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A convenient scapegoat

05/07/2016

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The morning after the Hillsborough inquest ruled that the ninety six football supporters who lost their lives at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final were unlawfully killed I was on a work training course. At a coffee break as people made small talk and fiddled with their phones the conversation turned, as it so often does these days, to football. After a brief natter about city’s Champions League match the night before someone mentioned that that day’s edition of the Sun newspaper had relegated the Hillsborough news story to page ten; along with that other Murdoch paper the Times the only titles not to lead with the day’s big news story.

Another lad, who looked to me like he probably wasn’t old enough to have been around at the time of the disaster, remarked that he thought that, despite the inquest jury’s verdict, thousands of ticketless, drunken football supporters trying to force their way into a football ground must have been partly to blame for the disaster. “What were the police expected to do?” he asked. And before you know it I, who up until that point had barely said a word, was doing what I’ve done on countless occasions over the last twenty seven years when people start spouting off about Hillsborough; I was off on one trying to explain what really happened that day. As I went over the police incompetence, the design and layout of that end of the ground, the lack of a ground safety licence, the utterly inadequate response of the emergency services and the lies spun over and over and over by police, press and politicians for more than a quarter of a century I could see the lad’s eyes glazing over. A few minutes later, my rant over, everyone went back to fiddling with their phones.

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It’s a measure of the industrial scale of the establishment’s efforts to shift the blame for the tragedy that so many people (and I’ve come across so many down the years both in person and via social media) were prepared to believe, and some still are, that the Liverpool supporters were in some way to blame. The families knew they weren’t to blame and those of us who had stood on that same Leppings Lane terrace and experienced first hand the South Yorkshire police at their worst knew that it was a disaster waiting to happen. Now, after so many years, it’s finally been acknowledged officially and unequivocally that the fans were not to blame.

For those raised on a diet of televised Premier League football played out in happy clappy, ultra-safe, plastic stadia it must be difficult to contemplate what happened on that terrace. Going to the match nowadays is barely recognisable from the late eighties when fans were treated like animals, penned in on terraces and herded to and from grounds. Take tickets for instance. The accusation trotted out endlessly down the years has been that a significant number of Liverpool fans turned up at Hillsborough without tickets. But we forget in these times of having to buy a ticket to watch even the most mundane top flight football match that back then the FA Cup semi-final was one of the few games a season you needed a ticket for; at the majority of games fans were able to pay on the gate and it was affordable enough for groups of kids to go together. Booking weeks in advance by credit card is a relatively recent phenomenon.

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Shortly after the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s findings were released in 2012 I wrote about a trip to Hillsborough (here) to watch Manchester United only two months before the disaster. I’d used the panel’s impressive website, including more than 450,000 documents relating to the disaster, to look at how the police planned for the visit of United fans to Hillsborough in February 1989. The phrase that kept appearing in the planning documents over and over again was the need to “maintain order”. Nowhere was there any mention of the comfort and safety of spectators. That represented the mindset of the often abominable South Yorkshire police force at the time.

United took a huge following of more than fifteen thousand supporters to Hillsborough that day, one of the last big Red Army days out, and the central pens on the Leppings Lane terrace were packed (but the ones either side less so). What people who hadn’t been to Hillsborough before wouldn’t necessarily appreciate is that once you had made your way through the turnstiles at the Leppings Lane end of the ground it looked like the tunnel directly in front of you, leading into the central pens, was the only way to get onto the terrace. There were no signs to suggest otherwise. It was a fundamental flaw in the design of that part of the ground but one that could have been simply addressed on busy match days by stationing police officers at the entrance to the tunnel to direct supporters to the outer pens. It wasn’t difficult and the tactic had been employed on previous occasions.

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It wasn’t just inside the ground that the South Yorkshire police’s lack of care for supporters was in evidence. As an out of town United fan I had travelled to the match from Chesterfield but that was of no concern to the police officers on Sheffield railway station after the match as, having been bussed back to the station from the ground, we were ushered towards a Manchester-bound train. I tried to explain that I needed to get another train but was wrestled onto the train by two officers accompanied by the words “I don’t care where you live, you’re getting on this fucking train”. It was an occupational hazard of going to watch football back then. Football supporters really were the lowest of the low; replacing the miners as the new “enemy within”. And it was apparent that the South Yorkshire Police force felt that it could get away with almost anything after Orgreave and the miners’ strike when an army of police officers was used to crush the year long struggle. Just as it was at Hillsborough their role in the miners’ strike was one of enforcement and control rather than public safety.

A few weeks after the Hillsborough inquest began in Warrington in March 2014 a solicitor from one from one of the firms representing the families got in touch with me. They had seen my blogpost and wanted to talk to me about my experiences of attending matches at Hillsborough and whether I thought that the police and Sheffield Wednesday Football Club could have done more to ensure the safety of spectators. As I answered questions and provided as much detail as I could, a quarter of a century on, I found myself, at times, struggling to comprehend some of the experiences that I was recounting as they seemed so far removed from the modern day experience of attending football matches. Did we really stand on those decrepit, piss-soaked terraces, penned in behind fences, often in the pouring rain and treated like shit by police forces who really didn’t give a toss about our welfare? Did we really do this week after week?

