How Hillsborough disaster altered English soccer

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Since April 15, 1989, English soccer has never been the same.

On that day at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, 96 Liverpool fans died, crushed by a mass of people. This weekend marks the 25 anniversary of the worst sporting disaster the British Isles has seen, as every professional and semi-professional game in England will kick off at seven minutes past the allotted start time, as the game at Hillsborough was stopped after six minutes on that fateful day. Teams will then remember those who perished with a minute’s silence.

(MORE: English soccer to mark 25th anniversary of Hillsborough disaster, all games to kick off seven minutes late)

Many questions still surround what happened at the Leppings Lane end of Sheffield Wednesday’s stadium. But in 2012, the Hillsborough Independent Report revealed a cover-up by the British government and South Yorkshire police. Outrage, anger and pain has been with the families ever since that FA Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.

The Hillsborough disaster also substantially changed the experience of watching soccer in England.

When one attends a Premier League match, you have an allocated seat. Every stadium, by law, must have a seat for everyone in attendance. This came into effect after the Taylor Report was published in 1990 and standing areas in England’s top-flight were abolished. It’s a significant change that has shaped the modern era of English soccer.

BEFORE HILLSBOROUGH

In the years leading up to the Hillsborough disaster, the terraces of English soccer were rough areas. Huge metal  fences were installed at the front of stands to stop pitch invasions and fans fighting with each other. Cages known as ‘pens’ were placed on the main terraces to split up sections and serve as crowd control. The razzmatazz of the Premier League was still a few decades away.

source: AP
Fans were crushed against metal fences, as police allowed 2,000 supporters to fill into metal ‘pens’ that were already filled to the brim.

Stadiums often filled beyond capacity. Tales of your feet never touching the floor during a game are copious from fans of a certain generation, who remember back to when attending a top-flight game in England carried a significant risk.

(WATCH: The 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy)

Before Hillsborough, other incidents involving crushes at soccer stadiums occurred at Bolton in 1946, where 33 fans perished after a crush at Burnden Park after overcrowding. In 1964 a crush at the Estadio Nacional in Lima, Peru, killed over 300 people after rioting broke out, then in 1971, 66 Glasgow Rangers fans were killed at Ibrox towards the end of an Old Firm derby after fans were once again crushed to death. Standing at soccer games certainly hadn’t been safe for quite some time before Hillsborough.

Old wooden stands, with steep banks and metal crush barriers dotted throughout them made attending big games troublesome. Women and children were often discouraged from attending matches, as it was often quite the ordeal just to get inside the grounds.

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The Hillsborough Independent Panel analyzed the tragedy during their report released in 2012.

With the violent undertones of watching soccer throughout the ’70s and ’80s in England, due to hooliganism and fighting often breaking out on the terraces, the implementation of metal fences was needed at the front of stands to stop fans running onto the pitch and disrupting the matches. Those attempts by the authorities to help curb violence played a significant part in killing 96 innocent victims at Hillsborough.

The pre-Hillsborough era in English soccer could not be repeated, as elementary errors converged. Police were given the all clear by their chief to let over 2,000 Liverpool fans pour into the Leppings Lane End of Hillsborough stadium just before kick off, but instead of funneling the fans towards the two less-crowded pens, they were allowed to push into the already overcrowded central area behind the goal. Coupled with the fences at the front preventing fans from being able to jump on the pitch to safety, including other factors noted in the report, many of the 96 died from compressive asphyxia whilst standing.

In a recent interview with the Daily Mail, Liverpool defender Steve Staunton, the youngest player in the Reds’ team that day at the age of 20, recalls the moment he realized something was horribly wrong while he was playing at Hillsborough on that fateful day.

Staunton is still reluctant to talk about what he saw, 25 years on from the tragedy.

“I don’t want to be too graphic but I could see youngsters, children, being pressed against the barriers so hard they were changing color,” Staunton said. “There was blood on the pitch and people screaming. There were  supporters trying to throw other supporters over the fence to save them but some were being caught on the spikes. It was all happening just a few yards away but I felt so helpless, there was nothing I could do. I just stared — like a rabbit trapped in headlights. I was in shock but I remember Bruce Grobbelaar [Liverpool’s goalkeeper] and the linesman shouting at me, ‘You’ve got to get off the pitch’. I was still staring into space, not believing what I’d witnessed.”

