Twenty years after the event it would be fair to say that almost all football fans who went to a game that day will remember exactly where they were at 3.06pm on Saturday 15th April 1989, the day of the Hillsborough disaster. They will have little or no memory of the game they watched and what happened in it. What they will remember is groups of people on the terraces standing around radios listening as the terrible news unfolded. What they will remember is the look on the faces of players as they came out onto the pitch to start the second half, having heard the news during the break. What they will remember is the terrible silence as people left the grounds just wishing to be home, many long before the final whistle.
For those who were at the game itself – an FA Cup semi-final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest played at the neutral venue of Sheffield Wednesday’s ground Hillsborough – the memories will be most acute and clearly will never fade. Over the last few days the story of the disaster has been described again and again so a brief summary only will be needed here. 96 Liverpool fans died or were fatally injured (with a further 760 also sustaining injuries) when crushing occurred in the tight Leppings Lane end of the ground shortly before and after kick-off at 3.00pm. Far too many people were being pushed into the centre section of the stand and as a result were being crushed against the barriers and against each other. Players later spoke of seeing the anguished faces of fans dying before their eyes. Soon the bodies were being laid out on the pitch as the game was finally abandoned.
For the next few weeks the City of Liverpool was in a state of permanent mourning as funeral after funeral took place. But the effect went far beyond Merseyside as football grounds up and down the country were covered in tributes of messages and scarves. This was not just a display of solidarity on the part of fans; it reflected a shared understanding of what those at Hillsborough had gone through. Everybody who regularly attended games knew what it was like to be crushed into pens, particularly at away ends, or be herded along like cattle by police. Indeed the events of 1989 had nearly occurred in 1981 at another semi-final at the same venue – a game which this author attended – but that day disaster was averted. I remember it getting rather cramped, but the talking point after the game was the dodgy late penalty not the over-crowding. No one died that day but no lessons were learnt either. Eight years later the price was paid.
But who was to blame? The official investigation commented on the state of the ground, which reflected the penny-pinching approach of owners over decades. Fencing was quickly taken down at most League grounds and within a few years standing terraces would be replaced by seats – but this was to be a source of increased profits, not increased safety for fans, as prices were raised accordingly. Thatcher was obliged to abandon her ID cards for football scheme. But incredibly no one was ever really blamed or brought to justice to account for what happened. The role of the South Yorkshire police has often been commented on. They could have averted disaster but seemed more interested in treated fans like criminals waiting to be arrested on one charge or another. Indeed the very first report of the disaster, as it unfolded, contained stories of the problem being caused by fans fighting – a total lie. Later on The Sun newspaper published wild stories about the fans all being blind drunk, a line clearly leaked to deflect blame from the police and the authorities, and to this day many in Merseyside will not buy this paper as a result of that story.
Twenty years later, the families of the victims are still waiting for justice. The police in particular have never been brought to book over their actions. They were seemingly unaware of the crisis unfolding and were slow to act, if at all. Medical aid was delayed in coming as police continued to treat things as a crowd control problem to be contained. In truth they believed they could get away with treating fans in the disgraceful way they always had because they thought no one cared. This time they were caught out.
But then we know all about this. After all look what happened to John Charles de Menezies who was shot at Stockwell station without warning by police, who initially spread the story that he was wearing a heavy jacket with wires hanging out of it – a total lie. Consider also the recent events at the G20 demo in London on April 1st. Again the police acted in a contemptuous manner, fuelled up to commit random acts of violence against demonstrators penned up without access to water or toilet facilities, safe in the knowledge that those involved would be seen as anarchist trouble makers. Alas for them they also chose to attack a passer-by going home from work – an event that was filmed – who subsequently died of a heart attack. Will he get justice? We can but wonder.
The Hillsborough disaster remains on of the most vivid symbols of the dark side of our so-called national game. 96 people died because they were treated as being unimportant, a source of cash at best, potential hooligans at worst. Twenty years on, nothing has really changed. The grounds are smarter in the main, but the attitude of the authorities has not really changed. Television has got its mitts all over the game with ties being played at ridiculous times to suit TV schedules and the European Cup being replaced by the Champions (and their rich chums) League to provide new options to raise cash at our expense. Then as now, all they really want is your money. For 96 people the price was even higher.