The best story about Margaret Thatcher's relationship with sport is told by John Major and provides a little insight into why the Premier League has told the football clubs of the nation that they will not be needing to hold a minute's silence to mark her death.
Major relates in his autobiography how Thatcher's occasional attempts to display an interest in sport - a field of life for which she held no interest - once led her to attend a Scottish Cup Final, at the conclusion of which she “held forth at length on the performance of a player.” That individual was listed in the match programme but “had not in fact played on the day,” Major writes. “ Amid much embarrassed shuffling of feet and gazing at the ceiling, no-one told her.” Such was the absence of any kind of empathy between Thatcher and the world of those in sport.
She used this realm when it suited her, asking British athletes to boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for instance. (Some competitors did stay away but many more, including a disgusted Sebastian Coe, refused.) She also considered ordering Britain's football teams to pull out of the Spain 1982 World Cup after Britain went to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, though neither England, Scotland nor Northern Ireland was due to play in the same group as Argentina. Diplomats feared that a boycott could be used by Argentina as a propaganda coup if the two foes collided in the later stages of the tournament - and once again Thatcher was forced to back off.
The sporting world was one she did not understand - despite the love of golf enjoyed by her husband Denis, a former rugby referee - and the Associated Press have already pointed to Coe's own autobiography as evidence. “She never really understood sport until it migrated — and sometimes mutated — beyond the back page, or impacted on other areas of policy,” wrote Coe, who became an MP in Thatcher's Conservative Party and whose first of two 1,500m Olympic gold medals came in Moscow.
Where football was concerned, there was something more than a lack of appreciation. In 1985, her summoning to Downing Street of the FA secretary Ted Croker was a defining moment in her relationship with the sport. Millwall fans had just rioted at Luton Town, and Thatcher demanded to know from Croker what he intended to do about “his” hooligans. Croker bravely replied that they were not football’s hooligans they were “your” hooligans, and we “don’t want your hooligans at our sport”.
A few weeks later came the Heysel Stadium disaster when a stampede at the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus left 39 fans dead. At an immediately constituted press conference outside No 10 Thatcher said she wanted to see some of the football correspondents “who saw what happened with their own eyes” but in the same breath apportioned blame on Liverpool fans.
Some degree of circumspection is required before we demonise her for personal part in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, four years later. Thatcher was at the stadium with her Home Secretary Douglas Hurd before fans' bodies had even been removed from the makeshift morgue at Sheffield Wednesday's ground, the morning after. Though that has since been posited as proof of a conspiracy with South Yorkshire Police, last September's Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) report found no such evidence.
Thatcher's letter to Derrick Walters, Dean of Liverpool Cathedral, detailing her deep appreciation of a private meeting with families of victims are also in the HIP's vast archive, though it is undeniable that she and her government were obsessed with hooliganism, as they saw it, rather than the need for clubs such as Bradford City, scene of the 1985 fire, and Sheffield Wednesday - scene of the disaster - to make football stadia more safe. While the public apology to Liverpool supporters for the way they had been maligned and blamed would not arrive until her own life was slipping away, Thatcher used Hillsborough to press ahead with detested plans for Europe's first compulsory membership program for soccer fans.
It was dropped in the face of opposition led by the Labour Party, which described the membership cards as “an offence against common decency.” What did change in football — following the Taylor Inquiry Thatcher had ordered — was the introduction of all-seater stadiums that made matches in England among the safest in the world in the years after Thatcher quit in 1990 and was succeeded by John Major.
It can be said in Thatcher's defence that she did not court sport in the excruciating way that Tony Blair did - appearing on the Football Focus couch and heading a ball with Kevin Keegan - or indeed Gordon Brown, whose notorious stage-managed photo opportunity of him watching football is less remembered.
But it can also be said that she was woman who delivered the bleakness and hopelessness of post-industrialism to the back streets which football's spirit occupied. That is why Sir Alex Ferguson, when once told by a journalist that he and Thatcher shared an ability to survive on only five hours' sleep, replied: “ Don't associate me with that woman.”
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