December 22, 2013
Sue Johnston’s tribute was immensely moving.
Sue Johnston gave a powerful and moving tribute to Hillsborough Campaigner Anne Williams at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards . Anne led by example in her quest for the truth about her son and others who died in the entirely preventable Hillsborough Disaster that killed 96.
For me, the Hillsborough Campaign for truth and justice stands as a powerful example how the people can triumph over adversity and expose the cover ups and corruption of political, police and press power. It would have been a long, tough and agonising road for anyone let alone bereaved families to tread. There is still a long long way to go but the light is visible at the end of what has been a long dark tunnel.
Unfortunately they are not the only part of our community that is seeking truth and justness – victims of child abuse whom I am…
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Hillsborough, Heysel, Valley Parade and Ibrox: Why Are Stadium Disasters Always Prone To Urban Mythology?
December 9, 2013
by Martin Odoni
There were four great (if that is an appropriate word) tragedies that afflicted British football through the 1970’s and 1980’s – the second Ibrox Disaster of 1971, the Valley Parade Fire of 1985, the Heysel Stadium Disaster also of 1985, and the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989. Repercussions and reaction to them were varied in the extreme, from leaden-footed semi-interest from most of the country in response to Ibrox, to insensitive victim-blaming in response to Hillsborough. But one pattern that was completely consistent in their aftermaths was a false version of events becoming dominant in the wider public consciousness. All four disasters have a least one urban myth attached to them, sometimes minor, sometimes insidious, but they all have a note of false blame attached to one degree or another as well, and they all need dispelling.
With this in mind, there follows a description of one myth associated with each of the four tragedies, followed by an explanation of why that myth is untrue, and a description of what really happened in each case.
1st Myth – Ibrox. “Large numbers of fans were leaving the stadium, then suddenly turned and ran back towards the terraces in response to a late goal, colliding with other fans heading the other way.”
The notion that is still frequently perpetuated about the second Ibrox Disaster* in the New Year of 1971 (including, it saddens me to say, in the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel – see section 1.28 on page 30) is that the human crush that happened at the end of the game was a result of large numbers of Glasgow Rangers fans behaving in a reckless and somewhat fickle manner.
Most of the game, played between the two bitterest rivals in all of British sport, Rangers and Celtic, had been goalless and it appeared to be petering out into a tame draw. But entering the final minute, Bobby Lennox of Celtic struck a long range shot that hit the Rangers’ crossbar, and the ball looped out perfectly for Jimmy Johnstone to power a header into the net, for Celtic to take the lead. The myth assumes that thousands of Rangers fans, disappointed to see their team fall behind at the eleventh hour, started to head for the exits at this point. As the game headed into injury time however, Rangers got the ball down to the other end of the field, there was a scrappy scramble in the goalmouth, and Colin Stein forced the ball over the line for a similarly-surprising equaliser. The roar of celebration from the Rangers fans who were still on the terraces, the myth assumes, caused many of the fans who were on their way down the staircase that led out of the stadium to turn around and run back up the stairs to see what had happened. In doing this, it is imagined, they collided with a large body of other fans who had been following them, and this led many of them to fall down the stairs, and to land in a large pile at the foot of the staircase. In the crush that ensued, sixty-six people died, and over two hundred more were injured.
What actually happened; –
This famous myth is one of the earliest known examples of a British stadium disaster in which the victims get the blame for their own misfortune. The first aspect of it that is incorrect is the notion that the game was still being played when it happened. In reality, the game had already been over for at least several minutes – possibly as many as ten – by the time of the accident, which therefore could not have been a knock-on response to one of the goals being scored. The myth does not even make a great deal of sense. If the fans already descending the staircase leading out of the stadium – the notorious ‘Stairway 13’ – turned back in response to the roar of the crowd, why would the fans following behind them, who would have heard the roar even more clearly, carry on walking away?
In fact, eyewitness accounts all seem to agree that the flow of people at the time of the crush was all one way, and that was leading down the steps, away from the terraces. What appears to have happened was that one very young fan was sat on the shoulders of an adult who was descending the staircase. The adult lost balance, and the child fell forward off his shoulders, colliding with other fans ahead of them, causing them to stumble in turn and to collide with others ahead of them. This set in motion a kind of ‘domino effect’, as each person to stumble caused people in front of them to stumble, and people behind them to trip over them, and so on, until hundreds were tumbling down the steps.
The crush also did not happen at the foot of the staircase. Stairway 13 was divided into a number of flights, separated off by a series of short landings. The pile-up was on the landing at the top of the middle flight of steps.
What makes the mythological version of the Disaster’s cause insidious is that it implies that a large number of Rangers supporters were to blame for foolishly trying to push against the flow of the crowd on a staircase, and, in doing so, causing large numbers of people to fall, triggering a mass crush. This version, if accepted, would have spared authorities, especially Rangers Football Club itself, a considerable burden of responsibility for what happened. That responsibility is all-the-more significant when one considers the record of Stairway 13. This exit route from the stadium had had a worrisome history of safety issues dating back some ten years before the Disaster, all of which indicated that it was unsafe, owing to its steepness. Two people were killed and seventy were injured when falling on Stairway 13 in September 1961. Eleven more were taken to hospital after another mishap on the staircase in September 1967, and there were nearly thirty more injuries there in January 1969. After such a run of accidents, it should have become very apparent that something calamitous was going to happen sooner or later, but Rangers Football Club did little or nothing to modify or improve the staircase.
To try and say foolish crowd behaviour triggered the Disaster would therefore not just be inaccurate and unfair, it would also partly absolve Rangers Football Club of its culpability. In all fairness, the club did accept without any objections that the Disaster was the result of its own complacent failures, and to make sure that there could be no repeat, in the years that followed, Ibrox Park would be rebuilt from the ground upwards into a fully modernised all-seater stadium, setting by far the best safety standards of any football venue in the British Isles at the time.
Had the rest of the UK been paying proper attention to what happened, it might well have followed suit, but it was only really Rangers that was prepared to face the stark reality of how obsolete, dilapidated and inadequate British facilities for watching football had become. The general inertia everywhere else was probably partly because television pictures of the Disaster as it unfolded were non-existent, and so the full enormity of it was lost on most of the country. But it says something about the general ‘Yeah-but-that-was-Rangers-it-couldn’t-happen-here’ disinterest that it took fully sixteen months just for the Inquiry into the Disaster, conducted by Lord John Wheatley, to publish its findings. This lethargic attitude continued, both within football and within Government. After the Wheatley Report in May 1972, it took another year for the release of the first Green Guide laying out guidelines to improve stadium safety, and a further two years after that for Government legislation to follow, in the shape of the Safety At Sports Grounds Act. (And it took still another year for the renewal of the Green Guide to bring its recommendations into line with the Act. In all, it had taken five-and-a-half years after the Disaster just for the country to get to a starting position.) At no stage were the regulations stipulated in the Green Guide made mandatory, and implementation of them would be haphazard, grudging, and intermittent.
The legacy of the unheeded lessons of Ibrox would be more disasters, at Valley Parade and Hillsborough.
* The tragedy on Stairway 13 should not be confused with the first Ibrox Disaster. This occurred way back in 1902, when the same stadium was used to host the then-annual fixture between the national teams of Scotland and England. A temporary wooden stand, called ‘The West Tribune Stand’, had been set up above one of the terraces to allow extra spectators in to watch the game, but it had been weakened during the night before by torrential rain. Early in the second half of the game, part of the floor of the stand suddenly gave way, causing hundreds of spectators to fall over forty feet to the solid ground below. Twenty-five people were killed, and over five hundred others were injured.
2nd Myth – Valley Parade. “Some idiot at Bradford City locked the exit doors at the back of the main stand, and no one could get out when the fire broke out.”
This myth is not exactly insidious, but it is somewhat unfair.
The Valley Parade Fire of 11th May 1985 was perhaps the most horrifying of the four stadium disasters because of the unrelenting speed at which events unfolded.
The fire took fifty-six lives and left terrible scars on many of its survivors, and there is no doubt that abysmally poor safety standards were once again at the heart of what went wrong. But there is a common misunderstanding about one aspect of that.
The myth goes that the deaths were caused because most of the fans in the main stand ran to the exits in the back wall, only to find when they got there that they were all locked. While this is accurate in a manner of speaking, the emphasis is misleading as it implies that Bradford City Football Club had a myopic policy of preventing safe evacuation routes, purely for the sake of keeping non-ticket-holders from sneaking into the stadium. This impression still seems commonplace among the football public.
What actually happened; –
In fact, while it is technically true that the doors were locked, it was only in a way that, in most circumstances, would not have presented a serious obstacle at all. What is not usually mentioned or understood when discussing the matter is that the doors at the back of the stand were all standard Fire Exits, of a typical Push-bar-to-open-door variety. The doors all had the familiar horizontal release bars at roughly waist height, which when pushed would have allowed easy escape.
