Next Tuesday marks the 25th anniversary of the worst stadium disaster in British football history.
On 15th April 1989, Liverpool faced Nottingham Forest in the semi-final of the FA Cup at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough Stadium. The ground was chosen because it was a neutral venue, a standard practice for the FA Cup at the time.
In the 1980s, it was common for there to be a mixture of seating and terraces at football stadiums, and Hillsborough was no different. The Liverpool supporters were allocated the Leppings Lane stand, which consisted of a seating area; and a terrace at the front, which was split into enclosed pens.
The stand could only be accessed by a small number of turnstiles, leading to serious congestion outside the stadium. The terrace was already overcrowded when an exit gate was opened to relieve the pressure, leading to a fatal crush in central pens 3 & 4. Some supporters climbed over the barriers to escape the crush, and others were lifted by fellow fans into the stand above, to help them get away from the packed enclosure.
Shortly after the game kicked off at 3 PM, the overcrowding was so severe that a crush barrier gave way, making conditions even worse on the terrace. At 3.06 PM, the match was stopped. Supporters hurried to break off advertising hoardings to use as stretchers for the injured, moving them onto the pitch.
That day, 96 Liverpool supporters went to watch their team play Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semi-final, and they never returned home. Some of those who lost their lives were children, including the ten-year-old cousin of future Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard; others were due to become parents; the oldest victim was 67. The original inquests brought verdicts of accidental death. As well as those 96 entirely preventable deaths, hundreds more were injured.
After the disaster, South Yorkshire Police denied responsibility for the events at Hillsborough. Stories were peddled in the media which exaggerated allegations that drunkenness and violence by Liverpool supporters contributed to the crushes. Most notable was a story run on the front page of The Sun, with the headline ‘The Truth’. The claims made included that Liverpool supporters had urinated on police officers trying to resuscitate the unconscious and looted from fans lay dying on the pitch.
In the aftermath of Hillsborough, Lord Justice Taylor was appointed to conduct an inquiry into what had happened. The Report concluded that the main reason for the disaster was a failure in police control, and dismissed claims that drunkenness from the Liverpool supporters contributed to the disaster. The Taylor Report led to the introduction of all-seater stadiums in England and Wales.
The families and friends of the victims have always maintained their absolute innocence. In 2012, an inquiry by the Hillsborough Independent Panel exonerated the Liverpool supporters of all blame for the disaster. It concluded that the authorities attempted to cover up what happened after 116 police statements were altered.
Saddest of all, it found that up to 41 of those 96 lives of innocent Liverpool supporters could have been saved if they had received quicker medical treatment. New inquests began this week which will hopefully see the original verdicts of accidental death overturned for those that died.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the disaster, all matches this weekend in the top six divisions of English football will kick-off at 3.07 PM instead of the usual 3 o’clock. Kick-off will be preceded by a minute’s silence beginning at 3.06 PM, the exact moment when the match was stopped at Hillsborough. All clubs, from Liverpool at the top of the Premier League to Workington at the bottom of the Conference North, will pay their respects to the 96. All other matches at different times will also kick-off seven minutes later than originally planned.
The season after Hillsborough was the last time that Liverpool won a league title. They are currently top of the table and fittingly, could go on to claim to claim their first ever Premier League title, which would be incredibly poignant a quarter of a century after Hillsborough.
Regardless of our own team allegiances, when our clubs up and down the country kick-off their games at 3.07 PM this weekend, let us never forget that darkest of days in English football history. As football fans, let’s pay our respects to the memories of those 96 innocent Liverpool supporters who lost their lives: supporters who Will Never Walk Alone.