“The tragedy of Hillsborough has brought Liverpool to its knees – not in defeat, but in prayer.” – Kenny Dalglish
15 April 1989, Hillsborough stadium, Sheffield, England. Liverpool face Nottingham Forest in the semi-finals of the FA Cup, kick-off at 15.00. The match was sold-out and almost 53,000 fans were expected to attend the stadium that day.
Timeline of 15/04/1989
Despite being a far larger club, Liverpool supporters were allocated the smaller end of the stadium, so that their route would not bring them into contact with Forest fans arriving from the south. As is common, opposing supporters were segregated, to avoid incidents of hooliganism. As a result of the stadium layout and segregation policy, turnstiles that would normally have been used to enter the “North Stand” from the east were off-limits and all Liverpool supporters had to converge on a single entrance at Leppings Lane. 24,256 fans, entered through 23 turnstiles.
Many supporters wanted to enjoy the day and were in no hurry to enter the stadium too early. Between 2:30 pm and 2:40 pm, there was a build-up of supporters outside the turnstiles facing Leppings Lane, eager to enter the stadium before the game began. Outside the stadium, a bottleneck developed with more fans arriving than could be safely filtered through the turnstiles before 3:00 pm. People presenting tickets at the wrong turnstiles and those who had been refused entry could not leave because of the crowd behind them but remained as an obstruction. Fans outside could hear cheering as the teams came on the pitch ten minutes before the match started, and as the match kicked off, but could not gain entrance. A police constable radioed control requesting that the game be delayed, as it had been two years before, to ensure the safe passage of supporters into the ground. The request to delay the start of the match by 20 minutes was declined.
With an estimated 5,000 fans trying to enter through the turnstiles and increasing safety concerns, the police, to avoid fatalities outside the ground, opened a large exit gate (Gate C) that ordinarily permitted the free flow of supporters departing the stadium. Two further gates (A and B) were subsequently opened to relieve pressure. After an initial rush, thousands of supporters entered the stadium “steadily at a fast walk”.
When the gates were opened, thousands of fans entered a narrow tunnel leading to the rear of the terrace into two overcrowded central pens creating pressure at the front. Hundreds of people were pressed against one another and the fencing by the weight of the crowd behind them. People entering were unaware of the problems at the fence; police or stewards usually stood at the entrance to the tunnel and, when the central pens reached capacity, directed fans to the side pens, but on this occasion, for reasons not fully explained, they did not.
The match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest began as scheduled at 3:00 pm. Fans were still streaming into pens 3 and 4 from the rear entrance tunnel as the match began. For some time, problems at the front of the Liverpool central goal pens went largely unnoticed except by those inside it, and by a few police at that end of the pitch. Liverpool’s goalkeeper, Bruce Grobbelaar, reported fans from behind him pleading to him for help as the situation worsened. The police at first attempted to stop fans from spilling out of the pens, some believing this to be a pitch invasion. At approximately 3:05 pm, Peter Beardsley kicked a shot which struck Nottingham Forest’s goal bar. Possibly connected to the excitement, a surge in pen 3 caused one of its metal crush barriers to give way, thrusting people forward on top of one another, and into the pen’s front fences.
South Yorkshire Police Superintendent Greenwood (the ground commander) realised the situation, and ran on the field to gain referee Ray Lewis’s attention. Lewis stopped the match at 3:05:30 as fans climbed the fence in an effort to escape the crush and went onto the track. By this time, a small gate in the fence had been forced open and some fans escaped via this route, as others continued to climb over the fencing. Other fans were pulled to safety by fans in the West Stand above the Leppings Lane terrace. The intensity of the crush broke more crush barriers on the terraces. Holes in the perimeter fencing were made by fans desperately attempting to rescue others.
The crowd in the Leppings Lane Stand overspilled onto the pitch, where the many injured and traumatised fans who had climbed to safety congregated. Football players from both teams were ushered to their respective dressing rooms, and told that there would be a 30-minute postponement. Those still trapped in the pens were packed so tightly that many victims died of compressive asphyxia while standing. Meanwhile, on the pitch, police, stewards and members of the St John Ambulance service were overwhelmed. Many uninjured fans assisted the injured; several attempted CPR and others tore down advertising hoardings to use as stretchers. Chief Superintendent John Nesbit of South Yorkshire Police later briefed Michael Shersby MP that leaving the rescue to the fans was a deliberate strategy, and is quoted as saying “We let the fans help so that they would not take out their frustration on the police” at a Police Federation conference.
The report was tragic. With 96 fatalities and 766 injuries, it remains the worst disaster in British sporting history.
