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.

Terry: “I couldn’t care less” about 26th-minute farewell criticism

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John Terry is a man who… well, let’s just say, does things his way.

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For instance, remember the time Chelsea won the UEFA Champions League, by beating Bayern Munich, in penalties? Remember Chelsea’s post-game celebrations, which saw Terry, who was suspended for the final at the Allianz Arena, joyously jumping around with his teammates wearing his full kit, shin guards and all?

Was it over the top and a bit silly? Sure it was, but was anyone hurt or genuinely upset by it? Of course not. On Sunday, as Terry said goodbye to the only club he’s ever known (apart from a six-game loan spell at Nottingham Forest in 2000), he toed the line between what’s acceptable and what’s outlandish. Just like in 2012, Terry caused a minor uproar, and just like in 2012 he “couldn’t care less” — quotes from the Guardian:

“I couldn’t care less, I promise you. All I care about is celebrating with my Chelsea fans. Me and them have a wonderful rapport and have done for 22 years. Nothing that people write or say can ever get in the way of that.

“If that’s the way I want to go out, that’s the way I go out because I’ve been here 22 years, I’ve won so many trophies — so if I wanted to play one minute and come off, I would have done.

“I wanted to play 26 minutes because the shirt number means a lot to me and the supporters so as long as they are happy – and I was over the moon with the reception – I promise you I could not care less.”

“It was an unbelievable send-off from the supporters to help me to celebrate 22 years at the club.

“I’m very grateful to them, and it was something I will never forget. It was so emotional after the game, I was in bits.”

There’s something to be said about the success that Chelsea have had as a club, and the way its recency leads them to feel they are perceived by the outside world. Other clubs, “bigger,” most historic clubs — Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, for example — have been winning trophies pretty regularly for decades, while 70 percent of the major trophies (14 of 20) won in the club’s history have come since Roman Abramovich bought the club 14 years ago, in 2003. Chelsea is a 112-year-old football club.

[ MORE: Pogba, Mkhitaryan fire Man United to Europa League trophy ]

Chelsea’s players and fans are so clearly away of their bought-and-paid-for status, thus everything is celebrated on the grandest scale, almost as if to legitimize their accomplishments (which stand up just fine on their own two feet) and standing within the hierarchy of English football. “Contrived” (and admittedly so) is the word that comes to mind and best describes Terry’s send-off.

No one in this space is saying there’s anything wrong with that, but everyone connected to Chelsea must realize and accept that it looks silly to supporters of the aforementioned long-time giants, and they’re going to be pointed at and laughed at every time they do it.

FA Cup: Three key battles between Arsenal, Chelsea

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The FA Cup final usually brings out terrific entertainment for the fans, and this Saturday’s finale should be no different.

When Arsenal and Chelsea take the field at Wembley Stadium, it will be the last chance this season for some of the Premier League’s stars such as Eden Hazard and Diego Costa for Chelsea and Alexis Sanchez and Mezut Ozil for Arsenal to bring glory to their club.

[ MORE: Follow all the FA Cup scores here ]

The match features two teams heading in different directions. Chelsea, the Premier League champions are in the ascendency after a one-year hiatus out of European competition, while Arsenal finished outside the top-four places in the Premier League for the first time in 20 years under manager Arsene Wenger.

In addition, there’s plenty of other storylines to watch on the field, from whether it’s Costa, Sanchez and Ozil’s potential last matches with their respective teams to how Arsenal will deal without two of its three regular centerbacks they’ve used this season.

Here’s a look at three key battles on the field ahead of the FA Cup final:


Arsenal’s centerbacks vs. Diego Costa

Diego Costa may be a thorn in Chelsea’s side off the field when it comes to the constant speculation of a move away from Stamford Bridge, but on the field this season he’s been brilliant. Costa scored 20 goals in the Premier League and another goal in FA Cup action, and he contributes off the ball as well, drawing the defense in towards him while opening up space for teammates including Hazard and Willian.

