Hillsborough: In Its Correct Historical Context
April 21, 2013
by Martin Odoni
It’s hard to imagine in these customer-oriented, Health & Safety days, but there was a time when a paying audience wanting to watch a sporting contest in the UK, or indeed in much of Europe, was treated with utter derision by the providers of the service. British football grounds in particular were hives of squalor that loyal devotees of the game paid for the privilege of standing in; they were primitive, crumbling, poorly-maintained stadia whose only design-advancements tended to be haphazard obstacles aimed at restricting movement.
In fairness to the authorities overseeing the British game, by the mid-1970’s they did have good reason to want to restrict the movements of spectators. Over the previous twenty years, an ugly element in society had increasingly attached itself to football, using its large, often-unmanageable crowds, and rugged, insalubrious stadium environments as ideal ‘battlegrounds’ on which to unleash an almost primeval thirst for violence. This element became known as ‘football hooligans’, and they became a serious blight on the professional game. Between stampedes by fans of rival teams against each other through the terraces and stands, large numbers invading the field-of-play during matches, and occasional fighting in the streets outside stadia, hooliganism was a very ugly phenomenon, one that often caused considerable embarrassment to the Government when British – usually English – sides travelled abroad to play against teams from other countries, and unwittingly took hooligan followers with them.
Hooligans, it must be stressed, were a small minority, and even many of the largest and most high-profile incidents usually involved tiny numbers – often just a few dozen in stadia with capacities of upwards of thirty-five thousand. But it was the hooligan element that got all the attention, especially in the media, and there was a growing, lazy desire to paint all football supporters the same bleak colour.
After one incident at Wembley Stadium in 1977, the British Government decided it wanted action taken to prevent spectators invading the pitch (‘rushing the field’, as Americans would put it). The actual incident in question was a rather odd one to provoke such a response, as it wasn’t really a case of violent behaviour at all, but it involved so many people that the Government clearly took fright. An international match between England and Scotland had ended with Scotland beating their ‘auld enemy’ on English soil for the first time in ten years. The Scotland fans, who had travelled to Wembley in such great numbers that there were actually more of them in the stadium than England fans (which happened a lot during the 1970’s – the Scots always took the annual fixture between the two countries far more seriously than the English), were so ecstatic at the victory that more than half of them spilled out of the terraces onto the Wembley pitch to celebrate. The field-of-play was absolutely flooded with over-excited Scotland fans, singing and dancing, surging back and forth in large packs, and tearing off pieces of the ‘hallowed Wembley turf’ as souvenirs. More worryingly, they pulled down the goalposts. If the crossbars had landed on anyone, they would almost certainly have killed them.
It wasn’t fighting, it wasn’t a riot, it wasn’t violent, and in the event, nobody got hurt, but it was getting quite dangerous. It was also an increasingly familiar experience seeing mass-pitch invasions at big fixtures, and so the Government decided it was time for crowd-control measures at all football grounds in the UK to be tightened. In consultation with the Football Association, new guidelines were introduced recommending that effective obstacles be placed between the stands and the field-of-play. The obvious option seemed to be to put up fences right on the front of the terraces, and construct them to run around the full perimeter of the pitch.
Fencing in spectators was not an entirely new idea – they were mentioned in the 1976 ‘Green Guide’, which was a non-binding series of guidelines for making sports grounds safe for spectators; the guide even gave recommended measurements for the size of fences and what provision should be made for escape routes in the event of emergency. (The guidelines would be seldom adhered to.)
Many Health & Safety experts were more than a little agitated at the prospect of fencing in very large numbers of people in what were already very confined and uncomfortable spaces. Even more, they objected that in the event of an emergency, fences would be a major obstacle to honest evacuation efforts. Nothing daunted – or perhaps just not wanting to argue while there was such a strong public mood of antipathy towards football hooligans (any resistance might have provoked the Government to enshrine the recommendations into law) – most of the clubs across England started installing fences in their stadia. A few clubs dissented, sometimes, in the case of really small clubs, simply because they had insufficient money available, but enough co-operated to give the Government the impression that the hooligan issue was being addressed, and so reduced the danger of fences being made mandatory.