AFTER HILLSBOROUGH

In the aftermath, Lord Justice Taylor’s report into the Hillsborough disaster was thought to be thorough and all-encompassing. However, it has since been picked apart on several occasions, and none more so than the findings revealed in the 2012 report. Still, one of the positives to come from Taylor’s findings, in his initial report, was the implementation of all-seater stadia across the top divisions of English soccer.

source: AP
Remembered the world over, 96 Liverpool fans who never returned 25-years ago.

The Taylor Report specifically stated that all teams in the top two divisions of the English game had to play in all-seater stadiums by 1994, which saw the end of some of the largest and most famous terraces in the global game.

Over 30,000 fans used to stand in single terraces behind the goal at Manchester United’s Stretford End, the Holte End at Aston Villa’s home ground and, of course, the famous Kop end at Liverpool’s Anfield stadium. Those vast steps of concrete were replaced by plastic seating, while many other famous old stadiums were leveled. The new laws meant a safety-first approach had to be adopted to stop any similar tragedy from occurring in England again. The Taylor Report also brought with it many other suggestions to increase safety inside the stadiums, as banning alcohol on the terraces and getting rid of fences and crash barriers also came to fruition.

In the modern era, consuming alcohol in the main stadium bowl is prohibited in Premier League venues, as you must consume drinks in the concession stands below. Suggestions to bring back safe-standing errors to the English game have so far not taken off, but several PL teams have shown interest in trialing methods used throughout the Bundesliga and other stadiums in Europe.

As things stand UEFA Champions League and Europa League games must be played in all-seater stadia, but German club Borussia Dortmund have come up with a clever way of allowing their fans to sit and stand. For Bundelsiga matches — the German top-flight has no bans on standing on the terraces — Dortmund can fit in an extra 15,000 fans to their Westfalenstadion by folding their seats up and using the safety bars present on each row for fans to lean on. Then for UCL games, they simply fold the seats back down to comply with UEFA’s rules.

source: Reuters
The victims families have fought effortlessly to overturn a verdict of accidental death, as they finally got justice for the loved ones they lost in 2012.

Whether that system arrives in England’s top-flight remains to be seen. The Football League have asked for feedback from teams in the Championship, League One and League Two, and a handful of Premier League teams have shown an interest. But the haunting images of that fateful day back in Sheffield in 1989 still hangs over English soccer 25 years later.

Back in February, Football League chief executive Shaun Harvey spoke to the BBC about hearing clubs opinion’s on safe standing, but doesn’t expect standing to be brought back to the top level of the English game anytime soon.

“The consultation has given us a better understanding of the wide range of views held by clubs on this issue and we will take our cue from the prevailing opinion,” Harvey said. “We recognize this is both a complicated and sensitive matter that will need significant debate. Therefore, no-one should assume that it will lead to overnight change.”

As of right now, nobody in England wants to risk a repeat of the severe pain and loss that came in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster. The Hillsborough families do not want standing to return, after voting unanimously against it, and describe the ideas as “going backwards after so many steps forward” in fan safety.

A quarter of a century on, the ramifications of 96 innocent people losing their lives at a soccer match is still at the forefront of the minds of most English fans each and every time they attend a game. Those feelings will never vanish, and they will only intensify over this weekend as English soccer remembers the 96 who died at Hillsborough, after working tirelessly to make sure it never happens again.

MLS attendance up, TV ratings lag as US mulls future

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NEW YORK (AP) Major League Soccer’s attendance is up and fan interest is booming, even if television broadcasts are far less popular and some young Americans would rather play in Europe.

[ MORE: Caleb Porter out as Portland Timbers head coach ]

MLS averaged 22,000 in attendance for the first time in its history this season, ranked among the top seven leagues in the world. The league is set to add a second Los Angeles franchise next year, announce two expansion cities next month and at some point finalize David Beckham’s long-pending Miami club.

But viewers averaged under 300,000 for nationally televised regular-season matches, fewer than the average for a New York Yankees game on their regional sports network. Several top young Americans, such as Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, have chosen to forego the MLS to play in Germany and test their mettle in a more demanding environment.

