Hillsborough: Pushing & Shoving? What Pushing & Shoving?

May 26, 2013

by Martin Odoni

Over the months since the release of the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel, on 12th September 2012, I have taken several of the enduring myths surrounding the Hillsborough Disaster, which I had previously listed and debunked in my old essay Hillsborough: The Myths (see https://thegreatcritique.wordpress.com/2011/02/01/hillsborough-the-myths/), and debunked them in more detail. My reason for doing so is that, even though the Report itself does a pretty thorough job of dismissing them in its own right, and even though the Report has had enormous media coverage, these myths are still being propagated by thousands of people, especially across the Internet. It is perfectly plain from reading what many of these myth-spreaders have to say that they have not even studied any real evidence connected with the Disaster, but wish to cling to their established views, either out of bigotry or sheer laziness. I for one have no wish to keep repeating myself when such people need correcting, so I have put these essays together so that I – and anybody else who feels so inclined – can link to them.

This is likely to be the last of the debunking essays that I do, and it addresses perhaps the most difficult myth to debunk of all, for the simple reason that it can in fact be sustained by selective analysis of the evidence, and through interpreting words in a specific way. But in so doing, those who use this interpretation to pin culpability onto the Liverpool supporters are effectively committing an equivocation fallacy.

The myth goes that the Liverpool supporters at Hillsborough must accept some measure of blame for the Disaster because the crush outside the stadium eventually drove the police to open an exit gate to relieve life-threatening pressure on the turnstiles, and that the crush outside the ground was made dangerous by large numbers of impatient supporters pushing and shoving to try and force their way in.

As I say, this myth differs from all the others in that it can be sustained depending on how you choose to look at the evidence. For one thing, there genuinely were isolated pockets of bad behaviour from Liverpool fans outside the ground (but nothing unusual for any English football fixture at the time, nor anything that affected the course of events on the day), including occasional moments of understandable, very slight violence as the crowd pressure built up. The worst of these was a shameful moment of deep cruelty, when one supporter, whose identity we will doubtless never know, apparently stubbed out a lit cigarette into the rump of a police horse. (See paragraph 197 of the Taylor Interim Report for details.*) The atmosphere outside the stadium, which had been so jovial and celebratory for most of the afternoon, had undoubtedly turned sour and distressed for a spell of over fifteen minutes, starting around 2:35pm. In the growing mass of people, there was inevitably an awful lot of chaotic movement, and that movement, the occasional sways of the crowd, and columns of people moving in a line through sudden channels of open space, can give the impression of pushing.

In reality, a lot of the ‘pushing’ was reflexive. People often had to wade through the crowd, for reasons explained below, and the movements of others as they got out of the way could give the impression of pushing, and indeed the crowd would involuntarily spring back to close the gap afterwards, which could again give a similar impression. This was pushing in a manner of speaking, but not deliberately so. It was unavoidable, like air shifting to fill a vacuum, and more critically, it did not create the pressure of the crowd. It was instead a result of it, and therefore was not the reason the police eventually opened the exit gate.

Footage from the club’s CCTV system, and from the BBC television cameras, give ample coverage of events outside the stadium. One particular moment has been given completely disproportionate airtime over the years – the image of a mounted policeman from the South Yorkshire constabulary taking a swipe at a couple of supporters, who respond by pointing warning fingers at him to back off. The overuse of this image has perhaps helped to emphasise the false narrative of angry tension and fan misbehaviour, although it is perhaps a little strange that it has encouraged that impression; the only violent gesture in the clip is actually made by the police officer, not by the fans.

A policeman takes a swing at a couple of fans.

A mounted police officer takes a swing at a couple of supporters waiting to get to the turnstiles. A video clip of this moment was used a great deal on TV in the weeks after the Disaster; perversely, this was viewed by many as evidence of *fans* misbehaving, even though the policeman was the one being violent.

But more important by far, this clip is in fact just about the only clear example there is of truly aggressive behaviour outside the stadium that can be seen in the lengthy footage available. On closer inspection, almost every other pattern in the crowd outside can be more convincingly explained as just the ordinary movements caused by large numbers in a confined area. The confined area is cardinal to understanding what was happening.

What is not often recognised is that the entry concourse outside the turnstiles was not on the road itself. It was a walled, gated recess about thirty metres across. It was also shaped a little like an inverted ‘funnel’, so the further you were from the turnstiles, the closer together the side-walls around you became. It was therefore not terribly difficult for anyone to shuffle their way into the concourse, but once inside it, with more people arriving behind them, it was awfully difficult to get back out again. Furthermore, at the back of the concourse, it was impossible to see through the mass of people what was happening up ahead. Blinded to the chaos that was developing by the turnstiles, people at the back shuffled into the concourse, searching for the right entrance to head for, and steadily upping the pressure.