Of course, the hooligan issue wasn’t being addressed at all. Far from it, the problem of crowd misbehaviour got a lot worse over the next eight years, with many of the most notorious chapters in the hooligan story being told in the season 1984-1985. Perhaps the most dreadful, certainly the most infamous, crowd disturbance in European history happened on the 29th of May, during the very last fixture of that season – the 1985 European Champions’ Cup Final between Liverpool of England and Juventus of Italy, at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels. Bitter fighting between rival fans in a dilapidated stadium that was already scheduled for demolition (I kid ye not) led to a ferocious stampede across a terrace by a small band of Liverpool supporters. Most of the Juventus fans in their path broke in fear, and ran away along the crumbling concrete terrace. Many stumbled as the aging concrete broke up beneath their feet, and were then inadvertently trampled by fellow Juventus fans who were immediately behind them. Those who didn’t stumble soon arrived at a wall at the end of the terrace and could retreat no further. Again, their fellows came hurtling in behind them, and very soon, fans were colliding with each other and increasingly pinning the earlier arrivals against the wall. In no time at all, there was a mad crush of hundreds of panicking supporters, and those right against the wall were unable to breathe.
It was a sign of how awful a condition the stadium was in that the walls at the ends of the terraces did not in fact have foundations, and were not even built into the surface of the terrace. They had been erected in place on the concrete over fifty years earlier and simply sealed into position with a thick smear of cement. By the mid-1980’s, that cement had long-since decayed, and the only thing holding the walls up was their own weight. Under the even greater weight of hundreds of panicked people pushing against it, such an unstable edifice could not hold up for long. The wall at the end of the terrace teetered over, and collapsed, and the teeming multitude of bodies that had been pressed to it toppled over as well, en masse. Under the chaotic pile-up of hundreds of squirming bodies, there was no room even for air to get in.
The death-toll from asphyxia and other crush injuries eventually peaked at thirty-nine.
The upshot of the Heysel Tragedy was that the hysteria against football hooliganism in the media and in Government now had its richest fuel yet. English football clubs were banned from playing in European competitions any further until such a time as they could eradicate the hooliganism problem, and new measures were to be introduced by the Government to restrict the movements of football fans even further – both outside stadia, and within them.
(Click here to read more details about the Heysel Stadium Disaster.)
Perhaps the saddest irony of Heysel though is that the dimension of hooliganism effectively blotted out a real opportunity to address more significant worries about safety. Not only was Heysel itself an unsafe stadium – the dilapidated structure was at least as great a factor in causing the Tragedy as fan behaviour – but it was not the first disaster to happen in football in 1985. In fact it wasn’t even the first disaster to happen that month.*
Less than three weeks earlier, in Yorkshire, Bradford City Football Club was celebrating its first trophy-winning season in thirty years, having secured the Championship of the then-Third Division of the Football League. The 11th of May was the last day of the league season, and, although the result of the game would be immaterial, Bradford eagerly played host to Lincoln City, and to a promotion party, at the Valley Parade stadium. It was a very old ground whose almost-eighty-year-old main stand was made mainly of wood.
Around ten minutes before half-time, several Bradford fans near one corner of the main stand noticed that their feet were feeling strangely warm. Initially, they thought nothing of it and kept their attention on the game, but after a few more minutes, the sensation had grown stronger. They looked down and noticed through gaps in the floorboards that there were flames under the stand. They were surprised, but still not particularly concerned. One fan announced he would go and look for a fire extinguisher – it later turned out that there weren’t any – and all the others around him assumed that would be that, and resumed watching the game.
For some of them, this would prove to be a lethal mistake. What happened over the next six minutes or so defied belief for those who were there to see it.
Firstly, after about one more minute, the flames had climbed just enough to start poking through the floorboards. People started moving away from the affected area, but still made no particular attempt actually to evacuate.