The real problem was not the locks, it was that these were not ‘most circumstances’. Due to the highly combustible materials that the aged timber stand was made from, and the dizzying speed at which the fire was spreading, the air was absolutely saturated with an immensely thick miasma of black smoke. After just a few moments, any people still in the stand were almost completely blinded, and they all effectively had to orient themselves by touch alone – by feeling their way around the seating and along the back wall, to find a route to the narrow passageways that led to the exits. By the time anyone finally reached an exit, they would be so confused by the lack of vision and by smoke-inhalation that finding the release bars in order to push them was a difficult task in itself, and the fire was approaching so quickly that they did not have long in which to find them. Many failed.
Another aspect in the myth that is misleading is the implication that hardly anybody escaped the fire. While fifty-six is a horrific death-toll, it is far from true that it amounted to the majority of spectators who had been there that day. It was, after all, a promotion party, as Bradford City had just won the then-Third Division Championship, and so there was a much higher than usual attendance that day. There had in fact been approximately three thousand spectators in the main stand at the time the fire broke out, and the great majority of them escaped uninjured. This was because most of them evacuated by climbing over the advertising boards around the perimeter onto the field of play, instead of heading for the back of the stand.
There were many aspects of poor safety at the Valley Parade Stadium that Bradford City deserved criticism for. The stand, which by a sad irony was due to be part-demolished just two days later to be replaced with a state-of-the-art modern-roofed grandstand, was clearly far too old and badly maintained. There were no fire extinguishers available, which seems shocking enough in any place of communal entertainment, let alone one that was made largely of wood. Large amounts of combustible litter had been allowed to build up under the stand dating back at least thirty years, which played a critical role in the fire breaking out in the first place – and yes, the club had been warned about it several times beforehand that it posed a serious danger. The turnstiles had been locked, which prevented one possible evacuation route – indeed some victims died not of burns or inhalation but of crush injuries from making an unsuccessful attempt to escape by crawling under the turnstiles.
Yes, safety standards at Valley Parade were appallingly low, but the locked exits myth is not really true. We also must keep in mind the poverty of Bradford City at the time – the club had actually folded a couple of years earlier and was only resurrected when a former board member, Stafford Heginbotham, was able to buy up the assets and to cover the wage-bill to keep fielding a team. And in all fairness to Heginbotham, at the time of the Disaster, as the club’s new chairman he had only just started a gradual process of reforming the ground, when he had scant resources with which to do it. At the very least, he was the first chairman the club had had in a long time who was prepared to face the reality of the need for reform. The horrendous condition of Valley Parade was a situation he had very much inherited, not one he had created.
(For more insights into this subject, I highly recommend reading Four Minutes To Hell: The Story Of The Bradford City Fire, written by Paul Firth, one of the survivors. Unsurprisingly, it is often a very harrowing read, but very diligently and articulately written. There are also more details analysing the Bradford Fire on this blog, which can be read here and here.)
3rd Myth – Heysel. “Scousers were the worst hooligans in the 80’s. At Heysel, they were murderers!”
The Heysel Stadium Disaster happened less than three weeks after the Valley Parade Fire, and it is fair to suggest that, had it not happened, the Fire would be far more vividly remembered today.
The Disaster in Brussels was probably the most notorious episode of hooliganism in the history of European football, chiefly because the chaos was broadcast live on television all around the world – it happened shortly before the 1985 European Champions’ Cup Final was due to kick off.
Now, this is certainly no attempt to exonerate or defend the behaviour of the supporters of either team in Brussels on the night of the Disaster, but it is beyond doubt that the Heysel Disaster is, both in terms of identifying the events on the day and of identifying its causes and origins, a leading candidate for being the single most widely misunderstood and most wildly mythologised football disaster of all.
The mythological version has it that supporters of Liverpool Football Club, with a supposed history of routinely violent behaviour at the time, travelled to Brussels for the European Cup Final against Juventus of Italy in the mood for a fight. When they got into the stadium, so the myth has it, they sought out the nearest enclosure to contain a large presence of Italian supporters, then stampeded into it and started murdering them indiscriminately.
This portrayal of events sounds far too vivid and crude to be true even without analysing the facts first. And sure enough it is too vivid and crude to be true.
What actually happened; –
The real causes of the Heysel Disaster were far, far more complex and varied than a simplistic, stereotyped “Scousers-were-looking-for-trouble” narrative, and the loss of life on the night, while inexcusable, was certainly not murder. And although the immediate responsibility for the Disaster does, in the end, lie with the Liverpool supporters, the blame is far from exclusively theirs. What really happened, and why it happened, is quite a long and complicated story, as shall be outlined below.
It is also utterly untrue to claim that Liverpool fans had a particularly bad reputation or record of misbehaviour at the time. It was not exactly free of blemishes, no – many Liverpool fans had a deserved reputation for kleptomania when on their travels around the continent – but given that the club had played far more European matches than any other British side at the time, the history of Liverpool supporter-conduct abroad was remarkably good. Certainly it was far better proportionally than the usual behaviour of fans of the England national team at the time, or of clubs such as Tottenham Hotspur or Leeds United. (Those who blame Liverpool for the five-year ban imposed on English clubs from taking part in European competition after 1985 are looking for scapegoats for a problem that, in reality, was almost endemic across the country.)
The root causes of the Disaster itself were actually sowed in previous years. In 1982, the European football union, UEFA, was looking for venues to host the European Cup Final over the next few years, and was invited to consider Heysel. The stadium had hosted the Final three times previously, including in 1958, only the third European Cup Final ever played. It had also hosted three Finals of the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, one of the secondary European competitions (now defunct).
What UEFA does not appear to have been made aware of, or perhaps just did not put much thought to, was that the Heysel Stadium was in fact in an advancing state of disrepair. It was already over fifty years old and the very concrete it was constructed from was decaying. Arsenal supporters had attended a Cup-Winners’ Cup Final there in 1980, and they had concluded unanimously and unreservedly that it was ‘a dump’. Indeed, a demolition order had been served on the stadium, which was expected to be carried out in 1986. With this order in place, the authorities in Belgium did not bother to continue with maintenance work on the ground, the attitude being “Why waste money repairing something when we’re going to demolish it soon anyway?”
Whether UEFA ever bothered to carry out a formal inspection of Heysel before making its decision is not completely clear. The rumour, perhaps an apocryphal story, is that a UEFA delegation did attend the ground in the winter of 1982-83, but that it was so cold on the morning of the inspection that they decided to give it a miss, and just approved the stadium. “It’s hosted European Finals before,” seemed to have been the thinking, “it can host one more.” This sounds so casual, especially given the demolition order that was already in place, that the story needs to be treated with caution. But it has to be said, it does seem to have an uncomfortable ring of truth to it, if only because, had an inspection in fact gone ahead, it seems inconceivable that the UEFA delegates would have agreed to let the biggest sporting fixture in all of Europe be played there.
Whatever the reality of that, the reality of the stadium was that it was not in a condition fit for a crowd at a Third Division League match, let alone a European Cup Final. The perimeter walls, made of aged cinder-block, were brittle and worn. The concrete surface of the terraces had long-since broken up into loose blocks resting on top of the foundations. Fences were feeble and rusted. The ground would have been hard-pressed to host a meeting of a local Rotary Club in adequate safety. But it was eventually confirmed to be the venue for the 1985 European Champions’ Cup Final.
In May 1984, Liverpool Football Club reached the Final. It was the club’s fourth appearance in the Final since 1977, and on all three previous appearances, the team had gone on to lift the most prestigious trophy in European sport.
This year, their opponents would be an Italian club, AS Roma, who were a major force in Italian football at the time, but had still never become European Champions. This was surely Roma’s best-ever opportunity to do so however, for the venue chosen for the European Champions’ Cup Final was the Stadio Olimpico… in Rome. Yes, UEFA had allowed Roma’s home stadium to be the venue for a European Cup Final that Roma’s own team was to appear in. Although Liverpool was the team with by far the greater European pedigree, with home advantage it was Roma who went into the Final as the clear favourites to win.
But Liverpool won. After two hours of football had failed to separate the two teams, Liverpool’s nerve held better in the penalty shoot-out that followed, and they lifted the European Champions’ Cup for the fourth time.
Among the seventy thousand spectators in the Stadio Olimpico, there were approximately five thousand Liverpool supporters. When the shoot-out ended, they should have been in a state of joyous delirium. Instead, those who were there still recall being gripped by a sensation of real terror. The atmosphere around the rest of the stadium turned very, very ugly in just seconds as the Roma fans began to recognise the taste of bitter defeat. Knowing they were outnumbered by roughly thirteen-to-one, and noticing the waves of hostility emanating from their beaten rivals, many of the Liverpool supporters began to worry whether they would be able to escape the Eternal City with their lives.
