The first time I experienced the sway of a football crowd, Liverpool’s era of success was already over and the Kop terrace was scheduled for demolition.
It was December 1993 and Liverpool were nevertheless expected to beat Swindon Town convincingly. Three months earlier, they had won 5-0 in Wiltshire, a victory that sent Graeme Souness’ team to the top of the league.
By the time Swindon arrived on Merseyside, there had been a ferocious mood swing. The visitors were still rooted to the foot of the table but Liverpool were toiling themselves.
Now seventh, Souness’ men were already 19 points behind reigning champions Manchester United, who would succeed Liverpool at the summit of English football — beginning a period of domination spanning the next two decades.
I was 10 years old and tall for my age but I could barely see what was happening on the pitch because the terrace, where everyone was still able to stand, was jammed. Probably just as well, as Liverpool could only secure a draw with a late Mark Wright equaliser against opponents bad enough to concede 100 goals by the end of the campaign. Swindon have not returned to the Premier League since.
This was a difficult time to be a Liverpool supporter. Six weeks after Swindon, in their yellow kits, were allowed to look and perform like Brazil at Anfield, Souness resigned having lost to first division Bristol City at home in an FA Cup replay.
The story goes that he knew his time was up even before kick-off. From his room at the Moat House hotel in Liverpool’s city centre, he would hear Bristol City’s manager Russell Osman telling his players about how Liverpool would bottle it if the going got tough (which it did) and with that, he realised this was not a group he wished to lead any more.
Souness had been a formidable captain for Liverpool and was my dad’s favourite player. Failure in the dugout shattered both his legacy and the sense of greatness that defined the club. The road back to where Souness had once inspired them from his position in central midfield was much, much longer than anyone expected.
It was also a difficult time to be growing up in Liverpool. Earlier in 1993, two-year-old James Bulger was abducted and murdered by two schoolboys on a railway line five miles away from where I lived. A week later, the European Commission ranked Merseyside together with parts of southern Italy and the old East Germany as especially poor, issuing the region with special grants. The unemployment that ravaged Liverpool in the 1980s, when the city was earmarked by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government for “managed decline”, had not gone away and it was still almost treble the national rate.
The energy sector was one of many privatised by Thatcher. My dad worked at a power station in Widnes and it seemed like our existence was threatened because he was always on the verge of being made redundant due to takeovers and cutbacks. There was talk of moving away, down south — to Deal in Kent. Thankfully, he clung on and the family remained in Liverpool — a city that felt safe to me despite some media images, which I was aware of despite my youth, and barely recognised.
Liverpool felt like it was in the dock and there was not going to be a fair trial. The collective mood was captured by the landlord of the Jawbone Tavern in Kirkdale when he spoke to a reporter from the Guardian a few hours after the murder of little James Bulger. “We feel dirty, vulgar and vulnerable and it’s like everyone is saying, ‘It’s Liverpool again’,” he said. “The press are crawling all over us like they did after Hillsborough.”
Soon, a feature in the Sunday Times by Jonathan Margolis fell under the headline “Self-Pity City”, a reference that tied the murder to the stadium disaster in Sheffield four years earlier where 97 Liverpool supporters were killed. Though the causes of these deaths were detailed in two rounds of inquests nearly 25 years apart, both of which exonerated supporters, in 1993 lots of people from outside the city were still convinced by craven reporting from 1989 which suggested otherwise.
The self-pity description could not be further from the truth. Otherwise, the families of victims would not have been able to mobilise so quickly after the disaster and the campaign for justice would not have endured for a quarter of a century.
Part of the campaign was the boycott of The Sun, the newspaper responsible for the worst of the lies about Hillsborough. Margolis, however, concluded that Liverpool was a “bit screwy” because the chairman of the city’s police authority urged Merseysiders not to buy any newspapers in the aftermath of Bulger’s murder. This view was supported by Harry Rimmer, the council leader, who accused the London media of possessing a racist attitude that stemmed from an anti-Irish sentiment. Liverpool was built upon huge immigration from Ireland a century earlier.
“Like blacks in the USA, Scousers are now on the proscribed list,” Margolis wrote. “You publicly find fault with them at your peril.” He used 1,086 notices placed in the Liverpool Echo in memory of a murdered toddler as proof of the city’s maudlin state, suggesting also that supporters of Liverpool FC were “getting off” on mourning because Anfield held a minute’s silence before their game with Ipswich Town.
