One of the first things to strike me on starting to read the report by the Hillsborough Independent Panel was, that although I considered myself to be knowledgeable about the causes of the disaster, there was much still to learn. The panel’s incredibly thorough research doesn’t begin with the disaster involving Liverpool fans which took place on 15 April 1989, but instead takes the 1946 crush at Bolton Wanderer’s ground Burden Park – which killed 33 and injured hundreds – as its starting point. By doing so, the report’s authors clearly set the events of April 1989 in the context of a series of fatal incidents which took place at UK football grounds in the post-war period.
This has the effect of making the 1989 disaster somehow less unique, while still deserving of its dubious ‘honour’ as the country’s worst ever loss of life at a football match. It appears against this background as less of a freak occurrence, one which took the police, club officials and footballing authorities by surprise, and more as something that was predicted by many and therefore should have been better anticipated and thus avoided.
That is especially true in light of events at the same ground, on the same terracing, just eight years earlier. Spurs fans were well aware of the potential for supporters getting into serious difficulty, following their own experience of an FA Cup Semi-Final at Hillsborough against Wolves in 1981:
Spurs fans faced the prospect of a pain that Liverpool fans eventually had to suffer. Those at the front were bruised and battered well before kick-off and realised quickly they simply could not escape as things got worse. Some still speak of the crowd being packed so tight that their feet were off the ground as they moved.
As noted by the Spurs fans, the reason why there are no memorials to the victims of this earlier FA Cup game is that the police reacted much more promptly to the crushes. In a move that caused Sheffield Wednesday Football Club (SWFC) officials to express their anger in a debrief with police after the game, as it made the ground ‘look untidy’, fans were permitted to sit on the perimeter of the pitch, as shown in this video:
SWFC Chairman Bert McGee didn’t contain his anger at South Yorkshire Police’s (SYP) response or his disbelief that a fatal situation could have occurred, using the words from the title of this post [quoted on p. 64 of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report]. The report states that this disagreement lead to a souring of the relationship between the club and SYP which would have consequences for the day of the disaster and its aftermath.
If the club was certain that the risks were being over-stated, one important group was less convinced, but disregarded. Football fans themselves knew very well that being herded onto terracing in numbers that rarely conformed to stipulated safe capacities, to be fenced into pens with unsuitable crush barriers and tiny perimeter gates, was asking for trouble. As fanzine When Saturday Comes noted in 1989:
Complaints about safety and comfort were ignored because they were being made by supporters. Official action will be taken now, because the same points previously raised by fans are now being made by the government and the media. Their stupidity and cowardice over a long period of time allowed Hillsborough to happen.
There has been an unprecedented show of solidarity since the report’s release from fans of other clubs, with good reason. Spurs have reasons to count their blessings, as well as Nottingham Forest – our opponents on 15 April 1989 – who know that they could easily have been allocated to the Leppings Lane terrace instead of the safer Spion Kop end. Forest knocked out Manchester United in the quarter finals while we went past Brentford to secure our place at Hillsborough. Everton and Norwich City played the other semi-final that took place that day at Villa Park and so it is fitting that the ‘Merseyside United’ tribute by Everton at their game on Monday this week was one of the most moving.
From the first chapter of its report, the Hillsborough Independent Panel makes clear that the seeds of the disaster were the unheeded warnings of earlier games at other grounds as well as at Hillsborough itself. The summary is stark:
The risks were known and the crush in 1989 was foreseeable.
Despite the many warnings, as kick off approached at 3pm on 15 April 1989, fans in the Leppings Lane central pens were once again in harm’s way:
This time, there would be no ‘untidy’ yet lucky escape.