Hillsborough: Lateness Caused The Disaster? Are You Serious? What Lateness There Was Saved Lives

September 6, 2013

by Martin Odoni

I used to be amazed at the wasted fortitude with which South Yorkshire Police apologists could cling to any notion of supporter-misbehaviour in the Hillsborough Disaster, no matter how overwhelmingly the facts remained stacked against them. Nowadays I just shrug and mentally assign them a category-number. Sure, labelling is lazy, but sometimes it’s the only way to stay sane. Most of the false notions about the fans that routinely get bandied about I have debunked quite thoroughly elsewhere on this blog, but one I haven’t perhaps gone to quite such lengths to discredit – although I have mentioned it on numerous occasions – is the issue of whether Liverpool fans arriving late to the stadium played a major role, indeed any role, in causing the Disaster.

From my understanding of it, the answer isn’t merely a resounding no, but rather surprisingly, that it probably lessened the Disaster somewhat.

The key aspect that not enough people recognise is when the crush outside the ground on Leppings Lane occurred. The common myth was that hundreds of supporters showed up with only a few minutes to go before the match was due to begin, and created such chaotic pressure on the turnstiles that the police were compelled to open an exit gate to relieve the strain.

But this is not true at all. The crush outside the ground was in fact in its infancy as early as 2:30pm, fully half an hour before the scheduled kick-off of the match. The real reason the crush formed is a lack of what is fashionably known among management-executive types as ‘through-put’. This is to say, there were far too few turnstiles at the west end of the stadium (just twenty-three in total for all the Liverpool supporters, compared with sixty turnstiles for the Nottingham Forest supporters), and worse, many of them were so old and dilapidated that they were prone to breaking down. This meant that, on arrival at the stadium, there was still quite a bit of work for a Liverpool supporter to do before he/she could actually get in. (For more, read this.)

The crowd build-up on Leppings Lane fully twenty-seven minutes before kick-off is already highly ominous.

The crowd build-up on Leppings Lane fully twenty-seven minutes before kick-off was already highly ominous, and this disproves the notion that the Disaster was a result of late arrivals.

The bulk of the Liverpool fans caught up in the crush arrived in a spell of around ten minutes between 2:30 and 2:40, but because entry rate was so slow, the queues were building up far more quickly than those at the front could progress through the turnstiles. By about 2:45, the time printed on the match tickets requesting that fans should aim to be in the stadium by, the crowd in Leppings Lane was thousands-strong, with rate-of-entry down to a tortoise’s crawl, and the pressure in the confined space of the entry concourse growing, not through fan behaviour, but through sheer weight of numbers. Any arrivals after this point would not therefore have created a crush, because it was already there. They would simply have added more bodies to what was already a giant, stationary mass. The exit gate, Gate C, was opened at 2:52, eight minutes before the game kicked off.  At that point, the crush was relieved as the fans poured through the gate in large numbers. So anyone who arrived after 2:52, although you could make a case arguing that they were late, would not have been part of the crush in Leppings Lane at all.

Summing up the premise very simply then – the chaos happening in Leppings Lane could not have been the result of late arrivals, as the outside crush formed before they would have reached the stadium, and was completely cleared well before kick-off.

It is noticeable that those who cling to the fiction of fans arriving late either never specify the times involved (so that the exact meaning of ‘late’ in this context is not conveyed), or they cite apocryphal examples of fans arriving so late that there is no way they could have affected the course of the Disaster. It is true that some fans (just a few dozen or so) did arrive in the last few minutes, and yes, even a few arrived after kick-off (but hey, it happens, and seldom by design – in this case, some were delayed in traffic because of roadworks on the M62, while others, who had travelled by rail, were needlessly delayed by – oh look who it is yet again – the police, at Wadsley Bridge Station on the other side of Sheffield). But they are irrelevant to the Disaster’s genesis, for one simple reason that really should be very obvious to anyone who bothers to apply a bit of objective thought; by the time they got into the ground, the crush on the terrace below the West Stand had already turned critical.

