A footballing disaster that affects us all
This is a column that carries my name on the top of it. As a consequence, it carries my opinions, and I alone am responsible for them. You’ll understand why I’m making that point, for today, I must address the matter of the Hillsborough disaster and it is only possible to do that from the viewpoint of the individual, from that of the football supporter, not the employee.
1989, Hillsborough happened. Those of us who were most closely interested in it were doing the same thing as those 96 were. We were at a game, because we were football supporters.thThose of us who were around at the time recall only too well just where we were when, on April 15
But we came home.
Back in April 1989, personal communications were altogether more rudimentary than they are today. You didn’t go to a football match with a phone in your pocket that has more processing power than the computers that powered the moon landings.
The best you could do to keep in touch with what was happening elsewhere in the country was to take a tiny transistor radio with you, maybe even a fancy dan Sony Walkman with a radio in it. From there you might get scratchy scoreflashes from around the land, but that was it.
So as the FA Cup semi-final unfolded at Hillsborough, few of us knew what was going on. I was with my dad, sat in the Rainbow Stand of blessed memory, watching Albion’s stuttering play-off push fall further behind with a 2-2 draw against Plymouth Argyle.
Some early murmurs went around the crowd that the Liverpool game had been delayed in some way or another. Early suggestions were that there might be crowd trouble of some sort, an easy enough assumption back in the 1980s when such things, though still statistically pretty rare, were far from unknown.
Nowadays of course, we would know exactly what was happening within seconds. Any such tragedy would be filmed and photographed by thousands upon thousands of iPhones and there would be no hiding place for anyone for the images would tumble out across cyberspace through Twitter and Facebook within moments.
Back then, we knew what we were told, and not a lot more. Daft as it seems now, we tended to believe it too. And what we were told, as we know now, was a long, long way from the truth. Actually, most of us realised that at the time, that at least some, if not all of the stories were complete fabrications, designed to shift the blame from the authorities and an Establishment that routinely treated public safety – especially that of the footballing public – in cavalier fashion, and to place it on us.
For make absolutely no mistake about it, if you were a football supporter that went to any kind of game in the 1980s, the 96 at Hillsborough, just like the 56 at Bradford, could very easily have been you or me.
Clubs paid no heed to providing a safe, secure environment in rotting concrete bowls that, in many cases, were 60, 70, 80 years old and falling apart where they stood. They caged us in to pens like rats in a trap so that we could no move from the exact spot where they wanted us. Safety certificates seemingly came free with packets of Corn Flakes. What little building and repair work was done was, according to the Hillsborough Inquest, done by cutting so many corners you were left only with a vicious circle.
The police were, very often, at war with supporters. Hooliganism had unquestionably disfigured the game, but the cages, the police escorts, the provocation that ordinary, decent folk – the 99% of the fans incidentally – received was, in no way, proportional to the risks they caused.
But the Establishment saw football not as the national game, but the national stain. We were the new enemy within, dehumanised, treated as one homogenous, unruly mass that needed to be controlled.
The government of the day was floating ideas such as banning England fans from travelling abroad, perhaps withdrawing England from international competition altogether, and was toying with the idea of bringing in identity cards for football supporters, a draconian measure not employed for any section of society since the war.
Viewed through the lens of history, we can see that what was gathering was a hideously perfect storm, a world in which a Hillsborough not only might happen but in which it had to happen. If not there, if not then, then somewhere and soon.
As we know now, 96 people were unlawfully killed. Think of that. Unlawfully killed. And not by an axe wielding homicidal maniac, a drug addled lunatic or a psychopathic murderer. These fellow fans, fellow citizens were unlawfully killed by the actions of those we trust to keep us, our parents, our children, safe. They were unlawfully killed by the machinery of the state.
For those people, for those families and friends, that is unspeakable tragedy and while the events of the last days will have given some comfort, they bring none of those people back. Theirs is a personal, private grief and, after having had to live it in the public eye for 27 years, a special kind of torture, it’s time that at last we gave them the privacy that we all crave in mourning.
But beyond those losses which can never be truly understood by the rest of us, there is a wider story here in which football fans sit at the centre. Within hours of the disaster, the mother of all propaganda operations went into overdrive, what we would now call black ops.
We soon read of Liverpool supporters stealing from the dead, drunkenly urinating on them, we saw the dead being turned from victims into people somehow complicit in their own demise, their fellow supporters demonised as their uncaring killers. The government itself played a role, as did the biggest selling newspaper in the country as something little short of war was declared upon football supporters – me and you.
The release of so many documents at the Hillsborough Inquiry and now the verdict of the Inquest have completely discredited those odious lies, pointed out with forensic clarity the duplicity of those who failed on the day and who failed thereafter, who did not understand, or chose to ignore, the fact that holding high public office means that you are responsible for all of us, that you do not pick and choose sides.
