The Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report was released yesterday, following nearly three years of work re-examining the Hillsborough disaster of April 15, 1989. A good summary of the findings are here. The NYT has a story here. For those unaware, Hillsborough (the ground of Sheffield Wednesday FC) was the neutral venue for an FA Cup semi final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. 96 Liverpool supporters lost their lives [*] immediately before and in the opening minutes of the match in a crush at one end of the ground — the match was cancelled only six minutes in. The official narrative blamed the Liverpool fans themselves; drunk, violent, ticketless trying to force their way into the ground. This myth was helped along by the print media, most notoriously The Sun. Indeed, Boris Johnson, present Conservative mayor of London and all around moppy clown, oversaw if not wrote an unsigned editorial which reiterated blaming the fans, specifically “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” while editor of The Spectator as recently as 2004. Today (literally), he is “very, very sorry“. As is David Cameron, who exonerated the fans role yesterday in Parliament.
The true cause was not the fans or their behavior, but a combination of incredibly amateur crowd control on the part of the South Yorkshire Police and the remarkably decrepit state of stadia serving as the venues for the most popular spectator sport in Britain, against a sociological backdrop that stereotyped soccer fans as lower class hooligans. The latter in part resulted in the perimeter fences then standard at grounds in the UK. Indeed, the Leppings Lane end of Hillsborough had been subdivided into five “pens” (yes, they were called pens). Hillsborough was supposedly one of the better grounds in England at the time, hence being a frequent location for a semi final, but it was in dreadful condition (as was a majority of the grounds around the country up and down the pyramid). Slightly less than four years prior, 56 fans died in a fire at Valley Parade, home ground of Bradford City, and 66 people died in a crush (on exit) at Ibrox in 1971. I can’t think of anything remotely similar in US major league sports during my lifetime (the year I was born, Bob Gibson had an ERA of 1.12, and Denny McLain won 31 games). The best I can come up with on a cursory search is when some bleachers collapsed at the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia in 1903, killing 12.
The incompetence of the police, both in planning and during the match itself, deserves the majority of the blame. While the tragedy was unfolding, a sizable portion of their presence was employed in making a barrier across the pitch to prevent the Liverpool supporters now on the pitch from rushing the Forest supporters at the other end (because that was precisely on their mind after they got over the relief at simply being alive). These expressions of incompetence suggest why, in the aftermath, the South Yorkshire Police systematically covered up their responsibility. In 116 cases, written statements by officers on site had been effectively cleansed, “to remove or alter comments unfavourable” to the police, in preparation for the official inquest. This conspiracy extended to portions of the media and the government of the day. It wasn’t the police, it wasn’t the infrastructure, it was those working class hooligans from radical Liverpool.
I have several friends who are Liverpool supporters, including a good friend of mine who lives down the street from my house here in England. The findings of the report released yesterday have been common knowledge for 23 years. But, it’s never been official knowledge until now; the official narrative was quite different. A lot of people have been queuing up to apologise in the past 24 hours, deservedly so, including the FA for hosting the semi final at a ground lacking a safety certificate. It looks as though the South Yorkshire police will refer this to the independent commission that investigates the police.
Anticipate a criminal investigation to the cover-up in the near future.
[*] 94 died at the ground, two more later in hospital. I knew that. Having just read this, I spotted my error I figured I’d correct it before a reader does.