As evidence of how early that had happened, let us consider Adam Spearritt. He was one of the youngest victims of the Disaster at just 14. He was attending the game with his father, Eddie*, who later recalled that Adam was so overwhelmed by the weight of the overcrowding in the central pens that he passed out as early as 2:54. Now, some locals in Sheffield stubbornly insist that they saw Liverpool fans drinking in pubs right up until almost exactly 3pm**. But even if these fans did eventually go into the stadium after kick-off, one very important question needs to be asked. That question is; –

So what?

Arrivals after 3pm have nothing to do with causing the Hillsborough Disaster, for, as Adam Spearritt’s fate so cruelly demonstrates, it was well before 3pm that the crush formed in the central pens. (In fact, anecdotal evidence from some survivors who arrived very early indicates that there were serious crowding problems developing as early as 2:05.) Indeed, the crush in the central pens was forming well before Gate C was even opened, and anyone arriving after 3pm was not going to do anything to cause it, they were only going to witness a calamity that was already set-in-stone.

And this is the intriguing aspect for me. If you think about it, had every single fan arrived before 2:45, it wouldn’t have prevented the Disaster. On the contrary, it would probably have made it worse. The narrow ‘bottleneck’ at the turnstiles would still have been there, still posed exactly the same obstacle. And with the extra numbers, the crush outside the ground would only have been tighter. So Gate C would still have had to be opened, whereupon, as over two thousand fans, now topped up by a few dozen more, descended onto the terrace, the central pens would have simply had to absorb an even larger overflow than happened in reality. It is estimated that over three thousand fans were jammed into a space only suited to around seventeen-hundred, around the time the game kicked off. Add an extra, say, eighty fans into that multitude and what would happen? The pressure would only have been higher.

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.

Given how close some of the survivors were to dying, that extra bit pressure might well have been enough to finish them off.

As I said earlier, very few fans arrived particularly late anyway. But in the strangest sense, it possibly saved a few lives that they did.


* Sadly, Eddie Spearritt himself passed away in February 2011, a little over eighteen months before the release of the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel. Not only was he one of the bereaved families of the Hillsborough Disaster, he was also one of the injured, as, like his son, he passed out in the central pens due to asphyxiation, not to awaken for several days. When he did wake up, he was in Sheffield’s Northern General Hospital, although how he got there has remained one of the Disaster’s most unsettling mysteries; nobody has ever been able to establish with any certainty how or when he was taken from the stadium, at what point he reached the hospital, or what treatment, if any, he received in the first couple of hours he was there. There are serious suspicions that medical staff in the hospital might have left him for dead on a trolley-stretcher, and only started administering treatment to him after he began fitting, alerting them to the fact that he was still alive. After twenty-four years, the Northern General Hospital has remained noticeably silent on the subject.

Eddie Spearritt campaigned tirelessly for over twenty years to get justice for his son, and his passing has meant yet another victim of Hillsborough never lived to see the truth unveiled.

** My suspicion is that, assuming these anecdotes are even true, many of the fans they saw had travelled to Sheffield in the hope of getting a ticket once they were at the stadium, and having failed, they simply went back into town to have a drink, which was a standard day out for a lot of football fans at the time, especially when it was a very big game for which tickets were very difficult to obtain. Some fans still do that as a matter of routine even today.

Fans drinking in pubs just before the Disaster? Even if it's true, big deal.

On the Guardian’s YouTube channel on the day the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s Report was published, someone claimed to see fans drinking in pubs just minutes before the Disaster. To which I ask, “So what?” (Recommend clicking on pic for a larger view.)

I have made the point before, and I make it again, that there is nothing ‘immoral’ about travelling to a game without a ticket, provided you make sure you obtain one before you attempt to access the stadium. Only if a fan tries to enter the stadium itself without paying has he/she done anything they should be ashamed of.


Also about the Hillsborough Disaster; –

The Myths

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

Discursive Types

Changing Statements

In Its Correct Historical Context

Meet A Silly Old Dear

The Toppling Gate

A Brief Review Of The Jimmy McGovern Docu-Drama From 1996

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

The Crush Barrier – A Smoking Gun?

The Name That Became A Moment

Forged Tickets? Only If You Think Star Wars Is A Documentary

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