“To even start to describe this city is very difficult. The reality is we are different” – Derek Hatton
Once a vibrant enclave in England’s North-West, Liverpool was on its knees in the 1980s.
The once-great port city of the British Empire lost 80,000 jobs between 1972 and 1982 as the docks closed.
The city that produced The Beatles was blighted by rising unemployment and rampant inflation – the people of Liverpool caught in a post-industrial impasse, their strife exacerbated by the disdain shown by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government.
A quarter of Liverpool’s population – around 70,000 people – were living below the poverty line, and there were areas of the city so derelict where children played in the streets known as Beirut.
Against this backdrop rose the city’s two football teams. Liverpool and Everton dominated the domestic and European scene in the 1980s, offering Liverpudlians some respite from the hardship of everyday life.
From 1981 to 1990 Liverpool and Everton won nine league titles, two European cups, a Cup Winners’ Cup, three FA Cups and three League Cups between them. Neither team has won the league since.
Two Tribes explores the dichotomy between the searing highs of Liverpool and Everton football club and Liverpool’s socio-economic decline in a city where football and politics are so inextricably linked.
The first signs of rebellion came in July 1981, the same month as Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s lavish wedding in London. An explosion of anger that caused a scale of destruction met only by the blitz of the Second World War.
In a pre-cursor for the showdown between Thatcher and the Militant-led Trotskyist Labour council, the Tory leader called for a ‘managed decline’ of Liverpool after the Toxteth riots.
The then prime minister's Chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe said investing in Liverpool was like ‘trying to make water flow uphill’.
Out of the Tory policy of austerity emerged a hard-left city council led by Evertonian Derek Hatton.
Hatton tapped into the hearts and minds of the people of Liverpool and challenged Westminster’s policy of local spending cuts.
But by the mid-1980s, youth unemployment in some areas of the city was 70% and six out of seven school leavers couldn’t get a job. Liverpool was haemorrhaging talent. The extent of the brain drain extreme. The city’s population was slashed from 800,000 to 400,000.
With the city on the brink, the pre-eminence of Liverpool’s two football clubs showed no signs of relenting. In a defining moment for the city, Liverpool and Everton met in the 1984 Milk Cup final at Wembley.
Badges and stickers emblazoned with ‘support Liverpool city council’ slogans in red and blue were handed out on Wembley Way and there was a palpable sense that the Merseyside invasion of London transcended football.
The two sides played out a dour 0-0 draw but the match was immortalised for what happened after the full-time whistle.
Amid chants of ‘Merseyside, Merseyside, Merseyside’ from 100,000 Liverpudlians from both sides of the divide, Liverpool and Everton players posed arm-in-arm for an iconic image on the Wembley pitch.
With their backs against the wall, the city’s cultural heartbeat took hold once again.
Provocative new wave band Frankie Goes To Hollywood rose to prominence in the mid-1980s – ‘choosing the arts at that time was no more risk than choosing anything else’, according to contributor and Scouse actor David Morrissey.
But as the cultural explosion began to take hold, the sport that had given its people a voice shook the city during the European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus in Heysel in May 1985.
‘You felt guilty. As if it was your fault,’ said Mark Lawrenson of the disaster that killed 39 people.
The disaster saw English sides removed from European competition and it signalled the beginning of the sanitisation process of English football which was in the grip of hooliganism.
Liverpool and Everton continued to dominate in the English top flight. Kenny Dalglish’s side ran out 3-1 winners in the 1986 FA Cup final in a match that could have sold half a million tickets on Merseyside, and the league title remained in the city for next two years.
However, the arts and creatives of the early and mid-1980s turned into parodies of scousers as the decade progressed. TV programmes such as Boys from the Black Stuff pricked the nation’s consciousness to the plight of Liverpool’s suffering while unwittingly reinforcing negative images of the city.
And in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster in Sheffield on 15 April 1989, the recriminations which implicated the Liverpool supporters could be believed because of the faux perception of the people of Liverpool – the tragic consequence of demonising a city and its people.
“As soon as Hillsborough happened everyone in Liverpool knew the truth of what happened,” said activist Cheryl Varley.
Speaking exclusively to BTSport.com, Two Tribes’ director and producer Andy Wells said “to understand Hillsborough, you have to understand the ten years that came before it to put it into context.”
Heysel and Hillsborough were events that involved only the red side of Liverpool, but Wells said it was imperative to strike a balance between Liverpool and Everton in the film.
“I actually think the Everton story, as a filmmaker, is more interesting,” he said.
“Liverpool is great. They are dominant, winning all these trophies, but the Everton story is great because there is an arc.
“We start their story when they’re pretty much at rock bottom. They’re about third or fourth from the bottom of the First Division and they’re struggling.
“They’re going through years of unrest. There were gates of 13,000 at Goodison [Park], boos at the end of the game, lots of discontent, and across the park, they had the best team in Britain if not Europe.
“So what we do is show them at their lowest point and then we see how they suddenly turn it around and actually start competing with Liverpool on equal footing.
“I think that’s fascinating because you’ve got the highs and lows of that story so actually it is split.
“We knew that Heysel and Hillsborough were a Liverpool story so were conscious [of finding balance]. I think the edit assistant did tot it up actually and it’s something like 48% plays 52%, so it’s even handed.”
Wells said he had to “sacrifice some brilliant stuff” in the edit because “what is fantastic about scousers is that they’re fantastic raconteurs – they can tell a great story.”
But he did reveal an untold story about ex-Everton player Peter Reid during a Merseyside derby which didn’t make the final edit.
“So he was playing for Everton at Liverpool, and he tackles John Barnes with a late tackle, goes to foul him. He gets up and all these Liverpool fans are screaming abuse at him, swearing at him. He looks up and spots his uncle in the crowd swearing at him!”
Sally Brown, Executive Producer of BT Sport Films, said Two Tribes received glowing reviews from the locals.
“People were crying in the audience, people from Liverpool, because they just felt that they had been persecuted and seen in a certain way for so long,” she said.
“Even if it wasn’t them, their families had struggled so badly through this period of unemployment and everything going so badly wrong, that they felt that this was a historic film.”
Simon Green, head of BT Sport, said: “Two Tribes is a thought-provoking examination of how football transcends sport and becomes central to wider society.”
Contributors include Hatton and Lord Michael Heseltine, footballers Peter Reid and Steve McMahon, Morrissey, musicians Peter Wylie of the Mighty Wah! and Peter Hooton of the Farm, with archive footage featuring Holly Johnson from Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen.
If you like Two Tribes, you’ll love:
Too Good To Go Down: This BT Sport film explores the story of how relegation to the second tier of English football was the catalyst for a new Manchester United to develop in the years after Sir Matt Busby's retirement.
- The Crazy Gang: The superb documentary on the FA Cup-winning Wimbledon side of the 1980s. Dubbed ‘The Crazy Gang’ because of their intimidating, aggressive and direct style of play, they were responsible for one of the biggest giant killings of all time against all-conquering Liverpool.