And worst of all, the United States – whose roster was filled with MLS stars – failed to qualify for next year’s World Cup, ending a streak of seven straight appearances in soccer’s showcase.

“We need to use this failure as a wakeup call for everyone associated with the sport at all levels to ensure that we have the right processes and mechanisms and development programs and leadership and governance in place to learn from this missed opportunity to ensure that it never happens again,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said this week. “Part of the maturation of becoming a soccer nation is recognizing that qualifying for the World Cup is not a birthright. It’s something you need to earn, and we are unfortunately in the company of some great soccer nations, like Italy and Holland and Ghana and Chile – Copa champions – that have also not qualified.”

MLS playoffs resume next week after the international break with the first leg of Conference Championships. Columbus – whose owners are threatening to move to Austin, Texas, in 2019 – hosts Toronto, while Houston is home against Seattle.

“MLS and soccer in the United States have made great advances in many areas. But its promoters have found that the abundance of existing legacy sports leagues that have the highest quality of athletes on the planet creates a ceiling on professional soccer in the United States,” said Marc Ganis, president of the consulting firm SportsCorp. “It has not, and perhaps never, will supplant any of the major legacy sports unless and until the quality of play and players increases significantly and the U.S. men’s team in particular is more competitive and, in fact, wins some of the major international tournaments.”

Momentum of playoff runs was interrupted because of World Cup qualifying, and the culmination of the league’s season competes for attention with the NFL and college football among the wider American sports audience.

“Long-term demographic things like CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and stuff with the NFL says maybe there is a long slow decline around some of that, but when you’re starting from where they’re starting, that’s going to take a generation,” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “We’ll grow because most of the immigration to the U.S. is from soccer-playing countries and the country is going to grow.”

Launched with 10 teams in 1996, two years after the U.S. hosted the World Cup, MLS expanded to 12 but cut back to 10 after the 2001 season. There has been steady growth since expansion started in 2004. Next year’s total will be 23, already well over the norm for a first division, and the league is planning to settle at 28.

Infrastructure could not be more different than in the early days. The league has 14 soccer specific stadiums, two more renovated for the sport and one built with both the NFL and soccer in mind. Three more soccer stadiums are under construction.

Average attendance is up 60 percent from 13,756 in 2000, boosted this year by 48,200 for Atlanta in its opening season. MLS trails only the Germany’s Bundesliga, England’s Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Mexico’s Liga MX, the Chinese Super League and Serie A, with Italy’s first division ahead by only 22,177 to 22,106.

But that has not translated yet into big television ratings.

ESPN averaged 272,000 for 30 telecasts this regular season on ESPN and ESPN2, and Fox averaged 236,000 for 33 broadcasts on FS1 and Fox. In addition, Univision is averaging 250,000 viewers for its Spanish-language MLS telecasts.

But the Premier League attracts a larger audience, averaging 422,000 on NBC, NBCSN and CNBC, even though many matches are on weekend mornings.

“We’re not the Premier League,” Garber said, pointing out last year’s MLS Cup drew 1.4 million viewers on Fox. “The fact that we’re able to generate ratings growth across all of our partners here and in Canada, and dramatic growth in Canada, is a positive. So we actually, we and our partners, feel pretty darn good.”

Player payroll has increased as MLS keeps adding what it calls Targeted Allocation Money. While several older American players have returned to MLS from Europe, many of the teens viewed as the future of the U.S. national team have gone abroad as they emerge from the MLS youth academies, which have been mandated by the league since 2007 and produced more than 250 players with first-team MLS contracts.

Pulisic, at 19 already the leading American star, left Hershey, Pennsylvania, to sign with Borussia Dortmund at age 16, able because of his grandfather’s Croatian citizenship to play in Europe before he turned 18. McKennie left FC Dallas’ academy when he turned 18, signed with Schalke and scored in his U.S. debut this week.

“I didn’t want to become one of those guys that started in MLS and said, man, I wonder if I could have made it to Europe,” McKennie said. “I wanted to spread my wings and see what I could do over here.”

Forward Josh Sargent decided against Sporting Kansas City and is waiting until he turns 18 in February to sign with Werder Bremen.

“I think I’ve just always wanted since I was a little kid to play in Europe,” he said.

