Euro ref-erendum

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With Euro 2016 now gloriously, and ingloriously, underway (oh, those Russians), it’s time for my two-yearly apology to all dedicated followers of football, for whom this month of international action is just another date in the calendar. For me, as with the World Cup, it’s my chance to take a holiday in football, and lose myself in a sport I take no interest in for two years at a time, and whose irrelevance to me on a year-round, league-based, when-Saturday-comes basis makes Euros and World Cups that much more potent. Imagine the excitement of coming to these players fresh, with no baggage based upon who they play for ordinarily! Imagine the fun of scouring the giveaway Guardian guide to find out who’s who, and encountering all those new names! Imagine – and this will take some imagination – literally not having seen even the older players for two years! It’s like welcoming back old pals – Iniesta, Buffon, Hart, Pogba – and, in the case of a superstar like Gareth Bale, seeing him move about for the first time!

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A brief pause to enjoy the poetic beauty of a black balloon floating into view of the camera at the start of the second half of Germany-Ukraine on Sunday. Then it’s back to the action.

I grew up a football fan, although I was never affiliated with my local team, Northampton Town FC, which might have instilled something deeper and longer-term with me. Instead, I allowed other interests like new wave, girls and films to fill my days in adolescence. But in adultessence, certainly since Euro 96 (yeah, beat that for being a fairweather weekender! did I mention my allegiance to the Guardian pullout?), I have gone in hard with the tournaments, devoting myself to watching as many games as I physically can for the duration, and, in the past, writing a layman’s account on my proprietary blog. (I’ve tried watching with beer, with cider, and without either – it’s an ongoing experiment.)

Should you wish to read my previous reports for yourself, I remain proud of my intermittent coverage of Brazil 2014, a single essay during a work-dominated Euro 2012, my essays for World Cup 2010 (a very clever play on words, albeit self-defeating, as nobody spotted it: the tournament was held in South Africa, or SA, or “essay”), and Euro 2008. I don’t see much detailed coverage of the games being produced this year – busy again – but I plan on watching the bulk of the matches, regardless of whether a “home” team is playing. (If there are three in a day, one is likely to have to go by wayside, and it’ll be the afternoon one.)

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Here’s what I can write about with partial authority: the TV presentation. As is traditional, the BBC and ITV share the fixtures, and both camps have custom-built studios set up in Paris, ITV’s daringly on a roof with Notre Dame in the background, where Mark Pougatch – a new one on me, he replaced Adrian Chiles last year apparently and he has a fine CV in radio, notably 5 Live – leads the dinner-table conversation with fingers crossed for fine weather. Lee Dixon is a safe enough pair of tonsils, but I’m not following Emmanuel Petit at all. He’s certainly no Thierry Henry. Although I did like the rather roguish Slaven Bilić, a Croatian player now managing West Ham, whom the Mail described as having a “rock star attitude”.

Glenn Hoddle continues to be a nuisance, yammering away in the commentary box in that football-orthodox present tense (“He’s created a space, then he’s crossed it … he’s created some chances … he’s got his head to it”), and I’m not sure the beardy Peter Crouch has the verbal dexterity to turn his practical pitch knowledge into fluent punditry, but at least he’ll be the first to know if it rains.

With half the games on ITV, I keep finding myself having to watch adverts, which is an imposition, although most of them are for betting (“Gamble with money you don’t have responsibly!”, they now trill). I recognised Sky’s Chris Kamara in the Ladbrokes ads, but genuinely had no idea who they’d teamed him up with – even though it was clear we were supposed to recognise him instantly. I looked him up. It turned out to be Ally McCoist. I remain in shock.

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I’m telling you, every passing hour of a European Championship brings new gobbets of information – so far I’ve learned that most of the Russian squad play for Russian teams, you can have three substitutions, the referee is now encouraged to “let a few fouls go” in order to improve the flow of the game, plucky Belgium are Fifa’s highest ranked team in the competition, it’s not pronounced “Hazard” (nor is it pronounced “Kroos”), Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Sweden is super-fond of himself, most of the famous Italians have retired since I last saw them, Hungary’s keeper Gabor Kiraly and the Republic of Ireland’s Shay Given are both 40, Bale scored 64% of Wales’ qualifying goals, Polish midfielder Slawomir Peszko has four kidneys, and the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, where Wales beat Slovakia, looks like an air filter.

Oh, and the new Belgium kit makes the players look boxes of matches.

