View from the people - Jimmy McGovern

By Hyder Jawad

Jimmy McGovern wrote the screenplay for "Hillsborough", his wonderfully evocative screenplay about the eponymous 1989 tragedy which can be viewed here.

Surrounded by barbed wire and concrete, like a prison, the Boys’ Pen at Liverpool was a corpuscle that dispersed all sorts of smells and aroused all sorts of conflicting emotions. Like all dystopian spaces, it feigned the characteristics of pure romance.

From the late forties to the late seventies, kids went there to watch the Liverpool match, but always in the expectation that they could escape this awkward bear pit – usually by climbing over the fence – to find a safer place among the adults on the Kop.

Legend has it that in the late-thirties, dwellers of the Boys’ Pen threw fresh fruit at the Wolverhampton Wanderers players during a match, causing Liverpool FC to thinking about moving the pen from the Kemlyn Road area to the Kop after World War II.

The Boys' Pen

It was from the Boys’ Pen in the early sixties that Jimmy McGovern watched his first Liverpool matches. Although the screenwriter of the award-winning "Cracker" discovered many of his early influences from literature, he also found cultural stimuli at Anfield. He was not alone. You did not go to Anfield and come away feeling neutral about the experience. Anfield was a different place then: austere and rudimentary; “the biggest toilet in Liverpool”, as Bill Shankly called it before he set about rebuilding it. But the timing had been good for McGovern. Anfield was now transforming itself into a place in which the congregation participated, with songs of insidious charm and with sharp one-liners, rather than merely observed. If you were lucky, you joined in the chorus, Liverpool won, and you avoided unwanted attention.

Attention was something you gave at Anfield, not received (unless you were a player). And McGovern realised to his cost that it was always better to avoid standing out from the crowd. The occasion still makes his teeth itch. It was the evening of the Liverpool-Burnley match on Wednesday February 20, 1963: a tense FA Cup fourth-round replay, characterised by a freezing temperature and a hot atmosphere. It was, McGovern recalls, his “first biggie”, a welcome departure from his usual fare of attending insignificant Anfield reserve-team matches, during which nothing much happened and the only noises to be heard were the shouts of the players echoing around the near-empty stadium.

“FA Cup replay with Burnley; we went there straight from school,” he says. “Ronnie Moran got the winner with a penalty blasted into the roof of the net at the Kop End. For some reason all the other kids in the Boys' Pen started laughing at us and it was only then I realised we were wearing our St Francis Xavier school scarves: maroon and blue, the same colours as Burnley's.” Never before had one boy felt so naked wearing so many clothes.


Given the strength of the Burnley team in 1962-63 – Jimmy McIlroy and John Connelly were genuine stars – and the relative inexperience of Shankly’s team, Liverpool’s 2-1 victory offered evidence that something at Anfield was stirring. McGovern rejoiced that night. But he learnt a valuable lesson: to be part of the Kop’s collective individuality, you had to sacrifice your own individuality. This was the rule: Look and dress like everybody else and avoid looking like a fan of the opposition. You know it makes sense.

Not that you had much choice about what you wore in Liverpool in those days. School uniform was often as good as it got, for the city’s populace did not benefit from an excess of money or an excess of top-quality fashion shops. The Beatles had arrived – just – but had not yet turned their local fame into national fame, never mind international fame. Liverpudlians in the early sixties did not have the money to waste fruit on Wolverhampton Wanderers players. When Harold Macmillan told the British public in 1957 “most of our people have never had it so good”, Liverpudlians, by now shifting to the political left, must have considered his comments sarcastic. He was, of course, talking bollocks.

“We were skint as kids so the first games I went to were reserve games,” McGovern says. “I'm pretty sure you could get into them free in those days. I'm sure, too, that you could walk unhindered all the way around the ground. I remember racing my brother Joe from the Kop to the Anfield Road, weaving around barriers or ducking under them. I started watching ‘proper’ first-team football from the Boys' Pen. It was sixpence – two and a half pence in today's money – to get in. But throughout my teenage years I played football on Saturday afternoons for Richmond Boys' Club so most of the games I saw then were midweek FA Cup replays or, a bit later, European matches.”

And just as McGovern was fortunate to have caught Anfield in the early throws of its communal transmutation, so he was fortunate to have caught the Liverpool team in the early throws of their emergence as a truly global force. The victory against Burnley emphasised not only the possibilities for Liverpool as a team but also encapsulated Shankly’s belief system; and one might argue that much of what happened in 1963-64 – the performance of both player and spectator alike, and the relationship between these two distinct forces – was already manifesting itself at Anfield on February 20, 1963.

