The so-called ‘beautiful game’ is often watched by some very ugly people, but the violent scenes witnessed during the FA Cup semi-final and north-east derby at the weekend may have very little to do with football. A sporting fixture provides the forum, arguably even the catalyst, but the frustration fuelling the fighting might have roots running deeper than rivalry. As Thatcher and thuggery make a simultaneous return to the front pages, should we now expect a renaissance of the unrest that scarred our stadiums through the 1980s?
The recession of three decades ago was the deepest since World War II. Unemployment passed three million, affecting 11.9% of the working population by 1984. As manufacturing output fell, Conservative Chancellor Geoffrey Howe increased taxes and cut public spending. Against a backdrop of class division and industrial unrest, Mrs Thatcher’s government decreed that workers coming out on strike would see their benefits slashed.
It’s not entirely true to say that football is the opera of the working class, but it is perhaps no great surprise that amid deepening discontent amongst Britain’s blue collar workers, a minority would take it onto the terraces.
Whilst the overcoming of shared hardship can produce a galvanising effect, the reverse is also true. With Thatcher’s assertion that there was no such thing as society, those on the sharp end of Eighties economics were effectively told they were on their own. The politics of every-man-for-himself is always welcomed by the winners, whether it brings a Porsche and pin-stripes or buying your council house. However, the excess of the 1980s was cold comfort for those who became the first in their families not to find work waiting at the pit, plant, or factory down the street.
The violence that erupted this week at Wembley and St James’ Park was an unpleasant echo of events that saw English clubs banned from European competition for five years, following the Heysel Stadium disaster. Such scenes are inexcusable in any context, but it would be naïve to simply dismiss them as unfortunate side-effects of football culture.
As members of the public and parliament alike are pausing to observe the passing of an eighties icon, many are again at the mercy of economics beyond their control. The current Downing Street tenants might allege that “we are all in this together”, but they would do well to remember that for those left disenfranchised by the politics of plenty, there’s nothing quite like the poison of poverty to pierce our all too thin veil of civilisation.