At the Semi-Final held at Hillsborough the previous year, the police had decided to set up filters further up Leppings Lane in both directions. This allowed them to manage fans as they approached the stadium. Any fan who did not have a ticket could be turned away, but more importantly by far, by this method fans who did have tickets could be organised into queues, and sent to the correct turnstiles. That way the crowd outside the West Stand was able to be kept in good, efficient order, and ‘processed’ through the turnstiles safely and as quickly as possible. This was doubly important, for the Leppings Lane end only had twenty-three turnstiles, through which it had to absorb twenty-four thousand two hundred and fifty-six supporters. (Nottingham Forest fans had been allocated all the turnstiles in the East and South Stands. There were twenty-nine thousand eight hundred Forest fans, which is a good deal more, but they had sixty turnstiles through which to enter. Sixty turnstiles versus twenty-three is a ridiculous imbalance. The turnstiles for the Forest fans were also dotted across a much, much wider area all across the length of the East and South Stands, meaning there was no thirty-metre ‘bottleneck’ for nearly thirty thousand people to have to pass through.) Worse, only seven of the Leppings Lane turnstiles gave access to the terrace below the West Stand, which was allocated ten thousand one hundred of the Liverpool supporters.

A map of Hillsborough, with annotations about crowd distribution.

A map of Hillsborough, annotated with details about crowd distribution. These explain the REAL reason why Liverpool supporters took far longer to get into the stadium than the Nottingham Forest fans.

All of this meant that the Leppings Lane turnstiles for the terrace had to operate at roughly three times the capacity of some of the other turnstiles around the stadium.

The ‘through-put’ capacity of the Leppings Lane end was, in short, all wrong, as had been witnessed before the 1987 Semi-Final. On that occasion, with no police filtering in operation, Leeds United fans had experienced pure chaos when arriving at that end of the stadium, to such a worrisome extent that the kick-off of their match against Coventry City had to be delayed by fifteen minutes to give them time to get in. The filtering introduced by Chief Superintendent Brian Mole in 1988 had alleviated this problem somewhat, although without entirely clearing it up, but in 1989 the filtering was not employed. This was mainly because there was a new Match Commander – Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield – who was very inexperienced at policing football matches, and completely unaware of the technique. Filtering was never even mentioned in the South Yorkshire Police’s formal Operational Procedure.

So, at the 1989 Semi-Final, as large numbers of fans began to descend on the outer concourse of Hillsborough between 2:35pm and 2:45pm, no one was organising them or telling them which banks of turnstiles to head for. And so instead of having neat queues keeping the turnstiles ticking over nicely, a large, unco-ordinated mass of individuals developed instead, with admission through the turnstiles happening many scales more slowly than admissions to the outer concourse. So the crowd quickly grew. And grew.

Two minutes after Gate C is opened.

A little under two minutes after Gate C is opened.

It certainly didn’t help that the turnstiles had been organised quite illogically by Sheffield Wednesday Football Club. The three main banks of turnstiles at this end were called Banks A, B, and C. That sounds simple enough, right? Well yes, it would be, except that the people who named them do not appear to have learned how the alphabet works very well. You would expect Banks A and C to be the two outside banks of turnstiles, and Bank B to be the middle one. Instead, Bank C was to be found between Banks A and B, which caused extra confusion for fans who were supposed to enter through B or C. Following the logic of seeing where Bank A was, they soon found they were heading for the wrong turnstiles, because the correct ones were not where they had expected them to be. So they then had to try and plough through a growing, confused, and increasingly tightly-packed mass of people to get to the queues (well, what passed for queues) for the correct turnstiles.

This caused a lot of extra movement and swaying inside the crowd, including many people bumping into each other, or having to ‘plough’ quite hard to wade their way through, and emphasised the impression of pushing and shoving.

Some mounted police officers complained that fans ‘dived under’ their horses in the fervent rush to get into the stadium. The incidents where this appeared to happen may be genuine, but it is far likelier that fans dived under the horses in panic because they were afraid of getting trampled under-hoof in the press of people around them.

Before anybody tries to imply that I have a rationalisation for everything, I need to reverse the accusation somewhat, by pointing out that, as is so often the case with the Hillsborough myths, the notion of pushing-and-shoving has a real plausibility-gap. The old mantra always reads, “The fans were pushing and shoving to fight their way in, and when they got in they stampeded onto the terrace and pushed people at the front into the fences.” However, should you think about it, this is a highly perplexing idea. Because what I notice when watching video footage of the swaying and movements in the crowd, both outside the ground and on the terraces, is that the response of those being ‘pushed’ always appears to be remarkably meek and tame. The question this accusation demands is surely this; –

Why does nobody ever seem to push back?