Kop idol Peter Thompson

Fourteen months later, on April 18, 1964, with Anfield bathed in sunshine and the supporters having nurtured the city’s inherent cockiness to perfection, Liverpool went into the match against Arsenal needing a victory to secure the 1963-64 Football League championship. But for McGovern, there was more to the match than the mere hope that one team would overpower the other. He cherished the subplots. He craved something to take his breath away, something exquisite. He wanted the closest view possible of Peter Thompson.

“The Liverpool Boys Association League season was over so I was able to go [to the Arsenal match],” McGovern says. “I went into the paddock because I knew that would give me a 45-minute ultra-close-up view of Peter Thompson hugging the touchline and performing miracles. We beat them 5-0. Peter scored two and, honestly, I've never seen anybody play better than he did that day. No, not even Kenny.”

The golden era of the Kop reached peaks of devotion and zeal during key European nights like the ones against Internazionale of Italy in 1965, Celtic of Scotland in 1966, and Saint-Etienne of France in 1977, only to decline in importance after capacity reductions in the late seventies and, later, changing demographics.

Prior to the Inter match in the first leg of the European Cup semi-final, Shankly sent out Gerry Byrne and Gordon Milne, Liverpool’s two injured players, to show off the FA Cup to the Kop. The atmosphere went from buoyant to ardent, which played a part in Liverpool’s energetic display. Again, Peter Thompson proved imperious, evading some fierce tackling from Tariscio Burgnich and Giacinto Facchetti, performing almost as if the Inter players were complicit in his exhibition of awe-inspiring creativity. The Italians, genuinely shocked at the result, thought the Liverpool players were on drugs.


“I was on the Kop the night we beat Inter 3-1,” McGovern says. “I thought the second leg was a formality but that match featured the worst refereeing performance I've ever witnessed. Martin Atkinson would have been proud of it. Howard Webb even. We were beaten 3-0 and I started crying on the final whistle. It was then my dad said to me, ‘Jimmy, if you're skint, you'll still be skint, whether Liverpool win or lose. Never cry about football, son’.”

Wise words: but very much the antithesis of Shankly’s view that football was too important a social construct for such attitudes of dispassion and indifference. If one man personified the Kop it was Shankly, and he would have encouraged tears and anger in the face of defeat. You must cry about football, son.

A seasoned hyperbolist and a self-style Sui generis, Shankly embodied the essence of Liverpool’s otherness: a celtic burghal, in England but not of England; a socialist polis existing in its own sphere, with its own rules, and its own modes of discourse. “I was too young to appreciate the difference [Shankly] made,” McGovern says. “To be honest, I always felt he was a little bit mad.”

By the seventies, with Shankly having rebuilt his team and then put it in the care of the less gregarious but more sophisticated Bob Paisley, McGovern had trained to become a schoolteacher who taught his pupils to love words, to cherish characters, and to appreciate their own sense of self.

But Liverpool burnt in the summer of 1981. The city found that the fame it embraced in the sixties could no longer be switched off now that the bad times had arrived. The media turned Liverpool into a paragon of early-eighties social decay. The Tories wanted to put the city into a state of “managed decline”. Just as damaging, as if choreographed to perfection by the Conservatives, the local Labour Party tore itself to pieces. Then in 1985 came Heysel, the appalling tragedy in which a significant minority of Liverpool supporters caused the deaths of thirty-nine mainly Juventus supporters prior to the European Cup final. The time was ripe for new screenwriters and playwrights, for working-class social commentators who could merge the expression of their intelligence with the authenticity of their experience. It was from this vagarious world that McGovern emerged as a dramatist of rare skill and subtlety. He wrote stories that mattered.

If he wrote his drama to offend, it was only because he knew that safe literature was no literature at all. Character is plot: and characters must be real for the story to have any validity. He developed a reputation as an iconoclast (my word, with which he may or may not disagree). And then came the event that caused him more trauma and grief than he could ever have considered possible: Hillsborough, April 15, 1989.

McGovern’s portrayal of the two tragedies – the crush itself that caused the death of ninety-six football spectators and the ensuing cover-up that was designed to put the blame on innocent Liverpool supporters – came in 1996. Hillsborough, produced by Granada TV, is a powerful piece of television, which sought to humanise a subject that, outside of Liverpool, had turned too political. It proved vexing to most Liverpudlians that the London-based media had set the tone for nationwide perceptions of the tragedy’s cause. Whether or not it was designed that way, McGovern’s Hillsborough became part of the fight back. Now came the pursuit of justice.

But already the aftermath of Hillsborough has made giants out of women and of men. Once upon a time, Kenny Dalglish was a brilliant footballer who became a brilliant manager. People either loved him or respected him – or both. Nobody thought him articulate or having the skills of leadership that could transcend football.

