No one intended to kill football fans at the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest 27 years ago. In 1989 British football stadiums were inherently unsafe, many of us felt in danger at the regular crushing entering and leaving grounds.
Crowd management was considered a control issue, not a safety one. In England, fences penned spectators in to prevent pitch invasions.
Hillsborough had staged many FA Cup semi-finals, including one the previous year between the same two clubs, so no proper thought or planning went into the game. During the 80s measures to control the crowd increased, while Sheffield Wednesday, who played home games at the ground, seldom came near the stadium’s capacity. The mean the stadium was unprepared for anything out of the ordinary, and the police were completely unprepared.
Access gates were open to relieve pressure on turnstiles which were inadequate to deal with a crowd of that size – a common, but dangerous, occurrence at the time.
Control measures were such that what was once a terrace area open from one side to another had been sectioned off. Once you were in one pen the only route out was to leave the terrace via the long tunnel underneath the Leppings Lane stand that fans used to enter the terrace. The two pens at the wide end of the terrace were under-filled, while the central two were crushed.
No one entering a tunnel knew if there was crushing ahead and there was no way to segregate fans off into available pens. Anyone attempting to exit through the tunnel would have been met by a large crowd of people trying to go the opposite way.
The system was stupidly crazy by design. Any Health and Safety attention would have deemed the terrace unsafe the moment the tall fences went up to prevent overspill onto the pitch area. It was a fatal incident waiting to happen.
Once the incident was underway South Yorkshire Police failed the victims spectacularly. Officers were watching the fatal crush from yards away but were unwilling to raise the alarm. They ignored terrified pleas from fans. After evidence of fatalities first arose, they turned ambulances away, delaying treatment to casualties for a crucial period.
When the incident was over the police invoked a smear campaign against the victims. Lies were told. Newspapers bought into the conspiracy, among others. The bereaved were left on their own to defend the memory of their lost ones as inquiries bathed all in whitewash.
There will be an understandable demand for prosecutions now, but for those who died 27 years ago, and many of their loved ones, it’s all too late. I hope the survivors gain some small comfort from today’s inquest verdict of unlawful killing. The torture they went through listening to the official lies must have been unbearable.