I wish I didn't have to write what I'm about to write. There's no possible benefit to it for me. All it will bring me is hatred, abuse and threats, some from people whose feelings I care about. It won't make any difference to anything, because only a handful of people will ever read it and most of those who do will be outraged by it. But I have to do it anyway. I'm trapped – trapped by conscience, trapped by sanity, and trapped by the words of the smartest, most perceptive writer who ever lived.
"Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations." (George Orwell)
On the 15th of April 1989, ninety-six people went to a football match and didn't come home. They died in hideous scenes which were broadcast to the world and splashed across newspaper front pages, and they died as a result of a catastrophic combination of circumstances, which had any one of them not been present would have averted the disaster. Yet of all those factors, there's one that nobody is allowed to talk about, despite the fact that it's the one that actually killed every single victim.
Damn everyone whose cowardice means that the burden of saying so has landed on someone as stupid, inappropriate and hopelessly ill-equipped for the task as me.
Warning: the following piece contains distressing images.
I haven't seen the death certificates of the 96 victims of Hillsborough. But I'm going to make an assertion anyway, without fear of contradiction – not a single one of them lists the cause of death as "incompetence" or "inexperience". The vast majority died of asphyxiation, crushed to death by the weight of hundreds of bodies pressing them against unyielding steel fences or the concrete steps of the terracing.
Yet despite 23 years of investigations, reports and analysis, the most blindingly obvious fact is never spoken. The pressure that caused that crush didn't come out of nowhere. It wasn't an act of God, it wasn't a freak gravity storm. It came from behind them, and every ounce of it came from human beings. Specifically, it came from Liverpool fans.
Almost every organisation or group involved at Hillsborough made a contribution to the deadly events that played out on that day. The FA inexplicably allocated the Leppings Lane end to the Liverpool fans, giving the far larger Kop stand at the opposite side to the less-numerous supporters of Nottingham Forest, despite the Leppings Lane end having suffered repeatedly from overcrowding issues in previous years.
(See chapter 1, pages 6-7, of the Hillsborough Independent Panel report for details.)
Sheffield Wednesday FC, despite making some modifications in the wake of previous events, had failed to take any effective action with regard to either the West terracing's capacity or logistics which would have avoided such issues. That lack of action was compounded on the day by inadequate policing and stewarding which failed to note the dangerous situation developing in the central pens and divert fans away to the side pens where there was more room.
(Although according to this report in the Liverpool Echo, the fences inside all the terracing pens separating them from each other were locked in the "open" position, allowing fans to move between the pens.)
A police commander with no experience in similar events was paralysed by indecision at vital moments. Officers on the pitch failed to grasp the gravity of the situation until it was too late, believing it to be a public-order issue rather than a public-safety one. As the disaster unfolded, ambulances which could have saved many of the victims were prevented by the police from coming to their aid for the same reason. Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar saw what was happening and pointed it out, but initially played on rather than bringing the game to a stop.
But none of these failings caused a single death. Neither the FA, Sheffield Wednesday, the police commanders, the officers on duty, the players on the pitch or the ambulance crews exerted the fatal pressure on the back of the crowd, which built and built until crash barriers gave way and the mass of bodies in the central pens forced the air from the lungs of the unfortunate people at the front. The only people who exerted that force were Liverpool supporters.
I've been in hundreds of crowds. At football matches, at gigs, at Edinburgh's early Hogmanay celebrations where half a million crammed onto a few streets of the city (before the overcrowding led to tight ticketing controls) and at the infamous first Future Entertainment Show at Earls Court, where queues to get in wrapped all the way round the vast arena and I'm still amazed that nobody was seriously injured in a narrow tunnel between two areas of the exhibition.
The most frightening were the rock concerts, mostly at Glasgow Barrowlands. In the days of terracing in football stadia I always headed for the back of the ground anyway because I preferred a higher viewpoint, though partly also out of fear of crushes. But Barrowlands – which holds roughly the same amount of people as the Leppings Lane pens – was scary. The excited throng would edge forwards looking for a better viewing-point, and if you'd made the mistake of heading for the moshpit you could find yourself pressed alarmingly tightly against the chest-high barriers between the floor and stage.
For most bands the crowds were calm enough and the squeeze never menacing, but on "special" occasions, like the Pogues' Christmas-Eve show with Joe Strummer, things could get rowdy. Before the band had even taken the stage that night the pressure at the front was intense, and as a not-very-tall figure with a slight eight-stone frame I was clearly going to be in trouble if anything went wrong.
So I started jabbing my elbows and heels behind me, and worked my way back through the crowd to a safer spot near the sides. People swear and bat at you angrily, but you get there, partly because their natural reaction to your jabbing is to leap backwards and that ripples through the people behind them until there's enough space to wriggle through. I watched the show in safety and sturdier people than I filled the space at the front, and everyone had a super time.
