Hillsborough: Ticketlessness Was Not A Factor, And This Is How We Know.
October 14, 2012
by Martin Odoni
One of the common myths of the cause of the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989 is that the stadium was overcrowded, ergo there must have been large numbers of supporters who got in without tickets. This notion is understandable, but a misapprehension; the Disaster was not caused by too many people getting into the stadium, but by too many people going into one small part of it.
In the 1980’s, it was standard practise for the stands and terraces of football stadia to be divided up by large steel fences into enclosures called ‘pens’, to keep rival groups of fans from attacking each other, such was the hooligan problem of the era. In the case of the Leppings Lane terrace at Hillsborough, it was divided by radial fences into five separate pens.
The two pens immediately behind the goal (pens 3 & 4 as they were known, or the ‘central pens’) had a combined official capacity of about two thousand. Later investigation by the Health & Safety Executive discovered that the ingress/egress routes, as well as the crush barriers, within the central pens were insufficient to meet official regulations for that high a capacity, and so their combined effective capacity should therefore have been reduced to around seventeen-hundred.
Given that Liverpool supporters had a ticket allocation of ten thousand one hundred for the Leppings Lane terrace, and that individual enclosures on that terrace had capacities very, very much lower than that, you don’t actually need to bring ticketless ‘gatecrashers’ into the scenario to cause a crush. You just need poor distribution of the ticketed attendance. And this is indeed what happened.
Photographs and video footage taken at the time of the crush show very clearly that, while the central pens were indeed very, very tightly packed with people, the ‘side-pens’ (or ‘wing-pens’) to be found immediately adjacent to either side were not only not overcrowded, they were in fact only about half-full. There was a lot of bare concrete very visible in them even as the game was kicking off.
In the investigations that followed the Disaster, detailed in Report IR/L/ME/89/34 (you can Google it for a PDF of the Report), the HSE spent weeks making a very thorough, exhaustive, and I daresay fairly tedious study of data from the stadium’s admissions system and from closed circuit television recordings from the security system to establish approximately how many people had entered the Leppings Lane terrace on the day. There were two main points-of-entry; the turnstiles, obviously enough, accounted for most of the admissions, but due to growing pressure on the turnstiles by crowd build-up, approximately eight minutes prior to kick-off, a concertina exit gate (‘Gate C’) was opened by the police in the hopes of preventing a major accident, allowing the remaining fans still queuing up to enter.
The conclusion of the investigation was that 7,494 fans entered through the turnstiles with an outside possibility that 7,644 might have entered that way, allowing for malfunctions in the admissions counting system. How many entered after the gate was opened could only be established by studying the CCTV footage. This was of course far more difficult to calculate, due to the images on the footage sometimes being too unclear in such a large crowd to make out for certain how many people were passing through the exit gate at any one instant; sometimes it looked like there might have been someone entering, but with so many others around, it was difficult to tell. The HSE therefore offered three figures at its investigation’s conclusion. One made the assumption in all of the uncertain situations above that there was no one there. The second made the assumption in those situations that there was always someone there. And the third, considered the likeliest, or at least closest, total, gave the median figure of the first two i.e. it assumed that in half of the uncertain situations there was someone there, and in half that there was not.
The three estimates thus reached were as follows;-
Lowest possible number… 2020
‘Best’ possible number… 2240
Maximum possible number… 2480
This led to three possible attendance totals for the Leppings Lane terrace as a whole; –
Lowest possible number… 9,267
‘Best’ possible number… 9,734
Maximum possible number… 10,124
And it needs to be re-iterated that the total ticket allocation for the terrace was ten thousand one hundred.
Now the three attendance totals need to be revised upwards slightly, as there were two other routes of entry that this count did not assess. For one, some fans might have gained entry through turnstiles for the seated areas of the North or West Stands, and once inside they would have had to find their way to the entrances to the terrace. The numbers who did so are probably negligible though, as they were likely to have been re-directed to the turnstiles for the terraces before they gained entry. Let us assume that about fifty entered through the wrong turnstiles (although that is likely to be an over-estimate). For a second option, with the crush outside the ground getting quite serious, many fans found themselves pinned against the outer walls of the turnstiles, and to escape, some of them climbed over the wall to get in. (Before anyone says, “HAH! Gotcha!” it must be stressed that the majority of fans who got in over the wall were challenged and checked for tickets by policemen once they were inside. Only one of them was turned away for having no ticket.) Again, it is unlikely that more than a few dozen entered in this fashion, so again let us add another (generous) fifty to the totals. They now stand as; –
Lowest possible number… 9,367
‘Best’ possible number… 9,834
Maximum possible number… 10,224
It will be seen that the approximate likeliest number not only does not exceed the ticket allocation for the terrace, it is in fact over two hundred and fifty below it. The maximum goes a little over a hundred above the allocation, but for reasons already outlined above, this is an unlikely figure, and in any event, it is not enough to account for what caused the crush in the central pens.