Souness’ team could only draw that game, keeping the team in 15th place. In the Premier League era, Liverpool have never been as close to the abyss of relegation with just three months of the season left to play.
Margolis apologised in 1998 when he came to Liverpool to promote a book, admitting he realised too late the damage he’d inflicted.
“My article seemed to release a Pandora’s box of cold loathing from all over the country,” he said. It had not just been push-back from Liverpudlians but the response of liberals and some left-wingers elsewhere, who commended him for “sticking it to those whinging Scousers”.
He supposedly told them this was never his intention. “But the thing built up its own malign momentum, exposing a quite shocking anti-Scouse racism.”
In 1993, another report by Ian Jack in the Independent concluded Liverpool had “lost everything and was dying”. In the course of separating itself from the rest of the country, its “last function in British life” was the provision of theatre for everyone else.
Jack’s line in particular was one I thought about in February when I watched a Chelsea fan gazing at his phone at Marylebone Station in central London as he waited to board the train to Wembley for the Carabao Cup final. There, alone, he cheerfully and casually muttered to himself a song about the “slums” in Liverpool, with the words falling out of his mouth as naturally as “pie and chips, please”.
Three months later, on a walk from Wembley Park Station to the same stadium for the FA Cup final, I was part of a crowd of Liverpudlians accused of having “killed your own fans” by Chelsea supporters as they congregated in a fanzone, merrily drinking beer and having a good time.
When a boy, no older than 10, shuffling next to me asked his father what this meant, I wanted to lean over and hug him because it feels like it is something he’ll have to get used to if he follows Liverpool around the country for the rest of his life.
By the time I was able to take my seat in the Stade de France on Saturday night, the word “victim” was trending on Twitter.
From some positions, far away from the nightmare of Paris, the cause of a delay to the kick-off to the Champions League final had already been decided, even though UEFA’s claim about fans arriving late was instantly disproven because of the overwhelming amount of evidence online.
After I’d finally documented my experiences outside the ground, impossible for longer than an hour because so many people were using their phones trying to reassure relatives back home they were OK, it did not take long for someone to tell me, “It’s never your fault.”
I was sitting next to Tony in section S, a lad I’ve known since I was 11. We played in the same football teams as kids and adults. He was at the evening-do for my wedding. He loves Liverpool and I was delighted when I was able to sort a ticket out for him that morning because the friend of a colleague found out late that was they were unable to attend.
The first 40 minutes of the match raced by without us really speaking. When Sadio Mane’s shot was clawed onto a post by Thibaut Courtois, I did not even stand up. My mind — and the minds of lots of other people, I’ve been reassured — was elsewhere, just hoping nobody had died because of the same kind of organisational and security mistakes made at Hillsborough 33 years ago. This was not the atmosphere you’d expect at a Champions League final and I’m certain it affected Liverpool’s performance.
Rumours were circulating, some of them that as I write this send a chill down my spine. For the entire game, I was numb. I didn’t care whether Liverpool won or lost. I just wanted everyone to get home safely.
I also wanted for the truth to be known about what really happened but I knew how much of a challenge that would be. Jonathan Margolis was right about one thing in 1993; if you come from Liverpool, it can feel like you are already on a list.
The last time I visited Paris in 2018, the journey back to Charles de Gaulle airport began at 4am and the taxi driver took a route via Saint-Denis.
From the A1 motorway that cuts through the suburb, bestriding the narrow footpath that local authorities somehow concluded was wide enough to give safe passage to as much as three-quarters of the attendance on Saturday night, I was shocked to see people awake; children scuttling around between cardboard boxes on the hard shoulder.
This went on for half a mile. I was tired and later, I imagined that I’d witnessed something I’d only seen in the biggest cities of India. But, no, this was five kilometres from the centre of Paris in the 21st century — the richest city in Europe and one of the most beautiful on the planet.
I would learn that people from this part of the French capital are also on a list. Branded a no-go zone and demonised, especially by those on the political right because of its high immigrant population, Seine-Saint-Denis is often referred to by its department number, 93.
