by Martin Odoni

NB: Please be aware that this essay was written in September 2014, but could not be published while the rebooted Coroner’s Inquests into the Hillsborough Disaster were in progress, due to a Contempt-Of-Court ruling by the Attorney General.

The rebooted Inquests into the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster have so far featured a disproportionately large number of witnesses selected by the South Yorkshire Police. Predictably, most of these witnesses have provided anecdotes giving the impression of widescale drunkenness among Liverpool supporters in Sheffield on the day of the Disaster – it is precisely what the police lawyers had been promising in the pre-Inquest hearings – although very few of these anecdotes have really offered any evidential link between the supposed drunkenness and the genesis of the Disaster itself.

The supposed ‘issue’ of fans without tickets has also been mentioned repeatedly, in the apparent hope, it would seem, that by constantly mentioning it, the police lawyers will ‘program’ the jury into taking it as fact. I have already outlined in comprehensive detail elsewhere why we know it is not.

However, it is a matter of curiosity revisiting this story, as it has had some elaborate variants down the years. One version that reared its head on the day of the tragedy itself was that the crush outside the turnstiles, which led to the police opening Exit Gate C, was not mere happenstance. Instead, officers in the South Yorkshire Police claimed to have received word that, earlier that day, large numbers of Liverpool supporters were in the pubs of Sheffield, openly boasting of having no tickets, but also declaring that they would still get into the stadium to watch the FA Cup semi-final. All that was needed, so the rumour went, was for enough of them to arrive really late in the day to create serious congestion at the turnstiles, and the situation would become dangerous enough to force the police to open the Exit Gates and let everybody into the ground.

Interestingly, a retired officer who was present at the Disaster, Graham Duffy, has spoken at the rebooted Inquests, wherein he reiterated precisely that explanation for the turnstile crush. While testifying on September 15th 2014, Duffy’s own report, written up in the days after the Disaster, was read back to him. In it, he had written that it was his opinion that “a concerted effort was made [by fans at the back of the crowd] to cause a crush at the front of the crowd.” Duffy was then asked whether he stood by this statement, to which he replied that he did.

As is the case with so many of the victim-blaming explanations for the Disaster though, there are serious flaws in this. It neither conforms to the measurable facts, nor to simple plausibility.

Firstly, the weaknesses on the factual side. The biggest one is that, if large numbers of ticketless fans were trying to force the police to open the Exit Gates, then presumably once Gate C was opened, these ‘freeloaders’ would surely have gone into the ground alongside all the ticket-holders. It would have been the entire point of such a conspiracy, and would have caused the Leppings Lane terrace to go over its capacity.

The problem? As is well-recorded – including on this very blog – from comprehensive analysis of all available data by the Health & Safety Executive in the months following the tragedy, we know with some confidence that the ticket allocation for the terrace was not exceeded. Indeed, the likeliest number of people on the terrace during the crush inside the stadium was several hundred below the ticket allocation. So where did all these ticketless fans that were deliberately creating pressure on the turnstiles go? And how come nobody noticed them going there?

Furthermore, the notion that fans arrived ‘late’ is only arrived at by adopting a very arbitrary definition of what constitutes ‘arriving on time’. This, again, has been pointed out many times before. The print on the tickets themselves did in fact request an arrival time of 2:45pm, and analysis of the CCTV footage from the day shows that the great, great majority of the fans caught up in the turnstile crush had arrived by about 2:37pm, by which point the pressure build-up was already well under-way.

Given that 2:37pm was comfortably more than twenty minutes before kick-off, this does sound like a rather poorly-executed ‘conspiracy’ on the part of the ‘ticketless Liverpool supporters’. By arriving over twenty minutes early, they must surely have given the police ample time to sort things out. Would it not have been more effective, if they wanted to put the police in a completely powerless position, for the supposed ‘gatecrashers’ to arrive inside the last couple of minutes before kick-off? But clearly they did not, as the exit gate was opened to relieve the crush eight minutes before kick-off.

