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  • Jul 23, 2014
  • Updated: 4:42am
Column
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 April, 2013, 3:51am

UK soccer fans need to thank Margaret Thatcher

While some may say she created the 'loadsamoney' culture, this fan believes that she was the saviour of British soccer

BIO

Peter Simpson is a China-UK based journalist and the SCMP’s former Beijing 2008 Olympics news editor. He has covered major international news and sporting events, most recently the London 2012 Olympics and Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine. Peter is a Premier League season ticket holder at newly promoted Southampton FC.
 

Maggie Thatcher, the soccer hater. What did she ever do for fans like you and me?

Since news of Margaret Thatcher's death broke on Monday, the game has been sucked into the debate about the myriad legacies left by the most "polarising British prime minister of modern times".

That she was divisive cannot be denied. Her impact on British society, including the national game, is being felt now just as it did when she held office.

The sizzling dichotomy of her record 11-year-reign is once more causing friends to become adversaries as memories are evoked and arguments rekindled.

On the terraces and in-front of TV sets the heated debate will rage on this weekend.

Some believe she changed soccer for the better and many claim she transformed the sport into one of her morally corrupt, free-wheeling "loadsamoney" enterprises - a sport where profit is king and loyal fans mere consumers to be fleeced at every creaky rotation of the turnstyle.

Thrown into the discursive "Thatcher good, Thatcher bad" soup is how the game should mark her passing.

England and Manchester United legend Bobby Charlton was among those calling for one of those ubiquitous one-minute silences ahead of kick offs today and tomorrow.

Reading chairman John Madejski and Wigan owner Dave Whelan, both donors to Thatcher's Conservative Party, were the only English Premier League clubs to demand such a tribute.

It's a terrible idea that, thankfully, has been binned because it would cheapen the reverential silences of respect reserved for fallen players and fans.

Indeed, the strongest opposition to a Thatcher tribute came from the Hillsborough Family Support Group which said it would be an "insult".

They claim she colluded with police to cover up the true cause of deaths of the 96 Liverpool fans on that tragic FA Cup Saturday almost 24 years ago to the day. There will be a minute's silence at the Reading-Liverpool game today for Hillsborough.

Reading's Madejski argued Thatcher deserved respect because she "did good for the country".

But such a ceremony for mistrusted politicians, especially Thatcher, would be mocked to the rafters.

However, he was correct when he said: "Like any politician, she made mistakes. But she also got an awful lot right."

You could discuss the impact of Thatcherism and its free-market economics on the game until new shoots show on Old Trafford's notoriously (and seemingly eternally) grass-bare pitch.

But who with hand on heart can deny Thatcher helped change our game for the better?

The soccer we watch today is the product of Thatcher's unbreakable will.

Yes, she made many errors. That's the nature of conviction politics. Her championing of ID cards, a draconian, ill-considered measure, alienated her on the tribal terraces.

The Iron Lady made it crystal clear she was no fan. Unlike subsequent prime ministers, she made no attempted to embrace the national game for political expediency. She loathed fans whose hooligan element she denigrated.

Who can blame her? The 1980s was a torrid time for the game, which offered aggravation and tragedy rather than exciting competition and glory.

Preceding decades of neglect culminated in a dark decade littered with unpleasant events, from the deadly Bradford FC stadium fire to the Heysel deaths and the hell of Hillsborough. In between, gangs of thugs ran weekly riots across pitches and town centres.

The policing bill ran into millions, the Britain's reputation abroad was in tatters. Attending a match was often akin to entering a war zone.

Like many, my thoughts and soul are divided over Thatcher. But, like Madejski, I can only conclude she was a positive force. Soccer was analogous with the rest of a Britain in decline when she came to power. By the time of her downfall in late 1990 she had transformed British society, including football.

My memory defaults to a nasty episode indicative of the game during her era. In 1986, on a chilly Tuesday September evening at the Dell (Southampton's old stadium) the Saints, then a pre-EPL Division One team, were hosting Tottenham.

Standing behind a goal and leaning on a railing with a friend, a gang of Spurs fans who had infiltrated the home supporters suddenly erupted when Saints went one-nil up.

These were the days of the notorious "casuals", those hardcore fans who shunned club colours and in the spirit of Thatcherism, wore expensive designer sportswear such as Fila, Lacoste, Ellesse and Kappa.

The hardcore home fans. the target of the visiting mob, backed off to the other side of the terracing, creating a chant-filled divide in the middle of which I stood paralysed with my equally white-with-fear friend.

I fixed my eyes dead ahead and they hit on a terrified mum and dad and their two young kids bundled against the fencing in distress.

I too was shaking with fear. A Spurs fan, dressed in a white Kappa tracksuit top, sidled up to me and asked if I was cold. I can only assume I offered no threat as he glared at the Saints fans. I kept my eyes fixed on the horrified family. Eventually the Spurs fans were ejected.

Thatcher oversaw the post-Hillsborough Taylor Report which, along with her economic reforms, arguably laid the foundations for the game we enjoy today.

Today, we sit in modern stadiums mainly free of hooligans, and the TV coverage is exceptional.

As much as we despise the money obsession and pampered stars, in truth we have never had it so good.

Today, as I sit with my son and other families at St Mary's for the West Ham game, I'll pay my private tribute to Thatcher. I'll recall that family cowering against the fencing over a quarter of a century ago, relieved those days are long gone, thanks to Maggie Thatcher, English soccer's saviour.

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