FP Exclusive: Nick Davidson on Hillsborough, Safe Standing Terraces and a Politically-driven St. Pauli

“As he was stepping out of the door, James turned around, said ‘Mum we’re going to win today’ and walked off. I shut the door; never knowing this was the last time I’d see my son alive”

– Margaret Aspinall

This was a time when an F.A. Cup semi-final meant an awful lot to players, teams and fans; just ninety minutes away from a trip to the hallowed twin-towers at Wembley. Nottingham Forest vs Liverpool was one such worthy occasion at Sheffield’s Hillsborough Stadium on the 15th of April, 1989. James Aspinall, all of 18 years of age and bursting at the seams with enthusiasm, made his way to the stadium in anticipation of a memorable afternoon. Scarves wrapped neatly around the neck and colours nailed firmly to the mast, thousands of his ilk strode towards Hillsborough. Ninety-six wouldn’t return home.

It’s a day marked all in black in the annals of British history. More than the agony of fans, young and old, dying at a football match, the most crushing pain comes from the the realisation that it could’ve been avoided. Eight years prior, at the same ground, under similar circumstances of an overcrowded Leppings End, some swift thinking by the police had prevented a disaster. On 15th April 1989, there would be no such presence of mind, disaster-management or even the basic human compassion on display; from the police, media or the government. Everyone concerned swept everything even remotely damaging to their department under the carpet and the blame fell squarely at the feet of “drunk” Liverpool fans and their apparent indiscipline. The effect of the Hillsborough disaster on English football’s fabric was more far-reaching than was initially anticipated.

First, and perhaps the most damaging impact on British football, was how stadiums were looked at from an organisational standpoint. Coming only three years after an eerily similar tragedy at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, the aftermath of that April afternoon would lead to the obliteration of safe standing terraces all across Britain. In an era where English domestic football was struggling to keep up with its Italian, German and Spanish counterparts in terms of star power and global prominence, standing terraces and the atmosphere they generated went a long way in making even a Tyne-Wear derby remotely attractive to the global audience.

If you draw up a list of incredible stadium atmospheres across Europe, one name will stand out among all the Camp Nous and Old Traffords: The Millerntor, home to FC St. Pauli. The club barely escaped relegation to the third division this season, and have played all of five seasons in the top tier of German football. Football Paradise had the good privilege of talking to Nick Davidson, author of Pirates, Punks & Politics, the seminal book on Sankt Pauli.

Nick Davidson, during the launch of Pirates, Punks & Politics

Back in 1989, Nick was a strapping 18-year old, who was regular at Vicarage Road for all Watford matches. In the 30 years since, Nick is still frequent at football matches across England and Germany. We asked him about safe standing terraces and English stadiums, to which he said..

“The experience of going to football changed massively. Obviously, we lost standing terraces at Premier League and Championship grounds as a result of the Hillsborough disaster which you always have to take under consideration, when you’re talking about standing in English football. I think standing terraces are absolutely integral to the aura of a stadium. I think more and more people are looking towards Germany as the best in those terms. Borussia Dortmund’s Sudtribune is legendary, isn’t it? Everybody looks at that as this is what can be done. 25000 people standing safely. It’s well managed. The thing works. They can convert into seats quickly for European nights. The ability to stand in football builds the atmosphere more than anything in football. The Sudkurve in Millerntor (St. Pauli’s stadium in Hamburg): The Ultras are there, they sit behind the goal. If you want to sing and shout, you stand there. If you want to have a good view and not be distracted by giant flags, you can stand a bit to the side. Everybody can make that choice. With seating, you don’t have the choice. The tickets are allocated for you. It robs the ability to build up the atmosphere and the experience.”

Secondly, English football was now embroiled in politics, and not in the way that would give it an edge. For long, football in England had managed to keep its distance from government propaganda, and now that such a horrible tragedy was met with such indifference and an inhumane post-mortem, the average public felt a strong dislike for everything Margaret Thatcher and her government stood for, most importantly conservative right-wing politics. It was time for change. Nick talks us through his political baptism..