The Taylor Report
Immediately after the disaster, police blamed the incident on Liverpool fans, whom they alleged were drunk and disorderly. In addition, Duckenfield (the match commander at the time) claimed that fans had forced open gate C. It was alleged that officers from South Yorkshire Police conspired to blame the fans for the tragedy; changing statements and hiding evidence. Police at the time briefed the media that the crush in the Leppings Lane end had been caused by drunken, ticketless fans forcing the gates open in order to gain access to the ground.
After the disaster, Lord Justice Taylor was appointed to conduct an inquiry into the events. The Taylor Inquiry sat for a total of 31 days and published two reports, an interim report which laid out the events of the day and immediate conclusions, and the final report which outlined general recommendations on football ground safety. This became known as the Taylor Report.
Taylor concluded that policing on the day “broke down” and “the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control”.
Attention was focused on the decision to open the secondary gates; moreover, the kick-off should have been delayed, as had been done at other venues and matches. Sheffield Wednesday was also criticised for the inadequate number of turnstiles at the Leppings Lane end and the poor quality of the crush barriers on the terraces, “respects in which failure by the Club contributed to this disaster”.
Taylor found there was “no provision” for controlling the entry of spectators into the turnstile area. He dismissed the claim by senior police officers that they had no reason to anticipate problems, since congestion had occurred at both the 1987 and 1988 semi-finals.
He said that “the Operational Order and police tactics on the day failed to provide for controlling a concentrated arrival of large numbers should that occur in a short period. That it might so occur was foreseeable”. The failure by the police to give the order to direct fans to empty areas of the stadium, was described by Taylor as “a blunder of the first magnitude”. Lord Taylor noted with regard to the performance of the senior police officers in command that “…neither their handling of the problems on the day nor their account of it in evidence showed the qualities of leadership to be expected of their rank”
Behaviour of fans
Lord Taylor concluded that the behavior of Liverpool fans, including accusations of drunkenness, were secondary factors, and said that most fans were, “not drunk, nor even the worse for drink”. He concluded that this formed an exacerbating factor but that police, seeking to rationalise their loss of control, overestimated the element of drunkenness in the crowd.
Taylor concluded that in responding to the disaster there had been no fault on the part of the emergency services (St Johns Ambulance, South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance Service and fire brigade).
Taylor concluded his criticism of South Yorkshire Police by describing senior officers in command as “defensive and evasive witnesses” who refused to accept any responsibility for error.
The Taylor Report had a deep impact on safety standards for stadiums in the UK. Perimeter and lateral fencing was removed and many top stadiums were converted to all-seated. Other recommendations of the Taylor Report included points on items such as the sale of alcohol within stadiums, crush barriers, fences (as many Liverpool fans had been crushed to death against the perimeter fencing at Hillsborough), turnstiles, ticket prices and other stadium items.
Importantly, Stuart-Smith’s report supported the coroner’s assertion that evidence after 3.15 pm was inadmissible as “that by 3.15 pm the principal cause of death, that is, the crushing, was over.” This was controversial as the subsequent response of the police and emergency services would not be scrutinised. Announcing the report to the House of Commons, Home Secretary Jack Straw backed Stuart-Smith’s findings and said, “I do not believe that a further inquiry could or would uncover significant new evidence or provide any relief for the distress of those who have been bereaved.” However, the determination by Stuart-Smith was heavily criticised by the Justice Minister, Lord Falconer, who stated “I am absolutely sure that Sir Murray Stuart-Smith came completely to the wrong conclusion”. Falconer added, “It made the families in the Hillsborough disaster feel after one establishment cover-up, here was another.”
Hillsborough Independent Panel
The Hillsborough Independent Panel was instituted in 2009 by the British government to investigate the Hillsborough disaster, and in 2012 launched a website containing 450,000 pages of material.
On 12 September 2012, the Hillsborough Independent Panel concluded that no Liverpool fans were responsible in any way for the disaster and that its main cause was a “lack of police control”. Crowd safety was “compromised at every level” and overcrowding issues had been recorded two years earlier. The panel concluded that “up to 41″ of the 96 who perished might have survived had the emergency services’ reactions and co-ordination been improved. Some victims may have had heart, lung or blood circulation function for some time after being removed from the crush.” The report stated that placing fans who were “merely unconscious” on their backs rather than in the recovery position, would have resulted in their deaths due to airway obstruction.
After publication, the Hillsborough Families Support Group called for new inquests for the victims. They also called for prosecutions for unlawful killing, corporate manslaughter and perversion of the course of justice in respect of the actions of the police both in causing the disaster and covering up their actions. Calls were made for the resignation of police officers involved in the cover-up, and for Sheffield Wednesday, the police and the Football Association to admit their culpability. Calls were also made for Sir Dave Richards to resign as chairman of the Premier League and give up his knighthood as a result of his conduct at Sheffield Wednesday at the time of the disaster.
