The Hillsborough verdict has had a greater impact on me than I suspected. It’s taken me back to that era: in which I was a keen West Ham fan (still am). Yet I now look back somewhat in wonder. Did we really put up with such poor treatment – herded like animals, treated as scum, offered the bare minimum in terms of comfort and provisions?
Before Lord Justice Taylor (in the Taylor Report to the Hillsborough tragedy) implored the game to go upmarket, the idea football was the “working man’s ballet” was to understate the hellish environment football fans endured in the 1970s and 1980s. Of course, thanks to Taylor, it’s been all-seater stadia and prawn sandwiches ever since – and I’m now happy to take my boys to matches in the near-certainty that it’s only shocking refereeing decisions that I have to worry about.
But I want to revisit that verdict – of “unlawful killing”. Don’t worry, I agree with it. I’d seen and even experienced enough instances of detestable and near-dangerous behaviour from the police to know that the verdict was justified. Watching the video of that day – with the police for 40 minutes lined up across the middle of the pitch, as if stopping a pitch invasion rather than trying to deal with the unfolding tragedy – makes me remember the attitude of the police to all football fans, not just the small minority intent on trouble. And the fact the timing of the deaths peaks right in that zone (3-3.20pm) – with the only medical help allowed a single St John’s Ambulance volunteer – is more than accidental. It’s more than misadventure. It is, indeed, unlawful.
Yet that’s not the entire story. The truth here is complex – very complex. It involves human beings in authority that had the wrong attitude and some deeply held prejudices. But, nonetheless, not a single one of them turned up to work that day intent on “unlawfully killing” people at a football match. In fact, they had the opposite objective – to keep everybody alive. I’ve not heard that stated once in the media melee since the verdict – I guess because the subsequent cover up (which started around 3.15pm that day) forfeits them any consideration. Though, again, the TV evidence is clear: showing individual policemen and women (presumably ignoring orders at this point) trying their best to help. To lift people out of the pen. To force the fence open. To carry people clear.
What has hurt the families, and many in Liverpool, most is the slur against the victims. That they were drunk, badly behaved, yobs. It’s a horrible lie – of course. But – but – but…..the truth is complex (and it’s here where I may get myself into trouble). Most certainly, the 96 – and anyone in the immediate pen behind Bruce Grobbelaar’s goal – were 100% innocent of any contributory factor: whether alcohol or violence related. To suggest otherwise is an obvious lie, although that’s what the police (using the media) tried to do. Shame on them. But what was happening outside – in Leppings Lane – is more contentious. Sure the verdict is, again, very clear: Question 7 asks “was there any behaviour on the part of football supporters which caused or contributed to the dangerous situation at the Leppings Lane turnstiles? “No”, is the answer.
This question is aimed at tackling the charge that the Leppings Lane gate was opened due to the crush of fans – drunk and ticketless according to the slur – forcing the gate to be opened (as David Duckenfield – police commander on the day – fatefully ordered). Sure there was a crush, it seems, but this was because ticketed fans arrived late (thanks to motorway congestion). It was not due to a mass of ticketless fans trying to force open the gate.
Deep breath – here we go. This is where I have a problem. One I feel I need to air, while absolutely accepting the verdicts – including for Question 7 – as correct.
My problem is that I went to matches in that era. Many matches (even standing in the Leppings Lane end for a West Ham quarter-final the year prior to the tragedy). I also went to more than a few matches involving Liverpool, the giant (for West Ham the near-unbeatable) am the team of the day. And around this time Liverpool fans had a reputation. Oddly, this wasn’t for hooliganism – unlike Chelsea, Manchester United, Leeds or, indeed, West Ham. Even post Heysel (in which Liverpool fans attacked Juventus fans with horrific consequences), Liverpool was not viewed as a “hoolie” club. There was no “firm” as such. They also had no particular notoriety for drunkenness (not above any other club, at least). But Liverpool fans were noted for something else: a peculiarity if you like. It was their habit of “steaming the gate” at away matches, and particular bigger (all-ticket) games. As kick-off approached, a large enough group would gather by the gate and, indeed, force their way in. It was “something Liverpool just did” – at least according to their reputation.
In fact, the 1990 Taylor Report into the tragedy called the behaviour of fans in Leppings Lane an “aggravating factor”. That has now, rightly, been dismissed. But that still doesn’t kill the historic reputation of Liverpool fans for this particularly dangerous rouse for gaining entry without a ticket. A reputation that, if known to me – a West Ham fan – was also surely known to the police. Nor does it change the fact that – what turned out to be a crush caused by other concerns – looked to the police exactly like that old Liverpool rouse: right up until 2.52pm when, indeed, the gate was opened, causing the surge that led to so many senseless and, yes, unlawful, deaths.
So while the behaviour of fans on the day did not contribute to the tragedy, behaviours from previous games most certainly did.
But if you think I’m blaming Liverpool fans here, you’re wrong. It was the culture. And we all acquiesced in the culture of hooliganism. I may not have been a card-carrying member of the Inter-City Firm (West Ham’s notorious hooligan mob) but I was secretly – and even not so secretly among friends – proud of them. I wanted West Ham to have the hardest firm – and loved Alan Clarke’s 1989 classic The Firm that immortalised them (though the later remake wasn’t so hot). We may have hated the way the police herded us (when I was 14 I was even assaulted by a policeman for doing absolutely nothing on a train) – but we still got a buzz from being the “invading marauders” in a midlands town or some “northern slum” (as we then thought – before I actually lived in the North while at Uni).
I’d have run a mile from any fight, but that didn’t stop the adrenalin and testosterone high of simply being with a large group of like-minded people in a hostile place. Of tribal chanting and the thrill of being with the gang. If you came from an Exurban Essex nowhereland, as I did, it was about as thrilling as it got.
But – then – that was football. The clubs knew it. The authorities knew it. And the fans knew it. It was also dangerous and unsustainable. And one day something was going to go very badly wrong. And to make that event, when it inevitably happened, the fault of one man: Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield is – despite his lies and failings – wrong. But that seems to be where we’re heading on this.