By Mike Ormsby
Spring is in the air, the birds are singing and it’s good to be alive, yes? But there’s one particular day when I feel that most acutely: April 15. Here’s why.
Twenty-five years ago, on April 15, 1989, Liverpool Football Club was scheduled to meet Nottingham Forest FC in the semi-final of the FA Cup, at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. It would be a crucial game, two top teams competing for a place in the final at Wembley.
Loyal fans were chasing elusive tickets for the semi-final, although Hillsborough had a worrying reputation.
People had been injured there during overcrowded games in 1981, 1987, and 1988 (at a previous semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham). Official inquiries had later recommended changes for Hillsborough and some were implemented: the notorious Leppings Lane terrace was divided into three pens, to restrict sideways movement of the crowd. High steel fencing was erected too, as at many British stadiums in the 1980’s, to stop fans invading the pitch to celebrate or cause trouble.
But the modifications at Hillsborough were never officially tested or approved, and by April 1989, the stadium’s safety certificate was invalid. In other words, the stage was set for a big game, with big crowds and big crushes in restricted areas with no easy exit. So that’s the background, and here’s what happened that sunny day.
24,256 Liverpool fans had to use a single entrance.
Transport problems meant many arrived late. Crushes developed outside the stadium and police opened extra gates to let fans enter, including hundreds with no tickets. Chaos soon developed in the Leppings Lane end; thousands of fans were packed too tight and could not escape their pens, because of the steel fence in front.
A policeman radioed his bosses but they ignored his warning until it was too late.
The referee stopped play after a few minutes because some people had managed to climb over fence and onto the track around the pitch. They were the lucky ones. Others suffocated while standing, or were trampled when crash barriers collapsed, on the terrace. Instead of helping, police formed a cordon to stop Liverpool fans from other parts of the stadium running to assist trapped friends. Forty-four ambulances came to the stadium, but police allowed only one to enter. Seven hundred and sixty-six people
were injured; ninety-six people died but only fourteen of them were taken to hospital beforehand. It was a catastrophe: the Hillsborough disaster.
to watch an animated graphic of how it happened, and here
to see who died. The youngest victim that day was ten-year-old Jon-Paul Gilhooley, whose death devastated his nine-year-old cousin, Steven Gerrard.
Grieving families were shocked when tabloid newspapers later accused Liverpool fans of drunken hooliganism and of stealing wallets from the dead, and also when police denied their failure to foresee overcrowding or to help when it occurred. The cops blamed alcohol, the stadium, and the fans without tickets.
An official inquiry, the Taylor Report, blamed the police but, strangely, the coroner ruled that none of the dead could have survived after 3.15 p.m., which meant the police could not be blamed or investigated for anything that had happened later. Thousands of fans, and the mourning relatives, were disgusted by what seemed a cover-up. A second inquiry, by Lord Stuart-Smith, said further investigations would not help. But the families wanted justice, and little by little, they’re getting some.
The government in London eventually realized the depth of anger and resentment on Merseyside, set up the Hillsborough Independent Panel and ordered police to release confidential documents. In 2012, the Panel proved that police officers of all ranks lied under oath and had falsified reports to avoid blame for preventing medical attention to dying fans. Criminal charges may follow, but since we Brits invented parliamentary democracy, we also have the most experience in preventing it. Will any police officer go to jail? We’ll see.
The tabloid press and various bigots have all apologized for inventing smear stories, but **** them.
Steven Gerrard says his cousin’s death inspired him to become a professional footballer, and recently donated £96,000 (€116,446) to the Hillsborough Family Support Group. An eternal flame
burns at Anfield and has been added to Liverpool’s club crest, in memory of the dead.
Most soccer stadiums in Britain are now all-seated. This excellent BBC TV documentary
tells the whole story. But there’s one last detail. I had a precious ticket for that game and would have gone to Hillsborough to stand on the Leppings Lane terrace, if I had not first asked my elder brother, Eddie, for advice. Eddie had attended the previous semi-final between our beloved team and Nottingham. He considered my question, frowned and said, “Don’t go Mike, you’ll get squashed to death.”
So, I stayed in Liverpool and listened to the match on the radio, stunned by what I was hearing. Almost everyone in Merseyside knows someone who died.
That’s why, this April 15, I’ll go out in the spring sun. You’ll never walk alone, as we say; we also say Justice for The 96, and so should you, until it comes.
Mike Ormsby is a British writer, currently based in Baku.