One day soon, within my lifetime I hope, the tone of my annual posts about today’s anniversary of the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster will change from an update on the Hillsborough Justice Campaign to a simple act of remembrance and sympathy with the families of the 96 people who died.
That day seems both closer – with The Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool set to report on its findings in the autumn – and further away than ever, as another tide of misinformation washes over the city in the wake of Alan Davies’ spectacularly insensitive comments and the reaction to the reaction to them.
The TV star decided to use a football podcast to talk about Liverpool’s position of not playing matches on 15 April in largely unsympathetic terms. Since the disaster the club has received special dispensation from The Football Association (FA) not to have their league games scheduled for the date, and in 2009 even the European ruling body UEFA were happy to rearrange a Champions League fixture for the club, noticeably without attracting the ire of Mr Davies. This year, however, another potential clash arose when Liverpool secured a place in the FA Cup semi-finals set to take place this weekend. The two matches were to be played on Saturday and Sunday, with the Liverpool v Everton game eventually arranged for Saturday lunchtime. This decision seemed to cause the comedian a great deal of upset:
Liverpool and the 15th – that gets on my tits that shit. What are you talking about, ‘We won’t play on the day?’ Why can’t they?
Do they play on the date of the Heysel Stadium disaster? How many dates do they not play on?
Do Man United play on the date of Munich? Do Rangers play on the date when all their fans died in that disaster whatever year that was – 1971?
I understand – Hillsborough is the most awful thing that’s happened in my life in terms of football. It’s one of the worst tragedies in English peacetime history but it’s ridiculous this, ‘We refuse to play football on this day anymore’.
Every interview he’s [Kenny Dalglish] given this season he looks like he wants to headbutt the interviewer. This tight-mouthed, furious, frowning, leaning forward, bitter Glaswegian ranting, ‘Liverpool FC do not play on April 15th’.
Yet Liverpool’s desire to avoid playing on this date is no attempt to wallow in the self-pity we are often accused of by outsiders. Instead it is out of respect to the families of those who died, many of themselves fans or season ticket holders at the club. Today, as every year since, there will be a memorial service at Anfield and our senior players and club staff will attend. Like many Liverpool fans, I can’t imagine caring about the result of a game played on the 15th. It is a day when our thoughts are elsewhere. To believe the myth of melodramatic Scousers is to demonstrate a complete lack of awareness of the key issues of the Hillsborough Disaster and its aftermath, which ensure that it remains a raw subject, despite the passage of 23 years.
Facts which are already starting to be lost in the fog of time and misinformation include these. Full details are available – along with audio clips and video footage – at this excellent and informative site. For the match, an FA Cup semi-final, Liverpool had been allocated the smaller end of Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium, despite being widely accepted as having a larger travelling support than opponents Nottingham Forest. Transport delays between Sheffield and Liverpool meant that as kick off approached, many fans with tickets were waiting outside the ground and the build up of the crowd around the small number of turnstiles created a bottleneck that lead to crushes. Everyone who has attended a popular sporting event or music concert has probably experienced the fear and pressure of a crowd building up which you are unable to escape. A request to delay the start of the game was denied and eventually the police took the decision to open the exit gates to allow faster access to the stadium.
This allowed fans to escape the crush outside only to find a much worse one waiting for them. The central pens of the Leppings Lane stand were already nearing capacity, but with no stewards positioned to direct people towards the less crowded side areas, another – fatal – bottleneck was created. Inside these central pens, people were dying of suffocation within shouting distance of members of the emergency services. Some managed to climb out, others tried to break down the fencing with their hands to relieve the pressure. The authorities’ response was to send in reinforcements to contain this ‘pitch invasion’.
In a moving tribute created for the twentieth anniversary of the disaster, the football club’s website featured the photographs, names and ages of those who died. They are a cross-section of Liverpool’s population, of any city’s inhabitants. A third of them were under the age of 18, the youngest – current club captain Steven Gerrard’s cousin – was 10 years old (a year younger than I was at the time). Two teenage sisters were killed. Friends died together, a boyfriend and girlfriend were among the dead, as were an uncle and nephew, while one family lost two sons.
One victim was on a life-support machine for four years after the disaster; he never recovered. Surviving family members speak of bereaved relatives dying in later years, having never got over the shock of losing their loved ones in such circumstances. There have been a number of suicides, including that of a man who sold his ticket to a friend who died and a Nottingham Forest fan unable to come to terms with witnessing the sight of bodies being laid on the pitch.
The police response as the disaster unfolded was severely lacking and later criticised by the Interim Taylor Report as ‘a failure of police control’. Placing crowd control above safety led to shocking tales from survivors of escaping the carnage, only to be pushed back into the pens by police officers. Ambulance crews were denied access to the ground as the police told them it wasn’t safe to enter due to crowd trouble. Few of the injured were admitted to hospital, with reports of fans trying to resuscitate the dying and people being taken to a makeshift morgue while their lives could perhaps have been saved if they had received medical attention.
‘There was no organised response there at all… There was nobody in charge, no plan, no organisation at all… There was no resuscitation equipment there… The scene was just absolute chaos.’
– Dr John Ashton, Professor of Medicine at the University of Liverpool, who was at Hillsborough.
The blame game
People had hardly begun to bury the dead before the cover up began. By the instruction of senior officers, comments unfavourable to the police operation were removed from police constable’s statements, as one handwritten instruction quoted by The Guardian notes:
‘Last two pages require amending. These are his own feelings. He also states that PCs were sat down crying when the fans were carrying the dead and injured. This shows they were organised and we were not. Have [the PC] rewrite the last two pages excluding points mentioned.’ [Emphasis added]
Key witnesses were not called at the inquests or cross-examined, instead police officers read out summaries of evidence of where and when people died.
Before that, and while the city of Liverpool was still numb with shock, as funerals were taking place and the pitch at Anfield became a sea of flowers and scarves left in tribute – including by Everton fans – along came Rupert Murdoch (proprietor) and Kelvin MacKenzie (editor) of the S*n newspaper, with what they considered to be the real tale of Hillsborough. As Liverpool manager (both in 1989 and again today) Kenny Dalglish remembered in his autobiography:
The press coverage was difficult to comprehend, particularly the publication of pictures which added to people’s distress. There was one photograph of two girls right up against the Leppings Lane fence, their faces pressed into the wire. Nobody knows how they escaped. They used to come to Melwood every day, looking for autographs, and that photograph upset everyone there because we knew them. After seeing that I couldn’t look at the papers again.
When the S*n came out with the story about Liverpool fans being drunk and unruly, underneath a headline ‘The Truth,’ the reaction on Merseyside was one of complete outrage. Newsagents stopped stocking the S*n. People wouldn’t mention its name. They were burning copies of it.
The Hillsborough Justice Campaign
People wondering why the Hillsborough Justice Campaign needs to exist after so long and following a number of official inquests and inquiries in the past should know that many of the families still do not know the full details of what happened to their relatives. Key questions still remain unanswered.
It is important to note that the campaign is not a historical one. This is an ongoing desire for justice for people like Anne Williams, who has evidence that the information presented at her son Kevin’s inquest was false. The coroner ruled that all victims were dead at 3.15pm – but medical personnel present at the makeshift morgue in the ground have testified that 15-year-old Kevin was alive at 4pm.
People like John Glover, quoted in this BBC story, now dying of cancer, but who wants to know what happened in his son Ian’s final hour. Since April 1989 there has been a concerted effort by South Yorkshire Police, the Thatcher government and the S*n newspaper to spread disinformation about the disaster to allow the victims to be painted as deserving of the treatment. And now the campaign is taking great strides forward – the recent parliamentary debate and the decision to release all classified Cabinet papers to the HIP inquiry – all of a sudden people like Alan Davies are popping up to condemn our inability to ‘get over it’.
What is perhaps most saddening about the Alan Davies storm is how fans of other clubs now seem to view Hillsborough and the fight for justice as a uniquely Liverpool issue. Never mind that all fans are kept safer as a result of the change in attitudes to policing large crowds or the improvements to stadiums made after the disaster. Let’s not forget that the support received by Liverpool from fans of other teams – including our at times bitterest rivals Everton, Manchester United and Nottingham Forest – has been outstanding. But there remains a core of people who believe that Liverpool whinge about this too much, that we need to move on and renounce the ‘mawkish sentimentality’ of marking this occasion. I believe that they are wrong.
Late last night, while researching some of the points I make here, I had a frank but well-reasoned exchange of views on the subject with a writer I very much admire, Ben Six of Back Towards The Locus. In the comments below the post, Ben echoes this article by Times journalist Tony Evans, noting that Davies’ comments are not the real controversy. As Evans writes:
why, 23 years on, do we still not know the truth about a police cover-up that reached Cabinet level?
So today, as we remember those fans who went to a match and never came home, those who mourn them and the people whose lives are still scarred by the events of 23 years ago, let’s try to put the mis-spoken words of idiots out of our minds. It is all consistent with what Liverpool MP Maria Eagle has called the ‘black propaganda campaign’ orchestrated by those responsible after the disaster. Instead, fans of all clubs should come together to ensure that the 96 families – along with everyone who loves the passion and joy of attending football matches – do not have to wait too much longer to discover ‘The Truth’ of Hillsborough.