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Hillsborough: The Twenty-Three Year Fight

September 12, 2012

The 15th of April 1989. Everyone who followed football in the late 1980s should remember that day at Hillsborough: it is indelibly etched in each of our memories. Any who have followed our wonderful sport since should now know the date too. Many City fans were watching us get a thrashing at Ewood Park, going down 4-0 to promotion rivals Blackburn Rovers. A rumour spread early in the match amongst the supporters of trouble in Sheffield. In those days, communication was a bit more basic, and even as I left the ground down-hearted at the result, I expected nothing more than a couple of injuries – that’s what the rumour had been in the crowd near me. Then the radio was turned on in the car, and the TV turned on when I got home, and what I saw shocked me to the bone – and still does.

Its ramifications for football in this country were huge. All-seater stadiums were spawned from the Taylor Report, and many teams relocated to new stadiums altogether rather than face the cost of replacing the terraces. That day changed forever how we all watched football, both live and at home. It took a catastrophic failure at a football ground to open people’s eyes to what was wrong. Sadly, change often comes after tragedy.
 
This was more than a tragedy for Liverpool football club, more than a tragedy for endless families. The thought that a football fan could go to a match and not come back seems impossible to fathom. A day full of hope, excitement and laughter turned to one of untold terror, misery and suffering. Once the grieving had subsided, Liverpool fans, and to a lesser extent fans of all clubs, needed answers. They didn’t get them for far, far too long.

At the inquest that followed, prominence was given again to police accounts of supporters being drunk and without tickets. Two police CCTV videos went missing from the locked control room on the night of the disaster. The main inquest, limited the report to events up to 3.15pm on the day of the disaster, claiming that by then the victims had received injuries in the Leppings Lane crush which rapidly caused irreversible brain damage. Not surprisingly, many refused to accept this cut off time. It seems staggering for such an important inquest to make a conclusion that no one could have lived past a certain time.

A football disaster over two decades ago seems like a distant memory. The sport has moved on, and is unrecognisable from the game as it was in 1989. But for those affected by the disaster, moving on has not been an option. Until the full story is known, until everyone has been made accountable for their actions, the grieving will continue, and closure will not be an option. For too long, various authorities made it their duty in cowardly protecting the actions of a few, and protecting the name of an ex-prime minister who considered football fans lower-class citizens.

The fact is, it could have been any of us. Anyone who followed football in the 1980’s or before has been involved in a crush, been crammed in a tiny tunnel or pinned against a wall by the sheer weight of people around you. It almost happened to Spurs in the 1981 semi-final, it almost happened at one of the 1988 semi-finals. In the end, it was Liverpool fans, so many with the best years of their lives expected ahead of them, that took the full force of the ineptitude and terrible errors of not only individuals, but a whole system.
Turned up late to the match? Yep, did that, still do, like most fans. Had a drink or ten? Yep, fans tend to go to the pub before a match, especially a semi-final. Turn up without a ticket? Fans of all teams will travel to a big match without a ticket, hoping to get hold of one or just get in anyway. The report clearly states this wasn’t a contributory factor anyway.

It could have been you, or me. The tragedy is so deeply ingrained in every older football fan’s psyche that recollections should move many to tears. I am close now, to be honest, just thinking about it.

The cover up was staggering in its breadth, and the depths it sank to. Doctored statements, blood samples taken from dead children, criminal records of victims sought on national databases.The police commander that day lied openly to cover his tracks, and those lies spread round the world. It took decades to reverse them. Few could have expected today’s release of information to be quite so damning. So, with the release of the report, comes six apologies. The government. Kelvin Mackenzie. Sheffield Wednesday. The ambulance service. South Yorkshire police, and the Sun newspaper. Too little, too late. Twenty-three years to get answers. Twenty-three. It should make every football fan very, very angry.

But my thoughts now aren’t about the scumbag that is Kelvin Mackenzie, or the shocking actions of the police or the illegality of the coroner’s actions. No, I can’t help thinking about that 3:15 cut-off time, I can’t help thinking about the ambulances bring blocked from entering the ground, and I can’t help thinking about the report mentioning that so many of the deceased could have been saved with swifter, decisive action. We’ll never know how many. All we know is 42 ambulances, with 80 trained medical staff, sat outside the ground as people slowly died. One finally made it across the pitch, though not before being told by a policeman to stay away as the fans “were still fighting”. 14 0f the 94 that died that day made it to a hospital.

So what of the future? The decision for a new inquest lies with the High Court, but as the Prime Minister hinted, should surely now happen. People should be brought to account, but I’m not convinced they will be.
One day, the families of the 96 must be allowed to move on, to be at peace, to have finally got the justice they campaigned tirelessly for against so many obstacles and under such emotional turmoil. They are not there yet, but thankfully that day may now have moved a lot closer. Mancunians have often joked about a Scouser’s predilection for grieving, but whatever the rights or wrongs of such stereotyping, we never thought that about Hillsborough, we knew then that this was a fight that was being fought with honour and complete justification. I have nothing but respect for every Liverpudnian that fought and fought until this very day. None of this can be allowed to happen again. Never again. JFT96.

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