“My political awakening came through football. In the UK, a person of my age growing up in the 80s. There were two defining moments. One in 1984, during the miners strike. Margaret Thatcher broke the power of the unions in Britain by running the miners into the ground. I remember the images on the television, but I was too young to understand the political significance. By 1989 and the Hillsborough disaster, the blame from media, police and the government went squarely to the fans. And straightaway, as someone who’s been going to football for 7 years, I knew this wasn’t caused by the fans. I had been on enough terraces to know that experience. You were herded into sections and treated really poorly. They had big cages around them and there was no way out unless the police decided that they were going to let you out, which didn’t happen at Hillsborough. The immediate aftermath was what politicised me. I went to University, and you meet people with broader political opinion. But it was definitely Hillsborough which turned me into a left-wing person.”

In 1980s Europe, it was nigh impossible to be isolated from politics. While Western Europe was undergoing a harrowing recession period, the Eastern Bloc was fighting their own battles with the USSR slowly but definitely destabilising. The large-scale unemployment resulting from due to the recession allowed the emergence of a strong right-wing sentiment across some factions of Germany. Politics began to influence the football, and a small district from Hamburg, called St. Pauli, was mixing the headiest cocktail of both.

Accidental freedom: fall of the Berlin Wall

As the joyous cacophony from the fall of the Berlin Wall seeped through the English channel, Nick looked eastwards and found home.

“When a game matters to billions of people, it ceases to be just a game. Football is never just football: it helps make wars and revolutions, and it fascinates mafias and dictators.”

– Simon Kuper, Football Against The Enemy

For an activity that was introduced and has evolved as a largely recreational one for the common man, football has regularly crossed the realms of what a sport should mean to people. In Germany, a country which for decades had looked at football as an “English plague”, the popularity of the game grew at a breakneck speed in the 20th century. By the time Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, the sport had broken into mass consciousness. Soon after starting a political regime that would change Germany, Europe and to some extent even the entire world, he ordered the systematic gentrification of Jews from all government institutions, and mandated the DFB and all its affiliated clubs to follow suit. To strengthen and preserve the Nazi stronghold, the board members of these clubs were asked to join the NSDAP too. In the face of impending personal adversity, the president of FC St. Pauli, Wilhem Koch, refused to wilt and didn’t join the party up until 1937, by when it had become imperative to register just so that the club kept breathing. He predictably had his doubters and naysayers, but many years later, his very actions became a symbol of resistance and righteousness, torches of which his beloved FC St. Pauli would carry deep into the 20th century and beyond.

“In my head, the two would never meet. There was a small right-wing element which tried entering British football in the 70s, but there was never a left-wing group. Football in Britain was fairly apolitical. People went to the stadiums to drink beer and have fun. I read about St. Pauli and I said, hang on a minute, here’s a club where the football is important, but as important is the message you’re passing to the fans. When you find this out, it’s like an epiphany. The more you find out, the more you meet people, it builds. It’s not just St. Pauli, of course. There are more clubs around Europe who have a political conscience, but they’re the standard bearers. The one that everybody defaults to when they talk about it.”

The district of St. Pauli had always been among the poorest of all the 108 in Hamburg, strike that, even in Germany. As recession hit Germany in the 80s, tenement blocks set up along the Hafenstrasse began to be taken up by the broke and unemployed who were looking for cheap accommodation. Proximity to the famed Reeperbahn district – known for music clubs, used record stores, bars and prostitution – worked its charm and out of nowhere, St. Pauli was the vortex of pent-up energy and youth Germany and its football had been crying out loud for.

A brutal neo-fascist atmosphere had taken over a lot of German stadiums in the mid-80s, nowhere more so than Volksparkstadion, home turf of Hamburg SV. The conservatives aside, the average stadium going crowd saw a deal they hadn’t bargained for, and decided to walk southwards towards the other club in the city, St. Pauli. Nick Davidson talks about this sudden movement of fans who were tired of all the violence and toxicity generated by the right-wing groups..

