I can remember exactly where I was on 15 April 1989. I was standing on the away terrace at Wimbledon FC’s Plough Lane ground, one of a capacity crowd of 12,000. I remember bright sunshine and a positive mood among the Spurs contingent which dominated the old ground, borne of a run of only one defeat in 11 games and growing faith in the management of Terry Venables, then in his first full season at Spurs.
And I remember the tannoy announcement at half time. It told us that the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough had been cancelled due to rioting by Liverpool supporters which had caused fatalities. Shock rippled through the crowd. Within minutes, the entire ground took up a chant which rang clear across the skies on that bright spring day. “We hate Scousers and we hate Scousers.”
In retrospect it was shameful. But at the time it seemed justified. It was rooted in a deep-seated resentment many football fans had of what we saw as the myth which surrounded Liverpool’s support, a media construct of “the best fans in the land”, witty and loyal and knowledgeable – when in fact many of us had seen a different side, a side which was as violent and nasty as could be found in any set of supporters, but which seemed to be overlooked by the media and its Liverpool-tinted specs.
That night, I was visiting some friends in East Ham. I arrived at their house at about 6.30pm. Lesley was a Liverpool fan, and as she opened the door I said: “I hear your lot have been at it again.” She looked at me and said: “You haven’t seen the news, have you?”
We sat in her front room and watched the rolling news reports. The full enormity of what had actually happened began to dawn. I sat with Lesley’s boyfriend Steve trying to make sense of what we were seeing and hearing as Lesley made and took numerous phone calls from her family in Liverpool. They were trying to find out what had happened to her brother, a Liverpool fan who was at the game.
I’ve been thinking about that day a lot in the run-up to the 20th anniversary. Football has been a major part of my life since I listened to Spurs lose the UEFA Cup Final in 1974 on the radio under my bedsheets, and the major change in that major part of my life came about because of what happened in Sheffield on 15 April 1989. I am lucky not to have been touched closely by the 96 deaths that rippled out through family and friends and acquaintances and communities. Lesley’s brother returned from the game unharmed physically, although he didn’t go to a match again for years because of what he had seen. But, like so many of my generation of fans, Hillsborough has had a major influence on shaping what I think about football, and about politics and society and life in general. And it’s certainly had a major influence on me as a spectator.
As soon as any football fan who had been to a game in those pre-Premier, pre-Sky, pre-hype and megabucks days saw the pictures from Hillsborough, we knew what had happened. And we knew that it could just as easily have been us. Many Spurs fans remembered being caught in a similar crush in the entrance tunnel to the notorious Leppings Lane terrace eight years before at the semi-final against Wolves. And anyone who had been to a game knew about the crushes, the neglect and the contempt of the police. We didn’t even question it, that was just how it was. You went to football and you were scum.
So we knew why, when fans began to scale the fences to escape the deadly crush, the police and many others assumed it was a pitch invasion, that there was fighting on the terraces. Because that’s what happened at football matches. Fans fought, so they had to be caged. When people begged to be let out, they really needed to be kept in. Because it was their choice to be there. If you went to football and stood on the terraces, you knew what you were getting yourself into. What did you expect?
And we knew why that tannoy announcement had been made. Because what was expected was what was reported. We knew too, despite our empathy and our outrage, why 12,000 people in a decrepit suburban stadium in south west London were prepared to believe what was at first reported. That violent football fans had caused the deaths. Even those of us who weren’t involved in football violence, who were – through the then still fledgling fanzines and supporters’ organisations – attempting to present a different view of football fans, made the assumption at first that it must be the fans’ fault. Football fans were among the many folk devils of the 1980s.
This does not mean that we can look back and say that the police were not to blame. It was their job to ensure the safety of the people attending the match, to understand the movements of the crowd and to judge the situation and respond accordingly. The process of crowd control is complex but not sophisticated, and is something now taken for granted. Investment and equipment may make it easier, but the bottom line is attitude. So whether or not there is a multimillion pound monitoring system being operated by intensively trained officers, it should be a sufficient expectation of basic humanity to expect a police officer to believe people when they shout, from behind a steel gate and in the midst of a crowd, that they are being crushed to death.
Or for a father, trying to alert an officer to what looked like a serious problem in the section of terrace where his daughters were stood, not to have been told to “shut your fucking prattle”. This happened to Trevor Hicks, whose daughters were among the 96 who lost their lives because of what happened that day. Trevor Hicks, by his own description an establishment man, a successful businessman and father far removed from the stereotype of the football hooligan. But he was a football fan, he had chosen to be there, so he was demonised along with every other fan.
In recent years, some have raised the question of whether it is right to pursue the issue of police culpability at Hillsborough, of whether this simply amounts to a search for “revenge”. Much has changed, and lessons have been learned. Perhaps most importantly, football fans are no longer automatically “scum”.
