Hillsborough hooligans mar survival Sunday

Much has been written in the past few days about Crystal Palace’s invaluable point from the game at Hillsborough on the final day of the season. Needing only a point to remain in the Championship, and in doing so, relegate opponents Sheffield Wednesday, the Eagles, with 7,000-strong red-and-blue backing, led twice before a late equalizer set up a tense

finish.

The particulars of the game are of little concern – the fact that the BBC opted to show the game live suggests that many readers will be familiar with them. What unsettled me was what followed, which the Beeb neglected to show either in their highlights coverage, or, I am told, in the live format.

Digressing briefly, I wish to look back at the BBC coverage of Newcastle’s promotion celebrations at the ground of Plymouth Argyle, a team who themselves were relegated this season. As often happens following fixtures of such magnitude, the elated supporters of the victors embarked on a pitch invasion to celebrate with the players. This is by no means an infrequent occurrence; indeed, it adds a rare human touch to the often impersonal game of football, in which fans’ relationships with players are mediated by their television screens.

After that fixture, the BBC pundits praised the Newcastle supporters’ display of passion. However, following the Hillsborough pitch invasion, it was decried irresponsible by the same commentary box shirt-and-ties. Granted, the circumstances were different in that the home side had just been relegated by the away team. Yet those who opted to run onto the pitch, and I stress it was a minority – under one hundred – were in no way inciting the home supporters, instead running to the Palace players to share in the jubilation. Naïve, perhaps, but given the BBC’s constant invocation of the emotional stakes in play, certainly understandable.

{{ quote It is by no means an infrequent occurrence; indeed, it adds a rare human touch to the often impersonal game of football }}

However, what followed was simply unforgivable. Home fans – once again, I must stress, a relative minority, stormed onto the pitch, chasing their opposite numbers with vicious intent. Some even attacked Palace defender Clint Hill, who had in fact been consoling an Owls player before embarking on modest celebrations with the travelling support. The defender, one of many players set to leave the Eagles due to their financial plight, said of the incident, “Once one had a swing at me, everybody gets a bit brave and starts having swings at you. At one point there was maybe seven or eight on me.”

The FA look set to launch an investigation into the incident. Perhaps their biggest question will be why such events were allowed to happen. South Yorkshire police, complete with truncheons, were manning the front of the away stand before the final whistle, backed up by a row of stewards. Why, then, were travelling supporters even able to break onto the pitch?

The scenes that followed were, quite simply, the worst I have ever witnessed in some fifteen years of following Crystal Palace. Not only was a player assaulted – after which he was escorted from the pitch not by the hundreds of riot police, but by the bravery of a solitary team-mate – but the travelling supporters were subjected to numerous projected missiles, including coins and plastic bottles amongst other things.

Most disturbingly, one Wednesday fan, after being confronted by a female steward upon his invasion of the playing surface, casually struck her to the floor before escaping into the anonymity of the swarming crowd.

The Palace fans – many of them women and children, were visibly shaken – many in tears of terror rather than elation. I saw an elderly man, dressed in his Sunday best (complete with red-and-blue tie), who could scarcely scale the stairs – heaven knows how he made it from Selhurst to Sheffield – sitting stoically in his seat while the chaos unfolded around him.

Walking back to the train station, I saw the first of many bloodied noses, handcuffed men protesting their innocence regardless of the blood on their hands. I couldn’t help but think about the elderly man. No doubt he has seen worse. Yet as his spectacled face was recalled by my consciousness, I recognized the look he wore as one of tragic resignation. Perhaps he knew there was a grim inevitability to the violent proceedings, that would be no real winners on this bloody Sunday, regardless of the score.

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