They had good reason to worry.
Immediately upon getting out of the stadium, hundreds of Roma fans, most of them ‘Ultras’ (extreme fanatics) returned to where they had parked their cars, and from within, they retrieved weapons that had been concealed inside, including machetes. They then waited at the exit allocated to the Liverpool supporters, whom the police had kept from leaving the ground until after all the Italian fans were gone.
Almost as soon as the Liverpool supporters were allowed out of the stadium, the armed Ultras were upon them, hurling missiles at them, and slashing at them with knives. If the Liverpool supporters expected the police to help and protect them, they were to be sorely disappointed. Any appeal for help was met with police violence against the Liverpudlians, who found themselves being kicked and punched by officers who seemed to believe that the nationality of a football fan was all that mattered when establishing who was an aggressor.
For hours through the night that followed, terrified Liverpool fans tried to find a safe path through the city back to their hotels, repeatedly having to take refuge from blade-wielding, bloodthirsty motorcycle gangs, who were patrolling the streets to find Englishmen to take revenge upon on behalf of their team.
Many fans did make it to their hotels more or less unscathed, but for some of them, the nightmare did not end there. For some of the hotel owners suddenly refused them access to their rooms, fearing that to allow them in would make their hotels targets for further attacks. In the end, many of the Liverpool supporters had to go as far as to take refuge in the British Embassy.
No one had actually been killed during the ‘Night Of The Roman Knives’, but it was not for want of trying. Dozens were injured, and many were hospitalised.
The whole chapter of violence was met with expressions of outrage and shame in the Italian media the next day, but to the shock and anger of many Liverpudlians, there seemed to be an almost total blackout of coverage in the British press. The Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher, probably for political reasons, was stonily silent about it, failing even to go through the formality of registering an official complaint with the Italian Government – perhaps for fear of evoking sympathy for socialist Liverpool.
The upshot of this violent episode was two-fold;-
Firstly, people from Merseyside became increasingly convinced that they could not count on their own Government to protect them or to speak up for them when they were the victims of wrongdoing when abroad, and that in the event of future confrontations, they were going to have to look out for themselves, by any means necessary.
And secondly, those who had witnessed or become embroiled in the attacks swiftly developed a deeply-felt, generalised fear and resentment of Italian football fans. It was not a well-informed fear, nor was it a fear that would justify counter-violence, but it was entirely comprehensible.
So can anyone fail to imagine the reaction of at least some of the Liverpool fanbase a year later when, on qualifying for the Final again, they learned that their opponents at Heysel would be another Italian club – Juventus of Turin?
In the weeks leading up to the 1985 Final, UEFA made another bewildering decision, this time regarding ticketing arrangements. The seating areas in the stands would be allocated to neutrals and dignitaries, while the supporters of Liverpool and Juventus were allocated opposite ends of the stadium, sensibly enough. Each end of the Heysel Stadium had a semi-circular terrace, divided by wire fencing into three sections or ‘blocks’. All three blocks at the Juventus end of the stadium were awarded to the travelling Italian support. But the Liverpool contingent was (wrongly) expected to be much smaller, so they were only given two blocks at their end. It was decided that the third block, known as ‘Section Z’, should be used as another ‘neutral’ space for casual spectators. And tickets for this space were made freely available on the local market.
This was, to put it as politely as possible, an unwise decision.
In fact, to blazes with politeness, it was downright idiotic.
The problem was that the fixture was being held in Brussels, which had an enormous Italian expatriate community. Juventus was the most popular football team in Italy (and still is), so naturally enough, many of the expatriate Italians living in Brussels were Juventus supporters. So when tickets to a European Cup Final, featuring Juventus and to be played in Brussels, went on open sale on the Belgian market, guess whose hands most of them ended up in?
(Clue: Not Liverpool fans.)
(Another clue: Not neutrals either.)
The situation therefore was that on the terrace allocated to the fifteen thousand Liverpool supporters, one section with a capacity of over five thousand was going to be occupied in the main by Juventus supporters. And the two contingents were only going to be separated from each other by a thin length of chain-link fencing (‘chicken-wire’). Just a couple of yards from each other, and with many of the Liverpool supporters still haunted by memories of the dreadful treatment they had received in Rome a year earlier.
Hardly surprisingly, both Liverpool and Juventus protested to UEFA in the weeks before the Final that the arrangements were an invitation for trouble. But as was so often the case with UEFA when it faced objections to its policies, it just tried to deal with the difficulties highlighted by sneering at them.
A few days before the Final, Liverpool Football Club lodged another protest. Representatives of the club had finally been given a chance to survey the Heysel Stadium, and they were absolutely appalled by what they saw. The stadium was literally crumbling. The terraces at either end of the ground were just collections of cracks loosely-connected by stretches of decaying concrete. Walls looked barely capable of keeping out a light breeze. The stadium was entirely unsuited to its task. One or two officials at Liverpool seriously considered refusing to play the Final. But again, UEFA did not listen. Knowing that withdrawing from the Final would lead to repercussions, and probably considerable public criticism, Liverpool backed down, but with an ongoing air of trepidation.
For much of the day of the match, there seemed to be plenty of signs that the worries of the two clubs were unfounded. English and Italian supporters mingled freely and happily around the streets of Brussels, and the atmosphere was mainly celebratory. Much alcohol was consumed, but that only seemed to heighten the cheer. It was only as the sunny afternoon gave way to a humid evening that the mood began to darken. As more and more fans of both sides neared the stadium, suspicion began to replace friendliness. Rumours of minor clashes between rival groups of fans began circulating, and soon everyone was on their guard.
The major flashpoint outside the stadium was an ugly incident indeed, but also something of a misunderstanding. One Liverpool supporter bought a hot dog from a street-vendor, but apparently tried to pay for it in sterling. The vendor was not prepared to accept this, and demanded payment in francs. The Liverpool supporter did not have any local currency though, and so after a heated argument, eventually he just turned and walked away, hot-dog-and-all. The vendor was so angry that he did something that was bound to trigger unhappy memories of a year before – he drew a knife from his stall and slashed the Liverpool supporter with it.
Other red-shirted fans ran up to intervene, and the vendor was soon overpowered. But those who witnessed the confrontation only from a distance appear to have misinterpreted what they saw, and within minutes, the rumour was circulating rapidly around the outskirts of the Heysel Stadium that Juventus supporters had brought knives with them into Brussels, and that one of them had already stabbed a Liverpool fan. It was happening again, it seemed, the Italians were after Liverpool blood once more! Even though the vendor was almost certainly not a Juventus fan at all, suspicion began to give way to anxiety.
As fans of both sides reached the stadium, they shared the disgust the Liverpool club delegation had felt a few days earlier at the sight of a ground that looked like a reject project from a DIY television programme. Many of the Liverpool supporters had arrived without tickets, but this did not prove to be a major difficulty, as almost nobody manning the turnstiles made any attempt to check anybody’s ticket, nor to see whether they were carrying anything inappropriate such as weapons or alcohol. Some fans did not even go to the turnstiles – the cinder-block outer walls were so brittle that it was with very little effort that anyone wanting to get in could quite literally kick holes into them with their feet.
The Liverpool fan contingent in the stadium, as it turned out, was not much smaller than the Juventus one after all, thanks to hundreds of fans getting in without tickets. But the Liverpool supporters were crammed into a smaller space than their Italian rivals, due to Section Z being allocated to ‘neutral’ spectators. On a hot, humid evening, the Liverpool fans found they were getting uncomfortably overcrowded, and this was not helping the general temper. They also found that on the other side of a flimsy chicken-wire fence, large numbers of Italian fans were starting to gather. The inaccurate rumours about a Juventus fan knifing a Liverpool fan outside the stadium were still circulating.
The exact flashpoint inside the stadium is still disputed to this day. As is so often the case with football fans, there is an undignified tone of “They-started-it-No-they-started-it!!!” from both sets of supporters, but what we do know is that there was a lot of missile-throwing back and forth over the fence for some minutes. It was not difficult for hooligans on either side to find missiles to throw – they simply had to crouch down and pick up a piece of the invariably-loose concrete from the ground, and then hurl it. What actually triggered this ‘concrete-badminton-match’ is not certain. It might just have been paranoia at standing so close to rivals, but one anecdote that a number of different Liverpool supporters agree on – and appear to have arrived at independently of each other – gives us the only known possible starting point for the riot.