On Saturday night, some young men from the 93 appeared outside the Stade de France, waiting patiently, initially, for their chance. In the huge queue at the southern end of the ground, small groups moved through the crowd horizontally at first. It was noticeable how many supporters were switched on to what was happening because so many had their hands in their pockets.
As the security operation at the front of the queue disappeared after the stewards seemed to give up on a bad idea, they let everyone in, ticket or not, and from here, the young men slid closer to the gates where things quickly got worse. The best way to describe what followed is a battle on the outer concourse of the stadium between French police and locals, with Liverpool fans, in their much bigger numbers, getting the blame for it.
It was so easy for the authorities to try and paint it this way, of course, especially when there was the Hillsborough playbook to look at, especially when so many are still willing to believe the lies and spread them around the world.
The authorities are making their way down a checklist that has worked in the past. Having found that the late arrival of fans doesn’t wash because the evidence fails to match up, they are now trying the old “ticketless fans” argument — blaming an “industrial-scale fraud” of fake tickets. It is a desperate theory that also fails because of simple maths.
Having been called before the French senate on Wednesday afternoon, Gerald Darmanin, the interior minister, breezed over the impact of a metro station at La Plaine being closed, which meant Liverpool supporters — and anyone else travelling from the centre of Paris — had to access the ground through the same narrow point.
He estimated the area was three times over its capacity, yet he also claimed this was because of 40,000 fake tickets being in circulation. Had that number of tickets been in the area, the passageway would have been oversubscribed by a lot more than three times its capacity.
Further claims by the French government would have meant three fans with fake tickets were trying to get into the Stade de France every second for three hours in the lead-up to kick-off. At best, the first checkpoint was letting in one person every minute and neither I nor any of my colleagues who work for The Athletic saw a single person being turned away in the long time we were all standing there fearing how this would all end as the pressure built before it moved even closer to the ground.
The world is different to how it was in 1989 when Hillsborough happened. Then, the authorities were able to build their argument unopposed before countenance came too late for damage to be repaired. What has not changed, however, is the lack of morality from those in the highest offices when liability is theirs. What has not changed, either, is the politicisation of bad events.
Never let it be said that football and politics do not mix. You might not want them to but they do. While Boris Johnson sent Rangers a good luck message read from an autocue before their Europa League final in Seville, Liverpool did not get the same treatment before their trip to Paris.
Why? Maybe there are votes to be won in Glasgow among a fanbase which is loyal to the crown, unlike in Liverpool where the Conservative Party is on a life support machine because of the decisions made in the 1980s.
Liverpool as a city has never forgiven Johnson for repeating lies about Hillsborough in 2004 when he was the editor of the Spectator. Perhaps it is better for his Britain if a fanbase that heckles the national anthem is seen as bad.
Since Saturday, indeed, Johnson has failed to condemn the violence against Liverpool fans in Paris, though a spokesman said the government was “hugely disappointed” by how fans were treated.
In France, meanwhile, there are parliamentary elections on June 19 that will determine legislative powers. It would be more than convenient for the opposition from the extreme right if the young men of the 93 were to be blamed for the trouble at the final, which might be a tempting conclusion for Liverpool fans as well had they not known what it is like to be marginalised.
The blame for the carnage at the Stade de France falling on Liverpool supporters plays more in favour of the centrist president, Emmanuel Macron.
Gangs were there at the checkpoint, of course, but not in the sort of numbers that could overwhelm a competent security control system had one been in place. The Stade de France is a venue that should be used to dealing with the challenges posed by its location, whether or not it had only three months to prepare. UEFA, after all, proved itself as more than capable of ensuring the safe arrival of canapes and champagne to the hospitality suites at its prestige event.
It now feels like 1993 again, with Liverpool in the dock. Despite the evidence being in their favour, will the club, its supporters and, by extension, the city get a fair trial this time?
This can only be achieved if the “independent” report commissioned by UEFA, which has chosen its own man to lead it, takes testimonies from the thousands upon thousands of fans affected by last Saturday night before reaching a conclusion.
Whatever blame for the failings outside the ground is served up by the politicians and officials, whoever is on their list, it cannot be ignored that the evidence of what truly happened is already public, easily viewable and overwhelmingly clear.
(Top photo: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)