Simon Kuper Simon Kuper

When violence was the norm: Britain in the 1980s

Football hooliganism led to a shocking number of deaths, as did the many infrastructure disasters caused by negligence, while riots and street fighting were endemic

Hooliganism at the Heysel Stadium in May 1985 resulted in 39 deaths and hundreds of injuries. [Getty Images]

In middle age you’re supposed to feel nostalgia for your youth, but I finished this book marvelling at how dreadful the 1980s were. The decade hit rock bottom in May 1985 when, within 18 days, 56 football fans died in a fire at Bradford City and 39 in crushes before the Liverpool-Juventus match at the Heysel Stadium. All through, though, the 1980s lived up to one of Roger Domeneghetti’s chapter titles, named for The Barracudas’ song of 1981: ‘We’re living in violent times.’ 

The author, a journalist and academic, has an ambitious premise: sport is the key to understanding what really happened to Britain in the 1980s. The book doesn’t quite live up to that, but it does show how sporting and social dysfunction intertwined. It’s customary, for instance, to think of football hooliganism as a standalone malaise. Domeneghetti puts it in the context of a bloody decade. The pitched battles of the miners’ strike ended just two months before Bradford and Heysel. That autumn of 1985, Birmingham, Brixton and Tottenham erupted in deadly riots against the police. There were frequent fights even at music festivals and in market towns, when the pubs emptied. The journalist Tony Evans, who was at Heysel as a Liverpool fan, told Domeneghetti: ‘People, especially young men, were more attuned to violence than they are now. On your TV news every night you were seeing scenes of street-fighting from Belfast and Derry. Violence was normal.’

Similarly, Domeneghetti places the Bradford fire in the litany of 1980s infrastructure disasters: the British Airways jet headed for Corfu that burst into flames on the runway at Manchester in August 1985 (55 dead); the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry capsizing in 1987 (193 dead); the fire at King’s Cross station months later (31 dead); the explosion on the Piper Alpha oil rig in 1988 (167 dead); and the crush that killed 97 Liverpool fans at Hillsborough in 1989.

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