On that subject, it also needs to be pointed out that the first request by a police officer, Superintendent Roger Marshall, for permission to open an Exit Gate to relieve crowd pressure was made at 2:47pm, which shows that the situation at the turnstiles had become absolutely critical just moments after the cut-off time stipulated on the tickets. That sort of pressure build-up does not happen in just two minutes. It needs the crowd to have built up to enormous numbers in a confined space. There is no reason why the ‘freeloaders’ in this scenario would even have known that such a crowd build-up was going to occur, or that the stadium’s westernmost entry concourse would ‘just happen’ to have exactly the right lay-out to create such pressure.

The real reason for the crowd build-up, as has again been noted many times before, was a severe shortage of turnstiles at the west end of the stadium.

And now, we move on to the implausibilities in the conspiracy theory. It is often the case when trying to debunk a conspiracy theory that the inherent logic flaws are all you really need to highlight, and the fact-checking can be mere icing on the cake. That certainly applies in this case.

Quite simply, the orchestration of this ‘deliberate crush’ seems super-human in its sophistication, especially given the technological limitations of the late-1980’s. For the pressure on the turnstiles to have been caused by the people at the back pushing people ahead of them, it would have to mean at least a few hundred of them taking part in it, and all starting at roughly the same time. A small handful of people doing it would have had very little knock-on effect of this type.

But to have hundreds of people carrying out a carefully co-ordinated manoeuvre of this type, they would need good communication so that they could time their arrival together, and to make sure they were pushing in union, to make it effective. But let us remember that this was 1989, when the mobile phone was still a giant, super-heavy metal-and-plastic brick with an aerial, very much the exclusive status symbol of the ‘Yuppiedom’ class. Hundreds of people co-ordinating a deliberate crush without mobile phones to keep in contact with one other sounds very dependent on pure chance to get through.

Another plausibility gap when talking about deliberate pushing is yet another mystery that I have raised before. Looking at CCTV footage from the turnstile crush, it is remarkable how the people who are supposedly ‘being pushed’ by those behind them never think to turn around and push them back. Instead, carrying Duffy’s logic to its fullest extent, they either just stand there and take it, or decide to get revenge by pushing the people in front of them.

If this widescale pushing were really happening, it is one of the wonders of the world that actual rioting never broke out.

Add to these anomalies the aforementioned point about the terrace not going over its capacity, and the conspiracy theory becomes, not just implausible, but preposterous. It is clear from the HSE’s aforementioned attendance figures that very few fans without tickets got into the stadium at all, probably no more than a few dozen. This detail of course leads on to yet another of those ‘killer’ questions; –

Are we therefore seriously expected to believe that a mob of hundreds of fans, most of whom clearly must have already had tickets, had conspired together to create massive pressure on the turnstiles, risking their own lives and limbs, in order to force the police to open the gates (and if that was their plan all along, why did any of them bother purchasing tickets for the game in the first place?)… all just so that a couple of dozen non-ticket-holders could get in without paying?

Once again, we have a victim-blaming theory that is not only at odds with the plain facts, but is also patently ridiculous when looked at purely on its own merits – such as it has any. The conspiracy theory, when put forward as a possible explanation for the Disaster*, is so silly that any police officer who suggests it should immediately be made to hand in his/her badge; no detective has any business being so cartoonishly irrational.

The problem with the theory is not just that the facts conclusively show that it did not happen. It is also that it simply would not happen in any circumstances, even in ones where the facts leave room for it.

I would therefore like to end on a bit of friendly careers advice; –

The Sherlock Holmes principle states that once we have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. What we should never forget while applying this calculation though, is that some explanations can be both the impossible and the improbable. So if, after a quarter-of-a-century, you have still not eliminated an idea that manages to be both, please, please, pleeeeeeeease, for all our sakes, make sure that you are not, and never will be, a police officer.


* It is just about possible that some fans did plan to cause a crush, but only in far tinier numbers, and any attempt they made was not what caused Gate C to be opened, nor had anything to do with the crush at the turnstiles. Those events simply happened too early to have been affected by it, and by the time any such attempt might have been made, the Disaster on the terraces would already have been in progress for some while. Anybody arriving after about 2:52pm would have had nothing to do with the Disaster’s genesis, as all the causative events had happened by then.