But, as an Evertonian colleague said to me this week: “All societies have means of drawing a line under a life through funerals or memorial services, and there’s a reason for that. Too many of the 96 are undead in the minds of too many for that to happen.” Because no one has been found to be responsible for what happened that day, there can be – to use that fashionable term – no closure for so many touched by the events. Trevor Hicks said recently that if 96 police officers had been killed you can be sure some people would have gone to prison. Lord Justice Taylor’s report established police mismanagement as the cause of the disaster. And yet no individual has officially been made responsible. In fact, police officers present on the day have been compensated.
This week, David Conn published an excellent article in The Guardian which posed eight key questions which remain unanswered, as well as detailing how the police and establishment smeared the fans and tried to cover up their own culpability. I recommend taking the time to read an excellent piece of journalism.
Although, as I said, I am lucky enough not to have been as deeply personally affected by Hillsborough as the families and communities of those who died, what happened on that day and since still makes me angry. Some of that anger comes from a sense of identity with other football fans, that feeling of “it could have been us” – a feeling which, I remember, led members of the supporters’ organisations at Spurs to present Everton fans with a commemorative wreath when we hosted them in the next league game after Hillsborough.
It makes me angry too, when I see attempts to introduce false notions of equivalence, to question the veracity of moves to commemorate the 96 and the continuation of the campaign for justice. I’ve seen the question asked: “Will they have a similar memorial for the Heysel victims?” Heysel was caused by hooliganism and bad crowd management, Hillsborough by bad crowd management. Fourteen Liverpool fans were convicted of manslaughter after Heysel. No one has been made responsible for Hillsborough. And anyway – what’s the point here? Do the 96 not deserve justice because other people did something different in a different place? In that 1974 UEFA Cup Final I remember listening to as a boy, Spurs fans were responsible for some of the worst rioting then seen in a European stadium. If it had been Spurs fans killed at Hillsborough in the 1981 crush, would it have been OK not to find who was responsible because of the actions of other Spurs fans seven years before?
I’m angry because of the smug self-congratulation in football over “the lessons learned”. Those who ran the game and the clubs presided for years over crumbling stadiums, treated fans as at best an inconvenience and made lots of money in the process. People had died at football matches, in crowd crushes caused by poor planning and management, in fires in unsafe stadiums and in the battlegrounds that football stadiums were allowed to become. Hillsborough was different because it was on TV and everybody saw it. The authorities acted not because they wanted to but because they had to. And they acted by avoiding blame and by latching on to the one thing that the supporters who now “had to be listened to” expressed the most reservations about. This measure also happened to be the thing that would make those who ran the game and the clubs the most money. All-seater stadiums.
Of all the measures that Lord Justice Taylor recommended, this was the one football embraced most warmly, ignoring his proviso that prices should not be forced up so far as to price fans out. Prices have since rocketed. Stadiums were fitted out with seats with the aid of money provided by the Government and pools companies. A company called Pel Seating made millions out of putting the seats in, achieving a dominant market position and, by 1999, an annual turnover of £75m. On its board sat a director of West Bromwich Albion, a former Secretary of the FA, and the former Secretary’s son-in-law. A former FA chairman was employed as an advisor.
Years later, Graham Kelly, the chief executive of the FA on the day of Hillsborough, said that “six hundred million pounds was spent upgrading football grounds” in the ten years after the disaster. “It provided the opportunity for English football to launch a World Cup bid for 2006.”
The BBC’s Football Confidential programme examined the story. In the book Scams, Scandals and Screw-ups the programme makers point out that, while Pel never broke any rules, there were legitimate questions to be raised about “the morality of the very people so roundly criticised in the Taylor Report for having overseen the neglect of grounds that led to the disaster then making money out of the stadium rebuilding programme it instigated.” When Graham Kelly was asked if he had any view on this, his reply was: “No”. The Football Supporters’ Association’s Sheila Spiers, who was at Hillsborough on the day, was more forthcoming. She described it as “quite sickening”.
in 1999, Nick Varley closed the moving and eloquent chapter on Hillsborough which formed part of his book Parklife with the words: “Ten years after Hillsborough, the real truth about football is that everything has changed and nothing has changed.” Substitute 20 for ten. The great myth that football learned its lesson because of Hillsborough still continues. The changes were driven by the opportunity to make more profit, not because of some rediscovered humanity or acknowledgement of past mistakes. Football supporters are now “part of the football family” but, like an embarrassing older relative, are ignored when they don’t say what the authorities want to hear on issues of real substance.
Did the football authorities really learn the lessons that needed to be learned? Or did they seize the opportunity that presented itself? And have the police learned that people in a crowd are still individuals? Do they still give people “what they deserve” for being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Football fans might say not any more, people demonstrating in the City of London may beg to differ. The difference, I suppose, is that football fans pay good money to be in the places they are. It’s the economy, stupid.
So much from what is “only” a game. The details and the implications and the conclusions drawn from that Spring afternoon 20 years ago ripple ever outwards. The struggle for justice continues for many reasons. For those most closely affected, because closure is needed, and because basic notions of right and wrong mean people must be held to account. For many more of us, because what happened that day and how we reacted to it tells us much about the people we are and the society we live in.