Back to the telly. The BBC team is, as traditional, led by Gary Lineker, if anything looking more body-built than he did two years ago, a man who looks like he’d have serious trouble keeping a jacket on without it sliding down his diagonal ex-shoulders. The goatee now reflects his cavalier attitude to age-appropriate gym intensity. Only Joachim Löw matches him for middle-aged vanity. “Do you think he dyes his hair?” Jonathan Pearce asked Danny Murphy during yesterday’s Ukraine-Germany group match, in a rather metrosexual moment of tittle-tattle in the commentary box (not really very fair to get Murphy into a conversation about hair). I must admit, I’m rather partial to Pearce’s muttering style when there’s no action to convey – he and Mark Lawrenson seemed to spend ages trying to decide whether Irish right back Séamus Coleman had been bought by Everton from Cork City or Sligo Rovers, while the game against Sweden carried on behind them. (It was Sligo Rovers.)

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While the ITV table is mounted on a decapitated Eiffel Tower, the BBC studio’s is created out of a collapsing pile of massive cream-sandwich biscuits, like Wagonwheel-sized Oreos with Licorice Allsort filling. The BBC also boasts some spectacular 3D graphics that allows the camera to swing from a superimposed image of, say, Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill, to the seated biscuit pundits, leaving coloured Smarties or tiddlywinks hanging in the air, like jewels in the forest in Avatar.

They also have a retired player called Jermaine Jenas, who’s 33, but looks ten years younger and seems to have wandered into the studio straight off the set of Anthony Horowitz’s new thriller New Blood. It was pleasing to see Neil Lennon, especially in the preamble before Northern Ireland’s valiant display against Ukraine, where he seemed to be the physical embodiment of all that is Celtic. (As a pluralistic supporter of all teams from these isles, I am a three-quarters Celt.)

I’m involved. Apologies if it’s your game. I’ll leave you to it again after the final. I’m thinking the whole thing is a great boost for the “Leave” campaign. Look at all those British nationals swanning across Europe without the need for visas, enjoying the local beer and hospitality! I’m in.

The truth

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You’ve seen the righteous, passionate, devastating drama. Now see the righteous, passionate, devastating documentary. Hillsborough (BBC Two), a two-hour account directed and produced by Dan Gordon, whose CV is dominated by films about sport, is a film about truth. A co-production made two years ago by ESPN and the BBC, and shown in America but not here due to the ongoing inquest, it was rapidly updated after the verdict, premiered here on Sunday and remains on iPlayer until the start of June. It still beggars belief that 27 years had to pass between the Hillsborough disaster and exoneration and redemption for the 96 victims, their families and friends, and every other Liverpool fan at that away match on 15 April, 1989. That’s a third of a lifetime, if you’re lucky. And they weren’t lucky. They were unlucky: to be at that FA Cup semifinal, to be Liverpool fans, to be football fans, to be in the away stands, and not be in any way responsible for their own fates.

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I don’t need to go again into the events that happened on that fateful Saturday, and in some ways I didn’t need to see it all again. But the documentary contained footage from the crush that I’d never seen before, as well as CCTV from the unstewarded chaos outside of the turnstiles at Leppings Lane that was still almost too horrific to watch, knowing what was happening in the stands, and what fate befell some of the fans were looking at in their last hour of life. It was worse than any horror film I’ve seen just lately, and I’ve seen Bone Tomahawk.

Jimmy McGovern’s drama was made in the teeth of frustration, when the families were, it transpired, still two decades away from clearing Liverpool’s name. This drama was made in 2014 and completed after the eventual “YES” from the jury at the fresh inquest in Warrington. This “YES” is the answer to the question to the jury: “Are you satisfied, so that you are sure, that those who died in the disaster were unlawfully killed?” This exchange was dramatically restaged in Gordon’s careful and sober account. He left a pause between that question – spelled out simply in a white caption against ghostly footage of an empty inquest room – and the affirmative answer. The pause hung in the air like the one before a result on Masterchef, but the two preceding hours had earned him a moment of heightened melodrama.

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I was concerned to begin with. In what is now standard documentary grammar, Hillsborough opened with a dramatic reconstruction, not of the inhuman crush itself (thank God), but a seemingly unrelated vignette involving a young police officer being attacked in a dark alley by two men in balaclavas. I immediately recoiled. What was this? Why would a documentary about such a grimly compelling true story need this Crimewatch-style pre-credits “cold open” to grab our attention? I wanted the truth, and I wanted the truth told clearly and without melodrama.