After another moment, the fire had engulfed an entire small block of seating, and was now large enough to be noticed by people elsewhere in the ground. John Helm, a reporter for Yorkshire Television, was sat on the roof of the tiny stand opposite, commentating on the game, and it was around this point that he noticed the flames. After a few more seconds, the Lincoln City goalkeeper, David Felgate, also noticed the blaze, but knew no one would hear him above the crowd-noise when he tried to draw attention to it. Thinking quickly, and knowing that most eyes in the stadium would keep following the ball, as soon as he next received it, he kicked it straight into the stand, in the general direction of the fire. There was by this point a lot of very thick smoke puffing out into the air, and there was no way anybody who had been watching the ball could miss the fire now. Within seconds it had spread even further and filled up the entire section of seats at the top-right end of the stand. Police officers arrived on the scene to order an immediate evacuation. Fans finally started scrambling clear as the fire began to spread at a speed that did not seem possible. Hundreds ran forward and climbed haplessly over advertising boards that lined the perimeter of the pitch, escaping onto the field-of-play. Many others however decided to head for the back of the stand, where they knew that there were fire exits that they might be able to escape through onto the main road outside the ground.
Unfortunately, the speed at which the fire was spreading, and the extremely flammable materials the old stand was made of, meant that the air around them was soon filled with unbreathable, opaque, sooty, black smoke. Many lost their way as they tried to edge along the back wall of the stand. Some were struggling with smoke-inhalation and shortage of oxygen. And of the very few who ever did manage to reach the fire exits, they were unable to see the doors through the dense miasma. The fire exits were of a standard push-bar design; locked to anybody standing outside, but with a horizontal bar on the inside at about waist-height that, when pushed, would unlock the door and allow escape. But in the thick black smoke, most of the supporters who had made it this far could not find the bars in order to push them. And the fire was now approaching them at the speed of a charging rhino. The peculiar shape of the stand’s timber roof had drawn the flames up towards it, and a freak fireball now rushed through the interior, along the full length of the old structure. Anyone in its path did not stand a ghost of a chance.
Just four minutes after the ball had been so unceremoniously hacked out of play, the entire stand was ablaze from end-to-end. Literally. The entire main stand – which by a very bitter irony had been due to be part-demolished just two days later and its roof replaced with a modern, state-of-the-art model – had been reduced to a charred skeleton in just a few short minutes of pandemonium.
(Footage from Yorkshire Television of the whole blaze can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5KZ6by8qPqI – please be aware before watching that some of the images are disturbing.)
The whole nation was sent into shock over that weekend as the news of the death-toll came through on television and radio; a horrifying fifty-six people had failed to escape the blaze in time. Fifty-four from Bradford, and two from Lincoln. Many had died of smoke inhalation, but some had been burned to death in the most hideous way imaginable.
The precise cause of the fire was never firmly established, but the likeliest explanation was assumed to be that someone had carelessly dropped a smoldering cigarette-end through a gap in the floorboards of the stand. It was later discovered that mounds of flammable litter had been allowed to gather in the cavity below the stand over many long years, and this litter was what had initially caught fire. Some fragments of litter to survive the blaze were found to date back to the post-war period, highlighting the casual attitude of British football clubs towards basic maintenance of their stadia.
The Valley Parade Fire was, at that point, the worst stadium disaster in English football history, and second in British football history only to the Ibrox Disaster of 1971 – when sixty-six fans of Glasgow Rangers were crushed to death at the end of a match after falling down an unsafe staircase as they were leaving the stadium.
As we know now, Britain’s worst sporting disaster of all was still to come – also in Yorkshire – just four years after Valley Parade, when ninety-six would be killed on the crushingly overcrowded terraces of the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. But the poignancy of Valley Parade and Hillsborough when viewed in tandem is that lessons from the one, had they been heeded fully, could have prevented the other. For in the weeks after the blaze at Valley Parade and the riot at Heysel, Lord Justice Oliver Popplewell performed an investigation at the Government’s request into both tragedies. In his eventual report, there was something Popplewell noted that seemed to get lost in all the anti-hooligan hysteria that Heysel had re-triggered. It was on the subject of fences.
