Bill Connelly spent five days in England to search for the heart of English soccer, compare football crowds to futbol crowds, and figure out why everybody was telling him not to rent a car.
VI. Hi ho, Hillsborough
These grounds had been built for a generation of fans that didn't drive, or even rely on public transport overly much, and so they were placed carefully in the middle of residential areas full of narrow streets and terraced houses. Twenty or thirty years after the catchment areas began to expand dramatically, and people started traveling from ten or twenty or fifty miles away, nothing has changed. This was the time to build new stadia, out of town, with parking facilities and improved safety provisions; the rest of Europe did, and as a consequence the grounds in Italy, Spain, Portugal and France are bigger, better, and safer, but typically, in a country whose infrastructure is finally beginning to fall apart, we didn't bother. Here, tens of thousands of fans walk up narrow, winding underground tunnels, or double-park their cars in tiny, quiet, local streets, while the relevant football authorities seem content to carry on as if nothing at all -- behaviour, the fan base, methods of transport, even the state of the grounds themselves, which like the rest of us start to look a bit tatty after the first half-century or so -- had changed. There was so much that could and should have been done, and nothing ever was, and everyone trundled along for year after year after year, for a hundred years, until Hillsborough. Hillsborough was the fourth post-war British football disaster, the third in which large numbers of people were crushed to death following some kind of failure in crowd control; it was the first which has been attributed to something more than bad luck. So you can blame the police for opening the wrong gate at the wrong time if you like, but in my opinion to do so would be to miss the point.
-- Fever Pitch
Soccer landmarks are strange. We know the stadiums we know for all sorts of reasons. "Here's Anfield. It's where Liverpool have played for 120 years, and it's where You'll Never Walk Alone."
"Here's Old Trafford, where amazing players have played and Manchester United have won 100 titles."
"Here's Hillsborough, where Sheffield Wednesday play and a whole lot of people died once."
There's similar "I need to see that stadium; it's famous" motivation for each.
Hillsborough is indeed famous for reasons that have nothing to do with Sheffield Wednesday. On April 15, 1989, during an FA Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, 96 Liverpool fans died in a crush as officials and police went step by step through everything you’re not supposed to do in crowd control, making sure to check each box.
You’ve probably heard of Hillsborough because of old documentaries or the incredible 30 for 30 presentation this past April. Like many others (I figure), I fell into a YouTube rabbit hole at my desk job a few years ago and ended up watching hours of Hillsborough documentaries and recaps. But something hit me a while later that has fascinated me in a different way: on May 9, just over three weeks after Hillsborough forever became the official English proper noun for "sports disaster," Sheffield Wednesday had another home game there.
Owls drew 19,905 for a 2-0 loss to West Ham that day. Fans of this club have been going back to the stadium every week to watch their team play. A site of tragedy to some, it is a respite to others. It is sacred ground. It is home field.
We were originally only assured of attending Liverpool-Southampton, but when it got moved to Sunday, it opened up an opportunity to see Hillsborough.
these beautiful old tin boxes, relics of what so many of us picture as quaint old English soccer, those are the real stadiums.
When we were prepping for this trip, the built-into-the-city stadiums were most appealing and interesting to us. Who wants to see some new, huge structure with ample parking? We can see plenty of that in the states already. No, these beautiful old tin boxes, relics of what so many of us picture as quaint old English soccer, those are the real stadiums.
I found myself desperately not wanting to write mostly about Hillsborough when I got to Hillsborough. I didn't want to ask fans about it, and honestly I don't want Wednesday fans to even read this. They've been asked about it enough, and they've been tied to this tragedy, which didn't involve them, for long enough. But it was strange watching a match there, at least at first. We parked off of Leppings Lane, and I recognized the street because the Leppings Lane entrance was where things went awry in 1989. We watched Derby County fans chant and carouse in the west end of the stadium, realizing we only knew the west end because of the documentaries. It was everywhere if you wanted to see it. But the stadium is still a stadium, and the game is still the game. And when the two teams kicked off, this place was Sheffield Wednesday’s home stadium and nothing more.
Let's not mess around: the owl is pretty badass as far as logos go. It should be featured as prominently as possible. As you have probably seen, the "Hillsborough" label stands guard in that rounded, 1970s-jai-a'lai-center font. But the owl and team crest hover around a corner. It is the bee’s knees.
For the match itself, let’s first set the mood.
Why that? Because of this.
I had the song in my head the rest of the trip. I may have purchased it on iTunes when I got home.
We sat at basically midfield, third row. This may only be a Championship match, but the athleticism is as clear as Wednesday’s blue is vivid. Derby are considered a promotion favorite this year, and they were sounder and had stronger weak links. But if you were to list the six best players in this match, Wednesday had at least four of them. The Owls crafted a strategy perfectly around those pieces – quick winger Jacques Maghoma beat defenders one-on-one down the left side. Defender Sam Hutchinson, with pretty hair and nasty game, pulled a Billy Bremner on opposing attackers and all but winking them after he got away with a potential foul. Attacker Chris Maguire worked and worked and worked, sprinting everywhere all game. And monstrous Atdhe Nuhiu, twice as big as those defending him, posted up and won nearly every lob sent his way via goal kick or long ball. Wednesday controlled a majority of the first half, nearly scoring on quite a few occasions but never quite pulling it off. Maguire made a hash of a couple of free kicks, drawing the crowd’s ire, then bonked another one off the cross bar, winning them back.
