As more details emerge about the infamous events of Hillsborough 1989, what can a coming-of-age-cum-footballjournal tell us about that magic and tragic stretch of green, and the thousands of fans who populate its perimeter? Is this just a read for the seasoned season-ticket holder or is it something for us all?
‘Fever Pitch’ opens in May ’68. Entirely but unapologetically self-aware, the author tells us he is more likely to think of Jeff Astle than Paris. Although structured around football matches, the narrative offers much more than a postmatch commentary. Searingly honest, Hornby’s account of his obsession with Arsenal is not a celebration of the team’s most glorious matches, but a unflinching look into winning, losing and simply turning up to the football grounds because you’re a fan.
The Arsenal – West Ham match of 1st May 1982 introduces a feeling of foreboding that the reader must adjust to. We discover how “things on the terraces” were worsening, with violence moving away from predictable brawls, towards unexpected attacks involving knives, machetes and even darts. Hornby experiences danger of a different kind: that of a several-thousand strong throng pushing. Although he manages to elude the crush, it is close.
Tragically, the lack of barrier was why Highbury was not selected to host the big cup matches. A place with such barriers was chosen for the fateful 1989 FA cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. A name soon to be on everyone’s lips and home to Sheffield Wednesday, it was Hillsborough. The match of 15th April 1989 brought a startling death toll of 96 with a further 766 injured. To this day, it remains one of football’s greatest tragedies. But, startlingly, it was not a one-off. Bolton, 1946, saw a crush leaving 33 at Bumden Park and Glasgow, 1971, bore witness to a stairway crowd crush killing 66 at Ibrox Park. Looking at Hillsborough in light of these events makes it seem less of a unique tragedy -though of course it is one- and more of a tragic trend. As Hornby points out, fans were following their teams in increasingly out-of-date stadiums that had been designed for a different age. Many grounds were several decades old, and had been situated in areas easily accessible urban areas because most fans came to the football on foot.
The game was a fledgling of the mammoth, multimillion-pound industry it is today. It was growing, the crowds were growing- the stadiums weren’t. Standing-only terraces were uncomfortable and risky. Hillsborough 1989 and the subsequent 1990 Taylor enquiry forced many stadiums to rethink crowd accommodation. It recommended seating for all members of the crowds, in an attempt to avoid another Hillsborough. With rising prices, the demographic of fans began to change. Hornby, after many years of dreaming about it, finally moves to a street near Highbury to be near his beloved team, but is dismayed to find only one fellow Arsenal fan on his street.
Football has changed, but loyalty never wavers. The book closes at a nondescript Arsenal-Aston-Villa match in 1992. It imparts a much quieter ending than its film adaptation, and perhaps better captures the essence of what Hornby is trying to share. There are no prized strikers being thrown in the air and kissing trophies, but rather seasons after seasons in the rain, wrapped in an appropriately coloured scarf holding onto a healthy smidgen of hope. Terrible events such as Burnsdale, Ibrox and the media juggernaut that is Hillsborough have highlighted safety issues and have left many feeling that football grounds are full of hooligans. These football tragedies have left indelible imprints on the pitch that no amount of mud, rain and dubious tackles will ever wash away. They remind us of the strong feelings football ignites in its followers. Let us hope, however, that such spirit might be expressed with scarves without flying punches, and rumbling cheers rather than stumbling crowds. Most of all, let team rivalries be settled where they were started, in on the pitch. The offside rule should apply to everyone.