Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Meaning of Hillsborough 25 Years On

25 years ago today, 96 Liverpool fans died at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, asphyxiated following a crush in a spectator pen at the Leppings Lane end of the ground. 766 fans in total were injured, 300 of whom required hospitalisation.

The Meaning of Hillsborough 25 Years On

The Liverpool v Nottingham Forest F.A. Cup semi-final was abandoned barely six minutes into the match as a tragedy of horrific proportions was unfolding across England's airwaves.

The aftermath was extraordinary, with an entire nation momentarily convulsed by the senseless carnage. English football came to a standstill, and Liverpool's manager and players said it felt impossible to continue playing the season after such a tragedy.

Although the whole country was touched in sympathy, the playing-out of the disaster was particularly Northern, involving three cities born of the 19th century industrial revolution: Liverpool, Nottingham and Sheffield. The blood spilt was largely working-class and in the resulting tableau football still flew the flag of the people's religion, a remnant of close-knit solidarity in a post-industrial age.

In an age of increasing individualism and dying collectivism, those Liverpool supporters wore the same colours, sang the same songs, surged into the ground together and were crushed and died as one. And Merseyside's very public reaction to the deaths - a tapestry of flags and scarves, packed cathedrals and wailing families, was decidedly Victorian in its sensibility.

Had the tragedy occurred in London or the South of England the mourning would have been more private and curtailed. Yet this cultural nuance was lost on some right-wing Southerners, such as conservative commentator Simon Heffer, who was angry at the victims' relatives and boldly claimed that "Liverpool fans were killed by the thuggishness and ignorance of other Liverpool fans."

Sunday Times writer Edward Pearce opined, "The shrine in the Anfield goalmouth, the cursing of the police, all the theatricals, come sweetly to a city which is already the world capital of self-pity."

Britain's best selling tabloid The Sun, prompted by Conservative M.P. Irvine Patnick, went further and claimed that dying Liverpool fans had been stolen from, sexually assaulted and urinated upon by their comrades, in a notorious front-page splash entitled "The Truth."

The then government was hardly football-friendly, considering its rowdy supporters a nuisance at best and a national disgrace at worst. Until the Taylor Report into Hillsborough destroyed its credibility, a scheme to force all fans to carry special I.D. cards was being planned.

The sports minister hastily despatched to Sheffield was the diminutive and shrill former rowing cox Colin Moynihan, whose clipped accent and private school background could scarcely have made him less qualified to understand northern football culture.

Although government ministers hurried to be photographed in Sheffield, the Thatcher administration's cultural distancing was laid bare, confirming many a suspicion it did not really care about the Northern cities, whose allegiances it had assumed to belong to the opposition.

Liverpool was a decidedly left-wing place, but with a special history that set it apart from the rest of the country. With quick access to the Atlantic and the Irish Sea, its deep-water harbour meant that since the 1800s it had become a working city of docks, cranes, ships and ocean liners. It had long been used to African and Irish immigration, lived off transatlantic trade including slavery and managed a religious divide unique for an English city.

While the Beatles made the Scouse accent famous across the world, the docks were starting to close and by 1989 Liverpool was reeling in the social wreckage left by industrial collapse. Nottingham and Sheffield had also witnessed decline but still profited from the labour of coal-miners, whom the Prime Minister had dubbed "The Enemy Within" during their bitter conflict a few years earlier.

The people of Liverpool had no option but to take control of the situation: Anfield became a sea of scarves and flowers of condolence, a charity single topped the charts and an appeal raised £12 million. Whatever the divisions, the nation appeared to come together in grief and consolation in a fleeting return to the spirit of the Blitz. There is thus some nostalgia for what was a famous cultural moment of the 1980s, a decade when politics and identity really mattered.

Football fans felt a particular brotherhood, and I well remember collections at grounds for the appeal.

When the semi-final itself was eventually replayed in Manchester, a surreal atmosphere enveloped the occasion, with Nottingham Forest coach Brian Clough admitting before kick-off his team was in "a no-win situation". Forest manfully respected the nobility of the sport by trying to win, but Kenny Dalglish's side was in a rabid mood, exorcising their demons as they tore into Clough's team, eventually winning 3-1 before lifting the cup itself in May.

Wembley dismantled its hated fences for that game, and across the nation, the cages which had imprisoned supporters like animals since the 1970s were taken down, never to return. Such was the feeling of catharsis after Hillsborough that English soccer hooliganism lost its appeal and would never dictate the direction of the national sport again. It was undoubtedly a watershed.

Justice Taylor's report analysed the tragedy precisely, yet drew the controversial conclusion, having been egged on by the Football Association, that installing all-seater stadia was the way forward, when standing can be perfectly safe, as German football proves today. The conversion of the nation's grounds to all-seated arenas began in earnest, initially aided by F.A. grants and later by the windfall of TV money from Rupert Murdoch's Sky.

Fans argued against the death of the terraces on phone-ins and in print, yet were powerless to prevent the transformation. English stadia certainly became safer as a result of Hillsborough and would never be again the "medieval fortresses" which had horrified Taylor, yet the sport lost an extraordinary atmosphere to be mourned ever after by the 'terrace generation'.

It is a mistake, as is often claimed, to argue that the Taylor Report and by extension Hillsborough helped midwife the Premier League. Technology had made satellite TV possible and a number of companies spotted there was a gap in the market for regular live football. As England's No.1 sport, football was always going to be snapped up by the highest bidder, all-seat stadia or no.

25 years later, the fulsome tributes to the 96 victims are a measure of the emotional strength of Liverpool as a city and football's undimmed power to unite, while the new inquest is a pertinent reminder of the immense and unresolved pain the tragedy caused.

The new age of the Premier League since 1993, along with its 'year zero' statistics erasing what came before means some may look on Hillsborough as an embarrassing detail of the past, or a merely local issue. Yet Liverpool fans' refusal to forget while the team returns as a force heading for this year's title, and perhaps the personal connection of skipper Steven Gerrard, who lost a cousin that day, has meant Hillsborough remains a hot topic in English football in 2014.

What remains frustratingly unresolved a quarter of a century on is the blame for it all. While some tried and failed to smear the supporters, the police's handling of the event, the design and maintenance of the stadium and the actions of the emergency services have never come under proper scrutiny.

The persistent campaign of 'Justice for the 96' never died down, and finally bore fruit a couple of years ago. In September 2012, the Hillsborough Independent Panel, which had been formed the year before, exonerated the fans of any blame and reported that an astonishing 116 witness statements had been doctored by the police. It also concluded up to 41 of the 96 lives could have been saved had the emergency services been properly prepared.

At the end of 2012, the initial verdicts of accidental death were quashed by the Lord Chief Justice and a fresh inquest was launched, which is hearing testimony as we speak. Amid the commemoration of an unspeakable loss, the fusion of football and religion which filled Anfield today reminds us of the healing powers of community and friendship, and at the heart of that memory burns a defiant flame of justice undimmed by time.

Trevor Hicks, the highest-profile campaigner, who lost two daughters at Hillsborough,  had told the inquest earlier this week,

"To lose both your children is devastating, It's not that it's twice as bad, it's that you lose everything, the present, the future, any purpose."

Today he reminded the thousands gathered in the stadium today how strong they had all been:

 "We stuck together," he said. "We pulled, we pushed, and we refused to lie down. We refused to go away."

Following the failure of a number of private prosecutions against the South Yorkshire Police, the release of a number of previously withheld documents could finally see those negligent that fateful afternoon face justice.

Only then will the families and friends of the dead feel public vindication, although their personal losses will remain, tied to an unforgettable date:

The 15th of April 1989.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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