The High Court quashed the verdicts in the original inquests and ordered fresh inquests to be held. Sir John Goldring was appointed as Assistant Coroner for South Yorkshire (East) and West Yorkshire (West) to conduct those inquests. They found that there was a breach of the duty of care, that this amounted to gross negligence and that the 96 victims were unlawfully killed.
The jury found that:
Both the police and the ambulance service caused or contributed to the loss of lives in the disaster by an error or omission after the terrace crush had begun to develop;
- Policing of the match caused or contributed to a dangerous situation developing at the Leppings Lane turnstiles;
- Commanding officers caused or contributed to the crush on the terrace, as did those senior officers in the police control box when the order was given to open the exit gates at Leppings Lane;
- Features of the design, construction and layout of the stadium considered to be dangerous or defective caused or contributed to the disaster
Criminal and civil cases
In February 2000, a private prosecution was brought against Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield and another officer, Bernard Murray. The prosecution argued that the crush was “foreseeable” and the defendants were “grossly negligent”. Duckenfield admitted he had lied in certain statements regarding the causes of the disaster. The prosecution ended on 24 July 2000, when Murray was acquitted and the jury was unable to reach a verdict on Duckenfield.
Police disciplinary charges were abandoned when Duckenfield retired on health grounds and, because he was unavailable, it was decided it would be unfair to proceed with disciplinary charges against Bernard Murray.
Home Secretary (at the time) Theresa May announced on 18 December 2012 that a new police enquiry would be initiated to examine the possibility of charging agencies other than the police over the Hillsborough deaths. The enquiry was headed by former Durham Chief Constable Jon Stoddart.
On 28 June 2017, it was announced that six people were to be charged with offences in relation to the disaster. The full list of individuals and charges were:
- Mr Duckenfield, 72, faces manslaughter by gross negligence of 95 men, women and children
- Sir Norman, 61, faces four charges of misconduct in a public office relating to alleged lies he told in the aftermath about the culpability of fans
- Graham Mackrell, former Sheffield Wednesday club secretary, will be accused of breaching Health and Safety and Safety at Sports Ground legislation
- Peter Metcalf, who was a solicitor acting for SYP, is charged with perverting the course of Justice, relating to changes to witness statements
- Former Ch Supt Donald Denton and former Det Ch Insp Alan Foster are accused of perverting the course of justice
On 9 August, all except Duckenfield appeared at Warrington Magistrates Court. Mackrell pleaded not guilty to the charge against him. No formal pleas were taken from the other four defendants. On 29 June 2018, a ruling was made that Duckenfield would be prosecuted on the manslaughter charges.
On 10th September 2018, at a trial preparation hearing at Preston Crown Court, Duckenfield pleaded not guilty to all 95 charges against him. Mackrell pleaded not guilty to the two charges against him. A provisional trial date of 14 January 2019 was set. The trial started on 14 January 2019 at Preston Crown Court, Lancashire before Mr Justice Openshaw. On 13 March 2019, it was reported that Duckenfield would not be called to give evidence in his defence. It was also reported that the jury would be directed to find Mackrell not guilty on the charge of contravening the stadium’s safety certificate due to a lack of evidence. On 3 April, the jury returned with a guilty verdict against Mackrell on a health and safety charge and was unable to reach a verdict on Duckenfield.
On 19 April, four days after the disaster, Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of The Sun, ordered “The Truth” as the front-page headline, followed by three sub-headlines: “Some fans picked pockets of victims”, “Some fans urinated on the brave cops” and “Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life”. Mackenzie reportedly spent two hours deciding on which headline to run; his original instinct being for “You Scum” before eventually deciding on “The Truth”.
On 12 September 2012, after the publication of the report exonerating the Liverpool fans, MacKenzie issued the following statement:
Today I offer my profuse apologies to the people of Liverpool for that headline. I too was totally misled. Twenty-three years ago I was handed a piece of copy from a reputable news agency in Sheffield, in which a senior police officer and a senior local MP were making serious allegations against fans in the stadium. I had absolutely no reason to believe that these authority figures would lie and deceive over such a disaster. As the prime minister has made clear, these allegations were wholly untrue and were part of a concerted plot by police officers to discredit the supporters thereby shifting the blame for the tragedy from themselves. It has taken more than two decades, 400,000 documents and a two-year inquiry to discover to my horror that it would have been far more accurate had I written the headline The Lies rather than The Truth. I published in good faith and I am sorry that it was so wrong.
After the disaster “You’ll Never Walk Alone” became a symbol of the struggle to commemorate the wrongly accused victims and remains Liverpool’s goosebump giving anthem to this day. So to the 96 people that died, I can assure you of something, you’ll never walk alone.