Heading into Saturday, it’s unclear who on Arsenal will be tasked with marking Costa. Laurent Koscielny was issued a straight red card in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Everton and will miss the FA Cup final due to suspension while fellow centerback Gabriel left the field on a stretcher after suffering a knee injury. In addition, Shkodran Mustafi is still recovering from a concussion and is a doubt for Saturday.

That leaves Wenger with just Per Mertesacker and Rob Holding as healthy centerbacks, which could force Wenger to revert back to his usual four-man backline from the more recent three-man backline that’s been used.

Regardless of who Arsenal put out there, expect Costa to be at his best, attempting to physically dominate his opponent and get under their skin.


Nemanja Matic and N'Golo Kante vs. Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez

Arsenal are at their best when they play through the middle of the field before finding runners out wide, setting up crossing attempts into the middle or perhaps another chance to play through the lines in the center of the field.

Standing in Arsenal’s playmaking duo of Mezut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez’s way are Nemanja Matic and N’Golo Kante. Kante, as Riyad Mahrez saw last year, does so much of the dirty work defensively that he allows his teammates including Matic and Hazard to bomb forward and either create or finish goal-scoring opportunities.

Kante will have his hands full dealing with Ozil and Sanchez in midfield, and Matic may need to sit a bit deeper to cut off the passing lanes, potentially taking him out of Chelsea’s counter attack.


Eden Hazard vs. Hector Bellerin

For all the speed that Hazard possesses on the ball, there’s at least one player on Arsenal who can keep stride pace-for-pace.

With Hazard likely lining up on the left wing, Arsenal’s right wing back Hector Bellerin will likely face Hazard up one-on-one at both ends of the field, setting up a fun encounter. With Bellerin’s speed and ability to track back, he may be open to a few 40-yard springs into space down the right wing, knowing that Hazard probably won’t be in hot pursuit.

But if Bellerin doesn’t end up with the ball and there’s an Arsenal turnover, Hazard on his own or against a centerback on the left wing could be a nightmare for Arsenal to deal with.

Man United, Man City come together to support terror victims

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The Manchester derby is known as one of the world’s fiercest rivalries, but in the wake of a devastating terrorist attack this week, both sides are joining together to support the city of Manchester and victims of the attack.

Manchester United and Manchester City announced Thursday they pledged together nearly $1.3 million into the We Love Manchester community fund. The fund was set up to assist the families of the 22 people who died and 64 people who were injured in the attack.

“The barbarism of Monday evening’s attack has shocked everyone,” Manchester United executive vice chairman Ed Woodward said in a statement. “Our clubs are right at the heart of our local communities in Manchester and it is right that we present a unified response to this tragedy. The money will help of course but the work of the two clubs and their respective foundation and community scheme can build on the fantastic spirit that Mancunians have shown in the immediate aftermath.”

Folks who want to donate to the fund can visit http://www.redcross.org.uk/manchester or http://www.justgiving.com/campaigns/charity/redcross/ManchesterEmergencyFund.

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Liverpool, Leicester City headline Premier League Asia Trophy

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The Premier League is coming this summer to Hong Kong.

The territory in Southeast China will host the 2017 Premier League Asia Trophy, featuring Liverpool, Leicester City, West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace. The tournament will take place from July 19-22, with all games taking place at the 40,000-seat Hong Kong Stadium.

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“We are very excited to be returning to Hong Kong this summer for the Premier League Asia Trophy,” Premier League Executive Chairman Richard Scudamore said in a statement. “We know from previous visits that fans in Hong Kong, and across the region, are passionate supporters of our clubs.”

This summer’s edition of the biennial tournament is the first to feature four Premier League teams. In the past, an Asian All-Star XI or a local club would be the fourth team to take part. By bringing a fourth team over, the Premier League is increasing the opportunity for Premier League fans to have a chance to see more of the league’s stars up close and in person.

For Liverpool, it will be the start of a busy season that will include UEFA Champions League action for the first time since 2015.