One Liverpool supporter, who appeared to be only about fourteen years old, had somehow ended up standing in Section Z, surrounded by Italian fans. Liverpool supporters stood on the other side of the fence claimed that they saw the Italians beating the boy up, and that the Belgian police were just ignoring it – somewhat reminiscent of the Italian police a year earlier. The Liverpool fans further claimed that they started throwing missiles as it was the only way they could come to the boy’s aid with the fence in the way. When that failed – only provoking other Italians who had been minding their own business into throwing stones back – the Liverpool supporters started charging the fence in order to knock it down, and to intervene more directly.
(The story about the boy being attacked by Italians is on balance likely to be true, but it is not definitive, as nobody has ever been able to establish what happened to him. There was no dead body – he clearly was not one of the thirty-nine people who died running away from the riot – there is no obvious word of him on any of the hospital reports from that night, and he has never come forward in the twenty-eight years since to set the record straight. Therefore, while no alternative explanation has ever been offered for how the fighting began, this story should still be treated with a measure of caution.)
Most of the Italians in Section Z only became aware that something serious was happening when the fence came down. They saw a small pocket of Liverpool supporters right where the fence had been standing suddenly charging forward in a group. They were repelled by the Juventus fans nearest to them, but after a moment charged again. Once more they were repelled, but with noticeably more difficulty. The Italian fans nearest the fallen fence were by now becoming increasingly frightened, while down by the pitchside, the Belgian police still seemed reluctant to step in and keep the peace. Then the Liverpool supporters charged again, and this time, the Juventus fans panicked. They broke up, turned and ran, heading along the width of Section Z towards the extreme end of the terrace, which was lined by a concrete wall. Many other fans were stood in their path, and startled by the sight of a fierce stampede of opposing fans heading their way, turned and ran as well. The more fans broke into a run, the more likelihood there was of confusion and of fans colliding with each other, and the less room there would be as they neared the end of the terrace. The decayed concrete broke up beneath the feet of many of the retreating Italians. This caused some of them to stumble and fall, to be inadvertently trampled on by fellow supporters immediately behind them. But the majority reached the wall at the far end, and soon there was a mad scramble of hundreds of people trying to climb over the wall or over the perimeter fences right at the front. People who had been standing immediately next to the wall were quickly swamped by a raging torrent of panicking supporters. Many were soon being crushed against the wall, while others were being crushed against each other, or trodden on by those trying to climb.
It was a sign of how awful a condition the stadium was in that the walls at the ends of the terraces did not have foundations, and indeed had not even been built into the surface of the terrace. Instead, they had been erected in place on the concrete over fifty years earlier and simply sealed into position (kind of) with a thick smear of cement. By the mid-1980’s of course, that cement had long-since decayed, and all that was holding the walls up was their own weight. Under the even greater weight of hundreds of panicked people pushing against it, such an unstable structure could not hold up for long. Sure enough, the wall at the end of the terrace gradually began to teeter over, and then collapsed altogether with a wince-inducing cracking noise that echoed all around the stadium. The teeming multitude of bodies that had been pressed to the wall 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.
It is often assumed by some people that the collapse of the wall itself caused the deaths, possibly by falling on people, but there is a school of thought that suggests that the crush-pressure might well have been relieved by it instead, that the deaths were already certain by this point, and that the death-toll may even have been reduced by it. This is possibly true, but as large numbers of people collapsed into a pile-up, it seems likelier to me that the sideways pressure was simply replaced by the downward pressure of gravity and body-weight.
Whatever the case, thirty-nine people died of crush asphyxia while the TV cameras of the world were pointed at them. Hundreds more were injured.
The riot would carry on for several hours afterwards, mainly with Juventus fans at the other end of the ground flying into an understandable rage when news reached them of the deaths in Section Z. With the fighting at last calming down around two hours after the wall collapsed, the Final itself actually went ahead – UEFA had concluded that playing the game would be the only sure way of keeping the crowd occupied long enough to bring in reinforcements to help the police evacuate the stadium in some semblance of good order. For what it was worth, which was very, very little, Juventus won the game 1-0.
The Liverpool supporters had certainly never meant for anybody to die, and indeed some never even found out for some hours afterwards that anybody had died. So any cries of “Murderers!” are simply ignorant – either ignorant of what really happened at Heysel, or ignorant of the correct definition of murder i.e. a premeditated act deliberately and wilfully calculated to take a life. Nobody died in the fighting itself. And the blame for the riot cannot be laid exclusively at the door of the Liverpool supporters either. For instance, it is perfectly fair to argue that there was considerable vile behaviour by Juventus fans as well throughout the course of that evening, both before and after the crush. The appalling condition of the stadium played a huge role in the riot too, especially its crumbling terraces providing copious ammunition for missile-throwing, while the shambolic organisation of the event, especially the failure to control entry to the ground, and the spineless policing were major factors too. AS Roma fans have to take a slice of indirect responsibility as well, for their unprovoked knife-attacks on the Liverpool supporters the previous year. Now, to assume fans of Roma and Juventus are all just the same simply because they are both Italian clubs is like saying fans of Manchester United and Chelsea are all just the same simply because they are both English clubs. (It is to see fellowship between two sets of fans who, in reality, can hardly bear the sight of each other.) But even so, any layman from another country not au fait with the different rivalries within Italy is always going to have trouble seeing the difference, and the attacks were bound to leave a legacy in the victims of bitterness and paranoia towards Italian fans. Margaret Thatcher’s Government should also reflect on their own failure to respond to the fighting in Rome, as it left many Liverpool supporters convinced that they would have to take the law into their own hands in future. (It is therefore bitterly ironic how rabidly Thatcher reacted to Heysel, where the boot was on the other foot, as it were. Her attempt to explain away the Disaster took the form of making out that Liverpool was an unusually violent city, which seems an utterly perplexing notion, given the far higher rate of hooligan incidents among football fans in other English cities, especially London.) Above all, UEFA was greatly culpable too, for the insane decision to use so decrepit a stadium for such a prestigious event in the first place, and for the mindless ticketing arrangements that allowed rival fans to stand within yards of each other.
But even so, the Disaster itself i.e. the human crush that took thirty-nine lives had been triggered by a pocket of Liverpool supporters stampeding across the terrace to attack their rivals, and in terms of narrowly trying to establish the Disaster’s immediate, direct cause, the culpability does ultimately lie there. The reasons the Liverpool supporters did it are plausible, understandable, even forgivable eventually, even if they are not actually excusable or justified.
But they were not murderers, and those who try using that term to describe the rioters at Heysel usually do so for cynical reasons. Using a tragedy that cost nearly forty lives as ammunition for attacking a rival club, for instance. Those who do so might claim that they only wish to see justice for those who died, but it is usually very obvious when that is not the case, and it is also quite contemptible that anyone would take advantage of such horrors for the purposes of anything so petty.
4th Myth – Hillsborough. “It was the Liverpool fans’ own fault that there was a crush! I mean, look at the Nottingham Forest fans, they didn’t arrive late, they weren’t drunk, there was no crush at the Kop end of the ground! All the trouble was on Leppings Lane!”
NOTE: In the original release of this essay, I rather copped out and didn’t bother including a myth from the Hillsborough Disaster of April 1989, as I’d already spent months writing up dozens of essays debunking many such myths – I just directed readers to the links to the Hillsborough Disaster Archive index at the top of this page. However I have since come to realise that there is at least one myth relating to Hillsborough that I have never fully addressed.
There are so many myths relating to the Hillsborough Disaster that it can be a rather gruesome ‘lucky dip’ trying to select which one to tear to shreds. Even if Hillsborough’s mythology isn’t as wild as Heysel’s, there is in fact even more of it, and some of it has been even more heavily-ingrained in the public consciousness.
Most of the myths relating to Hillsborough I have done a very detailed job of debunking elsewhere (if I may say so myself), but there is still one that I feel could do with addressing. At the time of the Disaster, Nottingham Forest Football Club, the ‘other’ team at the stadium that day, was managed by Brian Clough, one of the most famous coaches/managers in recent British football history. Always outspoken, frequently insensitive, a little over a year after he retired, Clough wrote his autobiography. In the book, he attacked the Liverpool supporters who had been at Hillsborough, stating that “Liverpool fans who died were killed by Liverpool people”. He invoked the oft-told story of large numbers of Liverpool supporters arriving at the ground late, having supposedly sat drinking heavily in the nearby pubs until just minutes before kick-off, and then created such disorderly pressure on the turnstiles that the police were forced to open an exit gate to allow them in, leading to a bigger crush on the terraces. When interviewed about the book for ITV by Brian Moore, Clough defended the views he had expressed about the Disaster by comparing the behaviour of Liverpool supporters unfavourably to the behaviour of the Nottingham Forest fans at the other end of the stadium. Clough pointed out that, supposedly, all the Forest fans had taken their places in the South Stand and Spion Kop terrace in good time, and that there were no troubles or difficulties of any description among them. The Liverpool fans, he insisted, had brought trouble on themselves by drinking too much and being late. This urban myth is still given voice with wearisome frequency by many people, both football fans and the wider public, even today.
