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Margaret Thatcher's Football Legacy Will Forever Be Linked to Hillsborough

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Margaret Thatcher's Football Legacy Will Forever Be Linked to Hillsborough
A cartoon depicts Margaret Thatcher and her alleged role in the Hillsborough tragedy cover-up

Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher is no more. The Iron Lady passed away after suffering a stroke on Monday, aged 87 and—as abundantly evident all over the Internet—as enduringly controversial as she was during her 11 turbulent years in office.

Thatcher's political ideals and the policies her Conservative government implemented will divide and rile people for centuries to come. Some will argue she transformed Britain's fortunes; others that her reign precipitated a slide into economic crisis and perceived moral decline.

Her dealings with British football will be viewed in equal extremes.

Thatcher's Downing Street residency coincided with some dark times for her nation's beloved pastime. The spectre of hooliganism loomed large and stadium disasters at Heysel (1985), Bradford (1985) and Hillsborough (1989) saw football visited by some of its worst tragedies.

Thatcher's death will not be mourned by those who find her partly responsible for the injustices of Hillsborough, where 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives and suffered their memories stained for 23 years by a despicable conspiracy on the part of authorities. Thatcher was sold the story herself, on visiting the scene the day after the disaster.

In September 2012, those 96 Liverpool fans and their long-suffering families were finally served justice. A report concluded not only that their deaths were in no way their fault, but also that many of them could have been prevented (The Economist). A fresh inquiry has been launched and the very real hope is that justice will follow.

In addressing the new findings, Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that Thatcher's government were the first of a succession of establishments in power to have failed the victims of "one of the great peacetime tragedies of the last century."

Former home secretary Jack Straw accused Thatcher of fostering a "culture of impunity" for police, which he believes played its part in the cover-up that followed Hillsborough. Liverpool were fans were wrongly accused of being drunk and blamed for what happened to them.

It is not lost on some that the same South Yorkshire Police force in control that day had played an important role for Thatcher's government in tackling protestors during the miners' strike.

It's clear from Monday's outpouring on Twitter that many football fans feel Thatcher deserves to take at least a portion of the blame for what transpired in the aftermath of that sunny day of April 15, 1989, when Liverpool fans present for an FA Cup semifinal against Nottingham Forest overflowed into the Leppings Lane stand.

Thatcher's football legacy stretches beyond Hillsborough, of course. Her government fought a determined war against hooliganism and, following the Heysel disaster, Thatcher backed the Football Association's decision to ban English teams from playing in European competitions.

Said Thatcher at the time, as per BBC:

We have to get the game cleaned up from this hooliganism at home and then perhaps we shall be able to go overseas again.

English clubs returned to Europe in 1990 and it's hard to argue that Thatcher's intervention—while deemed a grossly exaggerated reaction to the problem and the persecution of the average football fan by many—has helped lead English football toward to a safer fan experience.

Some will credit Thatcher for that. Others will use her extreme methods and the failed initiative to introduce ID cards for every match-going fan in the country as evidence of the disconnect between the realities of football culture in the 1980s and what she wanted us to believe was happening.

Wrote David Maddock of the Mirror last September:

Never forget, she (Thatcher) hated football fans; in fact she hated the working classes full stop. She declared war on them, and used her attack dogs to attempt destroy them, starting with the miners, with the unions and with anyone remotely related to Ireland, and extending out to anyone who dared to venture near a football ground.

According to West Ham manager Sam Allardyce, Thatcher's football legacy is also felt in the number of homegrown players we see playing at the top level in England today.

Steve Bardens/Getty Images
Sam Allardyce is not alone as a football figure to hold Thatcher in low regard

"Since Margaret Thatcher stopped teachers being paid extra money for coaching sports after school, all sporting activities have diminished on a competitive basis," Allardyce said in 2011, as per the Mirror, going on to accuse her of "killing football" by not giving young players the opportunity to develop in working-class environments.

Everywhere you look, the football community in England appears to have a cross to bear with Thatcher. Part of that can be explained by her timing—she did after all reign over perhaps the most difficult period in British football history. There's also the fact she is inextricably tied to going up against the working classes in the miners' strike.

But is it her perceived failure to unravel what truly happened at Hillsborough, and thus spare 96 Liverpool fans and their families two decades of agony, that will loom largest when it comes to discussing Thatcher's football legacy in years to come.

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