At Heysel, there had been fences, including a very optimistic stretch of chicken wire, to keep rival fans away from each other and away from the field-of-play. They had proven inadequate. At Valley Parade, there had been no fences, chiefly because Bradford City had never been able to afford them. We should thank heaven for poor budgets therefore, because, as Popplewell had noted with some alarm, most of the fans who had escaped the fire had only done so by climbing over the advertising boards onto the pitch. Had the perimeter of the pitch been fenced off, as at most other grounds, this escape route would have been cut off. Everybody would have had to try and evacuate through the back of the stand, and seeing how ineffective the fire exits had proven for just the few dozen who had tried to go that way, the terrible congestion that would have been caused by several thousand taking that route means there wouldn’t have been a hope. No two ways about it, if the fences had been there, the death-toll at Valley Parade would have been literally hundreds, and it was only a fluke of backhanded good fortune i.e. the club had been too strapped-for-cash to afford fences, that had prevented such a toll.
Had it not been for the anti-hooligan hysteria following Heysel, then this serious safety issue from Valley Parade would surely have at least been considered. Even with Heysel, it still should have been – the death-toll in Bradford was after all significantly higher than the death-toll in Brussels – as indeed should other safety problems that were brought to light by Heysel itself. But the Government’s one-eyed attitude to football, an attitude that said, “Once the hooligans are gone, all the problems of football will be gone with them,” more or less blinded them to the very obvious danger that was right there in front of them, almost clamouring to be recognised.
That danger was that fences, especially perimeter fences, were a bad idea. Hooliganism had not been neutralised at all by their installation. Instead, it had become worse, far worse, than it had been before they were put up. It probably would have become worse anyway, but either way, the fences were clearly not having the effect that was expected of them; indeed, one school-of-thought even suggested that they simply changed the parameters of the problem. In the 1970’s, hooligans fought each other hand-to-hand on the pitch or on the terraces. By the mid-1980’s, with full segregation and fencing, fans were as likely to resort to throwing missiles at each other instead, and probably more brazenly, as they knew that the fences would protect them from direct retaliation. (That was undoubtedly a factor in the early stages of the riot at Heysel, where for a significant period, the only fighting between the Liverpool and Juventus fans had been stone-throwing.)
But far more significant than their ineffectiveness for purpose, was the effect fences potentially could have in the event of an emergency. That effect was bound to be wholly negative, more or less by nature, for in an emergency, smooth, free movement of hundreds, or even thousands, of people away from the danger is the objective. Fences are designed to prevent movement, not to facilitate it. If a fire broke out in a stand or terrace, or if a part of a stand or terrace collapsed, or if there were overcrowding, fences would effectively neutralise the widest and most immediate evacuation-route for the spectators i.e. straight ahead onto the field-of-play. Instead, fans would be forced to retreat through much, much narrower passageways through the backs of stands in order to escape. That was not necessarily going to be a safe option, especially if, say, the emergency was a fire that was between the spectators and the exit-route. Or if there were overcrowding, which would automatically cut off access to the back of the stand for people near the front, because all the people behind them would be between them and the exit.
Valley Parade was a great tragedy in its own right, but it also should have served as a warning – that safety was as big an issue for the game as hooliganism, and that the two issues were possibly in direct conflict with one another. The Popplewell Inquiry was compelled to consider the implications of the fire for other stadia if a repeat of the disaster were to be prevented in future, and that inevitably led to the consideration of fences. And sure enough, Popplewell did warn of the danger of closing off evacuation routes in his report. But when it came to implementing his recommendations, the Government’s only concern was with ‘getting tough’ on hooligans, and so the need for safety provisions was largely ignored, as restrictions on movement, even on basic civil liberties, of football supporters were tightened up more than ever before. With increased electronic surveillance, vicious barbed wire lining walls, and high fences bordering the unclean, dilapidated terraces, football stadia in England were starting to look less like places for communal entertainment and more like Prisoner-Of-War camps. All because of a matter that was being rather exaggerated by a media that was always hungry for dramatic headlines. Sixty-six had died at Ibrox because of an unsafe stadium. Fifty-six had died at Valley Parade because of an unsafe stadium – and it would have been far more had anti-hooligan measures been fully implemented there. Thirty-nine had died at Heysel, partly because of hooliganism, but also partly because of, yet again, an unsafe stadium.
