April 15th 1989, saw the worst disaster in the history of English football; 96 Liverpool fans
attending their team's FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest at Sheffield Wednesday's
ground, Hillsborough, were crushed to death on the Leppings Lane terrace, and English
football would never be the same again.
The disaster was basically caused by the failure of South Yorkshire Police to control a large
crowd of Liverpool fans outside the Leppings Lane End, and the poor state of the ground,
but it was also clear that football's total failure to learn from the numerous disasters that had
afflicted it during the twentieth century, and a police force conditioned to view supporters as
potential hooligans and so always expecting violence, contributed significantly to the 96 deaths
and many hundreds of injuries.
WHAT HAPPENED ON THE DAY?
Liverpool had been allocated the Leppings Lane End of the ground, and it was outside this end from, about 2.30pm that a large crowd of fans had built up. Fans were also delayed on their way to the game by roadworks on the M62 motorway. Warnings issued as far back as 1927 about the need to prevent a large build-up of supporters were ignored, and a sizeable crowd of thousands of Liverpool fans was allowed to build up outside the Leppings Lane End, leading to increasing congestion and then crushing at the front. Stewarding was also described as poor at this end of the ground. The police later claimed that fans had been drinking excessively.
The Leppings Lane gates led into a concourse: from this, fans could enter a main tunnel that
fed into pens three and four of the terrace. Additionally, there were access points to the left and right of the tunnel that led to the other pens on the Leppings Lane terrace. As the sections
immediately behind the goal, pens three and four were the most popular and were already full
over twenty minutes before kick-off, a fact noticed by BBC commentators in their build-up to the game, and by match commander Chief Superintendent David Duckinfield watching events from the police control box. Meanwhile, the crowd outside continued to build, with little effort made to prevent the numbers outside the gates swelling any further: the crushing outside was becoming progressively worse, police horses were becoming agitated, and 2.47pm, thirteen minutes before kick-off, police officers outside the Leppings Lane End radioed to Duckinfield (in charge of his first major match), informing him that the crushing was becoming severe, and that people were going to die if the gates were not opened to relieve the pressure. After a brief delay, Duckinfield ordered that Gate C be opened, and close on 2,000 Liverpool fans were directed through the gates into the concourse.
By now however, pens three and four were already over-congested; fans streamed into the tunnel, and then into pens three and four, creating a massive crush and trapping supporters at the front of the pens against the steel perimeter fence. Some estimates claim that there were twice the number of supporters in pens three and four than they were designed to cope with. The resultant crush became unbearable, with the fans at the back unable to see that the pens were already full, and the fans at the front already starting to show signs of distress and asphixiation.
Fans started to try and climb the fences to escape the pens, and some were lifted out of the pens by supporters in the tier above the terrace, but the crushing was becoming fatal as the game kicked off. Fans tried to attract the attention of police officers, but were unable to do so, and later complained that some supporters trying to escape the pens had been pushed back into the crowd by officers who seemed to think they were dealing with an attempted pitch invasion. Other fans reported shouting to police officers to open the gates, but simply being ignored. By 3.05pm, fans managed to alert Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar, who in turn pointed out the problem to the referee, as fans were already making their way over the fences before collapsing on the side of the pitch. The players were taken off at 3.06, and the emergency operation began, with Liverpool fans ripping
up advertising hoardings to use as stretchers. It was becoming clear that this was going to be a major disaster, and there was later criticism of police officers who stood in a line across the half-way line, apparently to prevent any "charge" by Liverpool fans against the Forest supporters at the other end of the ground. Other junior officers climbed from pen two into pen three in an effort to help the victims by now piled up everywhere inside the pen, while others desperately tried to pull down the perimeter fence.
The game was abandoned at half-time, with fans, junior police officers and the emergency services still trying to get the injured to hospital, with some people still being admitted as late as 4pm. But in total, 95 fans died in the next couple of days, young, old, male, female. One more supporter, Tony Bland, died after spending four years on a ventilator machine.
At 3.15pm, Graham Kelly, chief executive of the Football Association, had gone to the police control box, where he was told by Duckinfield that Liverpool fans had rushed the gate into the ground, creating the fatal crush in pens three and four, despite the fact that he had ordered the gate opened.
