How one remarkable game marked the end of an era and the beginning of the New Football

After the trauma and suffering of Hillsborough we were witnessing an expression of extraordinary solidarity between rival fans, a kind of rapturous mutuality.

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Just recently I was contacted by a journalist from the French sports daily newspaper L’Équipe, who was writing an article about the final game of the 1988-89 English First Division. The match between Liverpool and Arsenal was played at Anfield unusually late in the season, on Friday 26 May. You could call it the last game of the last full top-flight football season of the 1980s – such a turbulent decade for football and the country at large. Having topped the table for so long Arsenal, now three points behind Liverpool, had to win by at least two goals to clinch the title on goal difference. It was the dramatic finale to what had been a long and traumatic season.

Liverpool were the dominant side in English football and were in extraordinary good form, having won the FA Cup the previous weekend. They were also on a mission, because this was the year of the Hillsborough stadium disaster, when 96 Liverpool supporters died on Saturday 15 April after being caught in a crush on the Leppings Lane terrace during an FA Cup semi-final against Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest.

The tragedy resulted in the suspension of the season as the nation struggled to understand and explain what had happened. Many believed the season should have been abandoned altogether out of respect to those who had died – innocent fans who were grotesquely accused in the Sun newspaper in the immediate aftermath of being responsible for their own misfortune. (To this day, the Sun is hated on Merseyside.)

I was at a match myself that afternoon, watching Arsenal beat Newcastle 1-0 at Highbury, which, with its steep standing terraces and listed art deco stands, was an intimate jewel of a stadium. (Sadly, most of it has long since been demolished and replaced by apartment blocks.) In the spring of 1989 I was in my final year at university and had travelled to London without a ticket (you could do that easily before the advent of all-seater stadia) to watch my team, who were well positioned to win their first league title since 1971. It was a big match. And yet, the ground was far from full.

Back then English football was not what it is today, so desirable at the highest level to Arab autocrats, Russian, American and Chinese oligarchs and the international plutocracy, an engine of soft power and an instrument of free market globalisation at its most rapacious. It was a game blighted by hooliganism and racism (still a prominent issue) and played in mostly run-down stadiums. The fans were often reviled. There weren’t many women at games.

English clubs had been banned from European competitions since the Heysel stadium disaster in Brussels on 29 May 1985, when a pre-match charge by Liverpool supporters led to a wall collapsing and 39 Juventus supporters being killed. And when, on that April afternoon, we heard on our transistor radios about what was unfolding at Hillsborough it was automatically assumed that the deaths had been caused by fighting among supporters. We were wrong.

Hillsborough was something else altogether – and the tragedy marked, in effect, the beginning of the end of the old football. It was the catalyst for a profound cultural and economic transformation and for (forgive the jargon) the embourgeoisement of the people’s game.

Even after all these years, I’m still haunted by the news footage of those Liverpool fans struggling to escape the crush on the Leppings Lane terrace and by the photographs in the newspapers the next morning of the dying, pushed up against the perimeter fence that caged them like livestock and prevented them from escaping on to the pitch. In his novel Mao II, the American writer Don DeLillo described the scenes at Hillsborough as resembling something from a great religious painting: “a crowded twisted vision of a rush to death as only a master of the age could paint it”.

Once the league resumed, Liverpool went on a winning run and soon overhauled long-time leaders Arsenal. The match at Anfield – what I have called the Last Game – had been scheduled for 23 April but was postponed after the Hillsborough tragedy. The rescheduled fixture was taking place after the FA Cup final, the traditional closing set-piece to the season, which had officially ended for all other teams. It was a humid evening, in what would be a warm summer.

The match, broadcast live on ITV, was truly remarkable, with Arsenal winning 2-0, just as they required. The second goal was scored by Michael Thomas – who later played for Liverpool – in the final minute of injury time, with the last shot of the last game of the last full season of the 1980s, after which nothing would be the same again.

Most remarkable of all was that the Liverpool fans, in their tens of thousands, stayed on to applaud the team from London, the new champions, as they plunged the flag of victory into the Anfield soil. After the trauma and suffering of Hillsborough we were witnessing an expression of extraordinary solidarity between rival fans, a kind of rapturous mutuality. Here was peculiar grace.

We were at the end of an era. The exuberant and gaudy 1980s during which football had been left behind were finally at a close. We were at the start of something new and 1989 was, in retrospect, the hinge year in football’s modernisation. Italia 90, New Order’s “World in Motion”, Pava- rotti’s arias and Gazza’s tears lay ahead as football would soon be marketed by Sky as a “whole new ball game” at the dawn of the Premier League.

Jason Cowley’s memoir “The Last Game: Love, Death and Football” was published in 2009. This column is also published in the latest Spear’s magazine

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 03 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, A very British scandal