Last Monday, the fifteenth of April, saw the thirtieth anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, when what should have been an enjoyable day out for thousands of football fans turned into a horrific and avoidable catastrophe that saw ninety-six people dead and 766 injured. After thirty years, the disaster is still prominent in the consciousness of the British public, not just for the devastating emotional impact it had at the time, but for the injustice and cover-ups that followed; the families of the victims have had to fight for a long time for the truth to be officially recognised, and the search for justice is not fully resolved even today.
On Saturday 15th April 1989, Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield – the home ground of Sheffield Wednesday F.C. – was acting as neutral ground for the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Due to fears of hooliganism, the opposing fans were to be kept well away from each other; the Liverpool fans, who were coming to Sheffield from the west, were allocated the North and West Stands of the stadium. As over 24,000 Liverpool fans arrived for the match, the stadium entrance at Leppings Lane was the only place where they could enter their allocated stands. 10,000 of them were headed for the standing terraces of the West Stand’s lower tier, and there were only seven turnstiles to handle those spectators. As the 3pm kick-off approached, thousands were still outside the turnstiles, anxious to get in, and the bottleneck of people was becoming overwhelming.
David Duckenfield, the police chief superintendent who was match commander for the day, determined not to delay the kick-off. Instead, he ordered that an exit gate bypassing the turnstiles be opened, in the hopes that this would relieve the pressure outside the ground. The gate was opened, and the crowd of fans flowed into the stadium. Past the turnstiles and gate, a single tunnel led to the West Stand’s central pens, 3 and 4, which were already full; if this tunnel had been closed off, the crowd could have been directed into the emptier side pens from outside. But it wasn’t, and little to no direction was provided; as a result, most of the crowd followed the natural route into Pens 3 and 4. Once inside, fencing prevented people from either moving sideways into adjacent pens or forwards onto the pitch – this was, again, an anti-hooliganism measure. As more and more people piled into the central pens, those at the front were trapped and crushed. Some managed to escape by climbing over the fence; others were pulled up and out by people in the upper tier. But they were the lucky ones.
The match kicked off on schedule at 3pm, but six minutes later, the referee called a halt as the seriousness of the West Stand situation became clear. The emergency response was hindered by the confusion, and lack of detailed communication on what was happening: the ambulances that arrived outside the stadium were held back by the police due to the perceived crowd issues, and only two eventually made it onto the pitch, while uninjured fans and St John Ambulance officers had to provide medical assistance in the meantime. Ultimately, ninety-four Liverpool fans died in the stadium or shortly afterwards; another died in hospital on 19th April, and one more victim was in a vegetative state until March 1993 when his treatment was withdrawn, bringing the final death toll to ninety-six. The youngest victim, Jon-Paul Gilhooley – a cousin of future Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard – was ten years old.
The disaster would have been tragic enough on its own, but what followed made things worse, as the police made efforts to cover up their mistakes by blaming the fans for what had happened. David Duckenfield, who had contributed to the crush by ordering the exit gate opened, reported that the unruly crowd had forced it open themselves. Further claims along these same lines were fed to the media: on 19th April, The Sun newspaper’s front page accused Liverpool fans of pickpocketing the dead while also attacking and urinating on police officers; this inspired a particular anger towards The Sun in Liverpool that continues to this day.
A subsequent inquiry into the disaster found that the police’s failure to control the situation was the main cause, and also gave recommendations to improve stadium safety, such as the removal of fencing and standing terraces at major stadiums. However, that was far from the end of the matter: the initial coroner’s inquest found the deaths to be accidental, while only considering what happened up to 3:15pm on the day, on the grounds that all victims were either dead or beyond any help by then. The victims’ families refused to accept this and spent many years campaigning against it.
After more than two decades, new coroner’s inquests were finally held. In April 2016, they reached their conclusion: the victims had been unlawfully killed, and the fans themselves bore no responsibility for what had happened. (The verdict was front-page news in most British newspapers – but conspiciously, not in The Sun.) Prosecutions of the people held responsible are still ongoing: earlier this month, David Duckenfield’s trial for 95 counts of manslaughter by gross negligence ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict.
If you would like to learn more, I recommend Phil Scraton’s book Hillsborough: The Truth, the most recent edition of which was published in 2016, after the results of the new inquests.