Tyler Adams, who also made his U.S. debut this week, played his first MLS game with the New York Red Bulls last year at age 17 and became a regular this season. Garber says “Tyler Adams probably is playing more minutes today for the Red Bulls than he would if he was not in Major League Soccer.”

Adams is happy but thinking ahead.

“Obviously a goal of mine is to play Champions League one day, and obviously the MLS is working its way to becoming one of the top leagues in the world,” he said. “Maybe one day I find myself in Europe. You never know.”

Sometimes big contracts only stall a career. Matt Miazga left the Red Bulls to sign with Chelsea in January 2016, saw little playing time and didn’t get in games regularly until late that autumn during a loan to the Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem.

“If your only desire is to go to Europe, there are flights leaving every hour on the hour from JFK and LAX and everywhere in between,” said retired American defender Alexi Lalas, now a Fox analyst. “But getting to a place in Europe where you are making good money, where you are playing consistently, where you are learning, where you are valued as a player and as an American player, where you are able to adapt and adjust and live in the other 22 1/2 hours that we often don’t talk about, that’s whole `nother story, and there’s not a lot of flights leaving that have that on the other end.”

With the U.S. soccer community in turmoil following the World Cup failure, some have called for MLS to guarantee playing time for young Americans.

“Our coaches universally believed that that was not the best way to ensure we had the highest-possible product quality to be able to have competitive games and to drive the growth of our fan base,” Garber said.

AP Sports Writer Tim Booth contributed to this report.

Bartra error emphasizes Dortmund’s latest Bundesliga woes

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Christian Pulisic sat out Friday’s 2-1 Dortmund defeat against Stuttgart. Coincidence? Perhaps.

However, the club’s struggles are apparent as Dortmund’s winless run extended to four matches and their gap from Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich could be up to nine points by the end of the weekend.

[ MORE: Chris Coleman steps down from Wales, expected to take Sunderland job ]

BVB was without several of its top talents for the match, including U.S. Men’s National Team star Pulisic and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, but it’s Dortmund’s defending that continues to be the side’s biggest issue.

Stuttgart struck after five minutes when Chadrac Akolo broke the deadlock off of an embarrassing blunder by Marc Bartra and the Dortmund defense.

Bartra attempted a routine back pass to goalkeeper Roman Burki during the early moments of the match, but his ball back proved to be way too strong and deflected off of Burki and into the path of Stuttgart forward Akolo (video below).

Dortmund atoned for the former Barcelona man’s mistake just prior to halftime when Maximilian Philipp equalized, but it took just six minutes into the second stanza for Josip Brekalo to restore the Stuttgart advantage.

Moyes: Chicharito could miss two weeks with hamstring strain

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David Moyes has given Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez assurances that he’ll have the opportunity to compete for a starting role with the Hammers, but the Mexican international will have to wait a bit for a chance.

[ MORE: North London Derby takes center stage Saturday morning ]

Hernandez, 29, is currently nursing a hamstring strain, leaving his status for this weekend against Watford in doubt.

“I think everyone knows he [Chicharito] has got a hamstring injury,” Moyes said during Friday’s press conference. “It could take a week, it could take two weeks.”

Moyes didn’t mince words recently when speaking about Chicharito and other players within the squad, essentially pointing out that no player will be awarded a starting role simply because of their stardom.

Hernandez has scored four goals in 13 matches this season for West Ham, who currently sits 18th in the Premier League. The Hammers have won just two matches to start the 2017/18 campaign and sit on nine points.

Alessandro Nesta steps down with NASL side Miami FC

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Miami FC quickly put itself on the U.S. soccer map in two short seasons, and much of the club’s success can be attributed to manager Alessandro Nesta.

[ MORE: Chris Coleman steps down with Wales, expected to take Sunderland job ]

The former Serie A defender has managed the club in its first two years of existence, but Nesta’s time in South Beach is coming to an end.

Nesta revealed on Friday that he won’t be returning to the NASL club in 2018, as he prepares to fnd a “new challenge” in his managerial career.

With NASL’s future as a league very much up in the air, Nesta could be seeking a more stable position entering 2018, especially given that his name has been thrown around with several MLS jobs over the last few months.