For most Liverpool fans, the subject of Hillsborough is a hard subject to talk about. And for me, next to impossible to write about.
It was supposed to be a day of celebration. Liverpool had beaten Brentford comprehensively in the quarter finals a month prior, setting up a semi-final against a strong Nottingham Forest side. They were having a strong season in the league under Kenny Dalglish, and as the traveling Kopites made their way to Sheffield Wednesday’s stadium, a neutral venue for the semi finals as it was then, they were full of hope, full of confidence. Nobody knew what was to come.
Looking back, the writing was on the wall. Hillsborough had been used as a neutral ground for an FA Cup semi final previously, and in 1981 a semi final tie between Tottenham and Wolves saw a crush happen at the Leppings Lane end. Dozens of fans were injured, and thankfully the swift intervention of the police that day prevented the casualties from being far worse. But eight years on, the Leppings Lane end would provide a venue for a tragedy that put the 1981 match to shame.
The tie kicked off as normal. None of us watching from home, safe on our sofas and chairs, had any idea of what was going on in the background. But just moments into the match, you could see something was wrong. At six minutes past three, just six minutes after the kickoff, the referee stopped the game – and what was an eagerly anticipated game of football descended into utter chaos. Adrian Tempany was there. Adrian was one of the lucky ones.
A silence was falling over the people around me. Some were hyperventilating, others were fainting. I was starting to panic now, but I was stuck. The pressure was tightening like a vice. My eyes began searching for police, or stewards, but no one was coming. Slowly, my legs, my backside, my arms and finally my chest went numb. One ear was folded in against my cheekbone by the head of a man to my right. I could move my head, my eyes and my mouth, and no more. My right foot seemed to move involuntarily, until I realised it wasn’t on the ground but planted on the calf of a man in front of me.
The cameras panned to the Leppings Lane end as supporters – the lucky ones – were able to force a small gate open, and escape to the safety of the pitch. Other fans tried to climb onto the second level, while many more attempted to scale the steel fencing – only to be met by policemen who barred their escape. The sheer force of the crush – thousands of bodies being pressed against a rigid steel barrier actually caused the fence to break in places, allowing fans to escape. More tore at the fence with their bare hands, faces a mask of terror, as their brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters were being crushed to death in the Leppings Lane end. Finally, the South Yorkshire Police and the St. John’s Ambulance mobilized into action, but even with the assistance of the stewards, the mass of casualties was overwhelming. Advertising boards were torn up, used as makeshift stretchers. As those of us watching at home stared at our screens in horror, we watched as fans desperately tried to save the lives of their fellow Kopites. Some succeeded.
94 people died that day. Two more died in the following weeks, succumbing to their injuries. It was horrific, a tragedy, and those of us safe in our living rooms couldn’t grasp the magnitude of what the families and loved ones must be facing.
And, to our utter horror, neither did they.
The disaster was caused by a combination of negligence and incompetence. The mass of Liverpool fans trying to gain entry to the ground, were funneled to a single area. Fans were turned away from the turnstiles at other parts of the ground, forced to enter through a narrow bottleneck. Thousands of fans massed outside the narrow entrance, and the police onsite requested the kickoff be delayed, to allow safe entry into the stadium. The request was denied by the commanding officer in the control booth, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield. With pressure mounting, the decision was made to open a normally closed exit gate, allowing thousands of fans to enter simultaneously. These fans were forced towards the central pens of the Leppings Lane end, already at capacity.
The following day dawned with families dealing with the loss of loved ones. Hundreds more were in hospital, receiving care. But for the survivors of Hillsborough, the tragedy was to get worse. The Sun newspaper – a sensationalist “red top” tabloid in the United Kingdom – plastered horrific lies about the Liverpool fans, under the ironic headline “The Truth”. Fans were accused of looting dead bodies, urinating on police offers, and attacking other officers who were in the process of trying to save fans. It later emerged that the South Yorkshire Police, rather than accept responsibility for the disaster, immediately implemented a smear campaign, trying to blame intoxicated and ticketless fans for the events at Hillsborough. The paper’s editor, Kelvin MacKenzie was only too happy to run these headlines, despite hesitation from his staff.
The paper was immediately boycotted in Liverpool (and its name is still a word to avoid saying around anyone who supports the club) but the lies were already in the ear of the public. The accepted “truth” was that hooliganism was the cause of the disaster. Then UEFA President Jacques George referred to the survivors as “beasts waiting to charge into the arena.”
In the subsequent weeks, an inquest was called to investigate the true cause of the tragedy. The Taylor report was published in January of 1990. While it was acknowledged that Liverpool fans were drinking outside prior to the game, and many had tried to gain entry without a ticket, the inquest found that the cause of the Hillsborough Disaster was police error. The report went on to deride the cooperation of South Yorkshire Police (or lack thereof) and their lack of willingness to accept any responsibility for the events of the 15th of April.
With the cause of the disaster now revealed (if not widely accepted by some), coronor inquests were launched into the deaths, but were restricted in scope. Sole evidence was provided by the South Yorkshire Police – no other witnesses were allowed, and no cross-examination of the officers was afforded. An arbitrary cutoff time of 3:15pm was imposed – meaning that after this time, those who died were beyond help – and a verdict of “accidental death” was delivered. With this in hand, it was announced that no criminal proceedings would be brought against any individual involved in the disaster. In essence, the families of the 96 were told “tough luck”.
But in Liverpool, the people do not give up. The word quit is not in the vocabulary. Families of the victims worked tirelessly to overturn these verdicts. Anne Williams, mother of Kevin, spent 20 years campaigning through every court in the land, even to the European Courts.
Twenty years after that fateful day, a light shone on the horizon. Trevor Hicks, of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, with the support of the British Secretary for Culture, successfully campaigned the government to release all documents to the public. The government commissioned an independent panel to sift through these documents, and publish a report outlining their findings. And in this report, published on September 12, 2012, the truth was finally revealed. The cause was a lack of police control, leading to crowd safety being compromised “at every level.” 41 of the 96 who died that day were still alive and treatable past the 3:15pm cutoff time. And most damning of all, was the proof that the South Yorkshire Police had systematically lied, altered statements, and “made every attempt to impugn the reputations of the victims.” Beyond the police, it was also revealed that the member of parliament for Sheffield, Irvine Patnick, intentionally fed false information to the tabloids in an effort to discredit the fans, and shift blame from the police.
Apologies were soon issued. From Prime Minister David Cameron, to Kelvin MacKenzie (who still to this day refuses to accept responsibility for the stories he ran, instead choosing to blame his “sources”). The families of the victims called for the initial verdicts delivered two decades prior to be quashed, and a new inquest launched by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. The tireless work of the families and their supporters continues this day. The search for the truth is over, but now we seek justice. Justice for the 96.