Surely even the most unaggressive human being who is being repeatedly pushed from behind will eventually turn around and dish some of it straight back? But it never happens at any time in any of the video footage of the crowd on Leppings Lane. Not on the terrace, nor outside the ground. When you consider that, it makes the pushing-and-shoving interpretation look, not just harsh, but utterly bizarre.

In truth, if you compare the pictures at Hillsborough to the pictures of crowd movements at literally thousands of other football fixtures dating back decades, especially in the pre-Taylor-Report era, what you see proves to be entirely commonplace. It is very hard to distinguish the fan-behaviour at Hillsborough from what it was like anywhere else. In fact, the ‘stampede’ idea mentioned above is particularly nonsensical. The video footage of the fans as they enter through Gate C shows very, very clearly that they were moving at a walking pace. I am often almost stunned, indeed, at how orderly the general behaviour is as they enter; remarkable enough for a 1980’s football crowd, but doubly impressive given the stress many of them had been through over the previous fifteen minutes or so. (See this footage published by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, with commentary by Peter Sissons at http://hillsborough.independent.gov.uk/repository/media/VID0002.html.) So insofar as the behaviour can be distinguished from that of other football crowds at all, this was, as a whole, an exceptionally well-behaved crowd, at least by the standards of the era.

(Also, on the issue of the supposed ‘stampede’, I have made the point before that the crush didn’t spill over into Disaster until about kick-off time, and yet Gate C was opened at 2:52pm. Given that the distance from Gate C to the terrace was about eighty feet or so, the eight minutes taken to cover it seem to make it an astonishingly long, slow and cautious ‘stampede’.)

As for the later arrivals ‘pushing’ the fans at the front into the fences, you don’t need such actions for that effect. Just the excess numbers being shepherded into a space suited to only about half as many people is all that is required to press the people at the front against the fences. It also needs to be recognised that it wasn’t only the people at the front who were crushed, and anecdotes from survivors of the central pens invariably speak, not of being pushed from behind in particular, but of a slow, insidious build-up of pressure all around them.**

So no, while the notion of shoving has more legs to it than most of the other myths, is somewhat more credible, and can even be based on some evidence for once, in the end it still falls short as a result of closer analysis. Clinging to it really depends on a lack of understanding of the laws of physics, and of how crowd-movements work.


* This incident with the horse and the cigarette burns is in dispute. A Freedom Of Information request has been submitted in the last few days to the South Yorkshire Police – see https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/hillsborough_disaster_cigarette – requesting evidence for cross-analysis, to verify whether it really happened, and whether it was genuinely a Liverpool supporter who did it.***

EDIT 11/12/2016.

The doubts about the accusation have been amplified, as will be highlighted in a new documentary about the Disaster to be broadcast on Monday 12th December 2016. The claim was made originally by Constable David Scott to explain the above-pictured notorious moment caught on video of him taking a swing at several supporters from horseback. It now emerges that Scott’s senior officer, Inspector Paul Hand-Davies, explicitly denied that a horse had suffered burn injuries at all. (Hillsborough: Smears, Survivors and the Search for the Truth looks set to be a kind of ‘update’ on how cross-examination of the evidence published by the Hillsborough Independent Panel is progressing. Strangely, the HIP Report can almost be seen as out-of-date, as private investigations by members of the public in the four years since have uncovered more wide examples of police, shall we say, ‘irregularities’.)

** There is an often-cited point about some fans in the tunnel stating that they were ‘hit from behind by a wave of force’ that ‘carried’ them onto the terrace, but even that isn’t about pushing and shoving in reality; it is far more about large numbers of people who were in an open space outside the tunnel suddenly channelling into a much, much narrower, more confined space inside the tunnel. Pressure is always increased by energy or movement in a tightly-contained space, and with nowhere for that energy to go but forward, anyone caught in the mass of people was bound to get swept forward, whether they wanted to or not.

*** EDIT: 19th June 2013.

The aforementioned Freedom Of Information request has been declined on the grounds that it would take longer than eighteen hours to find the correct details. I find this claim to be doubtful at best, and it highlights the failings in current FOI regulations. The eighteen-hour limit is a free gift to any official wanting to cop out of seeking the appropriate information for any request they receive.


Other articles about Hillsborough; –

Ticketlessness Was Not A Factor, And This Is How We Know

The Toppling Gate

Is Thatcher Guilty? If So, What Of?

More On Thatcher – That Quote That Never Goes Away

The Air Of Shock Should Itself Be Shocking

Digging The Dirt

Changing Statements

What Exactly Is Sir Norman Bettison In Trouble For?

Meet A Silly Old Dear

More On That Panorama Documentary

In Its Correct Historical Context

After A Year The Sun’s Apology Is Still Not Accepted – And Nor Should It Be

The Institutional Guilt Lies Not Only With The Police

Where Was I?


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