Football stadia disasters saw author's work turn serious


SIMON Inglis happe-ned to be in the right place at the right time when an opportunity presented itself as a matter of luck.

Not that the incident, which proved to be a career catalyst, was a positive one.

Now a sports and architectural historian, Simon was working as a football writer when the Bradford City stadium fire claimed the lives of 56 people in May, 1985.

Thanks to his 1983 book The Football Grounds of England and Wales and his writing about football and architecture, Simon was considered an expert on the two subjects.

And it led to him being called to give evidence at the subsequent Popplewell Inquiry.

"It was a career-defining moment," Simon told me. "Initially, the writing about football and architecture was a sideline, but, suddenly, it became more serious."

Simon noted in the book that two years before the disaster there had been an accumulation of rubbish behind the stand which caught fire.

Now 61, he was also selected to sit on two bodies - the Football Stadia Advisory Design Council and the Football Licensing Authority - formed following the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans died.

Lord Taylor's report into the Hillsborough disaster recommended a number of initiatives when it came to football stadia in this country. Most clubs refurbished or rebuilt stadia, while others built new ones in different locations.

And the terraces were replaced with all-seater stands.

Simon, who is married to Jackie, said it was a "daunting experience" being selected to sit on the two newly-formed committees.

"I ended up sitting around a table with people I had interviewed in the past," he added.

"Hillsborough was the turning point - the whole business of safety and security became professional.

"It was no longer good enough to have a football board made up of a butcher, baker and candlestick maker with a safety officer who was one of the chairman's mates or a builder who had hung around for a long time.

"The other great change was that because it was difficult to develop existing stadia, there was a great sweep of stadium building in the 1990s.

"Many stadia had been designed in such a way that fans were kept behind cages and if you cage human beings, they will act like animals.

"Lord Taylor said the report was not preparing football for the 21st century, but dragging it into the 21st century."

Simon played a lead role in the drawing up of design guidelines on modern stadia, with his work culminating in his editorship of a revised edition of the Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds, in 1996.

Such responsibility was a world away from Simon's formative years in the Birmingham suburb of Moseley.

He was born to Wendy and Harold Inglis - his father had Anglicised the surname from Isenberg weeks before Simon's birth.

Simon's parents came from Glasgow and Edinburgh, respectively.

"My father went to Birmingham to set up a dental practice," he said. "He thought that in the Birmingham of the 1950s, having a foreign-sounding name would make people think he was German, so it was not so much about worrying whether people would think he is Jewish.

"He put a lot of names beginning with I in a hat and picked out 'Inglis'.

"Dad was happy with that, because it is a Scottish surname."

His mother is in a care home in Timperley, south Manchester, and his sister, Judith Saffer, lives in Didsbury, also in south Manchester.

The family went to shul every week and Simon "had to go to cheder" and was barmitzvah.

Perhaps the most Jewish side to his life, in a city with few Jewish families, was Habonim Dror.

He joined the youth organisation as a 12-year-old, leading camps and spending a year in Israel.

"I did it all, apart from make aliya," Simon laughed. "I have an affinity for Habonim and still have friends from those days.

"I still regard myself as a soft-left socialist and those years in Habonim are incredibly important to me.

"The irony of Habonim is that we went camping in the English countryside every summer and, rather than fall in love with Israel, I compared the two and England won."

The beginning of his year in Israel, in 1973, coincided with the Yom Kippur War.

Simon spent eight months on a kibbutz in the Galil, working in a chicken house.

"I really enjoyed it and it was a formative experience, but I didn't think, 'this is my future'."

Simon, who had been a pupil at the prestigious King Edward's School, went to University College London to read history and the history of architecture.

His love of football stadia began in April, 1962, when he was taken to Villa Park to see Aston Villa.

"They beat Leicester City 8-3, but the important thing was that I fell in love with the architecture of Villa Park," Simon explained.

"There was something about the grandstand which appealed to me. It was my first exposure to working-class English culture."

With Villa Park piquing his passion for architecture, Simon recalled: "The ultimate as a teenager was to get on my motorbike, visit a cathedral in the morning and a football ground in the afternoon in the West Midlands.

"I always felt comfortable in a historic environment."

He went on to take a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education in Leeds with the intention of becoming a history teacher.

Simon then went travelling in South America for six months and, while there, submitted a few pieces to The Guardian.

On his return, he moved to Manchester and landed a job as a football reporter for the newspaper.

"I enjoyed it for a while, but once your hobby becomes your job, it loses its gloss," Simon explained.

"I realised that the world of football was not especially glamourous, was not peopled by great intellect and there was a lack of depth.

"But I do remember having great access to the players, more than there is today for journalists.

"I would stand outside The Cliff (Manchester United's then-training ground) and say to Bryan Robson, 'do you have 10 minutes?'.

"It was a great experience and being in Manchester, from a footballing perspective, was great, too."

He went on to write numerous books, including Football Grounds of Britain, The Football Grounds of Europe and Sightlines: A Stadium Odyssey.

"It was very much combining my love of travel, architecture and football," Simon added. "It started out as a sideline which became more serious."

While many football supporters lament the loss of standing at games, there has been talk about bringing back safe standing.

But Simon believes that it is not imminent.

"I am not opposed to it in principal, because I was privy to the difficulties of it," he explained.

"The difficult thing is to find a government which would initiate it.

"Because we live in such a litigious society, it would only need one person to fall over, break their leg or have a heart attack while standing and then questions would be asked about introducing it again.

"The idea makes football clubs nervous."

Simon's most recent project, Played in Britain, charts the rich sporting heritage of the UK.

It originated in 2001 when he acted as a consultant with English Heritage on the organisation's pilot study of sporting heritage in Manchester, ahead of the following year's 2002 Commonwealth Games in the city.

Simon recalled: "There were some people at English Heritage who were quite hostile to it at the time, but I was convinced that sporting heritage was a subject worth studying."

That project turned into a multitude of books on the sporting heritages of Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Tyne and Wear and Glasgow, among others.

"A lot of people have been surprised by just how rich and ingrained sport is in English culture. Nobody had looked at it holistically before."

Simon's brother, Jonathan, died in a cycling accident in 1997. He was an artist and lived in Birmingham.

© 2016 Jewish Telegraph