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.

Finland close to first major finals: “It will go crazy”

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The temperatures are plummeting and the days are getting shorter as another harsh winter approaches in Finland.

Expectations around the country’s soccer team are rising, though, like never before.

On Friday, Finland could seal a place in the finals of a major soccer tournament for the first time in its history. All that’s needed is a home win over Liechtenstein, one of the world’s weakest teams, in Helsinki and the Finns will take their place in next year’s European Championship.

After so many past disappointments, it is a day many in this Nordic country of 5.5 million inhabitants – better known for its hockey team, rally drivers and javelin throwers – thought would never arrive.

It is one that could transcend soccer, changing the mentality of a nation.

“There are always skeptics – with a sort of `Ah, they are never going to do it anyway’ feeling – in more or less everything we do, whether it is music, anything,” said former Finland player Aki Riihilahti, who is now CEO of Finnish champion HJK Helsinki. “The Finnish nature is that only when there comes an external acknowledgement of an achievement do we go and support it.

“For what this will mean, it is more important mentally than factually.”

Finland has had better teams down the years, on paper anyway. They’ve had more celebrated players, too – think of Jari Litmanen, the silky playmaker for Ajax and Barcelona, and Sami Hyypia, the defensive stalwart at Liverpool. Yet getting to a World Cup or European Championship has been beyond them, despite more than 80 years of trying.

Finland remains, somewhat embarrassingly, the only major Nordic country to have never qualified for a major tournament.

So what’s changed? The hiring of a former primary school teacher as coach has plenty to do with it.

Markku Kanerva was promoted to the job in December 2016, having previously been an assistant with the team and a former player in the 1980s and ’90s. He inherited a team that had gone all of 2016 without a win and also one that was about to lose some of its best players. One midfielder, Roman Eremenko, received a two-year ban for testing positive for cocaine in 2016; another, Perparim Hetemaj, would go on to retire in early 2018 to focus on his club career.

Kanerva took a pragmatic view of the team, picking players according to their individual strengths rather than a pre-existing style and reverting to a straightforward 4-4-2 formation. His approach was based on hard work and strong defensive shape, and relied on the country’s most high-profile player – striker Teemu Pukki – poaching some goals at the other end.

Kanerva also approaches coaching like he would teaching, encouraging his players to interact more, take responsibility, and learn what they have done wrong so they can improve.

The results have been striking. Finland won its group in the inaugural UEFA Nations League competition after winning its opening four qualifying games, earning promotion to League B and guaranteeing a playoff spot for Euro 2020 that might not be necessary.

In Euro 2020 qualifying, the Finns reacted to an opening loss to Italy by winning four straight Group J games without conceding a goal. After eight games, they are in second place, behind already qualified Italy but five points ahead of both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Armenia. With two teams advancing automatically, Finland needs one win from its final two qualifiers over the coming days, starting with last-place Liechtenstein, to make history.

“This is the missing piece of the puzzle,” said Marco Casagrande, general secretary of the Football Association of Finland. “All the other things in our sports we have managed to do, but this is something that’s still separating us from being a real sports country.”

Finland’s underperformance on the international stage was bought into sharp focus by Iceland, a tiny Nordic brother with a population of just 330,000, reaching both Euro 2016 and last year’s World Cup.

Casagrande recalls speaking to his colleagues at the Icelandic FA, asking them: “So what’s your secret?”

“It didn’t help,” Casagrande said, “when everyone was saying, `You are losing all the games and Iceland is going to the Euros. Come on guys, what are you doing?”‘

Iceland’s rise was based on a strong collective effort combined with a sprinkle of stardust by its one standout player, Gylfi Sigurdsson, and Finland is pretty much the same.

While goalkeeper Lukas Hradecki, who plays in Germany for Bayer Leverkusen, gets plenty of plaudits, most of the spotlight falls on Pukki, the hard-working striker who has scored seven goals in qualifying and made a strong start to his first season in the Premier League with Norwich.

“Teemu Pukki is really somebody who everybody seems to love,” said Riihilahti, who also played in England’s top division with Crystal Palace, “and has been adopted as the Finnish savior who is bringing us to the promised land.”

When Finland won the men’s hockey world championship this year for the first time since 2011, there were wild celebrations in central Helsinki as champagne-swilling fans braved the cold weather by stripping off and taking a swim in the fountain and climbing on the famous Havis Amanda statue.

Expect more of the same if the country’s soccer players finally make the long-awaited international breakthrough.

“Finnish people would all celebrate like a big festival,” Riihilahti said. “It will go crazy.”

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Top 25 players in the USMNT pool right now

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Christian Pulisic is the best American soccer player in the world.

Of this, there is little debate.

But there is a debate to who is second, third, and well down the line, and we’ve got our last chance to really assess the full crop with Major League Soccer now out of season for a few months.