In this context, safety should surely have been seen as the priority for football to sort out. Instead, the Government was more interested in law and order for the masses than in imposing regulations on businesses. No change there.
In truth, although hooliganism was very ugly and did often produce inexcusable property damage, actual deaths as a result of it were extremely rare. Even at Heysel, none of the victims had died as a direct result of the riot. There were often very ugly scenes of violent behaviour through the 1980’s – the most frequent perpetrators probably being fans of Millwall in London – but it was an animal whose bite was seldom as fierce or bloody as its looks would suggest. All the intensive efforts to contain it, while ignoring the many other problems afflicting a sport that had clearly been rotting away since the war, showed that the Government was getting its priorities wrong, probably just for PR reasons; it has been an abiding characteristic of British Tories for decades beyond counting that they love having a crime problem to over-react to, as it gives them a chance to make a posturing show of being ‘tough’, and of being ‘the party of law and order’. While there was no doubt that hooliganism was a serious issue and that it did need to be stopped, as was usually the case with the Government of Margaret Thatcher, the solution chosen to the problem was to keep hitting it as hard as possible, and if innocent bystanders got a bloody nose at the same time, well, omelettes and broken eggs.
There was a failure, not just in Government but in football’s own authorities, to recognise that the game’s infrastructure and facilities had withered, and were both deeply obsolete and threadbare. Old, crumbling stadia, unhealthy, badly-constructed environments providing almost no comfort for paying customers. Many stadia still had no seats available, and were composed pretty much exclusively of standing terraces, many of which had changed little since the Second World War, bar the onset of decay. A lot of the time, clubs would give so little thought to maintenance of grounds that they were frequently smelly and unclean. They were also undersized, for a terrace area was always given an estimated capacity that would allow the maximum physical number of spectators to be crammed into the space given, in order to maximise gate receipts. Room to move shoulders was a luxury that football clubs apparently felt that their loyal followers did not pay enough to merit.
Although many fans preferred to stand at matches, and even today a large number of them would still like to see terraces brought back (because they create a more exciting atmosphere), the reality was that the terraces were implemented and maintained so irresponsibly in the 1980’s that they were an environment that invited trouble. Most fans were well-behaved, and they tolerated the grubby, uncomfortable conditions, but those who actually thrived on the conditions and really loved the squalor of it all were almost certainly going to be the sorts of people who enjoyed the uglier side of life in general. Thus the dirty, unsafe environment of English football stadia in the 1980’s very much contributed to, might even have been a root cause of, the encroachment of hooliganism. It was the culture of English football that had gone rotten, and until the turn of the 1990’s, there was no attempt whatever to address that, or even to face up to the reality that the game needed reform at its structural level if it were ever going to bring hooliganism under control. Getting rid of terraces would not be a necessary part of that process, but rebuilding them to be safer, designing them better, maintaining them far better e.g. cleaning them every once in a while, and assessing capacities with safety in mind ahead of profit, would all be critical to making the game appealing enough to the better-behaved supporters, who had gradually drifted away from football over the previous ten years. Alienated and intimidated by increasingly unpleasant viewing conditions, ever harsher policing, and by the hooligan element itself, ordinary well-behaved fans who just wanted to go and watch their team play every Saturday were deserting the game in droves throughout the 1980’s. Attendances were already falling thanks to the mass unemployment of the period, and they were by the mid-1980’s at a desperate low. Fans were for too long taken for granted by the game, and their average match-day experience, nothing much to write home about to begin with, was deteriorating with every passing season.
None of this was even considered through the late-1980’s. Spectator safety and comfort continued to be seen as an irrelevance, as though the misdeeds of a relatively small number of hooligans somehow forfeited the right of the majority to be treated with dignity. They were not even seen by the wider public as having the right to be safe, while the police routinely treated them with paranoid suspicion, prejudice, and a heavy-handedness that often came close to provoking the very violence that they were supposedly there to prevent.
