A poignant anniversary

Published : Apr 25, 2009 00:00 IST

Liverpool soccer players Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carraghar hold up a "Freedom of the City" scroll during the 20th memorial anniversary of the Hillsborough Stadium disaster on April 15.-AP
Liverpool soccer players Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carraghar hold up a "Freedom of the City" scroll during the 20th memorial anniversary of the Hillsborough Stadium disaster on April 15.-AP

Liverpool soccer players Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carraghar hold up a "Freedom of the City" scroll during the 20th memorial anniversary of the Hillsborough Stadium disaster on April 15.-AP

The Police, owing to their ineptness, were primarily responsible for the Hillsborough stadium disaster on April 15, 1989 in which 96 helpless, innocent Liverpool fans were crushed to death.

English football has recently acknowledged, rather than celebrated, a fearful anniversary. That of the Hillsborough, Sheffield Wednesday stadium, disaster of 1989 when, before the semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup, 96 helpless, innocent Liverpool supporters were crushed to death. High metal barriers prevented them from escaping on to the pitch. Inept policing compounded the appalling problems. And when it was all, appallingly, over, the police compounded the disaster and their own crass ineptitude by confecting shockingly scandalous stories about the supposed culpability of the Liverpool fans, stories assiduously picked up by the daily Sun newspaper, alleging that other Liverpool supporters, once able to get on to the pitch, had urinated on the dead bodies and stolen their money.

The sales of the Sun on Merseyside dropped by 40% and have never recovered to this day. To his credit its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, made a full and sincere apology, obliging the paper’s then editor, the verbose and flamboyant Kelvin MacKenzie, to do so as well. Yet as later as 1996, when addressing a gathering in Newcastle, MacKenzie, almost beyond belief, announced that he had apologised only because Murdoch had ordered him and the paper to do so, and that he still insisted he had been telling the truth.

A comprehensive and impressive book by a professor of criminology at Queens University, Belfast, has just been reissued, analysing the whole sad and sorry story. A long extract, published by a magazine, did not however mention what to me was perhaps the salient feature of the whole dreadful afternoon: and that was the part played by the policeman in charge of security operations, one Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield who cut such a pitiful figure at the ghastly event itself and an equally pitiful one in court, at the devastating inquiry conducted by the formidable and scathing judge, Lord Justice Taylor. Whose subsequent report changed the shape of English football, for ever. Abolishing the terraces for seated fans instead.

Taylor did not hide his disdain for Duckenfield who, he said, “froze” in the face of the disaster. It was also established that Duckenfield had lied to Graham Kelly, then the chief executive of the Football Association, having in the somewhat oblique words of Taylor been “economical with the truth”, when he told Kelly that the fans had been capable of forcing a gate at the notorious Leppings Lane end of the ground where the Liverpool fans had supposed entry. As Taylor emphasised, what had actually happened was that when Duckenfield agreed to a request to open Gate C at that end, he should have seen that the tunnel there was simultaneously closed. The insistence that the Liverpool supporters could have forced a gate, declared Lord Taylor, “was not only untruthful but set off a widely reported allegation against the supporters which caused grave offence and distress.”

The despicable attempts of the Sheffield police to lie their way out of responsibility and defame the Liverpool fans did not, alas, stop with the rocking travesty of facts which they planted in The Sun. They did their best to influence potential witnesses by inviting them to meetings at which they tried to put their own distorted view of what had happened in the hope that it would be taken on board and disseminated. Very recently, on the back of the publication of the extract from Professor Phil Scraton’s reissued book, a policeman on duty that day at Hillsborough wrote to the Daily Telegraph, insisting that the Sheffield force had every reason to adopt the restrictive measures that it did given the prevalence of football hooliganism at the time. The barriers etc. were therefore justified.

This made no sense at all, since whatever excessive precautions were taken on that awful day, no violence at all occurred, nor had it done so a year earlier when exactly the same teams, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, had met in the semifinal on exactly the same ground. Yet I understand from those who were there that there were intimations then of overcrowding on the Leppings Lane terraces. It is surely arguable that the Football Association, a somewhat palsied body under the limp aegis of Graham Kelly, whom I nicknamed Kelly the Jelly, should have take notice of the facts and seriously considered siting that semifinal elsewhere.

I also know, from an informant who took great care not to stand on that doomed portion of the terracing, how dangerously full the central Leppings Lane terracing looked to him before that first semifinal kicked off. But neither the FA nor the police seemed to take such omens on board.

It is however true to say that witnesses have reported how jammed and crowded before the second disastrous match the approaches to the Leppings Lane entrances were. Again, nothing was done in time just as nothing was done in time to remove or at least alleviate the iron barriers against which so many poor victims, and those pressing or being irresistibly pressed behind them, could do nothing to save themselves. Indeed the horror was compounded by this sheer helplessness, when survivors, such as there were, recounted how they found people, sometimes even sons or daughters or other relatives, having their life crushed out of them beside them without their being able to move, let alone help them.

The feeling among survivors and many of them relatives is that the actual coroner’s inquest was a whitewash, above all because for some arcane reason, it stopped short at 3.15 p.m. on the afternoon, the match having been scheduled to start at 3 O’Clock. This, they insist covers up the culpable lack of succour and assistance to the victims, many of whom in the absence of stretchers, were carted away on advertisement hoardings ripped from the perimeter displays. The trouble being that, whereas the safe way of conveying victims was to lay them on their front, the well meaning fans put them on their backs which exacerbated their dire problems.

No wonder that numerous survivors and relatives of the dead on that day are keen on a further inquiry, demanding to know why the previous one was so obscurely and arbitrarily truncated. Meanwhile, it is all too clear that whoever deputed Duckenfield in place of his predecessor bore infinite blame.

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