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Oct 1, 2012

Hillsborough - A fateful day of change

There has been no more emotive event in British football history than the Hillsborough Disaster of April 15, 1989. It was the spring afternoon when a simple game of football became a massed human tragedy. Having failed to learn the lessons of Burnden Park in 1946, Ibrox in 1971, the Bradford Fire of 1985 and, in the same year, the Heysel riot, it was the watershed moment that football had to change or face extinction.

Two decades on, the recriminations continue, with the police authorities and organising bodies responsible still not brought to the justice that the families of those who died in Sheffield believe they should face. During two reports that sought to make sense of the disaster, Lord Justice Taylor laid blame firmly at the door of the South Yorkshire Police whose actions, or lack of them, had caused a dangerous situation to become one of mass fatality. In ordering the closure of standing terraces to be replaced by banks of seating, he changed the atmosphere and demographic of British football stadia forever.

All-seater stadia have a direct lineage to that sunny spring day. The modernising of football may have had regrettable consequences with high pricing, the poverty gap and the closed shop that many clubs have become being among the main complaints but at least the match-going fan is no longer at the risk yielded by nearly a century of neglect.

The disaster itself was a collision of factors that could have occurred many times before. Previous stark warnings had not served to solve the problems. The 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest was chickens coming home to roost in the most harrowing style possible. By the late 1980s the football stadiums of England were dilapidated, a relic from the early 20th century when most of them had been constructed. Hillsborough itself had been rebuilt in the 1960s and had been one of the host grounds for the 1966 World Cup finals. The Leppings Lane end where the disaster took place had last been properly renovated in 1965. By the standards of that day, it was regarded as one the best grounds in the land.

The era between the golden footballing age of the 1960s and the late 1980s saw stadia neglected to the state of decay. As attendances steadily fell so too did available revenue to spend on rebuilding grounds. Sheffield Wednesday, who spent much of the 1970s at the lowest ebb in their history, were by no means a wealthy club. But then again, by today's standards, few clubs were.

To attend a match in that time was not the sanitised theme park that many Premier League clubs now aspire to. Fans who chose the terraces sometimes had to be prepared to stand for hours before games so as to make sure they got in. Access to toilet facilities were limited on big-match days, giving rise to many a story about fans feeling the warm, wet and deeply unpleasant sensation of being urinated on. When goals were scored or in other moments of high excitement, fans found themselves catapulted forward and back, up and down, steep and often decaying terraces. You would rarely end a match where you started to watch it. Take a look at videos of games from the era and view the swelling sea of humanity as a goal goes in. You don't get that at the Emirates for your £65. It looked dangerous. It felt dangerous. It eventually proved deadly.

Another facet of the era was the fencing in of supporters. Hooliganism's growth in the early 1970s had led clubs to construct high and forbidding fences, caging fans in to prevent them from storming the pitch. As a result, fans were often given a poor view of the games, having to watch the action through tiny grids of metal. Should an emergency occur, they were penned in to face their fate as panic set in.

In 1974, Manchester United, at the height of their "Red Army" era, had been the first to put up perimeter fencing. The seventies drew on and hooliganism grew worse, hitting its apex in 1985 when 39 people died at Heysel when a wall collapsed after Juventus fans fled from a charge by Liverpool fans at the 1985 European Cup Final. Such incidents meant that the small safety gates placed in the fences in case of emergency were almost always locked. At Hillsborough in 1989, the gates were only opened by policemen when it became clear that things were turning deadly. To do so, they had to go against orders.

The "English disease", and the attitude of the Thatcher government - "the enemy within" - and establishment towards the game had football on something approaching its last legs. There was no TV injection into clubs of the type currently enjoyed. A latter-day deal for Football League rights far outstrips the amount ITV then paid for their one live match a week from the top division. In 1989, both FA Cup semis were played at the same time, 3pm on a Saturday. Neither were televised as live broadcasts. To the younger generation of football supporters, this must resemble some form of footballing dark ages.

Hillsborough Stadium itself had previous. The FA Cup semi-final of 1981 between Tottenham Hotspur and Wolves had seen 38 people injured when the late arrival of Spurs fans at the Leppings Lane End after bad traffic on the M1 had led to a terrifying crush. This incident had seen the ground ignored for semi-finals for another six years, only being allowed to re-stage such games by the FA after the terrace was restructured into five pens stretching behind the goal.

Even after similar crushing was reported at the 1987 semi-final between Leeds United and Coventry City, the FA chose to place Liverpool and Forest at Hillsborough for 1988's FA Cup semi, a carbon copy of the game that would end in tragedy.