But for a time, the future of our very game was in danger and had it not been for the dogged determination of those Hillsborough families and their all consuming craving for justice for their loved ones, perhaps football as we know it would have fallen too. But their refusal to be silenced chipped away year on year, opened more and more minds day by day until gradually, we reached critical mass and the stench became too overpowering to be ignored any longer.
In years to come, Hillsborough will be seen as an English Watergate, the point at which any remaining semblance of innocence left the public mind forever, the final nail in the coffin of a post-war dream of a benevolent Establishment that would care for us cradle to grave. Trust, once lost, never comes back, not the same way.
The Hillsborough families have done their country the most incredible service for they have changed it, they have made it clear that there really can be a holding to account of those who have done wrong, however high the office they hold. They are quite extraordinary people doing extraordinary work over an extraordinary period of time.
But they will be the first to admit that they are just ordinary men and women, galvanised to do something by the most devastating circumstances, by events that, God willing, none of us will ever be required to go through. They have shown us that we all have it in ourselves to be extraordinary.
The test is for us to find those reserves and use them before tragedy demands it from us. We knew football grounds were unsafe, but we did nothing about it. We knew we were treated badly but did nothing about it. Football, this extraordinary game, and those remarkable people have shown us a better way.
It’s a path we should look to take, one that will allow us to hold our heads high in future and protect one another from the horrors of the past. For history demonstrates that the only duty of care we can expect is from one to the other.
As to those who denied the truth, who deliberately smeared, who twisted grotesquely a national tragedy into a parochial political gain, let’s discuss them no further. We can leave them to their conscience, if conscience they have, for if they have none, we cannot change them anyway and we merely build up a reservoir of bitterness in ourselves, a worthless, destructive emotion. We know who they are and we know how to treat them and the organisations they still represent.
May the 96 from Hillsborough rest easy and may the families and friends who have long been tortured, finally find some peace. And those who caused such catastrophe, who lied, who cheated, who covered up the truth, the very people to whom we as citizens give our trust for our protection? May they never sleep again.
John Alfred Anderson (62), Colin Mark Ashcroft (19), James Gary Aspinall (18), Kester Roger Marcus Ball (16), Gerard Bernard Patrick Baron (67), Simon Bell (17), Barry Sidney Bennett (26), David John Benson (22), David William Birtle (22), Tony Bland (22), Paul David Brady (21), Andrew Mark Brookes (26), Carl Brown (18), David Steven Brown (25), Henry Thomas Burke (47), Peter Andrew Burkett (24), Paul William Carlile (19), Raymond Thomas Chapman (50), Gary Christopher Church (19), Joseph Clark (29), Paul Clark (18), Gary Collins (22), Stephen Paul Copoc (20), Tracey Elizabeth Cox (23), James Philip Delaney (19), Christopher Barry Devonside (18), Christopher Edwards (29), Vincent Michael Fitzsimmons (34), Thomas Steven Fox (21), Jon-Paul Gilhooley (10), Barry Glover (27), Ian Thomas Glover (20), Derrick George Godwin (24), Roy Harry Hamilton (34), Philip Hammond (14), Eric Hankin (33), Gary Harrison (27), Stephen Francis Harrison (31), Peter Andrew Harrison (15), David Hawley (39), James Robert Hennessy (29), Paul Anthony Hewitson (26), Carl Darren Hewitt (17), Nicholas Michael Hewitt (16), Sarah Louise Hicks (19), Victoria Jane Hicks (15), Gordon Rodney Horn (20), Arthur Horrocks (41), Thomas Howard (39), Thomas Anthony Howard (14), Eric George Hughes (42), Alan Johnston (29), Christine Anne Jones (27), Gary Philip Jones (18), Richard Jones (25), Nicholas Peter Joynes (27), Anthony Peter Kelly (29), Michael David Kelly (38), Carl David Lewis (18), David William Mather (19), Brian Christopher Mathews (38), Francis Joseph McAllister (27), John McBrien (18), Marion Hazel McCabe (21), Joseph Daniel McCarthy (21), Peter McDonnell (21), Alan McGlone (28), Keith McGrath (17), Paul Brian Murray (14), Lee Nicol (14), Stephen Francis O'Neill (17), Jonathon Owens (18), William Roy Pemberton (23) , Carl William Rimmer (21), David George Rimmer (38), Graham John Roberts (24), Steven Joseph Robinson (17), Henry Charles Rogers (17), Colin Andrew Hugh William Sefton (23), Inger Shah (38), Paula Ann Smith (26), Adam Edward Spearritt (14), Philip John Steele (15), David Leonard Thomas (23), Patrik John Thompson (35), Peter Reuben Thompson (30), Stuart Paul William Thompson (17), Peter Francis Tootle (21), Christopher James Traynor (26), Martin Kevin Traynor (16), Kevin Tyrrell (15), Colin Wafer (19), Ian David Whelan (19), Martin Kenneth Wild (29), Kevin Daniel Williams (15), Graham John Wright (17).