What actually happened; –
Well firstly, as I have made very clear with considerable supporting evidence in numerous other essays – see a list in the links at the bottom of this page – the Hillsborough Disaster was not the result of lateness or drunkenness at all, but of a series of crowd-handling blunders by the South Yorkshire Police, which led to large numbers of spectators being directed into two fenced enclosures that were already full. The behaviour of Liverpool supporters was not perfect, but it was nothing remarkably bad either, and played no role in causing the Disaster.
But just for once, let’s not focus on the Liverpool supporters. Instead, let us have a closer look at the other side of this comparison that is often drawn with their counterparts. Was the behaviour of the Nottingham Forest supporters really so much better and more orderly?
To answer this, I would like to quote the words of then-WPC Debra Martin, who in 1989 was a Special Constable in the South Yorkshire Police, and was on duty at Hillsborough on the day of the Disaster. She is probably most famous for being one of the key witnesses whose testimonies establish that Kevin Williams was still alive as late as 4pm, undermining the outcome of the Coroner’s Inquests. But in fact, at a key stage in the day she was one of the officers deployed to the east end of the stadium, off Penistone Road, which had been allocated to the Nottingham Forest fans. What she experienced while she was there indicates that there was at least as much disorder among the Forest supporters as there was on Leppings Lane. In a conversation with Hillsborough campaigners Anne Williams and Sheila Coleman, recorded in 1992, Miss Martin revealed the following; –
“…They told me to go to the Forest side to help bring in the VIPs. It was about lunchtime and I was keeping an eye out for ticket touts who [sic] we had been told to arrest on the spot. After the VIPs had gone in I was told to go into the ground myself. By this time the kick-off wasn’t too far off. At the Forest end they had closed most of the turnstiles but one was still open. There were police everywhere and some of the fans were throwing their fists and being abusive. And then, suddenly, one of the side gates opened so the fans just ran through this side gate not bothering with the turnstiles. All these bodies went rushing by and I just got caught up in the main stream. There was a bobby there on horseback and he leant out of his saddle and grabbed hold of my anorak collar… I remember being on my hands and knees and climbing up a man’s back and then, nothing. It was like someone had thrown a blanket over my head. It all went black and I don’t know for how long. When I woke up I ‘d got my hands over my head and I was sat in the corner of a wall. By this time they had got the gates closed. This man was standing on the other side and I could see he was really frightened. I wanted to get out but he said, ‘I’m not letting anyone out.’ I told him, ‘You’ve got to let me out,’ so he opened the gate just a crack and I wriggled through, protected by that same bobby on horseback who was right behind the gate. He said to me, ‘Thank God you’re all right. I thought I’d lost you.'” (Source: When You Walk Through The Storm by Anne Williams with Sean Smith – Chapter 6 Debra’s Story, pages 81-82.)
Now I am certainly not trying to imply that the Forest fan behaviour was egregiously bad at Hillsborough either – by the standards of the 1980’s, even the above was nothing desperately unusual. But there is nothing to suggest that the average of Forest fan behaviour on the day was any better than the average of Liverpool fan behaviour, and it is entirely arguable that it was worse. The reality is that the only reason Liverpool supporters were later getting into the ground than their Nottingham Forest counterparts was the ridiculous imbalance in the allocation of entry points, and nothing to do with fan behaviour; there were eighty-three turnstiles at Hillsborough, and sixty of them were allocated to the Nottingham Forest fans.
While it is true that Forest had a larger ticket allocation, it was nowhere near as much as three-quarters of the tickets, and yet they were given nearly three-quarters of the turnstiles. Worse, only seven of the turnstiles on Leppings Lane fed the terrace at that end, meaning over ten thousand of the Liverpool supporters had to enter through just seven turnstiles. Further, all the Liverpool supporters had to enter through one very cramped concourse only about thirty metres across on the corner of Leppings Lane, whereas turnstiles allocated to the Forest fans were spread out all around the South Stand and the Kop end of the ground. And – yes there’s even more – as the Leppings Lane end was the ‘Away team’ end of the stadium, it tended to be the part of the ground that was given lowest priority during routine maintenance, and some of the turnstiles the Liverpool fans were trying to enter through were dilapidated and kept breaking down while in use.
Quite simply, it was far, far easier for the Nottingham Forest supporters to get into the stadium than it was for the Liverpool supporters, irrespective of how either crowd was behaving. Raising fan behaviour on the subject of Hillsborough is a red herring.
The question we started with was “Why are stadium disasters always prone to urban mythology?” As I intimated while discussing Heysel, some of the false versions are maintained simply because they are appealing to fans of rival clubs whose interests are exclusively vicious one-upmanship. Celtic supporters, for instance, are unlikely to offer many objections when they hear the timeless crock about Rangers fans changing direction on Stairway 13. While Manchester United and Everton fans to this day still routinely taunt their Liverpool counterparts with tacky, ill-informed chants of “Murderers!” which are sometimes even used in reference to Hillsborough as well as Heysel.
In the case of Hillsborough itself though, the myths are not just convenient for puerile chanting. They became heavily-embedded in the public consciousness by a premeditated and cynical blame-shift operation by the South Yorkshire Police force, when it faced considerable public anger for its appalling mishandling of the crowd.
But none of this really applies to Bradford City. Rival clubs do not tend to use the Valley Parade Fire as ammunition for vindictive songs of unabashed cruelty, and while there was a very brief attempt in the media to try and make out that the Fire might have been arson by supporters throwing flares, it was soon dismissed and never took the slightest hold on the public. The West Yorkshire Police were, correctly, never blamed for the Fire, indeed their officers were rightly commended for performing great heroics to help fans evacuate the stand. There was no orchestrated campaign by the police to shift blame onto the Bradford supporters, as there was no blame for them to shift from themselves in the first place. And yet there remains the odd myth about locked doors that never quite goes away.
I suspect the most frequent reason these myths start is just human impatience. There is a sad and needless tendency to rush to judgement. There is no doubt, for instance, that many, many people had prejudged the causes of the Hillsborough Disaster, probably within moments of hearing about it, and certainly long before the Taylor Report was published. In many cases, when the real facts emerge, stubborn pride forbids confessing to being too quick to point the finger. One way to avoid such a confession is simply to argue with what the real facts say.
Another reason is almost the exact opposite emotion, but a similar mindset – gradual loss of interest. A disaster will always draw everybody’s attention at first, but after a while many people simply get bored and stop paying attention. So when corrected information is announced, those who have become bored will simply not be listening, and so the corrected picture of what happened will never register. It can be astounding how long an urban myth can be kept alive just through this lack of general interest.
In the case of all four mythologies though, there is a cruelty, intended or not, at their heart, as the dreadful weight of guilt over the dead and the traumatised is placed upon the wrong shoulders. Even when the accused knows their own innocence, it is difficult not to be swayed at least a little by the accusation. Certainly many survivors of Hillsborough started feeling irrational guilt once the police attempts to smear them were published in the British media. Whoever was responsible for the Fire Exits at Valley Parade might well share an equal sense of irrational guilt – for locking doors that he had not locked at all. Some Liverpool supporters who rioted at Heysel might well feel they really are murderers even though they never wanted anyone to die, and were probably only fighting to protect someone who was being bullied by rival fans. Do some Rangers fans who survived the Ibrox Disaster feel to blame for what happened, as though ‘in spirit’ they really did suddenly turn back and try to plough recklessly through a dense crowd on a steep staircase? If they do, that feeling is cruel and unfair.
These myths only hold credence in the public consciousness precisely because so many people still accept them without ever pausing to check them. But however many people might believe something is not important. What matters is whether or not it is true.
None of these myths are true. Not one.
More myths about stadium disasters can be studied in these essays about Hillsborough; –
December 1, 2013
by Martin Odoni
THIS IS A MESSAGE FOR A SHEFFIELD WEDNESDAY FAN ON THE ‘OWLSTALK’ FORUM. HE GIVES HIS USERNAME AS ‘KivoOwl’ (I admire Internet-users who post complaints to other people rather than to the people they are complaining about, almost as much as I admire the courage not to use their real names).
Thank you for sharing this essay on the forum. But please, if you are going to take issue with what I wrote, address it to me, rather than bitching to others behind my back. There is a reply space at the bottom of every article on this blog, USE IT.
Furthermore, I would also ask you to consider avoiding blatant quote-mining. It’s fair to suspect that a large number of the people reading that thread will not actually bother to read the full article. Therefore, they will be quite unaware of what I wrote after the passage you have copy-pasted – details you have mysteriously not included in your excerpt. Here is the important qualifier that I wrote afterwards; –
“I was being irrational, of course. Life does go on, it has to, especially after nearly a quarter-of-a-century, and pulling down the stadium would have achieved nothing.”