The 1988 game had seen fans feeling similarly uncomfortable with many a complaint made about how Liverpool, with a far higher average attendance, were granted the smaller end while Forest fans were given Hillsborough's own Kop, itself redolent of the stand of the same name at Anfield. The flow of car traffic from the roads the fans of each club would be travelling from was the given explanation for that.

The FA chose to hold the 1989 match in the same place, citing its precursor as a success. That the ground did not possess a valid safety certificate was only later discovered.

A personal memory of the stadium of the time comes from two months before. Manchester United travelled to play Sheffield Wednesday on February 11 and took a huge (12,000+) away following to South Yorkshire.

As I sat in the main stand with my father, the first half was dominated by events on that Leppings Lane end. It was difficult to concentrate on the on-field action as it became clear there was something afoot in the away end. While we knew the "back way" over the Pennines to get to the ground, the majority of fans had been delayed on the motorway over. Late arrivals were obviously causing a bottleneck. Some form of panic was taking hold, with the central terraces over-filled. Eventually, a significant number of fans were filtered by police and stewards into an empty and uncovered stand in the left-hand corner.

On that occasion something approaching sensible stewarding prevented anyone getting seriously injured. Two months later, with the game much higher in profile, the policing of events lacked anything approaching that level of calm and lateral thinking. Despite the late arrival of many fans, no delay in kick-off - a common safety practice these days - was sanctioned. Sadly, this was far from the last mistake made by police on that fateful day.

The overly rigid segregation of fans on entry to the Hillsborough area and closing off of certain routes led to crushing in the tight back-streets around Leppings Lane. The sheer mass of numbers kept waiting by the plodding click of the turnstiles, of which there were far too few, led to police to make what Lord Justice Taylor would later describe as a "blunder of the first magnitude".

A blunder of the first magnitude
Lord Justice Taylor on the opening of Gate C

In choosing to open up Gate C at 2.52pm, opening up the central pens on the lower terraces that were already choc-full of fans already in some discomfort, the police, led by Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, set disaster into agonising motion.

An estimated 3,000 fans, unfiltered by the turnstiles and not guided by police or stewards into less packed pens, piled into an area reserved for 2,000 people. It was later found that no more than 1,600 should have been allowed into the pens for them to be anywhere near safe. Many of those who had gone in through the opened gate found themselves, as a result of a collapsed crash barrier, propelled to the front and eventually crushed against the fences. Before it was clear there was a disaster afoot, BBC TV commentator John Motson had also remarked on the lack of fans in the terraces to the flank of the fateful central pens.

By kick-off some fans were either dying or dead yet police were trained to think first of hooliganism, thus denying the other emergency services the extra time they may have been able to use to save lives. Another personal memory is that at the game I was at that day (Macclesfield Town v Dartford), the initial reports of people being dead at Hillsborough centred around hooliganism. Even then, the thought of the "50 dead" estimated that sunny afternoon seemed unreal and utterly tragic, a terrible waste of life.

Only one ambulance ever made it onto the playing field, but not until 3.36, by which time the game had been abandoned as fans spilled on to the pitch, with some of the dead already lying pitchside. In the words of Taylor, Duckenfield had "frozen" and failed to respond to the pressing emergency of the situation. Even now, the families of the lost are seeking explanation as to why their loved ones did not receive the treatment that may have saved them until it was far too late.

Such questions will continue to be raised in the next few days and for years to come. The aftermath of the disaster continues. No criminal charges were ever brought against the authorities involved and private prosecutions against Duckenfield and other officers also failed to bear the fruit of justice to the families of the 96 who died. Yet they fight on. The police had tried in vain to cover their tracks, first lying that Gate C had been forced open and then choosing to blame drunken fans for the chaos that they failed to control. Taylor's report found that of the dead only a small minority were over the alcohol limit for driving a car. In choosing to paint a similarly vulgar picture of the conduct of fans' behaviour as "The Truth" in the week after the disaster, The Sun newspaper knocked 200,000 readers off its daily circulation. It has never recovered those readers.

That and other scars continue to run deep when considering Hillsborough. Many fans bemoan the comparative lack of atmosphere in stadiums after terracing was torn down in the early 1990s (Liverpool themselves were one of the last clubs to do so, not ripping down their Kop until 1994). Debates on safe-standing always fall on the stony ground of what happened that day, despite such policies existing successfully in Germany. The families of the 96 continue to be active in the cause of seeking justice, with the likes of Steven Gerrard, who lost a cousin on that Sheffield afternoon, being fully supportive of the movement which eventually found some peace in 2012 with an apology from the Prime Minister, the Sun and the FA.

The events of April 15, 1989 are never far from the footballing public's consciousness. It was the day when neglect bore horrific consequences. The tragedy of so many lives lost in the trivial act of watching a football match can never be underplayed. In the cruellest way possible, the realisation of its causes and effects changed the game forever.

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