I needn’t have worried. The dramatic reconstruction was sparing from thereon – close-ups of actors playing Duckenfield and Popper and Stuart-Smith to fill in some of the blanks – and this incident, which happened “eight years earlier” (another drama trick), really did light the fire, as the assault on the young PC was a cruel prank by fellow officers, the blowback from which, after an investigation and sackings, meant that Chief Superintendent Brian Mole, an officer with experience of policing the Hillsborough ground who understood football and football supporters, was transferred, 19 days before the fateful match, and replaced by David Duckenfield, an officer with no experience of policing the Hillsborough ground who neither understood football nor football supporters. We heard that he called Nottingham Forest “Nottinghamshire” at his first press conference. Portent.

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The inquest pointed the finger at management, not individual officers on the ground, a handful of whom provided moving testimony against this film’s sober black background. They went to work on a Saturday and they stared death in the face. One of them, PC Martin McLouglin, courageously told of his own nervous breakdown in the weeks after the disaster, finding himself on patrol near Sheffield in a squad car and both crying and wetting himself at a level crossing. It was not just the families and the survivors of the crush who were damaged. And it was the management, the ironically-named authorities, who shamefully doctored the statements of officers on the ground who dared to question the way the disaster was handled (having been told not to write anything in their pocketbooks, something dramatised by McGovern). Stalin would have been proud of South Yorkshire Police.

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Carefully interwoven with contemporary establishing footage of fans visiting the ground, and lingering shots inside Leppings Lane from the time when it was a crime scene, Hillsborough built a slow, steady picture of what happened, with on-the-spot testimony from survivors, family members, police officers and reliable journalists: Les Jones, Stephanie Jones and Doreen Jones (who lost Richard Jones and girlfriend Tracey Cox); Margaret Aspinall (who lost son Mark); Brian Anderson (who lost his father, John); Tony Searle; Tony Evans; Dan Davies; PC Martin McLoughlin; Special Constable John Taylor; DC Stephen Titterton; the Sheffield Star‘s Bob Westerdale; professor Phil Scraton, who wrote the book and sat in the Independent Panel. Their faces were etched with every one of the years that had passed without closure since 1989. Because two years have passed since the testimony was shot, those who returned to “top up” the story, post-justice, looked older still at the end, certainly more than two years older. It was powerful, vital television indeed to stare into their lined faces, even when they were silent, perhaps even more so. Lines of tears on cheeks felt as permanent as glistening tattoos and knew no gender.

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I sat with my hands across my mouth throughout, ashamed of the injustice, and reminded again why Kelvin Mackenzie’s pathetic apology, based on the lie that he was only printing what the agencies were telling him, guv, is worth nothing. What you forget is how long the blackening of the fans’ good character went on, with lies being slapped on top of lies in the Sun and other papers. “The Truth”? Has ever a headline been so blackly ironic? Hillsborough told the story of the immediate aftermath and Chinese-whispering campaign against the fans very well, intercutting the boorish parroting of police spokespeople to show this farce for what it was. Left unchallenged by a media hell-bent on the most lurid revelation, the lie solidified into fact. As one bereaved survivor had it: ask yourself why a fan at a football ground would urinate on anyone, in any circumstance, amid all that chaos, panic and hurt? (No-one did.) While police officers were ordered (and they were only following orders) to form a barrier across the pitch to stop Forest fans from fighting Liverpool fans, it was ordinary supporters who helped police a desperate situation, stretchering the injured without stretchers and administering help without training.

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I can’t be the only person whose thoughts turned to other atrocities from history in which hundreds of people were callously herded into pens to their death. I am satisfied, so that I am sure, that this is a story that can only now be told. And Dan Gordon has told it with honour, respect and dignity, and without flinching from things nobody should ever have to see.

True crime

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Some late news just in. It took 27 years for the truth to be affirmed by a second inquest that the 96 people who died at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989 were “unlawfully killed,” and that their senseless deaths resulted from a grossly negligent South Yorkshire police force, a failure of ambulance services to fulfil their duty of care (as well as poor design of the stadium). Not a single football supporter was to blame. The verdict, which sent a palpable wave of relief through the whole of Liverpool and was justly celebrated, led to immediate calls for action regarding the police cover-up identified by the Hillsborough Independent Panel. South Yorkshire Police chief constable David Crompton was suspended, and lawsuits are now pending.