This is a clear and explicit acknowledgement that what I was feeling was not rational or realistic. I also admit in other parts of the article, which you have again left unmentioned, that I was conscious of not being very fair to the place. This article is an account of my emotional reaction to being there, it is not a statement of policy or long-term aims, and your attempt to portray it as some kind of declaration-of-a-feud or something is nothing short of cynical. It does you no credit.
I did something very random and ad hoc today. Well, it’ll be yesterday by the time I’ve published this. I can’t exactly say why I did it, or when I decided to do it, or even when the idea to do it first popped into my head. But at some point after I got up this morning, I decided quite out of the blue to go to Sheffield. (Today was the twenty-fifth anniversary of me breaking my leg in a traffic accident, so it might have something to do with that. Though I can’t say what.)
For any follower of Liverpool Football Club, Sheffield is never an easy city to contemplate. Not because it’s an exceptionally ugly city. I mean, it is – in fact it could just pip Plymouth, Glasgow and Wolverhampton for the coveted title of the dreariest British city my eyes have ever had the misfortune to be directed towards – but that’s neither here nor there in this instance. Instead, the foreboding is brought on by the knowledge that it was the city in which turned British sport’s darkest hour, and Liverpool supporters were at the heart of it, a toll of victims to the tune of over seven hundred injured people, ninety-six of them fatally.
Now Sheffield is a city I am fairly familiar with, not so much intimately, more just as a place I pass through on the train or motorway while travelling to more scenic parts of the north of England (such as, just for instance, any of the others). But today, I decided to visit it for its own sake, and not for the accident of it being between where I live and somewhere I want to go to. And I knew that one of the places I would have to venture to while I was there would be the Hillsborough Stadium, venue of the 1989 Disaster.
I was not at Hillsborough when the crush happened, as I have made clear elsewhere. In fact, until today I had never set real-life eyes on the stadium, seeing it only in film and photographs. Inevitably, I did feel a twinge of unease on this bright, cloudless, freezing winter morning, as I boarded the coach that would carry me across the Pennines from Manchester to South Yorkshire, but I put that feeling down to the routine trepidation I always feel when visiting somewhere new. Some of the scenery between Manchester and Sheffield, especially around High Peak, is very beautiful and dramatic, but I am very familiar with that from many years hiking the Hope Valley. So even though I enjoyed the view, it did nothing to surprise or startle me.
But as the coach passed through Stockbridge, on the outskirts of Sheffield, I happened to see one signpost that mentioned that the district of Hillsborough was only a couple of miles ahead. I had not realised when setting off that the route the coach would follow was going to pass through Hillsborough itself at all, and so, on seeing the words on the sign, I could almost hear them being ‘shouted’ at me out of nowhere; sort of like being sat in a peaceful summer meadow without a care in the world, only for an English Defence League rabble-rouser with a megaphone suddenly to appear next to you without warning and throw all verbal caution to the wind right by your earhole. It was, I have to say it, a real shock, and not a pleasant one.
What I hadn’t yet twigged onto though was that the next few moments would be even worse. Because the coach wasn’t just going to pass through Hillsborough.
The journey went through a parish called Middlewood, and that gave me another addition to the growing collection of knots in my stomach. I knew from checking up on the Internet before departure that Middlewood was the terminus that I would have to head for on the tram in order to reach the stadium, so it was at this point that I realised that we would be passing very close by indeed. Maybe even get a view of it in the distance. No! I thought, I’m not ready to see it yet! My plan had been to arrive in the city centre, catch a tram north to Hillsborough, and sort of gently work my way towards it, gradually psyching myself up along the way. But instead, if I saw it while I was on the coach before I was ready…
And then, good grief, I did see it, and not just in the distance. The coach was actually heading right past the stadium towards Penistone Road, the major arterial road of northern Sheffield. And it was the West Stand that was in view as well. Not the South Stand, nor the Spion Kop, but the West Stand, where the horror of that spring day in 1989 had unfolded. And most jarring of all was that one of the roads the coach crossed as it passed through a junction was called… oh no…
I glanced through the window to my left and there I briefly glimpsed that notorious bend in the road with the narrow entry-space for the West Stand. I had seen so many photographs, so much video footage, of that little corner of Sheffield over the previous twenty years or so that I more or less had every detail memorised. I had never been there before, and yet I knew it better than some places I had visited a dozen times. But seeing it so early in the day was another shock that I wasn’t quite psyched up for.
I spent the remainder of the coach ride breathing a little harder than is perhaps healthy, and quietly trying to slow my pulse. The sensation was completely unexpected, like seeing someone a clear foot taller than you heading your way in a darkened alley on a moonless night – panic. That reaction shouldn’t have happened, I had to remind myself. I wasn’t there during the Disaster. This is the sort of reaction a survivor of the central pens should have when they get here, not me. The calm, rational inner voice was correct, stoical and authoritative. And it was almost completely ineffective. I was in shock. The expression on my face must have been something Hammer-Horror-esque – there were a couple of girls with hair dyed ‘unorthodox’ colours (that’s a nice way of putting it) sat in seats off to my left, and I realised that they were both giving me startled looks, as though half-expecting me to have a fit. I don’t know, but I might have made some very odd noises with my throat over the previous couple of minutes.
Another unpleasant moment on that journey came a few minutes later, when the coach headed up a road called Snig Hill. I was sure I recognised the name from somewhere. And then I realised where – at the top of Snig Hill I saw a large, officious-looking building with a sign on the wall proudly declaring, ‘South Yorkshire Police Headquarters’. I immediately turned my head away, feeling not panic this time, but disgust. Damn, why did National Express have to choose a route that takes me past both the stadium and that bent-cop-shop?
After arriving at the Sheffield Interchange and hurrying from the coach to the nearby tram-stop, I spent a few precious minutes trying to decipher the ancient, obscure hieroglyphics that formed the passenger information on the ‘SuperTram’ noticeboards. I finally worked out – I will never be able to explain how I worked it out having never gained a Degree in Egyptology – the correct platform to stand on, the correct tram to board, and the correct stop to change at. I was going from the Sheffield Interchange to the Hillsborough Interchange, and from there I would catch a second tram heading for the stop called… oh no… ‘Leppings Lane’.
If there’s one thing I’ll say for Sheffield – and it’ll probably only ever be one – its tram service urinates from a giddy altitude all over the one used back in Greater Manchester. Sheffield trams are taller, giving plenty of headroom, and are longer and more spacious, meaning there tends to be more room for extra passengers than the ‘Metrolink’ stock can offer. They also have smoother rails, and so the rides tend to be more comfortable. An automated female voice often implores you as the doors close to, “Please hold tight!” which can be very disconcerting at first, but fortunately, reasons to hold tight on the Sheffield SuperTrams prove less numerous than the ones on the Manchester Metrolink.
As the tram rolled through the streets of Sheffield, I took in an awful lot of mediocre architecture, struggled not to laugh out loud at the truly pathetic excuse the city has for a ‘Cathedral’ (seriously, when I first saw Manchester Cathedral in the mid-1990’s I thought it was just a rubbishy church and didn’t realise for about three years what its status was, but Sheffield Cathedral makes it look like York Minster. I guess I was just spoiled by all those years of living in Exeter – now there’s a city that knows how to get a Cathedral right), and shook my head a lot at yet another once-mighty industrial city of the north of England that had been abandoned to cynical decline. I reflected with a sigh that Sheffield has more parallels with Liverpool than some of its more parochial occupants might care to admit, the decline in particular. But where the two cities diverge counts against Sheffield far more than against Liverpool. Too much of Sheffield is overgrown with the worst, most hideous types of utilitarian industrial buildings. Many of them aren’t even used anymore, and are left to rot, adding an extra overtone of squalor and decay to the already-pervasive air of unthinking overdevelopment.
As we reached the foot of Netherthorpe Road, signposts began to appear with directions towards Hillsborough once more. I also saw signs to the ‘Medico-Legal Centre’, which had had a role to play in the aftermath of the Disaster. I found my pulse quickening in that unwelcome way again. My ‘gradual-approach’ plan had been completely scuppered by the unexpected sight of the stadium on the way into the city, and somehow I could just sense the growing proximity. I didn’t want to see it again. Not yet. The words ‘Leppings Lane’ were still circling round the inside of my head, searching for the best bit of cerebellum to land dizzying kicks to, and by and large, finding it.
