April 15th, 1989; twenty years ago today.
For me, it’s one of those moments in life when you can remember exactly what you were doing. I suspect it’s the same for most football fans of a certain age.
On a balmy spring day, thousands of Liverpool fans travelled to Hillsborough in Sheffield to watch an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest. 96 did not return.
As a sports-mad teenager, I was watching Grandstand on BBC1, as was habitual on Saturday afternoons. In those days, the only FA Cup match transmitted live was the final itself, but Match of the Day cameras were present to record highlights for later transmission. But within a few minutes of the 3.00pm kickoff, reports of crowd trouble – initially assumed by many to be the result of hooligan activity – began to filter through, to be followed by news that the players had been taken off the pitch (the match was not abandoned for nearly an hour).
All the while, BBC cameras recorded harrowing images of the unfolding human disaster: Liverpool fans desperately trying to scale the fences penning them in (while thousands of others continued to push onto the overcrowded terraces, unknowingly worsening the situation); police officers actively pushing the climbers back, thinking they were preventing a pitch invasion; ambulances and fire engines with cutting equipment being turned away; the dead, dying and injured being stretchered away on advertising hoardings, to be triaged and catalogued at a nearby gymnasium.
96 dead. Fewer people than that live on my street.
Sadly, disasters at football matches were hardly unique occurrences during the Eighties. Mere weeks apart four years earlier, a total of 95 – one less than at Hillsborough – perished in a fire at Bradford’s Valley Parade and in the Heysel disaster. (Somewhat perversely, we tend to remember the latter event first, even though more fans died at Valley Parade.)
Days after the disaster, first the Sheffield Star and then the Sun ran unsubstantiated front page stories placing the blame firmly at the feet of drunken, thieving Liverpool hooligans. The Sun, laughably, ran their feature under the headline of ‘The Truth’ – they did eventually publish an unreserved front page apology … in 2004. Nine months after Hillsborough, Lord Justice Taylor’s official inquiry accurately cited a ‘failure of police control’. In 1991, an inquest jury returned a verdict of accidental death after the coroner declared that no deaths had occurred after 3.15pm and that any evidence after that time was inadmissible. No prosecutions or disciplinary actions were ever taken against the police officers in charge. All subsequent requests for judicial reviews or further public inquiries were dismissed.
It is hard to believe that even now, twenty years on, the families of the dead have never received due justice.
It disappoints me; more than that, it angers me. There is an implicit conclusion that no one was to blame, and indeed a number of the police officers present on the day have received greater compensation than the fans and their families. That’s not to say the trauma suffered by officers should not be recognised – it should – but it all rather smacks of the powers that be looking after their own at the expense of everyone else, doesn’t it?
The Taylor report brought about two changes of seismic proportion to English football – an end to heavy-handed crowd control methods and the misguided practice of fencing in fans to prevent pitch invasions, and the forced introduction of all-seater stadia at top flight clubs.
At the time, we fans objected vehemently to the changes. Even now, I miss not being able to stand on the terraces and experience the visceral feeling of belonging in a crowd; attending a Premier League game today is more akin to being part of a theatre audience.
But football is also better in so many ways. Policing methods are more sophisticated, more ‘soft-touch’. Modern stadia, for all that has been lost in terms of atmosphere, are an altogether more pleasant place to be than the dingy, dilapidated grounds of the past. Football is once again a largely safe pastime that parents can take their children to without fear of random violence. It’s of scant consolation to the people of Liverpool, but Hillsborough ultimately brought a lot of good to football’s wider community.
Is it worth trading off the raw thrill I experienced as a teen on the terraces at Highbury against the knowledge that one day (hopefully soon) I will be able to take my son to the Emirates to watch Arsenal in comfort and safety? Yes, I think it is.
Maybe the passage of time and my own ageing have softened me up a bit, but the thought of Hillsborough still touches a raw nerve. I have only been to Anfield once, five years ago, but when I did I visited the memorial to the dead outside the Shankly Gates and experienced a feeling that I have only ever felt on one other occasion: standing outside the wreckage of the World Trade Centre a year after 9/11.
I observed a personal minute’s silence at Anfield that evening, as many other travelling Arsenal fans around me also did. I don’t know why, really; it just felt like the right thing to do.
Some things transcend all the usual tribal loyalties and rivalries. We may be football fans, but we are also human beings; something the police in the Hillsborough era frequently seemed to forget.
We have not forgotten the tragedy that befell Liverpool that day. Nor should we ever.