I was not present at Hillsborough – Sheffield Wednesday’s ground – in 1989 for Liverpool’s FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest. As a season ticket holder with Liverpool I knew I was eligible for a ticket for the cup final if we made it through the semi but, due to an inexcusable mix up over dates, I was aware that I would be on the Algarve for a family holiday on the day of the final. I was reluctant to find myself at the Hillsborough game, supporting my team to victory, but subdued by the prospect of not being able to make the “big one” at Wembley.
I had however been present at the Heysel stadium in Brussels four years earlier when nearly 40 people died before a European Cup Final between Liverpool and Italian team, Juventus. So I am no stranger to the tragedy and grief that has on occasion accompanied “the beautiful game”.
The bare facts pertaining to 15 April 1989 are well enough known. 96 Liverpool fans eventually died from the effects of overcrowding at the Leppings Lane end of the ground, leading inter alia to the elimination of standing terraces at all major football stadia in England, Wales and Scotland.
Some of you may still associate what happened with fan misbehaviour, perhaps involving alcohol. Smear stories have a habit of staying in the subconscious far longer than truth. And smear stories were rife on that day and subsequently.
It has taken 25 years for some approximation of the truth to emerge but, little by little, it seems to be coming out. It has now been established to the satisfaction of all agencies concerned that no evidence of fan misbehaviour has been identified, and that the disaster arose from mistakes by the police, health and safety authorities and emergency services. A 1991 inquest verdict on the 96 of “accidental death”, suggesting something unfortunate, perhaps unavoidable, rather than the result of culpable human error, was eventually quashed in December 2012. A new inquest is due to open on Monday 31 March in a business park on the outskirts of Warrington.
While many will be prepared to exonerate the officials present on the day, making genuine – if fatal – errors when under great pressure, there surely can be no excuse for what happened afterwards as South Yorkshire Police, with assistance from others, set about what became one of the most extensive cover-ups in British history. Statements both by serving police officers (in their hundreds) and members of the public were subsequently doctored, all with the intention of shifting blame from those responsible to the victims and survivors.
Revisiting that time, when perhaps the police force was viewed by some as a bastion against the “enemy within” following the miners’ strike and other civil strife, one can see how that pattern of behaviour may have come naturally to some. Viewed from the distant perspective of the 21 century, it is clearly grotesque.
Thirteen retired or serving police officers have so far been identified by the Independent Police Complaints Commission as “suspects” in the continuing investigation into the police cover-up. Most of these have already been interviewed under caution relating to a range of offences including manslaughter, misconduct in a public office, and perverting the course of justice. There is now an ongoing criminal inquiry into these events.
The football club has continued to share the grief of the bereaved and to support the call for “justice”. This year’s memorial service at the club’s ground in Anfield Road on 15 April will mark the 25th anniversary of the tragedy.
I have heard it suggested that the club, its supporters and the city as a whole (the “other” club, Everton, has been nothing but generous and sincere in its support) really should “move on” and put the whole thing behind them. Seeing where we are now, after 25 years of grief, condemnation, ignorance and campaigning – the uncovering of a national scandal that beggars belief – we should all be grateful that they didn’t throw in the towel. Perhaps the day is not too distant when the Hillsborough families will be able to reach an accommodation with the day when 96 men, women and children went to enjoy themselves at a football game and didn’t come home.
I didn’t promise that all these blogs would be entertaining. Some things just don’t lend themselves to humour.
For those who would like to see a potted history, there’s always Wikipedia: