Hillsborough, a tragedy waiting to happen

The real truth surrounding the terrible events at Hillsborough in April 1989 when 96 football fans were crushed to death has finally come to light. The Independent Review Panel has found what decent people have known for 23 years, that lies, deception, slander and deceit conspired to rob grieving families of the truth of what happened to their loved ones. The ubiquitous Sun newspaper and its editor at the time Kelvin MacKenzie both offered grovelling apologies as soon as the report hit the Internet and there will be a number of serving police officers, former politicians and legal advisers who had led us to believe that the Liverpool fans were to blame for their own deaths, who will be anxiously expecting a knock at the door from Mr Plod. And justifiably so too, for the report makes very uncomfortable reading. We now know that documents and witness statements were manipulated, that the security resembled an episode of Dad’s Army and that the stadium itself was not fully safe for one of the biggest sporting events of the year. MacKenzie’s orgy of abusive editorial comment directed at people who had gone to watch a football match was nothing short of disgusting – hopefully he will never get a decent night’s sleep again as long as he lives. And it would be interesting to hear what the prime minister at the time, one Margaret Thatcher, has to say about the report given its findings surrounding incompetence and negligence of the police and ambulance services.

The Hillsborough Memorial outside the stadium
The Hillsborough Memorial at the stadium
Image: Superbfc/Wikipedia
But there is one point about this horrific event that has never properly been addressed. The FA Cup semi-final was between football’s big-two of the time, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, and Sheffield was geographically the right neutral venue (although as we now know clearly wrong in terms of ground safety). But why on earth were the Liverpool fans given the Leppings Lane end of the ground and not the much bigger ‘home’ end where the Sheffield Wednesday fans stood? With respect to Forest, Liverpool, even 23 years ago when English football was not the global brand it is today, had a much bigger following than the east Midlands club. It was surely obvious that more fans from Liverpool would turn up with or without tickets and so the massive crush outside and inside the stadium would have been much more manageable if the Liverpool fans had a bigger area to go into. That the Football Association did not think of the consequences of this is staggering, especially as the same teams met at the same venue the previous year with the same arrangements, and the Leppings Lane end then looked dangerously full.

Hillsborough had precedents; Bolton, Ibrox, Bradford to name three of the bigger football tragedies over the years. But Hillsborough will stand out because of the vitriol aimed at the victims – indeed it would not be going too far to suggest that the cover-up orchestrated by the powers of the time was made easier because the scapegoat of Liverpudlians being drunken louts was so much part of establishment thinking that they assumed the country, with the help of Mr MacKenzie, would buy it.

The families of the victims knew better and their tireless campaigning has finally seen the truth emerge. As for Mr MacKenzie’s tirade against so-called drunken louts; it is he who should be serving behind bars.