The central pens, to re-iterate, had an official capacity of around two thousand. HSE analysis of images from around the time the game kicked off concluded that there were over three thousand people in the central pens, and still increasing – please Google IR/L/ME/89/32. An overflow of one hundred and twenty four ticketless fans simply cannot account for this.
Online, I have encountered some people who defiantly cling to the idea of ticketlessness by coming up with odd scenarios e.g. large numbers of fans with tickets simply decided not to attend. No particular reason why they would choose to do this after paying good money to get a rare-as-gold-dust ticket is ever offered. Did they have some kind of spooky premonition about the horrors that were set to unfold? In any event, this would still prove that the Disaster was not caused by ticketlessness, as the scenario accepts that ticketlessness did not cause the terrace to go over capacity.
My favourite one of these odd scenarios, really quite funny in a sad way, is that when Gate C was opened, the ticketless fans just didn’t go into the stadium. There are so many problems with this idea, it’s hard to know where to begin; –
Firstly, I will point out the very obvious problem, which is that the accusation undermines its own attempts to apportion blame; if ticketless fans did not actually enter the stadium, that means they weren’t trespassing or freeloading, and therefore hadn’t done anything wrong. It also means that they can’t have been on the terraces, therefore they can’t have been in the central pens, so they can’t have had anything to do with the overcrowding that caused the deaths. There are also plausibility questions; if they didn’t go in when the opportunity was presented to them, why not? And given the turnstile area was more or less empty by the time Gate C was closed again, where exactly did they go? Did four hundred ticketless people have a sudden conscience-attack, and, heads bowed in shame, just turn away and walk up Leppings Lane before the match had even started… and yet not one of the residents living on the street saw them do so? Four hundred?
None of this is meant to imply that nobody got in without a ticket – it’s clear that some did – but merely that this played no causative role in the Disaster, and that the numbers involved were trifling, nowhere near the four hundred-plus that the South Yorkshire Police were apt to claim, or the ‘tanked-up mob of five hundred’ that Bernard Ingham will never stop carping about. (To say nothing of the two thousand that many in the wider public seem certain of, or the truly preposterous six-to-eight thousand that the glaringly Scouser-phobic Steve Cohen likes to invoke on US radio.) No matter how stubbornly such people keep asserting these ‘possibilities’, the bottom line they will always be dragged back to is that the evidence just does not leave room for them.
When trying to assess the validity of the long-running accusation of ticketlessness, it is a good idea to try and source exactly where the accusation started. At every turn, we find that this one leads back to the South Yorkshire Police (SYP), including to the notorious lie uttered by Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield even as the Disaster was unfolding that ticketless fans ‘forced the exit gate’ – an exit gate that he himself had ordered should be opened.
Now, it is strange enough how people ignore the obvious motive the police had to find scapegoats for the crush, but what always strikes me as even stranger is that no one ever seems curious as to where the SYP got the information from. I mean, think about it; if fans were ticketless in large numbers, how exactly could the police have known?
The standard SYP account of the Disaster was that hundreds of drunk, ticketless fans showed up in the last five minutes, and caused such a huge, chaotic, high-pressure crush at the turnstiles that the police were forced to open the exit gate to prevent serious injuries or deaths. Now, this version of events is defeated by an analysis of the evidence anyway (for instance, all records and footage show that Gate C was opened eight minutes before the game kicked off at 3pm, not in the last five minutes, while CCTV pictures show clearly that the crush at the turnstiles was already turning serious as early as 2:35pm), but the flaw in the police’s story is self-evident even without checking the facts. If there was such a chaotic, big-pressure, life-threatening crush of hundreds of people in a confined space, how exactly were the police able to check all of them and determine in less than five minutes whether they had tickets? And having achieved this apparently super-human feat of detective-work, instead of just turning the freeloaders away, they then decided simply to throw open the exit gate and herd them all into the ground? What, they had time and space to check every single fan for a ticket, but not enough to tell them to leave?
To put it another way, how can the police be Batman one minute, and then Inspector Clouseau the next?
This version is the root of the ticketlessness myth, and it is so obviously implausible that it should not be entertained. To cling to it requires either stubborn ignorance, wilful stupidity, or just lamentably weak skeptical reasoning skills.
Sadly though, these three commodities are in long supply among many football fans, especially when club rivalries are involved, and the pseudo-religious bigotry that these can lead to means that some of them will never let go of the idea, no matter how stupid it makes them look.
Other articles about the Hillsborough Disaster.