Anyone who went to football in England during the mid-1980s will no doubt remember the experience vividly. The sounds; the sights; the smells. It was a microcosm of society as predominantly working class males used what was left of a national sport that was on its knees to escape the humdrum existence of real-life that engulfed them.
Liverpool in the 1980s was no exception. In fact, it was probably the city which epitomized the culture of going to the game more than anywhere else in that decade as the two best sides in the country, if not Europe, battled it out for supremacy and local pride against a backdrop of unemployment, political turmoil and social unrest.
In his new book, Two Tribes, Tony Evans perfectly encapsulates just what it was like to follow football in the days when selfie-sticks and friendship scarves would have attracted more than just a look of disdain or derision from fellow match-going fans.
Using accounts from players and managers of the time, not to mention leading characters from the city’s cultural and political landscape, Evans paints a colourful picture of the vivacious North West music scene and a burgeoning anti-establishment vibe that was rife both on the terraces and in the streets.
Telling the story of one of the greatest and most dramatic campaigns in English football, the 1985/86 season, Two Tribes perfectly illustrates the relationship between football and society in Thatcher’s Britain with as many twists and turns off the pitch as on it.
This was anything but the beautiful game as, often blighted by sporadic crowd violence and playing in decrepit grounds barely fit for purpose, English clubs prepared for a season without European football following the violent and tragic scenes that preceded the previous seasons’ European Cup final in Brussels which had left 39 football fans dead.
Combine that with a fire at Bradford’s Valley Parade which claimed another 56 lives and the death of 15 year old Ian Hambridge, who was killed as a result of fighting between Birmingham and Leeds fans, along with a TV blackout which meant games weren’t televised until after Christmas; it’s not difficult to see why so many people feel this was the game’s lowest point.
Despite the air of gloom Two Tribes brilliantly captures an enthralling campaign with accounts of Manchester United’s storming start to the season, which saw them win their first ten games of the campaign, Howard Kendall’s Everton attempting to defend their league title and a Liverpool side under the guidance of new Player Manager Kenny Dalglish looking to regain their dominance, which culminated in one of the most exciting climaxes ever witnessed in English football.
The sheer beauty of this book is its ability to take you from the stinking alleyways and crumbling terraces that were the norm for football supporters at that time to London’s West End or the drinking dens of the North West quicker than a Pat Nevin pirouette thanks to the author’s uncanny ability to depict the city he lived in and the game that he and so many like him followed religiously across a country that was on a knife-edge.
For every pivotal encounter from that season which is described in almost forensic detail by Evans there is an equally fascinating and often highly amusing tale of everyday life away from the action on the field which perfectly sums up life in 1980s Britain.
Whether it’s an irate Bruce Grobbelaar trawling the bars of Liverpool to track down writers of critical letters about him to the local paper, West Ham’s Frank McAvennie going drinking with Elton John, Rod Stewart and the cast of Eastenders or an altercation with a somewhat arsey Morrissey as Evans’ former band The Farm shared a Green Room with The Smiths before an episode of the Oxford Road Show. It’s all here.
That’s because this book is as much about Derek Hatton as it is about Derek Mountfield and despite the obvious Merseyside angle the likes of West Ham, Chelsea and Manchester United, not to mention the many key characters and influential figures, who were so prominent at this turbulent time, feature almost as heavily as Kenny and Kendall.
Two Tribes is not a Liverpool book. It’s not an Everton book either. It’s a snapshot of a time when watching football was often a matter of survival, a social history of a highly charged political tinderbox of a city which was in danger of tearing itself apart; interspersed with anecdotes of the time which were as relevant in Middlesbrough and Manchester as they were on Merseyside. And that’s what makes it so good.
- Two Tribes by Tony Evans is published by Penguin Random House and is due for release on March 22, 2018