“Kenny Dalglish was a brilliant footballer who scored goals that won us trophies galore,” McGovern says. “But his leadership of the club in the immediate aftermath of Hillsborough was by far his greatest achievement. He is an ordinary working class man, for god's sake. He left his secondary school to train as a plumber. Where on earth did he find all that compassion, sensitivity, intelligence, dignity and stamina? But find it he did and it took its toll.”

Dalglish resigned as the manager of Liverpool in February 1991, citing stress. The surprise was that anybody was surprised. “All those interviews, funerals and embraces wore him down and, a season and a half later, Kenny Dalglish was knackered,” McGovern says. “With the club three points clear at the top of the league, Dalglish resigned on health grounds.”

Whether or not Liverpool would have won the 1990-91 League Championship had Dalglish remained at Anfield is not relevant. Some issues are more important than football. His health was paramount, and he had earned the right to leave on his own terms, at a time of his choosing. Nobody begrudged him his right to immure his mind and body from external forces. But it does bother McGovern that Liverpool FC mishandled Dalglish’s departure, causing, arguably, a relative decline in the club’s fortunes – a decline from which the club has still not recovered properly.

“Now, a sensible chairman would have told Kenny to go away and rest for a few months and see how he felt then,” McGovern says. “But we didn't have a sensible chairman. We had David Moores – an idiot – and he appointed Graeme Souness as Kenny's successor. Demonstrating a lethal combination of arrogance and stupidity, epitomised by an exclusive interview he gave to The Sun on the [third] anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster, Souness took over a club that was three points clear at the top when Dalglish resigned and left it in mid-table mediocrity.”

For all his attributes as a player, Souness misread everything about what Anfield had become in the post-Dalglish era. He presented himself as Dalglish’s opposite: bombastic rather than humble; self-centred rather than altruistic; imprudent rather than cautious; subversive rather than respectful. Dalglish had learnt, as had Shankly, Paisley and Joe Fagan before him, to affirm and promote Liverpudlian traits of substance over style. Although the fans tolerated his flamboyance when he was a brilliant midfield player and captain, Souness as a supervisor seemed too much the metropolitan elitist for Kopites. There could only be one possible conclusion: the departure of Souness in less-than-savoury circumstances.

Great player. Poor manager. Misguided leader of men.

This misguided duo marked the end of Liverpool's golden era

Liverpool’s decline under Souness coincided with the birth, in 1992, of the Premier League, which exacerbated the chasm between rich clubs and poor clubs. Whereas Liverpool succeeded under Shankly, Paisley, Fagan and Dalglish more because of good management than big spending, now the dynamics had changed and made money more important than ever before. Suddenly, Liverpool found that the failure to expand Anfield and the failure to adopt a successful commercial strategy in the seventies and eighties proved problematical.

In general terms, stadia that once existed as fortresses of fanaticism for the working classes now turned into sterile observatories for the middle classes. Now, many dwellers of the Kop were tourists. Had football forfeited its proletarian roots? Had Liverpool FC suffered for the reconfiguration of the game’s politics and finances? “You'll never take football away from the working class because you'll never stop working class kids playing it,” McGovern says. “But you can take away their ability to support their local team and the best way to do that, of course, is to up the price. That's been happening ever since the Football Association stupidly allowed the Premier League to break away from the Football League. But the bourgeoisification of football is in no way to blame for the decline of Liverpool Football Club. No, our decline began a little earlier: at Hillsborough in 1989.”

And what could exaggerate Liverpool’s decline more than Manchester United’s revival in the nineties as a global giant? The joke around Anfield during the era was that United’s secret weapon was not Alex Ferguson, their manager, but Souness himself. “I always laugh at Alex Ferguson's claim that he ‘knocked Liverpool off their perch’,” McGovern says. “He didn't. Graeme Souness did that.”

* Born in Liverpool in 1949, Jimmy McGovern is one of Britain’s leading dramatists. Most famous for Hillsborough (1996), his wonderfully evocative screenplay about the eponymous 1989 tragedy, he also lists among his credits: Cracker (1993-2006), Hearts and Minds (1995), The Lakes (1997-99), Dockers (1999), Sunday (2002), The Street (2006-09), Accused (2010-12), Common (2014), and Banished (2015). His best work, arguably, was his script for the film, Priest (1995). He is a Liverpool supporter, a leading commentator on social and political issues, and an advocate for the pursuit of justice for the ninety-six people who died at Hillsborough.

* First published in Soccerama 01. Copyright - Hyder Jawad who allowed the use of this article for publication on

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