Finally, the tram reached the Hillsborough Interchange, a busy shopping area with narrow streets, announcing itself by means of a couple of very obviously phony medieval turrets. I stepped off the tram very slowly, and had to take a few moments to catch my breath again. I came to a decision not to catch the tram towards Middlewood, but to walk the rest of the way. The idea behind that was that the walk would give my body a chance to burn off a little of the adrenaline that was pumping through my system, but also that it would delay my arrival at the stadium a little longer. (I was wrong about that in fact – I was to arrive at the stadium without any tram ever overtaking me.)
The walk was only about half a mile. That would normally be child’s play to a guy who has routinely done seventeen-mile hikes in all weathers around the Hope and Sett Valleys, but it proved uncomfortable on this occasion, as my nerves were now jangling so much it was even slightly painful. I hadn’t eaten anything all day, but I had precisely zero appetite. The enormity of where I was going, of what I was about to see, was hitting me where it really hurt, and to a depth that I really hadn’t anticipated at all.
Gradually, as I headed along Middlewood Road, the blue-and-white colours of the walls and rooves of a football stadium started to peep into view over the dark, evergreen treetops lining Hillsborough Park.
There it is, I heard myself whisper, the scene of the South Yorkshire Police’s greatest ever failure. And the starting point of their greatest ever crime. There was probably, it saddened me to ponder, quite a substantial list of challengers for that title. My thoughts briefly drifted to the miners who were attacked by the police at the Orgreave Coking Plant in 1984.
I soon found Leppings Lane tram-stop – demonstrating that unique logic that all Britons possess in abundance, but only Yorkshire has perfected, it isn’t actually on Leppings Lane. I turned down a road that skirted the north edge of Hillsborough Park, called Parkside Road, fittingly enough. I went past a Primary School, and kept my eyes fixed firmly on its walls so that I didn’t have to see past it to the leviathan that loomed so ominously in the background. I could now feel my palms sweating in the icy cold air.
And suddenly I was at the end of Parkside Road, and standing on the junction with Catch Bar Lane. On the opposite side of the road was the entrance to Hillsborough Stadium. I had arrived.
I’m here. I’m actually here. I’ve found the horror. I’m at the horror.
I saw the famous footbridge over the River Don, leading up to the front entrance. I looked above it to see the mighty club sign on the front wall ahead, the blue circular owl emblem that had been the official club badge of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club since the stadium had officially been part of the district of Owlerton in the late-nineteenth century. I suppose the emblem looks quite handsome to some people’s eyes, but mine saw horror.
I turned and walked past the Hillsborough Disaster Memorial without looking too closely at it just yet – I wanted to do a complete circuit of the stadium, and to come to the Memorial last. So I headed along Catch Bar Lane with my head bowed, towards the junction with Leppings Lane. I thought to myself as I walked, Horror. Horror. Horror.
Now, I’m not trying to suggest for a moment that this was in some way more difficult for me than it must have been for survivors of the Disaster to return there later. Absolutely not. Just consider the example of Mark Edwardson, who is a reporter for the regional BBC news programme North West Tonight. At a tender age, he was a survivor of the crush in the central pens, and he only revisited the stadium to do a report for the twentieth anniversary in 2009. As we can see from the short film he made that day, it was an incredibly difficult experience for him – it couldn’t possibly have been anything else – and it must have been similar for so many others.
But at the same time, for people like me – that is to say people who weren’t there and who hadn’t actually been to Hillsborough until a long time after the event, but have spent a long time studying the Disaster and learning many of the innermost details of what happened – there is a parallel difficulty with finally going there. A different problem, certainly a lesser problem, but still a problem. It is not the difficulty of reliving dreadful personal memories, it is more a difficulty of vivid imagination, and it stems from what we might call the A-Place-Becomes-A-Time phenomenon. By that, I mean something that has happened with a great many major or dramatic events in history; when something major occurs, especially something that leads to the loss of many lives, the name of the place where it happens somehow becomes the name of the time that it happens too. When discussing the Hillsborough Disaster, sometimes we need a shorthand for it, so we just call it ‘Hillsborough’, and so the moment of the Disaster has somehow taken the name of where it happened. The dropping of atomic bombs on Japan in World War II is treated likewise; the first bombing was at Hiroshima, and so the moment when it happened has eventually been named ‘Hiroshima’. The explosion of the Piper Alpha oil rig is known as ‘Piper Alpha’, the Lockerbie Bombing is known as ‘Lockerbie’, the Tiananmen Square Massacre is known as ‘Tiananmen Square’, the slaughter of British troops at the Battle Of The Somme is known as ‘The Somme’, and so on.
This isn’t a problem as such, but it does have an unfortunate side-effect for those on the outside looking in, one that we’re probably not aware of, at least until we finally see the location for ourselves. That side-effect is that it stigmatises it. For the last twenty-four years, I have associated the name ‘Hillsborough’ with a human crush that took ninety-six lives, and maimed hundreds of others. I long ago ceased associating it with anything else, even its original meaning. So as soon as I hear the name, I don’t think of Sheffield, I don’t think of a district, I don’t even think of a stadium as such, I think of a human tragedy. And the main reason for that is that I never saw the Hillsborough Stadium before today, I have no personal memories of it, and so the main point-of-reference I have for it is the horror of the Disaster itself. It means that the name ‘Hillsborough’ in my head is completely interchangeable with the word ‘Horror’. I can’t tell one from the other without concentrating really hard. The name suddenly has a new, secondary meaning that is far louder than its original meaning, and that interferes with my perception of the place itself.
The stadium at Hillsborough, I am fairly sure, is not particularly pretty, but then I have never a seen a ‘pretty’ football stadium. Anfield, and indeed Goodison Park, in Liverpool look very, shall we say, ‘industrial’. St. James’ Park in Exeter looks like a plastic rain-shelter that would collapse in a strong breeze – in fact, I’m half-convinced it really is one. Old Trafford in Manchester looks like a dirty porridge bowl with spikes sticking out of it. The City Of Manchester Stadium at Eastlands looks like an alien spaceship decorated by Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen. Ibrox Park in Glasgow looks like a crashed alien spaceship decorated by Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen. Don’t get me wrong, these are great stadia, with one obvious exception. (I mean, really. Old Trafford? What a heap…) But to look at them from the outside is an exercise in Puritan-style self-chastisement. No language on Earth, to the best of my knowledge, has ever invented the expression, “As pretty as a football stadium”, and there is good reason for that. My honest impression of Hillsborough from walking around it was that it looks like a multi-storey pharmaceuticals warehouse with the roof caved in. That sounds quite bad enough of course, but for the first ten minutes or so as I toured its outskirts, my view of it was something akin to Sweeney Todd’s parlour. This was because when I saw it, I recognised it enough from the many pictures I had seen down the years to hear the name ‘Hillsborough’ in my thoughts, but then heard the name subtly changing to ‘Horror’. It meant I just couldn’t be fair to it.
I saw a sign on the wall at the junction that said ‘Leppings Lane’. I thought for a moment, given the old-fashioned engraving style and the almost total loss of paint that it must have been the sign I had seen in video clips from the day of the Disaster, but I would later find a likelier candidate right next to the entry concourse of the stadium. I turned right, and feeling the weight of every step I took, walked for the first time in my life along Leppings Lane. I walked past an electrical appliance store called Flair that had a notice in the window imploring me to look it up on Facebook – oops, for some reason I keep forgetting to – and across a bridge over the river. And then I arrived on the corner, the bend in the road, and I found myself standing on the edge of the entry concourse to the West Stand of Hillsborough Stadium. There were a couple of people milling about here, heading for their cars that were parked up in the middle of the concourse. There was also a fair bit of traffic rumbling past on the road behind me – despite its name suggesting quite a minor road, Leppings Lane is in fact a very busy thoroughfare. Otherwise it was quite still. It felt eerie.
I glanced back over my shoulder and was genuinely amazed at just how much narrower Leppings Lane really is than television pictures made it look back in 1989. It’s true what they say about the curvature of a camera lens, it exaggerates and distorts. I just couldn’t believe that, back in 1989, the South Yorkshire Police had allowed such a huge crowd to build up on such a narrow street without noticing a lot earlier how seriously out-of-hand things were getting.
I looked ahead once more and surveyed the concourse. It was, again, smaller than the pictures from 1989 might suggest, and it really scared me to realise just how many people had been crammed into this area all those years before. The very fact that I was standing on that same bit of ground that they had been was certainly not lost on me. The lay-out today is of course somewhat different from then. The perimeter wall with the turnstiles and exit gates has been rebuilt completely, and quite a lot closer to the rear wall of the West Stand. Ominously, I saw that one of the turnstile banks was called ‘C’. It is next to an exit gate, called ‘Exit Door 5’, rather than an exit gate itself. But I still can’t help feeling that it would have been rather more sensitive to give it a different name altogether, given how close it is to the position where Gate C once stood.