Now before anyone starts shouting, let's be clear: for the people at the front of Leppings Lane, it was far too late for that. By the time the magnitude of their predicament became clear, there wasn't a hope of them being able to move. They, alone, played no part in their fate. So let's wind the timeline back a few minutes.
While the central pen was already dangerously full, the deadly tipping point was the introduction of hundreds more fans when the police opened an exit gate to let more people into the ground, in fear (ironically) that the chaotic scenes at the inadequate number of turnstiles were going to lead to deaths from crushing. And it's in the space between the turnstiles and the terraces that the disaster really happened.
The area between the opened Gate C, (the blue gate furthest to the right on the picture above), and the tunnel itself (which leads to the central pens) is a large space – more than sufficient to safely relieve the immediate pressure on the turnstiles. The problem arose at the bottleneck of the tunnel entrance, and that was the place where Liverpool supporters sealed the fate of their comrades.
I don't know about you, readers, but if I walk into the Post Office or the cinema and there's a queue, what I tend to do is walk up to the person at the end of the queue and then stop, rather than charging bodily into them in an attempt to make the queue move faster. As a rule, I assume there's a reason nobody's moving, and that whatever it is isn't going to be helped by me ramming it. It doesn't seem like rocket science.
But for some reason, once a crowd reaches a certain size people seem to assume that the normal rules of civilised behaviour they observe elsewhere in life no longer apply. Responsibility for individual action is abdicated to the mob – a notoriously stupid, reckless and dangerous entity. Whenever you attempt to engage in debate about Hillsborough, the argument always comes down to the fact that apparently there's nothing you can do about the fact that there will be pushing, and that it's entirely the responsibility of the police to deal with the consequences.
But there is no such thing as a hive mind. Everyone in a crowd who is pushing into a solid wall of bodies in front of them, exerting pressure in the full rational knowledge that there's a reason it isn't moving, is an individual human being with a brain of their own. At Hillsborough, everyone pushing their way into the tunnel knew perfectly well that it opened into an enclosed area, hemmed in by overhanging steel fences, which minutes before kick-off was likely to already be crammed with people, and which took the inherently-hazardous form of a stairway.
But they pushed anyway, in the apparent belief that the laws of physics didn't apply to football grounds and they could magically create space from nowhere if only they pushed hard enough. And space was indeed created, from the only place it possibly could be – the rib cages of the people already on the terracing.
This simple, empirical law of nature is the great unspeakable truth about Hillsborough, the only contributing factor to the tragedy that can never be spoken aloud despite being the most important one. It's true that if the FA had allocated the Kop end to Liverpool, the disaster probably wouldn't have happened. It's true that if stewards had been in place behind Gate C directing fans to the emptier side pens, the disaster probably wouldn't have happened. It's true that if officers on the pitch had realised what was happening sooner and opened the fences, the disaster probably wouldn't have happened, or at least would have been greatly reduced. It's true that if ambulances hadn't been blocked from entering the stadium, dozens of lives might have been saved.
But none of those things were the cause of death of the 96 victims. They died from the application of physical force behind them, and no matter how much you try to skirt around the issue, the ultimately inescapable fact is that every last ounce of that pressure came from Liverpool fans. The unending, maudlin obsession of the club's fans with Hillsborough for the last 23 years has its root not in anger, but in guilt.
None of this is to say that the campaign which eventually led to the Hillsborough Independent Panel report wasn't necessary. The police cover-up which followed the disaster is beyond a shadow of a doubt one of the most appalling, shameful disgraces of British history. There's no shortage of coverage of that, though, so we'll leave the rest of the world to discuss and digest it with the horror it fully merits.
The true crime of the police is that their despicable, scarcely-believable attempts to disguise their own calamitous failings have allowed attention to be diverted away from those who actually slaughtered the poor doomed souls at the front of the Leppings Lane central pen – the irresponsible, reckless cretins who pushed into a solid wall of bodies even as agonised screams cut the air in front of them.
(And indeed, whose actions helped create the circumstances which caused the victims to be trapped in the first place. Hillsborough could have happened at almost any ground in the country in the late 1980s, but Liverpool's fans must shoulder a disproportionate share of the blame for the existence of the fateful fences, which in part arose from their murderous actions at Heysel Stadium four years earlier.)
The police's mendacious attempts to blame the fans for being drunk, late or ticketless were red herrings. The reality is much simpler, and required no lying – the fans were to blame because they, alone, were the ones who pushed and thereby caused the crush.
No matter how many vindictive, pointless prosecutions – of people who ultimately found themselves placed in a position with which they were unable to cope, and will have to live with the consequences of their failures forever – may eventually result from the HIP report, those who directly caused the deaths will never face a court or a jury of their peers, and indeed will be allowed to piously assert their moral outrage at those who were merely unable to rescue the innocent from their lethal stupidity.
Until they do, and until the individuals who make up every crowd take responsibility for their own actions, there will be no justice for the 96.