Hillsborough: one of English society’s saddest days – Simon Carter

The Hillsborough Disaster, scenes we will never forget.
The Hillsborough Disaster, scenes we will never forget.
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Hillsborough, April 15, 1989. Thirty years ago next Monday. Three decades ago, a long time now, but the memories will never fade, can never fade, for those of us who remember.

Those of us who remember the distressing televised images, the haunting photographs, of Liverpool fans being crushed on the terraces against the perimeter fencing during an FA Cup semi-final in Sheffield, South Yorkshire.

The images of fans being plucked to safety by fellow supporters in the seated area above them. Plucked to safety from scandalously-overcrowded pens which resulted in the deaths of 96 innocent football fans.

Members of the police watched on, literally just a few feet away, as people were crushed to death in front of them. The entire police operation was about containment and to prevent trouble. Crowd safety was nowhere near as important.

Ninety-five died that day. In March 1993, Tony Bland became the 96th victim when, almost four years on and in a coma ever since that fateful day forever branded on the psyche of every football supporter in this country, his life support machine was turned off.

Hillsborough, April 15, 1989. An FA Cup semi-final abandoned after just six minutes on a day when we all knew nothing would ever be the same again.

Consider these facts. Of the 96 who died, only 14 were over the age of 30. Only three were over 50. Fourteen were 16 or under. Thirty-seven were teenagers. The youngest victim was just 10 – a cousin of future Liverpool star Steven Gerrard.

English football’s saddest day, certainly. But also one of English society’s saddest days, for the tragedy transcended our national sport. It told us much about the way our country was being run and of those who walked the corridors of power running it. It told us much about the social divides, which grew greater under Margaret Thatcher’s 11-year rule but which are arguably today greater than ever three decades on.

There are things we need to remember about the 1980s.

The Thatcher government, in my view, hated large sections of the working class. The way the police were turned on the coal miners – ‘the enemy within’ – during the bitter 1984/85 strike was proof positive of that. Events like the Battle of Orgreave were basically class war, and if you don’t share that view I suggest you’re not from a working class background.

Football fans were often treated in a similar way – herded from place to place and squashed and squeezed into away enclosures behind huge fences. You can say thousands of supporters behaved like animals at times, and you might not be wrong. You can say if hooliganism had never been an almost ever-present scar on the face of our national game throughout most of the ‘70s and ‘80s then fences would never have been put up in the first place and 96 innocent people might have survived, and you’d be right. That helps explain the circumstances that conspired to create Hillsborough, but it can never excuse the circumstances that led to the deaths of 96 innocent football fans on a glorious spring day in Sheffield.

Lord Justice Taylor’s Report into the disaster recommended that top flight stadiums had to become all-seater by 1994. At our biggest grounds, terraces would be consigned to the history books. The fact terraces did not specifically contribute to the deaths of almost 100 fans – unlike police action and unlike the presence of fencing – was ignored.

South Yorkshire Police covered up their own inefficiencies while feeding the national media scandalous lies about the behaviour of sections of the Liverpool support. Some of the mud stuck, so it was assumed – and assumed by many for a long, long time – that fans had somehow contributed to the deaths of their fellow men, women and children by forcing open some stadium gates. No, that was a decision taken by Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, a man who had only been appointed match commander three weeks earlier because his predecessor –  who had been involved in a handful of Hillsborough FA Cup semi-finals – had been transferred from Sheffield to Barnsley. Duckenfield, in contrast, had no previous experience of big sporting events.

Back in the mid-1980s, the police and the Rupert Murdoch-backed media had helped bring striking miners to their knees, and similar scenes of picket-line violence followed when Murdoch moved his printing operation to Wapping a year or so later. Helped by the police, the striking printers and their unions were battered – physically as well as metaphorically – as the miners had been.

This time, in 1989, the target was another ‘enemy within’ – football supporters. And the law-abiding and the hooligans would be lumped together.

The demonisation of the supporters post-Hillsborough was disgusting in its swiftness – police briefings about Liverpool fans’ supposed behaviour leading to The Sun’s infamous ‘The Truth’ headline that results in huge swathes of the Merseyside public still refusing to buy the paper today. ‘The Truth’ wasn’t editor Kelvin MacKenzie’s first choice headline. ‘You Scum’ was first choice. That was the depths of contempt that one man – then editor of the nation’s best-read newspaper – held for football fans. The Sun were by no means alone in their shocking reporting of police allegations, though other national newspapers didn’t use such incendiary language plastered over the front page. The BBC’s evening news programme, meanwhile, gave air time to a Sheffield MP who said he had spoken to police who’d told him they had been attacked while trying to give injured fans the kiss of life, while others were urinated on by fans in the upper tier of the Leppings Lane stand.