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The lies told by the police, press and politicians seeped into the public consciousness to such an extent that they became believed. Irvine Patnick OBE, the right wing Tory MP for nearby Sheffield Hallam was one of the sources for the Sun’s notorious coverage of the disaster. He spoke of the “mayhem caused by drunks” and that policemen were punched and kicked as they tried to help. Thatcher’s former chief press secretary, the loathsome Sir Bernard Ingham, wrote in 1996 of “tanked up yobs who turned up late” causing the disaster. “To blame the police is utterly contemptible” he added. A year later, the newly elected prime minister Tony Blair, afraid to upset his new mate Rupert Murdoch, refused to order a new inquiry into the disaster, infamously remarking “Why? What is the point?”. It was another thirteen years before the Labour government, now lead by Gordon Brown and encouraged by the admirable Andy Burnham, set up the Hillsborough Independent Panel which eventually reported in 2012.

Meanwhile an editorial in the Spectator magazine in 2004 said that there was “no excuse for Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground that Saturday afternoon”. It referred to the police as a “convenient scapegoat” and the Sun newspaper as “a whipping boy” for daring to tell the truth. The United fans who sang “there’s only one Boris Johnson” (Johnson was the Spectator’s editor at the time) shortly after that piece appeared were wrong on so many levels that there simply isn’t the space or the time to dwell on it here.

When you set the word of ordinary people against those of decorated senior politicians, press barons and knighted civil servants it is perhaps forgivable that people may be tempted to believe the latter. Kelvin MacKenzie at the Sun admitted years later that “the mistake was I believed what an MP said” referring to the apartheid supporting member for Sheffield Hallam.

I’ve got to admit that I’d never heard the medical term “compression asphyxia” until after Hillsborough. What a hellish way to die, the life slowly being squeezed out of you. Ribs cracking. Urine and vomit everywhere. Then collapsing and being trampled underfoot. Lifeless bodies piled on top of each other; sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, football supporters, human beings. All because they went to watch a football match. I was at Old Trafford that afternoon watching United play Derby County in a meaningless end of season fixture. At half-time there was an announcement that the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough had been abandoned and that there had been “some casualties”. There were a few cheers from both sets of supporters – at that stage, we didn’t know whether the victims were Liverpool or Forest fans. I only learnt quite how many people had died a few hours later; sat in front of the telly that night watching the news coverage there were tears in my eyes.

My own views on the disaster have led me to fall out with several United fans down the years. Perhaps the worst occasion was in 1993 when at a match a few days before the last of the Hillsborough victims to die, a young lad called Tony Bland had his life support switched off, some United fans in K Stand sang “95 was not enough”. “Well they sang about Munich” came the reply when challenged. To be honest, there are idiots on both sides as the recent Europa League clash illustrated but it’s difficult for anyone to cling to any moral high ground in the whole “they sang, we sang” Munich, Shankly, Heysel, Hillsborough, Shipman shitpile. For me, when it comes to Hillsborough, I’m a human being first and a Manchester United supporter second. If there is one group of supporters for whom the comment “it could have been us” is more than just a throw away remark it’s us. It really could have been us. That’s not an exaggeration.

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As I’ve grown older I’ve mellowed a little and begun to appreciate that Manchester and Liverpool share the same fervent devotion to their red shirted football heroes. One of my best mates is a Liverpool supporter and aside from the football rivalry we share similar tastes in music, books and politics and there are few people I would rather enjoy a beer with. Football rivalry shouldn’t blind us to the important things in life and it certainly shouldn’t prevent us from offering the hand of friendship to those like the Hillsborough families who have fought so courageously or those who, even to this very day, still refuse to buy the Sun newspaper. What a boycott that has been.

Hillsborough was the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history. Yet for years people who should know better have rolled their eyes and gone on about, oh, well, you know, “football supporters”, “Scousers” and a “tanked up mob”. Anything to dehumanise those caught up in a horrible tragedy. My only small criticism of the Hillsborough families and campaigners is that at times it has felt like they thought it was a case of Merseyside against the rest of the country. But perhaps it’s no wonder that given everything that has happened that something approaching a siege mentality developed and some Liverpudlians were left thinking that the whole country was against them. It wasn’t.

I hope that in a generation’s time that when people discuss the Hillsborough disaster that they will no longer be boring on about ticketless, drunken fans but instead will look back and learn from one of the most inspiring, courageous fights to expose establishment corruption of this or any era. Despite countless setbacks over twenty seven gruelling years they persevered and meticulously dismantled the wall of lies that hid the truth for so many. To the families and everyone involved in the fight for justice you are genuinely an inspiration to us all. And take it from me, even beyond Merseyside, you never walked alone.

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5 Comments
  1. Thank you, an excellent piece. I too hoped (as I have after each stage in this long, long process) that finally it would be possible to talk about Hillsborough without someone opining that ticketless/drunken fans MUST be to blame. Sadly as anyone venturing BTL on any article on the subject has found, we are not yet there, so perhaps we never will be. All we can do is to keep on saying, read the report, if you really don’t get it, read the report and see how unequivocally and emphatically that nonsense has been trashed. As, of course, it was by the Taylor report and every report since…

  2. Stuart permalink

    What a great, balanced and well written piece. Unfortunately I too share a workplace with the willfully ignorant. Minds made up and won’t be changed. Damage done. Thank you again I now have more ammunition.

  3. On the subject of unfair scapegoats – and far be it from me to defend that hideous blimp Boris Johnson – but he did not write the notorious article you cite. It was in fact written by the equally-hideous Simon Heffer. Johnson still bears a big slice of responsibility for it, as he was the editor of The Spectator at the time of publication, and presumably was the one who approved it, but it’s a little unfair that he is the individual who gets ALL of the blame.

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