Hillsborough Stadium Disaster 25 Years On: How English Football Changed Forever

Graham Ruthven@@grahamruthvenFeatured ColumnistApril 15, 2014

Twenty-five years on from Britain’s worst sporting tragedy, and we’re still searching for answers. The question being: How could the Hillsborough disaster ever have been allowed to happen?

We may never understand the thought process that led to so many—what proved to be—fatal decisions. Even as the 25th anniversary of the disaster passes, it’s difficult to comprehend the horror and atrocity of what happened on 15 April, 1989. Fans were just travelling to Sheffield to watch their team, Liverpool, play an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest.

At least we now have an official acknowledgement of the truth. It only took grieving families and friends over two decades to receive as much. Prime Minister David Cameron formally apologized for the cover-up attempt by police, investigators and the media, bringing a degree of justice to those who lost their lives at Hillsborough.

At last, there was some justice for the 96.

The original "accidental death" verdicts, which had stood for more than 20 years, were quashed, confirming what had been widely known yet not officially recognized for nearly a quarter of a century.

"The Liverpool fans 'were not the cause of the disaster,'" said Cameron, reading from the revised report before a hushed House of Commons.

"The panel has quite simply found 'no evidence' in support of allegations of 'exceptional levels drunkenness, ticketlessness or violence among Liverpool fans' and 'no evidence that fans had conspired to arrive late at the stadium' and 'no evidence that they stole from the dead and dying.'"

Cameron’s apology in effect acknowledged that the official record of the tragedy had been nothing more than a stereotyped overlay crafted by police desperate to free themselves from any blame. Those who were there, who saw what happened, knew the truth. But those who weren’t were fed a conspired line.

However, the inquest continues still. Now 13 retired or still-serving police officers have been identified as suspects, as per The Guardian, with a fresh investigation into the tragedy starting earlier this month in a purpose-built courtroom in Warrington.

Indeed, it took Lord Justice Goldring just a matter of days to reiterate that none of the 96 who died in the disaster were to blame. "We’ve always known that for 25 years," responded the chair of the Hillsborough Families Support Group, Margaret Aspinall, as per The Telegraph.

Harrowing tales of loss and devastation continue to surface, with a widow of one of the victims telling the jury of the latest inquest, which is expected to last up to a year, that the disaster "robbed" her five children of their father, as per BBC News.

Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son James died at Hillsborough, described the toll such a long investigation process has had on affected families to the Liverpool Echo. "When this started I was a young woman with a young family. Now I’m an old woman with grandchildren my son didn’t even get to see."

Tribalism is a difficult thing to cut through in football. Rivalry sometimes makes supporters say and do stupid things, often detached from any reasonable conscience or morality.

But football can also provide opportunity for reconciliation and solidarity. Some matters are greater than goals, tackles and choreographed celebrations, and that’s where the sport can unite rather than divide. It’s largely overlooked, but football has a great capacity for that.

The "Justice for the 96" campaign reminded us as much. Liverpool's "You'll Never Walk Alone" anthem has never been so apt.

Hillsborough transcends football. It tainted the political establishment and offered a damning indictment on 1980s Britain. It became a horrifying reference point for sports officials around the world, and it was used to symbolize an era of unruly British football fans and the measures that were taken to control them.

Football must now take a positive legacy out of Hillsborough. Of course, it already has. The Taylor Report, published in 1989, helped make stadiums a safer and more welcoming environment for fans of all ages, genders and backgrounds.

The sport’s culture has since been overhauled and is much better for it. In the grand scheme of things, 25 years isn’t a huge span of time, but in terms of stadia and the general culture of football, it feels like another world away.

But the sport mustn’t just take a legacy out of the way stadiums are now built and how crowds are stewarded. It has to mean more than that. Lord Justice Taylor recommended "the fullest reassessment of policy for the game" after Hillsborough, as per Glenn Moore of The Independent. That is still to be achieved.

Even after all these years, the footage still makes for shocking viewing. The distress and anguish on the faces of supporters who knew something was wrong as soon as they entered the Leppings Lane enclosure is hard to shake.

Those near the back of the terrace were lifted onto the tiered seating above them. Those who weren’t so lucky were carried across the pitch on advertising hoardings. And it was all broadcast live on national TV.

