Elton John and the fight against football hooliganism

Bernard Ingham wanted television and radio to relay the government's message against football hooliganism
Bernard Ingham wanted television and radio to relay the government's message against football hooliganism

Articulate goalkeepers, Elton John appearing on the radio and having Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher give an interview to Shoot football magazine were all ideas mooted as part of a campaign to tackle hooliganism via the media.

Records released by the National Archives in Kew, west London, show there was a concerted public relations drive to help “implant in the public’s mind the idea that the 1984-85 season was the low water mark for British soccer”.

The “English disease” of hooliganism had blighted the sport for years, but while there was a clamour for action a rift between the government and football bosses over who was responsible for dealing with the problem created a stalemate.

But the Heysel stadium disaster, the Bradford City stadium fire and disgraceful scenes of violence during domestic games in early 1985 led the British government and football authorities to see the year as a watershed.

In a memo to Mrs Thatcher, her press secretary Bernard Ingham outlined a strategy to get across the message that “enough is enough; an entirely new attitude and approach by Government, police, football authorities, clubs and players – and we hope the mass of decent fans – governs the new season. 1985-86 must mark the return to decency in British soccer.”

Mr Ingham wanted radio and television to relay the government message that the new season should mark a “return to sanity and safety”, and suggested Mrs Thatcher should meet top football writers and commentators and people like Jimmy Hill and Bobby Charlton to ask them to support the condemnation of hooliganism.

He also wanted the country’s more articulate goalkeepers, “who are often first in line of hooligan fire”, to launch a campaign – “Goalies against Hoolies”.

Mr Ingham wrote: “We are proposing you should give an interview to Gary Bailey, Manchester United and England goalkeeper, from Piccadilly Radio, Manchester – an interview which we should get networked. Bailey is an articulate graduate.”

Mr Bailey did actually interview Mrs Thatcher, in a recording broadcast on August 2 1985.

Mr Ingham warned that action on hooliganism would be ineffective if clubs were “lukewarm, sullen or half-hearted”, and urged that each of the 92 League clubs should be required to print a message from the chairman in match day programmes for the season’s first few home games on the club’s attitudes to hooligans, spectator and player behaviour and what clubs can expect of the police, courts and spectators.

Club chairmen – flanked by police chief constables – should also have to brief press, radio and television editors on the new stance before the first home game, he proposed, and an “articulate and persuasive” club spokesman should warn fans over a stadium loudspeaker they could be arrested for trespassing on the pitch.

Mr Ingham suggested Watford FC chairman Elton John had also offered to be interviewed by goalkeeper Mr Bailey.

He added: “But all the glamorous pop names in soccer have a role to play in getting the right approach to next season, and we should consider organising the main radio and television sports programmes to get as many of them on the air as possible immediately before the season to spread the word.”

Official supporters clubs should condemn hooliganism and violence through the media, demanding an end to it and “emphasising their support for tough club, police and court action”.

Mr Ingham also encouraged the Prime Minister to give a pre-season interview to BBC Grandstand and ITV’s World Of Sport.

But he warned that any publicity exercises should be tied in with both the Football Association and the Football League, which “must be required to make the right noises, too; otherwise the impact will be reduced”.

There was even a request from Shoot magazine for an interview with Mrs Thatcher, but her press office shot down the idea, saying Shoot was a comic aimed at 11 to 16-year-olds who would likely ignore her, and that “whilst we may therefore be reaching hooligans and potential hooligans of that age, it may be too down-market a publication for the Prime Minister to make a personal contribution”.

Mr Ingham recognised that such a widespread media campaign would give Mrs Thatcher a high public profile, opening her to accusations of having failed in the event of further hooliganism.

But he countered that by saying his strategy “put the clubs in the front line of responsibility”, and that the strong measures and sanctions in place gave her a strong stance.

He said: “You are not in a position to let go of this issue now. You have so grasped the nettle that football must next season progressively become safer and more ruly. We have to put everything behind that effort.”