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Andrew Hussey recalls the tragedy that changed football and made it seem as if an obscure curse was

The new quarter of Liverpool One, the second phase of which was unveiled in October 2008, and which connects the old city centre of Liverpool to its shiny new waterfront, is a triumph of design and urban planning. The shops themselves are something of an irrelevance – it’s just a standard British high street – but the witty and clever shapes of the buildings and streets are breathtaking in their ambition. Most crucially, they show the true grandeur of Liverpudlian history.

Its new vistas link the river to the Welsh mountains and then the sea beyond – all the elements that have made this city what it is. Like Antony Gormley’s life-size statues, which stare out to sea from Crosby Beach a few miles to the north, Liverpool One is about turning outwards to the world beyond. Liverpudlians have often been accused of introspection and self-pity; so it seems appropriate, at the end of the city’s “Year of Culture”, that Liverpool is looking forward in the 21st century with a new-found confidence and pride.

All of this is, however, a long way from some of the dark memories of the city’s recent past. Throughout the 1980s, Liverpool seemed to be fighting a war with the rest of Britain. Its decade began with the Toxteth riots, in 1981. These were an outburst of anger and despair at the way in which Liverpool seemed to be slipping quickly into poverty and isolation and out of the mainstream of British society. From there on, it felt as if the Thatcher government was fighting a civil war against the city. It is this that explains the strange politics of the period – these were the Militant years, when, with a combination of Trotskyism and thuggery, the narcissistic Derek Hatton and his cronies held the city to ransom.

In retrospect, one of the most incomprehen­sible aspects of this decade was the widespread support that Hatton and his mates enjoyed. But on closer inspection it seems hardly surprising, when you recall that unemployment rates in the city were the highest in Europe. By 1989, Liverpool was exhausted and battered. This was all the more painful because, at the same time, Manchester – Liverpool’s great rival only 30 minutes down the M62 – stood ready to steal the cultural agenda with a fashion and rock-music renaissance led by the E-fuelled scallies of Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses.

But we in Liverpool still had football. Merseyside teams had dominated the English League through the 1980s; Manchester United were then no more than a confused shambles. The London teams were not much better. Liverpool may have been a wrecked post-industrial wasteland, but football offered a source of local loyalty and pride. The Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985, in which 39 fans had been killed by a falling wall during a riot just before the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus, had dealt a blow to the city’s footballing culture. Liverpool fans were soon heartily sick of the chant “Murd-er-ers!” which regularly met them at hostile grounds. But by 1989, even those scars were beginning to fade.

The atmosphere on 15 April, as Liverpool supporters set out for an FA Cup semi-final clash with Nottingham Forest at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, was festive. The Reds, under Kenny Dalglish, were at another peak and if they could beat Forest – not a problem, everyone assumed – the stage might be set for a classic all-Merseyside FA Cup final (Everton were playing in the other semi-final). Spring was just breaking through, and it was a spectacular two-hour drive or rail journey from Liverpool to Sheffield through the finest scenery of the Peak District.

No one could have predicted the horror that was waiting at the other end of the trip. The facts of the afternoon are as brutal as they are simple. At 3.06pm precisely the referee, Ray Lewis, blew his whistle and called a halt to the match. He was compelled to do this by the police, who were signalling to him that people at the Leppings Lane end, where the Liverpool fans were clustered, were spilling on to the pitch. Overcrowding outside the ground had forced the police to open an exit gate and fans had surged on to the already congested standing terrace.

The obvious reaction from bystanders was that violence had broken out and that this was a pitch invasion. Yet it quickly became clear that this was not the case, from the high-pitched screaming of fans being crushed to death against the stark blue security fences that kept them penned in. On the pitch, some of those who had scrambled over the fence lay dying on the grass, gasping for breath. Others lay dead, their faces blue and bloated. Those who could walk or stand rushed to carry bodies to safety on advertising hoardings. The final death toll was 96.

This was a catastrophe unprecedented in football memory. But what came next for Liverpool fans was, if anything, worse. First was the long journey home. Lime Street Station and the surrounding streets were stilled into silence. Those who trudged back were grey and ashen, as if returning from a distant massacre. In this most Catholic of cities, there was an unvoiced and obscure belief that some dark vengeance was being wreaked on Liverpool fans for their role in the Heysel disaster. There was, also, anger at the evident incompetence and callousness of the police, whose actions had created the deadly situation in the first place and who left people dying on the field. At an untouchable level, beyond understanding or articulation, there was also survivors’ guilt. This would go on to be one of the deepest psychic wounds left by Hillsborough.

The long civil war conducted against Liverpool and Liverpudlians from the south was not yet over. The next assault came from the Sun newspaper, whose editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, decided that Liverpool fans had not suffered enough. On the Wednesday following the disaster, as families arranged funerals, the Sun devoted its front page to the headline “The truth” and went on to describe how the Liverpool fans had urinated on corpses, robbed the dead and attacked the police. Nobody had seen any of this, least of all a Sun reporter, because it did not happen, as was later established. Yet this was not simply an insult to the dead and their families. It also opened up a new sense of anger and doubt in the city’s collective identity: Who are we that people should believe such things of us? Why are we so hated? These were the questions that Liverpudlians began to ask themselves. To this day, the Sun is despised in Liverpool.

The official inquiry into what had happened at Hillsborough was conducted by Lord Chief Justice Taylor. His report returned a verdict of accidental death, even though evidence of neglect by the police had been established. A private prosecution brought by bereaved families against the senior police officer in charge of the match, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, failed to reach a verdict. To the trauma of bereavement were added the frustration and humiliation of injustice.

Hillsborough was about the individual families that suffered. Their agony is captured perfectly in one of Adrian Henri’s late poems, “The Bell”, which describes the poignant sound of the bells of Liverpool Cathedral tolling for each of the victims. But Hillsborough is also an integral part of the story of Liverpool. It is the story of a crowd being killed live on television in front of your eyes. These people were little different from the working-class Liverpudlians of the 1960s who had inspired Bill Shankly’s greatest teams with their passion and collective sense of belief. The scenes of singing and scarf-waving on the Kop had been shown in black-and-white newsreels across the world.

This was the mob, the crowd, the working class in a group and in action, but it was nothing to be feared. The humour and dignity of this crowd were iconic. These images announced to the world the cultural vibrancy of ordinary people and their pleasures. To this extent, Liverpool fans were as crucial a component of 1960s pop culture as the Beatles.

By the end of the Thatcherite 1980s this same crowd had become the object of scorn and derision. To be working class, to be a football fan, to be unemployed and northern was to be scum. It is hard to write about the 1980s without feeling this way, no matter how primitive such emotions may seem to the present-day sophisticates of the post-Blair left. The year 1989 was when everything changed – music, football, politics. For the people of Liverpool, literally and metaphorically crushed by the blue fences of Hillsborough, it would still be a long, uphill road to Liverpool One and the 21st century.

Andrew Hussey’s most recent book is “Paris: the Secret History” (Penguin, £9.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The year of the crowd

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State