The tunnel leading into the former ‘central pens’ – now a mercifully-unfenced bank of seating – is still on the other side of that wall, but I couldn’t see it. I felt relieved about that. Somehow my imagination had turned that tunnel into the jaws of an insatiable, ravening monster, chewing the lives out of any poor innocent who happened to venture near it. On reflection, if I’d seen the tunnel it would almost certainly have evaporated such a ridiculous image, but at that moment I wanted more than anything else not to be able to see past the perimeter wall.
I walked up to one of the exit gates, which was the only one left that was still made in a similar heavy-iron-concertina-style to the ones that had existed in the late-1980’s. I put my hand on it and gave it a gentle shove. It moved somewhat of course; concertina gates are foldable, they’re designed to have give. But it was also noticeably made of very tough material, and clearly well connected to the railings at the top. The gates back in 1989 had frontal steel slats to protect them too, which this one didn’t. And to think – some people still imagine that the exit gate was set to collapse under the weight of ‘stampeding fans’ in the moments before the Disaster! Absolute codswallop! You’d need Optimus Prime in lorry mode to crash into it face-on to bring down a gate like that!
Above the perimeter wall, I saw the letters spelling out ‘Sheffield Wednesday’ on the wall of the West Stand had lost their coloured plastic faces. I couldn’t help feeling that it rather summed up the club and its general treatment of the visitors’ end of the ground down the years very succinctly. It was also worrying though. The West Stand was looking, albeit from a distance, decidedly tatty and unkempt, which suggested to me that the club was perhaps letting standards slip again.
I was feeling a deep chill that owed nothing to the wintry weather, so I slowly trudged away from the concourse before it could freeze me to the spot completely, and took a right turn off Leppings Lane onto the neighbouring street, Vere Road. This was a terrace, of the non-footballing variety, but with Cambridge-style front entrances to the back gardens of the houses. Glancing along these passages I could see the North Stand of the stadium looming forbiddingly over them. It seemed so wrong.
As I walked, I considered the bizarre double-way that Vere Road had played an important role in the Disaster, one good, one bad. The bad was that the Liverpool supporters had all had to enter the stadium through the Leppings Lane concourse, whereas the Nottingham Forest fans had all of the turnstiles in the East and South Stands. Twenty-three turnstiles crammed into one narrow concourse versus sixty turnstiles spread widely around half the ground. There were no turnstiles in the North Stand, and that was because it backed directly onto Vere Road. This is not a declaration of war on Vere Road, you understand, nor is any implication intended that the occupants were somehow at fault, but the bottleneck that the Liverpool supporters had been lumbered with would never have been an issue if only there had been turnstiles in the North Stand to allocate to them. The good was that many of the people living on Vere Road helped survivors of the Leppings Lane terrace to contact their loved ones in those pre-mobile-phone days to reassure them that they were all right.
At the end of the street, I arrived on the dual carriageway of Penistone Road, with its Spion Kop entrances. As I walked, I looked up at the giant letters emblazoned on the wall, still declaring after all these years with unrestrained confidence, “Sheffield Wednesday – Hillsborough”, and I felt a flash of anger. I heard the loud roar of heavy traffic as it raced past, and the flash of anger turned to a surge of fury. I thought back to 1989, to the day when nearly a hundred people were killed on the other side of these smug, overgrown walls, and I started to think, “How dare they? How dare this bloody football club look so proud of itself? How dare it look so bold and brash and loud? How dare it say, ‘Hey, look at us, aren’t we great?!’ to everyone who drives past? How dare all these people just keep driving past this leviathan without a thought about what happened here? How dare this blasted monstrosity, this fetid heap of steel and concrete, this festering virus of a stadium… How dare it still be standing at all? They should have pulled it down, brick-by-brick, the day after the crush!”
I was being irrational, of course. Life does go on, it has to, especially after nearly a quarter-of-a-century, and pulling down the stadium would have achieved nothing. But still, in spirit, it felt wrong, and so cruel, that life had been allowed to go on, and that the stadium hadn’t suffered the same fate its former death-trap character had inflicted on ninety-six people whose only folly had been to go and watch a football match. As I crossed over the river once more and headed around towards the South Stand, mercifully getting away from the noise of the traffic on Penistone Road, I had to take a zig-zag route through a couple of side-streets, giving me a chance to calm down with the stadium more or less out of my sight.
I eventually emerged back on Catch Bar Lane once more, and quickened my pace to complete the circuit of the stadium and to take a proper look at the Disaster Memorial by the footbridge.
The Memorial is set behind a curved brick wall that, although below waist-height, makes it difficult to see from the road – if it really had to be built on a busy main road, at least it could have been made visible. I must admit I am suspicious about that. The wall seems unnecessary, and I am given to wonder whether the real reason Sheffield Wednesday Football Club put it up was precisely so that it would make it difficult to see. The Hillsborough Disaster is a detail from history that the club has often lapsed into guilty silence about – something it would rather like just to go away. Unsurprising, given how dangerous the stadium was back in the 1980’s. Hence it took a shamefully long time – fully ten years – after the Disaster for the club even to arrange for the Memorial to be constructed.
While it is certainly far better than there being no acknowledgement at all, as there had been for most of the 1990’s, I have to say that what I saw is not a very impressive effort. It is a low stone block, quite smoothly sculpted into the shape of, er, a low stone block, emblazoned with the words, In memory of the 96 men, women, and children who tragically died and the countless people whose lives were changed forever. FA Cup semi-final Liverpool v Nottingham Forest. 15th April 1989. ‘You’ll never walk alone.’
Although the stone-masonry work is rather fine, the Memorial taken as a whole is superficial. It is poorly-sited, too close to a busy road for anyone to visit it in peace, and if the low wall is meant to compensate for that, it is a feeble gesture. When the monument speaks of those who fell, all it gives is a number – ‘96’ – and numbers have a way of dehumanising death. Only names keep the humanity and the dignity of those who have fallen intact, but not one of the names of the victims appears on the Memorial outside Hillsborough. It is hardly meant to be a contest of course, but it certainly pales before the splendid Memorial on Anfield Road in Liverpool, with all ninety-six victims named and the ‘Eternal Flame’ burning below its middle. While there is something to be said for restraint and understatement when remembering the dead, there is more than an echo of the metaphorical ‘queasy conscience’ about Hillsborough’s attempted tribute.
I admired some of the tributes that had been placed on the Memorial and the railings behind it. Scarves and banners of many a team beyond Liverpool, a rather sweet soft toy of a Welsh Dragon, an eloquent written tribute to Paul Carlile by his family, and a row of framed photographs line the front. There was even a copy of Christopher Whittle’s personal account of the Disaster, With Hope In Your Heart, protected from the elements by a polythene document bag. These tributes showed far more feeling than the Monument they were placed on. Sadly, this might arguably lead to people getting a false impression of the Monument itself.
I reached into the little strapsack I had been carrying all the way from Salford and pulled out an old Liverpool scarf that read ‘League Champions 1979’ on each end. A touch dated these days, you might say, but in fact, it was already a dated item when I first owned it. An uncle of mine back home in Devon had got it for me as a birthday present in 1984. I haven’t a clue where he got it from, but I was always fond of it. But that was almost thirty years ago, and I had brought it with me because I now felt I had a better purpose for it than just pinning it to one of the walls in my flat. I carefully draped it over one of the railings that was already very crowded with other scarves, tying one end of it to one of the spokes.
I rested my hand on the scarf for just a moment, then turned and walked away from the Memorial, away from the Hillsborough Stadium, up Parkside Road to the nearest tram-stop. I’d like to be able to say that I didn’t look back at any stage, but it wouldn’t be true. I frequently glanced back over my shoulder, unable to ignore the presence of that thing, that place, that moment, so many years into the past and yet still so inseparable from its present. The attempts to separate it by burying or ignoring it are not going to work, as the tributes left on the Memorial show; there are just too many people that such a separation would hurt. They have already been hurt long and deeply by many such attempts.
Hillsborough was always a place. But on the 15th of April 1989 it became a time as well, it became a moment. A dreadful, dark and cruel moment. A defining moment. What I found when I went there today was that it was a moment that the club still seems desperate to deny, to ignore, to forget. But to do so would be to forget itself, to forget what it is, to forget its own nature, to forget how it got where it is now. Everyone has those moments in their past. Even, it seems, football clubs.
Given that professional football is, in the end, just a bunch of adults kicking a ball around in the grass like overgrown schoolkids, it is fair to say that nothing truly important happens at a football ground, bar in the most exceptional circumstances. But ninety-six people dying must surely count as the most exceptional circumstances – perhaps the only truly important thing that ever happened at Hillsborough, therefore.
When something is important, it must not be denied, it must not be ignored. And it must never be forgotten.
From what I saw at Hillsborough, it seems that there is still a need to make sure that the club remains conscious of that.
More about the Hillsborough Disaster; –