But the report, released in 2012, detailed further grim and appalling revelations, as per BBC News. It found that many of the victims who were declared dead at the scene might have survived had they received medical attention sooner.

Police and the relevant authorities had used the zeitgeist of the era—namely, football hooliganism—to cover up their own negligence, claiming crowd trouble had been caused by drunkenness, as per the Daily Mail. That, too, was discredited by the report, revealing the tested levels of alcohol consumption were “unremarkable and not exceptional for a social or leisure occasion.”

But why did it take so long for justice to be served? After all, this was a disaster filmed live by no fewer than eight BBC cameras—there to broadcast the match live—and countless CCTV systems inside and outside the ground.

Witnesses were pressured into obscuring the truth, and those who did speak out were discredited. The way the dirt was kicked around to cover the tracks of what really happened was, and still is, a national disgrace.

Even as the tragedy was unfolding, the blame was being shifted onto the fans, with an alleged break in the fencing leading into the terrace caused by a surge of ticketless Liverpool supporters cited as the reason. John Motson, who was working for the BBC on the day, was fed such a line, as per the BBC's Panorama documentary on the tragedy.

In the immediacy of the disaster, such a reflex to rid oneself of the fatal blame could be understood, if not completely forgivable. Yet it is the enduring conspiracy of lies and deceit that stands as the most damning indictment of how the tragedy was handled.

But some mocked the protest for justice, with current Mayor of London Boris Johnson writing in an article published in The Spectator in 2004 that the people of Liverpool were “wallowing” in their “victim status,” as per the Liverpool Echo. Then-UEFA President Jacques Georges described Liverpool supporters as "savages," suggesting hooliganism had caused the tragedy, as per Andy McSmith of The Independent.

Many grossly misjudged the situation through which the families of the 96 who perished at Hillsborough were suffering, including Johnson.

The disaster had a profound emotional impact that extended beyond the grieving families. As Liverpool descended into dilapidation after the Second World War, the city found pride in its football club, Liverpool FC. The city and the football club’s suffering were intertwined in light of the tragedy.

Liverpool might be a traditional centre for trade and commerce in the Northwest, but it’s hardly a metropolis. The fact that it sustains two such successful and storied top-flight clubs is a testament to its hunger and passion for football.

But such a tight-knit community meant that even if you supported blue rather than red, you were likely to have been impacted by Hillsborough in some way or another.

So when 45,000 opposition fans found it in their moral souls to respect the memories of the 96 in a Merseyside derby last season, it reflected the spirit of the city rather than the rivalry. "He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother"—played over the tannoy as the two teams walked out onto the Goodison Park pitch—summed up the mood of the evening.

Hillsborough didn’t just change Liverpool FC; it changed Liverpool, the city. Such a deep scar will never fully heal, but it’s difficult not to attach added meaning and poignancy to the team’s success on the pitch this season.

While some of the hurting has at least been partially soothed by some degree of justice, Liverpool have returned to the top of the top-flight table, just as they were for much of the 1980s.

Sunday’s rousing 3-2 win over Manchester City put the Reds in outright pole position for the title, on a weekend when tributes to those who died at Hillsborough were held all over the country, from Sunderland to Wembley, where 96 seats were left empty for the FA Cup semi-final between Arsenal and Wigan.

Liverpool’s last championship win came in 1990, a year after Hillsborough, and now Brendan Rodgers says he’s using "the 96 in the sky" (per Matt Barlow of the Daily Mail), as he put it, as inspiration to deliver the honour Anfield desires most: the Premier League title.

"It would be a tremendous thing for Liverpool to win the title on the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough and 24 years after they last won it," Alan Hansen, who was part of the Liverpool team that played on the day of the tragedy, told Phil McNulty of BBC Sport.

Bill Shankly once said football was more than a matter of life and death, but of course there’s no sporting context that can be aligned with Hillsborough. Yet perhaps Liverpool’s first league title in over a generation would be the best commemoration, in a Hollywood cliche kind of way.

"If we are to achieve anything this year, they will always be in our thoughts—the 96 in the sky and the families that go with them," said Rodgers, as per McNulty, looking ahead to the crucial month that awaits his team.

"I know there are 96 people in the sky who will always be supporting this team."


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