by Martin Odoni

On the subject of the Hillsborough Disaster, I am sure that many people will be familiar with the stale, uninformed arguments that apologists for the South Yorkshire Police never tire of making. Most commonly, this will be the old, “Well the Police wouldn’t have had to open the Gate anyway if all those hundreds of drunk fans hadn’t turned up late, without a ticket” etc etc complaint. As I have detailed elsewhere, this is not what happened, but I have an unusual, and hopefully refreshing, angle for countering the argument from.

Even if the myth did have any credence, and the evidence overwhelmingly shows that it does not, it makes little difference in any case. This is because, directly speaking, the opening of Gate C had very little to do with causing the Disaster, irrespective of why the Police chose to open it, and arguments about supporters being to blame for it being opened are not only inaccurate, they are also scarcely relevant. The opening of Gate C should really be viewed as just a curious, if rather large, side-detail in the events of the day, and not central to what happened at all.

Turnstiles and exit gates.

The turnstile bank and gates B & C.

If one is to understand the Disaster, it needs to be recognised that there were in fact two crushes at Hillsborough that day and not one – one outside the turnstiles on Leppings Lane, where a disaster was narrowly avoided, the other in the ground level terraces inside the stadium, where disaster struck profoundly. One common interpretation of this is that when overcrowding in the street outside the stadium threatened to cause deaths, the police opened the outer gates of the ground to relieve the crowd pressure, and when the fans flooded in, they stacked into terraces that were already full and caused another crush, this time a fatal one, against the front fences. This is certainly far closer to the truth than the mythical version in the first paragraph, but even so, it is not strictly accurate. The two crushes did not happen in sequence, the one leading on to the other, as many people assume. Instead, they formed independently of each other and in large part they were both in progress at the same time.

To explain; there is a considerable body of anecdotal evidence, from survivors of the Disaster who had arrived in the stadium quite early in the afternoon, that the overcrowding in pens 3 and 4 was developing ominously as early as 2:05pm, possibly even earlier – see this photo taken at 1:53pm, and see how crowded the central pens are, and the clear disparity with the other pens; –

The disparity in the Leppings Lane terrace is already marked an hour before exit gate C is opened.

Taken a little over an hour before kick-off, while Nottingham Forest players are getting a feel for the pitch. See how compressed pens 3 & 4 already are compared with pen 6.

Video footage captured at the time supports this impression. This was over three-quarters of an hour before the Police opened Gate C, and indeed was earlier than the worst of the overcrowding at the turnstiles outside.

Therefore, the crush on the terraces could not have formed as a consequence of the overcrowding in Leppings Lane. And as Gate C was opened in an attempt to relieve the overcrowding in Leppings Lane, it follows that the crush on the terraces could not have been a result of the gate opening either. (Although it was certainly exacerbated by it.)

The critical mistake the Police made was not in opening the gate – that was actually the right thing to do as it prevented a disaster happening outside the ground. Instead, it lay in failing to close off the tunnel leading into pens 3 and 4 once they were full.

But what is not often understood is when exactly that mistake was made. Maximum capacity was not reached only after the gate was opened, but far earlier. Yes, it was a “blunder of the first magnitude” (quoting Lord Justice Taylor) not to close the tunnel before opening the gate. But in fact, it was a blunder regardless of what was happening in Leppings Lane. The whole Liverpool fan base could have been behaving like the finest of gentlemen, could have all arrived by 2:15pm, every man-jack of them in possession of a ticket, and could all have been sober as a priest on Sunday morning (which was largely true of the great majority of them anyway), all the turnstiles might actually have been working properly, difficult as that is to imagine, and the Police might never even have had to open Gate C.

And my suspicion is that the Disaster on the terraces would still have happened.

This was because the Disaster was triggered by where the fans were going (pens that were full), rather than what the fans were arriving through (either a gate or a turnstile).

To repeat, the key blunder was in fact made far earlier in the build-up to the game than is often realised. The tunnel leading into the central pens should have been closed before 2:30pm (over twenty minutes prior to Gate C opening). But the match commander, Superintendent David Duckenfield, and his officers failed to monitor the crowd build-up on the Leppings Lane terraces effectively. It does not make a great deal of difference what followed on Leppings Lane itself, as soon as the central pens were full, the tunnel needed to be closed, and it was not.

With the failure to do this, given the very poor signposting beyond the turnstiles, and the ambiguous wording on the match-tickets, it was inevitable that most newly-arrived fans would head for the tunnel leading into the central pens; there was little to indicate that the side-pens even existed, while the lay-out beyond the turnstiles was such that the tunnel was the only visible path ahead. With this in mind, it becomes clear that there was every danger that the overcrowding would continue to get worse in the central pens, irrespective of how fans were getting in, be it through an open gate or by continuing to come through the turnstiles. Either way, they would still have had the tunnel directly ahead of them, and it would still appear to be the only way to go. So they would still have ended up haplessly massing in pens that were already overcrowded.

Access to Leppings Lane terrace.
The layout of the Leppings Lane entry concourse.

This is not to say that the decision to open Gate C was not significant at all. It probably sped up the process of overcrowding considerably, as the extra fans got in more quickly as a result, and en masse rather than in ones and twos, which must have caused an immediate ‘spike’ in pressure. (The collapse of the crush barrier in the stands around kick-off time might be attributed to this, although as it does not appear to have happened until about seven minutes after the gate was opened, that is questionable.) Opening the gate may also have reduced the amount of time the Police had available to notice the emergency. But given how inept Duckenfield seems to have been at spotting the danger-signs, and how casual many of his colleagues’ attitudes seemed to be, I strongly doubt that they would have noticed it, even if it had taken three hours for the fans to start pouring over the fences – the danger-signs would simply have been correspondingly delayed. In any event, it remains gross negligence on Duckenfield’s part that he again failed to check how crowded the central pens were when he decided to open the gate. Opening the gate was a big step, and he was duty-bound to consider the possible consequences of such an action, including the danger of overcrowding, before committing to it.

But there is every likelihood that the crush in the central pens would still have turned fatal even if Gate C had remained closed, and even if there had been no crush in Leppings Lane at all; probably it would have tipped over into a disaster about fifteen minutes later than it actually did, but that is about the only major difference it would have made.

The business of opening Gate C takes the form of rather a misleading distraction, and the amount of attention that moment is given perhaps offers the Police-apologists some ‘ammunition-for-argument’ that is not really due or relevant. Whether the Liverpool fans ‘forced’ the Police to open the gate or not is immaterial, because the opening of the gate was not what led to the Disaster. The failure to close the tunnel when the central pens were full was what led to the Disaster, and there is no credible way at all of arguing that the Liverpool fans ‘forced’ the Police to make that mistake.


More about the Hillsborough Disaster; –