Where were you on April 15th 1989? I was at Clarence Park in St Albans, for a Vauxhall-Opel League Premier Division match between St Albans City and Barking. It was a beautiful spring day, but there was little excitement in the air. City were just safe from relegation, whilst Barking were mid-table. The season was winding down like a car running out of petrol, and the atmosphere subdued. Most of the crowd – myself included – were there out of habit, because we couldn’t think of anything else to do on a Saturday afternoon. The first radio reports started to come through after about ten minutes of the match. A man standing just behiind me on the terrace had a transistor radio pressed to his ear. “The crowd’s on the pitch at the Liverpool match”, he said, rolling his eyes. Several others rolled their eyes, too. We were only four years from the riots at Luton and Birmingham City. The idea of a pitch invasion wasn’t as far out of the question then as it is now.
Something about this hastily formed opinion, however, didn’t seem to hang right. For one thing, Liverpool supporters had an excellent reputation. It also seemed odd that anyone would invade the pitch five minutes into an FA Cup semi-final. Something, I suspected almost immediately, was going wrong at Hillsborough. The news filtered through as the half wore on. Men sat, ashen faced on the terraces, scarcely able to take into the enormity of what was happening a couple of hundred miles north in Sheffield. Dean Austin scored the only goal of the match – a late penalty – but, by then, the majority of the crowd had left. I got home at about 5.45 and stood, slack-jawed, in front of the television in my parents’ sitting room as the BBC’s evening news report struggled to report a story that, on that very day itself, didn’t make any sense.
Twenty years on, we know several versions of what happened that day. We know the official line – a scandalous pack of lies that was so intent of preservation that it sought to defame the memory of those that had died and those that had saved other lives on the same day. We know the first media version, which shamefully smeared those present that day with a pack of lies created by the odious Kelvin MacKenzie, a man of so little nobility and dignity that he even retracted the apology that he did make in 1993 and has refused to rectify this since. The Sun continues to be largely boycotted in Liverpool to this day. We also, however, know the testimonies of those that were there that day, a patchwork of stories that went towards the ITV drama “Hillsborough”, in which writer Jimmy McGovern (who had himself fallen into the trap of painting the victims of the disaster in a negative way in an episode of the detective series “Cracker”) told the true story – or as near to the true story as the authorities would allow.
The specifics of the day are now common knowledge. The loss of police control outside the stadium which led to a gate being opened, forcing fans to rush into the central pens behind the goal. The collapse of a crush barrier, and the match kicking off with many people still oblivious to the fact that people were dying in front of them. Hillsborough remains British football’s worst disaster, a crossroads at which the game and its supporters had to decide whether this was all worth it, and finally came to the realisation that attitudes within the game had to change. Hillsborough had form for this sort of dangerous crushing. At the 1981 FA Cup semi-final between Spurs and Wolverhampton Wanderers, a similar crush had resulted in thirty-eight injuries and the crush barriers in the Leppings Lane end of the stadium were later found to not comply with the Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds 1986, which was the result of an urgent enquiry after the Valley Parade fire of 1985.
Part of the problem was an institutional one within football. When crowd trouble started to become more commonplace in the 1960s and 1970s, the clubs’ reaction was not to bring their facilities up to date and spend a bit of time looking at how proper stewarding or policing could diffuse problematic situations. Their reaction was to put huge fences up. The fences became a symbol. On the one hand, they demonstrated that the clubs didn’t really give a damn what happened on the terraces as long as it didn’t spill onto the pitch. On the other, they demonstrated the barely-disguised contempt with which everybody seemed to treat supporters, treating match-going supporters little better than one would treat an animal in a zoo. Nick Hornby noted in “Fever Pitch” that supporters assumed – as paying customers might be entitled to – that there was a “Plan B”. That, in the event of an emergency the authorities had plans in place to ensure the safety of supporters. Highbury, Hornby’s home stadium and the stadium with the biggest capacity in England after Wembley at the time, was barred from hosting FA Cup semi-finals in 1983 after Arsenal refused to put fences around the pitch.
The truth of the matter, and this is borne out by the fact that South Yorkshire Police lied during a private prosecution brought against David Duckinfield and Bernard Osbourne, police officers responsible for Hillsborough on the day of the disaster. The sad, sorry truth of the matter is that, to this day, no-one responsible for safety on that day has been successully brought to task for their negligence on April 15th, 1989. Our game entered a limbo state which ended with the formation of the Premier League in 1992. Policing and stewarding in Britain are now regarded as amongst the best in the world, though there remains an overzealousness which concerns many on match days. To this extent, the Hillsborough disaster was the end of one era and the start of another. On this day, however, such matters are irrelevant. On the twentieth anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, we should all take a moment to remember the unneccessary loss of 96 lives on that bright spring day in April 1989.