Wednesday controlled the first half and easily dominated the battle of fierce sponsors, conquering the JustEat.co.uk on Derby’s kits with "AZERBAIJAN LAND OF FIRE." But when Nuhiu wore down in the second half, as heavyweights are prone to do, the tide turned. Derby’s subs were better than Wednesday’s, and sub attacker Johnny Russell got behind Wednesday’s mostly sound back line. The game ended scoreless because one of Russell’s shots dribbled wide and another was saved beautifully by Wednesday keeper Keiren Westwood on a 1-on-1.
Even though we very much wanted to see a goal celebration, especially in the final minutes, a scoreless draw was justice. In a 12-round fight, Wednesday would have won four of the first six rounds, then dropped four of the final six. (The game was also proof that scoreless draws can be fun. There were dull stretches in the middle, but the first 30 and last 30 minutes were tense and entertaining.)
The fans were, for the most part, the "soccer fan" stereotypes. There are loads of old couples and families with small children in attendance, but the chants are still there, the occasional vulgarity can still be heard, and the chanting creates a unique atmosphere we obviously don’t get in the states. College football comes close, with school chants and marching bands, but they aren’t nearly as oppressive as 20,000-50,000 mostly male voices screaming words you probably don’t understand. (Insert obvious "Yeah, but Texas A&M..." interjection here.)
Derby fans brought their A-game – the traveling fans usually do, since those are likely the most hardcore folks of the bunch. The fans chanted early and often, tiring as the game slowed down in the middle, then picking back up after halftime. When Wednesday narrowly missed an early shot on goal, they Nelson Muntz’d the Wednesday fans to their left, pointing and laughing. This outright appalled the 10-year old boy sitting next to me. He carried on for quite a while about how outrageous Derby fans are. The man next to him, either his young father or older brother, told him how awful Derby people are in general.
Sheffield and Derby are 50 miles apart, by the way. These fan bases are almost certainly more similar than they’d care to admit, just like Florida and Florida State fans, Oregon and Oregon State fans, etc. As fans, we are nothing if not a predictable (and predictably great) bunch. And when Wednesday fans began taunting Derby fans right back after their own misses, it was delicious.
the bottom line is that many Americans just don't want to sit in an anxious state for that long without breaks.
Fun fact about soccer chants: there’s a good chance that the only words you’re going to recognize as a group is singing are a) their team’s name, b) the other team’s name, and c) "fucking." They very clearly enunciate (c) every time. And there are plenty of opportunities to do so.
Soccer is inherently about anxiety. You might have to wait 90 minutes to find a resolution to the conflict at hand, and you might not even get one then. Soccer-hating Americans (of which there are fewer and fewer) can talk about low scores or floppery or whatever they want, but the bottom line is that many Americans just don't want to sit in an anxious state for that long without breaks. American sports have breaks. When you think about American and British stereotypes, it of course makes sense that Brits like soccer more. (It also reminds us that sports help to create these stereotypes.)
At the same time, though, the season is obscenely long. For both Derby and Wednesday, this was the second of 46 matches in league play. Instead of constant anxiety, the vibe in the stadium was more of reassurance. Crowds go crazy every time their team wins a corner (even though well more than 90 percent of corners fail to result in a goal). And the man behind us said basically one of two things all match: "Well done" and, when a Wednesday player got the ball with space to run, "Go! GOOOOO!" He was a patient, supportive parent. Granted, he also called one of Maguire’s failed free kicks rubbish as well, but … well, it was rubbish.
The simple thing to do following the 1989 tragedy would have been simply tear down this stadium and build somewhere else. But that's not how this sport and this continent work. Heysel Stadium still stands. Valley Parade Stadium still stands. Hillsborough Stadium still stands. In a continent that has seen wars, plagues, and disaster, you don't tear down and rebuild your history; it is what it is, and you live your life around it. Hillsborough was an old stadium 25 years ago, and while infinitely stronger safety measures are still in place, it is now mostly what it was then from an aesthetics standpoint.
And just as your history is your history, your fixtures are your fixtures. Teams still play each other when asked. Millwall and Luton Town still played when required after the 1985 Kenilworth Road riot. Liverpool and Forest still played until Forest's demotion. Hell, Wednesday remained a top-division team for 10 of 11 years from 1989 to 2000; that means Liverpool came back to Hillsborough for a road tie 10 times. History is formative, but really, history is a caboose you drag behind you from fixture to fixture.
Just a few weeks after Hillsborough, Liverpool had a chance to win the league at Anfield and, for however long, give stricken followers a chance to briefly celebrate. Instead, the match was fodder for one of Arsenal's greatest moments. Sports tragedy following real tragedy fills you in pretty clearly on what's most important in life, but ... damn. But both the club and the fans rallied, winning the First Division title the next season.
Sheffield is Pittsburgh, gray and alive, married to steel with rows of homes in the hillsides. It has been called the best beer city in England, which we unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity (or, after the night in Leeds, the wherewithal) to prove right or wrong. It is a family-friendly area with two proud fanbases – Wednesday and United – and while the aesthetics could be polished up a bit, there’s no need. It is what it is, and I was disappointed not to spend longer there.