By John Williams, Department of Sociology, University of Leicester.
I am, rather pretentiously, a ‘fan scholar’, an active Liverpool football fan and a football researcher. I was at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989– fortunately in the seats – but I could see clearly the on-pitch distress and the bodies being laid out below the stand from which we watched in disbelief events unfold on that day. I was working on research for the Football Trust at the time and, as the stadium finally cleared, Trust officials asked me to take people from football organisations around the site of the tragedy to try to explain what had happened.
It was a bleak terrain. On the Leppings Lane terraces, twisted metal barriers and human detritus – scarves, odd shoes, spectacles – spoke of what appalling terror had just taken place there. The police were already present with their accounts of how belligerent young Liverpool supporters had ‘forced’ their way into the stadium, leading to the fateful overcrowding. But Liverpool stragglers were also whispering to us, even then, that this was not how things had happened at all; that they had actually been freely admitted by the police in order to relive pressure outside.
So now, 23 years later as a result of the work of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, you all know what we (Liverpool supporters) have known all along. I said as much in my recent book about the history of the club, Red Men. That is, it was the neglect and mismanagement practiced by the South Yorkshire Police which ultimately caused the deaths of 96 Liverpool supporters near the start of an FA Cup semi-final meeting with Nottingham Forest at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield; that the stadium itself was a potential death trap, uncertificated and not fit for purpose; that the coroner’s office was later in cahoots with the police to mask what had really gone on, including the woefully inadequate response of the emergency services; that The Sun newspaper had happily swallowed, wholesale, the lies provided for it by the police and a Conservative MP about ‘drunken’ and ‘thieving’ Liverpool fans; and that before the bodies had even cooled the police were taking blood samples from dead children and using the National Police Computer to search (fruitlessly) for smearing evidence of criminal records among the dead. Even as the Liverpool club and the city of Liverpool were thrown onto a deep vortex of mourning and the defending of its own victim supporters, the South Yorkshire Police cover up was already on full steam ahead..
As all football supporters should now know – though shamefully many still seem to have different views – the police in Sheffield failed to monitor the Liverpool crowds effectively both inside and outside the ground. Some Liverpool supporters had been delayed because of roadworks on the M62 motorway, and the Leppings Lane end of the ground had too few turnstiles to properly process fans in time. The police responded to pressure and overcrowding outside by opening an exit Gate C to allow supporters entry, but they then failed to direct arriving Liverpool fans to less crowded pens in the Hillsborough Stadium, assuming fans would ‘find their own level’ on fully penned terraces. As a result, some supporters pushed into already overcrowded and fatally penned terraced areas of the stadium, where the deadly crushing took place.
In admittedly unimaginable circumstances, the South Yorkshire Police now failed again. The match was halted by referee Ray Lewis at 3.06 pm but the police did not respond appropriately or quickly enough to obvious signs of distress among Liverpool supporters, who were trapped beneath the police control box in overcrowded pens which had perimeter gates that would not open under such crowd pressure. Desperately escaping supporters were even returned to the killing pens because the police initially interpreted what was crowd panic and suffering as a pitch invasion, the result of hooliganism. In the confusion, only one of the 44 ambulances which responded to the initial disaster call was allowed by the police into the stadium. Its crew was overwhelmed by the number of Liverpool supporters requiring treatment on the pitch. We now know some fans who died might have lived with a different emergency service response. The police then compounded these gross errors by their later disgusting treatment of bereaved families and their attempts to smear Liverpool supporters in that attempt at a cover up in national press stories.
But also in Red Men I chart how English football clubs – including Liverpool FC – had long displayed too little care in its treatment of football fans. In the 1950s English football grounds were potentially highly dangerous places which were poorly regulated – hundreds of fans would often leave stadia before kick-off, afraid for their own safely. It was only good fortune and the care that supporters showed for each other which had avoided similar disasters since the 1946 tragedy at Burnden Park, Bolton in which 33 people had died.
The 1980s in Britain was a much harsher social and economic climate altogether, and football crowds were more volatile, less consensual and rather less caring. Some commentators argued that Hillsborough was symbolic of a general attack by the British State on working class people in Liverpool and elsewhere in that decade. Certainly the role the South Yorkshire Police had played in the miners’ strike in 1984, the general condition of male football culture in England, and the antipathy Mrs. Thatcher’s government had shown towards football and football supporters, guaranteed the police a fair wind for their account. But perhaps more convincing were those explanations which suggested that the disaster was actually part of a planned general deterioration of ‘public’ facilities in Britain, a development which had also brought a range of recent fatal disasters on public transport, as neo-liberal Tory policies had prioritized the rich and the private over the poor and the public sector.
Finally, it was also difficult to avoid the conclusion that the deaths were also in some way connected to much deeper-seated problems in masculinities and English terrace cultures and to poor relations between some young male football fans and the police in the 1980s. After all, the Sheffield ground was argued to be one of England’s best appointed stadiums, but this seemed mainly because of the way it was designed to deal with potential hooliganism. The English game was plagued by problems of crowd misbehaviour and had gone down what proved to be a fatal route in terms of crowd management: it was routinely treating all of its travelling customers as potential threats.
Partly as a response to the frustration and sense of injustice felt locally over Hillsborough, Liverpool supporters have since ingested the disaster, the public response to it and the ‘justice’ campaigns which have followed, as part of the identity of the club itself. For some fans this new set of cultural meanings around ‘the 96’ and the club are even comparable to Celtic FC’s historic Irish social heritage and FC Barcelona’s socio-political Catalan agenda that proudly proclaims Barca to be ‘more than a football club.’
No football match at Anfield over the past 23 years has been complete without the distribution of ‘Justice’ and ‘Don’t buy the Sun’ stickers. On the 20th anniversary of the disaster in 2009 an extraordinary and unprecedented 28,000 people turned up to hear the Anfield service for the dead and to convince Labour government Minister, Andy Burnham (an Everton supporter), that a new direction was needed. The government finally agreed in July of that year that thousands of secret files pertaining to the events in April 1989 be released for public scrutiny under the auspices of the Hillsborough Independent Panel. As a result, and 23 years after football supporters from Merseyside set off to Sheffield on a sunny morning in April 1989, ‘the truth’ about Hillsborough has finally seen the light.
John Williams is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Leicester.