“The St. Pauli fans are widely acknowledged as the first organised group of fans to overtly fight fascism on the terraces. I think they’re recognised as a group who have a consistent set of values across history and been leaders of this movement. You had HSV fans moving across to St. Pauli in the mid 80s. They didn’t like the atmosphere at Hamburg. People who’ve grown up being HSV supporters are now committed St. Pauli fans.”

The movement wasn’t without its hiccups. The police and the governing body in Hamburg were still Communists and they didn’t take kindly to the liberal awakening of a district under their jurisdiction. Violence, armed and unarmed, was frequent and the police did all they could to rid Hafenstrasse of the squatters who were about to stage the most staggering transformation of a club and a city in football. The movement was larger than anyone could’ve anticipated and it was only a matter of time before the influence spilled over to other areas.

If you look far enough from the terrace of one of these houses at Hafenstrasse, you might be able to spot the gates of Millerntor, home to FC St. Pauli. Football grounds have historically served as apt community centres to send out a message. Right from Catalonia’s fight against General Franco’s oppressive regime to the more recent Refugees Welcome tifo at Wolfsburg, there are few more effective stage for a collective movement than a football stadium. As a distinctly politicised crowd made its way to the Millerntor, little did they know they were setting a precedence for institutions all across the world to always uphold their identity.

“The area was on a terminal decline. When there are empty properties, people usually move in. The young students, etc people who were attracted to move into cheap accommodation.

What’s different was that these guys decided to start watching football. You had these radical anarchists decided they were going to go to a football stadium on a Saturday afternoon. People liked going to football anyway, but there was now that political edge to it.

I understand it better now, that the people who live in the district, are massively closely connected to the club. You walk around the district, Totenkompf flags are hanging from the balcony. Or refugee welcome banners. Even now, 30 years later, the people there are closely connected and politically active. When demonstrations in Hamburg happen, they start in St. Pauli. The ethos is active even in the face of creeping gentrification.”

Manchester United vs AC Milan in 2010 was an important match. Not merely because Sir Alex’s men crushed their Italian counterparts 4-0 in a European knock-out tie, or that some of the performances from United players made their way into autobiographies of their opponents. David Beckham returned to Old Trafford that evening as an opponent player, and it wasn’t his 26 minutes on the pitch that made the match memorable; it was what he did right after the referee called full time.

We writers suffer from a queer ignominy. We’re often guilty of waxing eloquent on seemingly mundane events and elevating them to the pedestal of borderline immortality. But make no mistake, this gesture of putting the green and canary scarf around his neck went way deeper than protecting a chiseled body from Manchester’s brutal winter weather. Old Trafford’s once favourite son had just lent a huge voice to the already strong protest against United’s American owners.

Top-tier modern football is a sport played by some of the most elite athletes across the world, but one would be remiss to hand the sport’s central pillar to anyone but the fans. The fans who brave everything life throws at them just so that the multi-millionaire striker feels secure, the fans who spend their lives and earnings travelling to games, the fans who happily scream with all the power in their vocal chords to let their team know they’re unconditionally loved. The same fans who’re often placed at the bottom of modern sport’s Maslow Hierarchy.

It’s fitting that as I write this, reports emerge of British prosecutors charging four former senior police officers for the events at Hillsborough on 15th April 1989. David Duckenfield, officer-in-charge for that match, will face manslaughter charges for his command to open the gates which led to hundreds of non-ticket holding fans being allowed into the Leppings Lane terrace, thus completely crushing the already cramped central pens. They say justice delayed is justice denied, and they’re right; but Hillsborough’s justice, however long it may have taken, will tell the world that no matter how dishonourable and vulgar the surroundings might get, the strongest voice in the beautiful game of football lies with the people who watch it.

Nick Davidson is best known for his book Pirates, Punks & Politics, an exhaustive story of FC St. Pauli, right from their origins in a football-indifferent Germany, up till today, when they’re famous for their ‘cult‘ fanbase. The book is available across all online stores. You can also find him on Twitter at @outside_left.

More on St Pauli on Football Paradise: The Punk Rockers of Football: A Story of Pirate Flags and the Anti-Nazi St Pauli

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Sarthak Dev

Computer engineer, pianist and writer; not necessarily in that order. Can kill for a good football story.