15 April 1989. 24,000 Liverpool fans arrived at Hillsborough, the neutral ground of Sheffield Wednesday, for what was set to be another electric FA cup semi-final. Kick-off against the Nottingham Forest side was set for 3pm. Fans arrived after noon full of excitement and expectation. A ticket to the final and hopes of adding yet more silverware to the collection would compensate for what was otherwise a relatively quiet season for the reds.
20 minutes before the opening of the game and the nightmare began to unfold. The middle section of the Leppings Lane end, the away stand allocated to Liverpool fans, was already too full. Outside the stadium, more fans were arriving than could be safely filtered through its narrow turnstiles. A decision was made to relieve this pressure by opening Hillsborough’s large exit gates. The result would be fatal. Thousands of fans entered the stadium, channelling unbearable pressure towards the spiked blue fencing separating fans from the pitch. One of the metal crush barriers, cemented into the ground, began to buckle and gave way. The swelling congestion was dragging fans under and thrusting them on top of each other.
Six minutes into the match and it would all be forced to come an end. Fans who had managed to climb over the fencing immediately turned back to help those asphyxiating in the crush. As people began to be dragged out, fans ripped advertisement boards off their hoardings to be used as makeshift stretchers while others began giving CPR. Without their intervention, those who attended the game are certain far more would have perished. 96 men, women and children would lose their lives as a result of the crush. It remains the worst disaster in British sporting history.
The story of what happened next is a familiar one. Those who had desperately sought to help their fellow fans suddenly found themselves accused as the reason for the deaths. The S*n devoted its front page to “The Truth: Some fans picked pockets of victims; Some fans beat up PC giving life kiss.” The Evening Standard blamed the “tribal passions of Liverpool supporters”, who “literally killed themselves and others to be at the game.” When prime minister Margaret Thatcher visited the ground the day after the Hillsborough disaster, this was the narrative she was told and the one she would choose to accept.
The media and establishment response to Hillsborough only makes sense if we remember this was a time when, in the aftermath of the 1981 Toxteth riots, Thatcherites in office talked of abandoning Liverpool to a fate of “managed decline”. For those ministers far removed from the city, the dire economic straits facing Merseyside in the 1980s were “self-inflicted” and not at all to do with the fact the government had actually created these conditions by shifting production overseas and forcing massive job losses in the process. The government’s attitude to football fans was fuelled by an equally callous and class prejudiced disregard. Questions of fans’ safety on the terraces were sidelined by a much greater fervour to treat them as a simple “law and order” problem in need of tough measures. Ken Bates, former chairman of Chelsea, famously epitomized this approach when he erected an electric perimeter fence around the pitch to prevent pitch invasions – a plan which was fortunately shelved following the intervention of the Greater London Council in 1985.
Few were on the side of the football fans during the 1980s, including at the highest echelons of government. A year before the Hillsborough disaster, a ‘war cabinet’ was established by home secretary Douglas Hurd in response to often sensationalised reports of football ‘hooliganism’, and in 1989 the passing of the Football Spectators Act meant for a short time compulsory ID cards were introduced on the grounds. This social context is important and worth remembering, for it would mean that, in effect, the accepted narrative had already been written for the 96 victims well before the lethal crush. The struggle to receive recognition of their “unlawful killing” was to run against the grain of a more general right-wing assault which saw the working class as strikers to be broken or hooligans to be policed.
In 1991, the first coroner’s report settled with the ruling of “accidental death”. The initial verdict might have put survivors and the victims’ families on the backfoot, but they refused to accept the case was closed. A 27-year long fight for the truth was set in train, carried initially by the Hillsborough Family Support group, set up in May 1989, and then also by the Hillsborough Justice Campaign (HJC) founded in 1998, formed to support legal action and raise public awareness.
It is worth remembering that what happened at Hillsborough was actually a tale of two disasters. The first story was that of police mismanagement, error and negligence that led to the deaths. The second was that of blame diversion and media cover up. Because of this, The S*n, as it is referred to in Liverpool, became an instant target. 30 years on and the paper remains unwelcome in the city, the effect of which has led to big supermarkets and small newsagents all over no longer stocking it. Remembrance is thus not only conducted as a vigil for the lives lost, nor the want for it to be rubber stamped in the history books. It is an inherently political act and one which seeks to build solidarity with campaigns fought on similar lines elsewhere.
“They simply do not learn, the South Yorkshire police”, wrote survivor Adrian Tempany in 2016, just after the “accidental death” verdict was at last overturned. “There is a thread running from Orgreave, through Hillsborough…”. The crosscurrents between the HJC and the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign do indeed stand obvious. Yet support mobilised by the HJC has also run from the North to the South. After the Grenfell fire in 2017, the HJC, experienced at dealing with the hostility and pernicious influence of right-wing media in cases such as these, immediately offered its hand to victims as they began their own long fight for justice and accountability.
This deep sense of solidarity sown into the city through its footballing history can also be seen in other campaigns. The world of football and its support culture might have vastly changed since Hillsborough, but the Fans Supporting Foodbanks initiative, run by fans from Anfield and those from Goodison Park, illustrates its power to cohere around working class interests bitten by austerity, uniting both red and blue.
Beyond the city’s two major clubs, progressive advances are also sweeping the ground at the grassroots level. The community owned City of Liverpool FC has made it clear that remaining “neutral” or “turning a blind eye” to far-right elements gaining a foothold in the present should always be challenged. To be passive or to be content with calls to keep politics out of football is to deny it is already here, and thus only cedes ground. The Hillsborough disaster perhaps serves as the perfect monument to this. In this case, to keep politics off the pitch would only give credence to the lie that the deaths of the 96 were accidental.