It is in this context that the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989 should be viewed. Not in the idle, prejudicial context of, “Oh it’s those Scousers again! They killed at Heysel, then they killed each other!” Now it is fair to say that Hillsborough would never have happened were it not for the hooligan problem of the era, but even so, it had nothing directly to do with hooliganism. Indeed, if we wish to sum up what caused Britain’s worst sporting disaster in a single word – as if labelling is ever a wise approach to defining a problem – the correct word would not be ‘hooliganism’, it would in fact be ‘anti-hooliganism’. The attempts to prevent crowd violence at any cost were bound to have a particularly high cost sooner or later. The extreme measures to contain and control large crowds, the callous, indifferent harshness and suspicion of the police towards ordinary members of the public who just happened to be wearing a scarf in the colours of their team, the irresponsible casualness of the clubs and the wider football authorities, and the rabid, unimaginative desire of the Government and media to keep trying to deal with hooliganism by simply hitting it, all added up to create a sporting environment so contemptuous of its own paying public that it was more or less impossible for any spectator to be safe in it. Entire terraces were fenced up into cages, capacities were never properly calculated, and what calculations there were were always rounded upwards to increase gate receipts when they should have been rounded downwards to decrease crowd pressure. Travelling fans were marched between railway stations and stadia by police like cattle being herded by impatient farmers, or worse, like Prisoners-of-War being marched from the battlefield into a Stalag. Freedom of movement, either inside the stadium or through the streets of the cities they visited, had been taken away from them, as the price for daring to wear a scarf or a rosette.
On the terraces, the individual fan was crammed into about fifteen square inches of space, with little room to move, occasionally crushed against people around him, all in an often smelly and dirty environment that would be chaotically and peculiarly designed. Attending a home match was bad enough, but visiting the stadium of a remote club was a confusing, degrading and undignified business, and so utterly remote from how conditions are today, it almost sounds like a comparison between two different countries. It was in fact the disaster at Hillsborough itself that finally taught the lessons needed to change this shabby culture of hostility and contempt.
On the 15th of April 1989, just one element was needed to light the combustible mix; that element was incompetence. A police officer with almost no experience of policing a football game was made match commander for, of all fixtures, an FA Cup Semi-Final at Hillsborough, and his complete inability to understand how to direct the operation or how to marshal a large crowd meant the dangerous, obsolete lay-out and facilities of the stadium, and the unthinking hostility many of his officers harboured towards football supporters, could not be guarded against. The lack of know-how when it came to handling a crowd meant that far too many fans were shepherded into two enclosures behind the goal at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium. The fences lining the perimeter, designed to prevent spectators from invading the pitch, now blocked the beleaguered supporters when escaping onto the field-of-play was not a matter of mischief but a requirement of survival. And the sneering attitude of the police meant that it took a long time for many of them to cotton onto the reality that people were being crushed to death just yards away from them.
It was not hooliganism that caused Hillsborough. It was anti-hooliganism that made it possible – anti-hooligan feeling and anti-hooligan measures – complacency that allowed it, and incompetence that triggered it.
Once this context is understood, it becomes clear that hooliganism is neither needed nor plausible in order to understand the Hillsborough Disaster. For it was not the final destination of hooliganism that it has for so long been coloured as. Instead, it was the final reckoning of an ill-considered attitude that those in authority had held for much too long; –
The belief that the only way to fight aggression, is with even more aggression.
* There were in fact three football disasters in May 1985, arguably four. As well as the Valley Parade Fire and the Heysel Tragedy, in between times there was a stadium crush in Mexico City that claimed another ten lives.
On the same day as the fire in Bradford, a riot broke out at St. Andrews Stadium in Birmingham, between fans of Birmingham City and Leeds United. Over five hundred people were injured, and a fifteen-year-old boy was killed. Justice Popplewell did reference the riot in his report into the Valley Parade Fire, comparing it to the Battle Of Agincourt.
1985 really should be seen as the darkest year in the sport’s history.
Other essays about the Hillsborough Disaster; –