I remember the day vividly, watching the horror unfold on live TV at a friend’s house (he was a Nottingham Forest fan), and I remember outrage at the tabloid reports. I also remember watching Jimmy McGovern’s Hillsborough in December 1996. It was wisely repeated on ITV at the weekend and it’s as powerful today as it was then, 20 years away from justice.

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I interviewed McGovern, something of a fan, in 1997, on location for series one of The Lakes in Glenridding, Ullswater. We ate scampi and chips in a pub, and enjoyed the clocking-off buzz of afternoon beer. Having written somewhere in the region of 80-100 episodes of Brookside, McGovern told me that he fell out with the Merseyside mandarins over a storyline he’d proposed set around Hillsborough’s first anniversary, in which Tracey Corkhill organises a public burning of the Sun. He said that one of the show’s producers, whom he described as “a bourgeois feminist”, wouldn’t buy it. So McGovern walked. He would subsequently find two outlets for his obsession with Hillsborough: the 1994 episode of Cracker, To Be A Somebody, starring an unknown Robert Carlysle as Albie Kinsella, seeking bloody payback for the tragedy at Leppings Lane; and, more head-on, the Hillsborough dramatisation itself.

I wrote: “To underestimate the impact of the 96 Liverpool fans who died at Leppings Lane in 1989 on McGovern’s outlook on this country, is to undermine the man himself.” He warmed to the theme over a second pint: “What happens when an influential sector of society has total contempt for another sector, and nobody supports them? You think, My God, what have I been believing in all my life? These are my comrades, people I grew up with, held in total contempt, and treated like animals, herded into a pen and squashed to death.” (He even described Robbie Coltrane’s Fitz from Cracker as “post-Hillsborough man.”)

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Hillsborough, the “docudrama” (demeaning term), still resonates loudly with the same sense of wounded, bereaved injustice that turned to relief and affirmation last Tuesday. The two most recognisable actors in it were McGovern trustees from Brookside and Cracker, Ricky Tomlinson and Christopher Eccleston as John Glover and Trevor Hicks respectively, although McGovern fans will also have known Mark Womack (as Eddie Spearritt) from Hearts and Minds. The rest of the cast were less recognisable, which added to the verité effect. This was not a star vehicle, although watching it again now, you’re basically looking at the future casts of Clocking Off and Shameless; so many people making such an impact in small roles and securing careers. It’s packed with believable, emotional acting performances, chief among them Eccleston’s controlled anger, Tomlinson’s collapse into grief, Annabelle Apsion’s almost unbearable refusal to accept the truth as Jenni Hicks, and Maurice Roeves implacable but fallible as Chief Superintendent Duckenfield. Interesting, too, to see Tony Pitts, future stalwart of Red Riding and Peaky Blinders, as a fresh-faced PC in the control booth, and a young Stephen Walters as the tragic Ian Glover (then: Growler off Brookie; now: Dickensian, Outlander, The Village).

It may be McGovern’s finest hour, and it has a lot of hours to compete with. The clarity with which the build-up to catastrophe is paced; the decision when to let the screen go blank, and when to home in on the grief and despair; the power of simple instructions in the infrastructure of self-interest and cover-up, such as the officer telling younger constables not to put any of it in their notebooks (and one defying his order, saying, “Put everything in”). Director Charles McDougall, who went to the US and has recently directed episodes of The Good Wife and House Of Cards, manages to make the disaster itself as tense as a thriller and yet repellent at the same time – you can hardly bear to watch – and captures the moments of humanity in the immediate aftermath with minimal melodrama. This is really happening, before our very eyes.

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Hillsborough is available to view for 28 days. If you watched it at the time, please do watch it again; if you didn’t, or are too young to remember the day itself, please put aside preconceptions about HD and sit down with it. (Actually, the grainy ’90s look assists in its newsreel-like verisimilitude.) You won’t forget it in a hurry. I remember it as clearly as when I first saw it 20 years ago. If ITV Drama seems to be going through another renaissance at the moment, Granada was in a purple patch in the 90s, with Gub Neal and Nicola Schindler producing Cracker, Hillsborough, Band Of Gold and Prime Suspect. (Her Red Productions would subsequently make Clocking Off, which arguably made more stars than Skins.)

Like Fitz, we are all “post-Hillsborough,” but what McGovern meant by that in 1997, it no longer means in 2016.