insight or refreshing view of a player or passage of play.

Burley’s other big bugbear is Celtic FC. He played for the club and was part of a team considered legends because they stopped Rangers doing 10 in a row in 1998. Despite that, Burley has nothing good to say about Celtic or any Celtic players and while he’s entitled to his opinion, his job as a match analyst is to be objective about what’s happening right here, right now.

Yesterday his agenda against Celtic was laughingly exposed during coverage of France-Ukraine. Discussing the French midfielder Yann M’Villa who plays his club football with Rennes, Burley claimed M’Vila had bossed Rennes’ Europe League game against Celtic, then sneered “not that that’s hard to do” before then going on to disparage Scottish teams’ performances in Europe.

M’Vila bossing the game all the way to an early bath

Ahem. M’Vila played for Rennes against Celtic in Glasgow. The French lost 3-1 and M’Vila was sent off. The second tie ended in a 1-1 draw in France with Rennes scoring through a comedy own goal by Celtic defender Cha du Ri. Not much evidence of bossing a game going on there, eh Craig?

See what I mean about adding nothing to a game while belittling the sport that made him? Craig Burley is an ignorant arse with zero charm, wit or intelligence. And I’d like him to go away and stop spoiling the game I love.

And now to Mr Lawrenson. Along with his equally negative Match of the Day buddy Alan Hansen, Lawrenson reduces even the most exciting match to coma-inducing dullness.

Like Burley, he has nothing positive to say about any player or goal or tackle or pass – he’s another who is happy to ridicule and belittle what has made him fabulously wealthy. They say empty vessels make the most noise – ain’t that the truth?

Last night Lawrenson had me apoplectic with rage while watching Sweden take on England. I’ve toned down my Anyone But England zeal since getting hitched to one of them* but was (quietly) cheering on Sweden.

Until Lawro – and isn’t that a pathetic nickname for a man in his 50s? – intervened as Theo Walcott came on. His bitter remarks about how Walcott was only there on reputation because of one game a few years ago was the nastiest thing I’ve ever heard from any pundit.

So when Walcott scored a cracking equaliser a couple of minutes later, I let out a roar and bellowed “get it right up ye, Mark Lawrenson!”.

I’m not proud of myself – that kind of language isn’t good in any company – and I’m even less proud of cheering a goal for them but that’s what Lawro provoked in me!

So here’s a suggestion for the blokes (and invariably it will be blokes) who hire these guys. How about using pundits or journalists who might actually like the game of football? Who might actually have something insightful and interesting to say about the matches they’re watching without resorting to tired and lazy clichés?

It’s radical, I know, but it just might work. Sky Sports’ relentless cheerleading and unbridled enthusiasm for football goes over the top in the other direction but there has to be a happy medium.

Check out the wonderfully entertaining podcasts posted weekly by our national newspapers and you’ll find a dozen guys (and gals) there who clearly love and know the game but aren’t afraid to ridicule or criticise when it’s called for.

For now the mute button is firmly on for the rest of Euro 2012 …

*NB this is irony, not racism. And even if it’s not irony, it’s xenophobia, not racism, right? And anyway it’s a joke!