At 4.15pm, Kelly was interviewed by the BBC, and he told them the police had implied to him that the gates had been opened unauthorised. The story flashed around the world that drunken Liverpool fans had forced the gates open, and it was splashed all over the newspapers the following morning. The suggestion that Liverpool fans were responsible for the disaster was picked up most strongly later that week by the 'Sun' newspaper, who ran maybe their most infamous headline on the personal instruction of editor Kelvin McKenzie. Acting on information from unnamed police officers, and entitled "The Truth", the 'Sun' claimed that drunken fans had forced the gates open because they did not have match-tickets, that they stolen from the corpses lying on the pitch, assaulted police officers and the emergency services, stolen cameras and other equipment from press photographers, and urinated on police officers helping the victims. Months later, the "Sun" admitted that the allegations were totally false, but it had already generated headlines all over the world, and the damage had been done.
THE TAYLOR REPORTS
The failure to close or block the tunnel leading into the already full pens three and four once the police had ordered Gate C to be opened was the immediate cause of the disaster, but the public inquiries set up by the Thatcher Government under Lord Justice Peter Taylor found, more generally, that football had simply not learned anything from the numerous disasters in its past, that it and the police were so obsessed with the threat of violence that they were unable to spot people in genuine danger of their lives, that police fundamentally lost control of the situation, and did not demonstrate the leadership expected of senior officers, that safety procedures were inadequate, that the ground was badly maintained and dangerous, that fans were routinely treated with contempt by football, and that fans had been the victims
rather the guilty party. His reports, published in August 1989 and January 1990, dismissed the allegations against Liverpool supporters for the disaster, and called instead for a total rethink in the industry's attitudes towards fans, and on the issue of safety. It also highlighted the failures by local authorities to check safety certificates for stadia (Sheffield Wednesday had redeveloped parts of the ground without obtaining a new safety certificate, or telling the emergency services: the result was that the safety certificate was outdated and useless, and that plans Sheffield Wednesday had developed with the local emergency services could not be put into practice, as the layout of the ground had changed).
Specifically, Taylor recommended the closure of terraces at all grounds, new safety measures on exits and entrances, and a new advisory committee on stadium design to ensure that best practice was followed. Crucially, Taylor also recommended that the Government's Identity Card scheme (whereby all fans would have to have a membership card to get into a ground) be dropped, on grounds of safety, a suggestion that the Government reluctantly carried out. Taylor's report did not have the force of law, and not all his recommendations were carried out, but his work in identifying the wider reasons for the disaster has been
acknowledged as one of the most significant turning points in the history of English football. The result was the total transformation of British stadia, paid for in large part by tax-payers' money, with terraces at grounds in the top two divisions closed by May 1994, and new safety regulations and regimes put in place at every stadium.
WHAT HAS HAPPENED SINCE 1989?
The controversy over the disaster has not subsided: Thatcher's Press Secretary, Bernard Ingham, has frequently repeated the allegations made by the 'Sun', as did Brian Clough (Nottingham Forest manager on the day of the disaster) some five years later; a boycott of the 'Sun' on Merseyside (that still goes on to this day) has cost its parent company News International tens of millions of pounds in lost revenue;
new Government enquiries were ordered to see if there was a case for criminal prosecutions (undertaken by Lord Justice Stuart-Smith); television documentaries and academics have alleged a systematic police cover-up (written evidence from junior officers to the Taylor enquiry was altered by superiors, for instance); and until 1999, Sheffield Wednesday refused to erect a memorial at the ground to the victims (leading to Liverpool fans boycotting Hillsborough in season 1998-99). Finally, in 2000, families of the victims brought
a private, civil prosecution against Duckinfield and his deputy Bernard Murray, for manslaughter.Murray was acquitted, but the jury were unable to reach a verdict in the case of Duckinfield, and the judge prevented a re-trial. Nonetheless, the Hillsborough Justice campaign remain determined to pursue the truth of what happened that day. Over a decade later, Hillsborough remains a highly controversial issue, with its effects most obvious at every stadium in the country.
Wear your badge with Pride.
Justice For the 96.http://www.contrast.org/hillsborough/home.shtm