Lies. To try to deflect the attention away from their own force’s role in the tragedy.

The demonisation of the fans by the authorities, those who were supposed to be protecting them, sadly didn’t end on April 15, 1989, or in the days immediately after. The further agonies endured by the victims’ families would stretch on. And on, and on, and on.

Until another April day, this time 27 years later, in 2016. The day when the longest jury case in British legal history, more than two years, returned unlawful killing verdicts on the 96 as well as a total exoneration of Liverpool fans for their behaviour on the day.

That was ‘The Truth’, but it took a long time coming.

Remember that Tory oaf Boris Johnson denigrating the city of Portsmouth in 2007 as ‘too full of drugs, obesity and underachievement’? Well, three years earlier – 15 years after Hillsborough – he was accusing the city of Liverpool of failing to acknowledge the role ‘drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon. The police became a convenient scapegoat.’ He was forced to apologise a few days later, but this is the man many people think could become our next prime minister! If it’s true that we get the politicians we deserve, no wonder this country went to the dogs long before Brexit entered our national lexicon.

Even in 2012, 23 years after the tragedy, the then chief constable of South Yorkshire , David Crompton. had written a memo to his senior management team warning that if the families’ ‘version of events became the ‘the truth’, even though it isn’t’, his force needed ‘to be a bit more innovative in our response [to the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s findings] ‘to have a fighting chance otherwise we will just be roadkill’. This was 23 years on, lest we forget, and STILL the police were trying to discredit those fighting on for the memories of their loved ones.

Hillsborough was one of many tragedies that cast a very dark shadow across the United Kingdom in the 1980s – Zeebrugge, Hungerford, Kings Cross, Hyde Park, Clapham, Bradford, Lockerbie, Manchester airport, the Marchioness pleasure boat, Deal army barracks and Piper Alpha were all linked by tremendous loss of life in a variety of harrowing ways.

But only at Hillsborough did the police contribute towards the deaths. Only at Hillsborough was vital time lost because officers were told it was crowd trouble rather than crowd safety that was the issue – as Phil Scraton writes in his excellent book on the tragedy, ‘the senior officers did not anticipate disaster because they were looking for trouble. The mindset was hooliganism’ – only at Hillsborough were those near to the tragedy implicated as either contributing in some way to the deaths or attacking the emergency services who were trying to save lives, only at Hillsborough were the survivors nearly called ‘scum’ on the front page of the biggest-selling paper in the UK, only at Hillsborough were (in an unprecedented move) blood-alcohol samples and the recording of blood-alcohol levels taken from the dead (including children), only at Hillsborough did a mother of a victim receive a letter from the prime minister’s press secretary saying a ‘tanked-up mob’ had contributed to ‘your son’s death and I believe 95 others … they caused the terrible disaster and I am astonished anyone can believe otherwise’, and only at Hillsborough did victims’ families spend the best part of 30 years fighting for what they consider justice.

Imagine if it had been YOUR parent dying in the crush, YOUR son or daughter, YOUR brother or sister. Imagine all that, and then imagine the vitriol that would pour down on their fellow fans. Then imagine the tiring, emotional days, weeks, months, years, decades, of fighting for the truth.

The truth, remember, as opposed to ‘The Truth’.

Next Monday, 30 years on, families, friends and the city of Liverpool will come together in a service remembering the 96 who never came back from a game of football.

Floral tributes will be placed at Anfield’s Hillsborough memorial, as they have been since 1989.

A few years ago, author Chuck Culpepper visited the memorial shortly after that year’s anniversary. He noted a poem left by the family of Adam Spearitt, at 14 one of the youngest victims.

Midway through a stanza, came the following:

‘Some got there early

Some got there late

Hard to say more

Pain’s too great’

The poem ended thus:

‘Whistle blew

It’s six minutes after three

God bless you all

No victory’

You shouldn’t need to be a football fan to have a lump in your throat now …

RIP the 96.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​