[ USMNT: Most to gain/lose from November ]

Let’s set some ground rules:

  • The ranking is meant to illustrate who would be most likely to positively affect a USMNT match, regardless of manager or teammates, right now.
  • Health doesn’t matter to our rankings if a current injury isn’t one which could drastically alter the player’s skill set moving forward.
  • Age/potential/experience doesn’t matter either, at least not much; It’s how likely you are to contribute to the team if put on the field right now. Obviously Chris Richards of Bayern Munich II is a better long-term prospect than 32-year-old Tim Ream, but most would rather have the Fulham man in a big spot right now.

Top 25 USMNT players – November 2019

*not currently a part of USMNT squad due to injury
**not currently a part of USMNT squad due to coach’s decision

  1. Christian Pulisic, Chelsea*
  2. Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig*
  3. John Brooks, Wolfsburg
  4. Weston McKennie, Schalke
  5. Alfredo Morales, Fortuna Dusseldorf
  6. Sergino Dest, Ajax
  7. Jordan Morris, Seattle Sounders
  8. Matt Miazga, Reading (on loan from Chelsea)**
  9. Josh Sargent, Werder Bremen
  10. Zack Steffen, Fortuna Dusseldorf (on loan from Man City)*
  11. DeAndre Yedlin, Newcastle United
  12. Jozy Altidore, Toronto FC*
  13. Tim Ream, Fulham
  14. Timothy Weah, Lille*
  15. Julian Green, Greuther Furth**
  16. Cristian Roldan, Seattle Sounders
  17. Ike Opara, Minnesota United**
  18. Michael Bradley, Toronto FC*
  19. Fabian Johnson, Borussia Monchengladbach**
  20. Cameron Carter-Vickers, Stoke City (on loan from Spurs)**
  21. Tyler Boyd, Besiktas
  22. Sebastian Lletget, LA Galaxy
  23. Miles Robinson, Atlanta United*
  24. Paul Arriola, DC United
  25. Jackson Yueill, San Jose Earthquakes

Next up, established: Antonee Robinson (Wigan Athletic), Walker Zimmerman (LAFC), Eric Lichaj (Hull City), Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas), Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge), Reggie Cannon (FC Dallas), Duane Holmes (Derby County), Bill Hamid (DC United).

Next up, youth: Konrad de la Fuente (Barcelona U19), Alex Mendez (Ajax U19), Giovanni Reyna (Borussia Dortmund U19), Ulysses Llanez (Wolfsburg U19), Chris Richards (Bayern Munich II), Richie Ledezma (PSV Eindhoven), Donovan Pines (DC United), Sam Vines (Colorado Rapids)

Leaked image shows big fines that face Chelsea rule breakers

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Frank Lampard‘s ready to go into his players’ wallets if they disobey his laws.

A posted list of fines for Chelsea players, signed by the manager, has been confirmed and we would completely understand if the Blues were on time all the time.

[ MORE: Salah out for Egypt ]

A player is fined about $640 per minute he’s late to a meeting, and if he misses a practice, well, wow: The fine is nearly $26,000.

If a phone rings during a meeting, that’s gonna be $1,300.

And if any fine isn’t paid within two weeks, it doubles! Seems like Christian Pulisic and his teammates will have a lot of alarms set on their phones.

From The Telegraph:

Lampard has also banned agents from the training ground, unless on official business, and players must inform the club if they intend to travel abroad, even on scheduled days off.

The average Chelsea salary last season was approximately $6.6 million, meaning players make on average $127,000 per week.

The full list of fines is below.

Kompany: Liverpool’s Premier League title ghosts should ‘be to City’s advantage’

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Vincent Kompany says history could help Manchester City climb back into the Premier League title race even after his former team dropped nine points back of first place Liverpool.

[ MORE: Salah out for Egypt ]

Now at Anderlecht, the center back also said history might’ve played a role in City’s 3-1 setback at Anfield. In a rare bit of explicit honesty, the often interesting Kompany said that players do deal with demons of a club’s past.

“We always struggle at Anfield,” he said, according to Sky Sports. “I said that on Super Sunday, you’re fighting 25 years of not winning at Anfield and that’s difficult, it’s two games in one game: You’re playing a great team and you’re fighting history.”

“Flip it around and the same will happen for Liverpool. They will fight the history of not winning the league for 30 years. That should be to City’s advantage I still think.”

Do you buy that? Most of the buzz around the Premier League is that this Liverpool is a different team than even the dominant one of last season, and City has suffered big injury problems. The Reds players almost went out of their way last year to say they weren’t worried about blowing their table lead last season (which was bigger, later in the season).

Kompany also said that he believes City doesn’t need to add a center back in January, which is bonkers unless he’s coming back, but the Belgian has proven time and again that he’s one of the better minds in the game.

The guy did title  his MBA dissertation, “How professional football clubs in the Premier League can benefit from home game advantage and achieve game-changing levels of improvement” after all. Then again, I’m not sure any of our dissertations on the same topic would’ve been approved had we done that.