Saturday, 15 April, 1989 was a fine sunny day as over 55,000 supporters crowded into the Sheffield Wednesday ground for the semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Two months before, I had been appointed chief executive of the Football Association and was looking forward to my first Cup semi-final in that new role.
My heart sank shortly after the 3pm kick-off when some supporters at the Leppings Lane end had gained access to the perimeter track. A police officer strode on to the pitch to instruct the referee, Ray Lewis of Surrey, to halt the game. There had been a fatal crush on the Leppings Lane terrace, when a Peter Beardsley shot hit the crossbar at the far end. The worst disaster in the history of British football claimed 96 lives. Most of those who died were under 25 years of age.
What happened at Hillsborough to result in such a tragic and wasteful loss of life? By 2.50pm, the two central pens of the Leppings Lane terrace, to the left of the main stand, were virtually at capacity. But, to relieve a dangerous crush outside the ground, the police ordered open an exit gate at the back of the stand. About 2,000 Liverpool fans hurried in and most went down a tunnel to the central pens, thereby inadvertently causing the crush which led to the deaths.
Shortly after the referee took the players to the dressing-rooms I went to the police control box, which, ironically, overlooked the Leppings Lane terrace, to try to find out what had caused the accident. Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, in charge of his first major match, told me the Liverpool supporters had forced open an exit gate. Although it soon became clear that the match would not be re-started, the police would not confirm this, for fear of blocking access to the stadium for the emergency vehicles.
After an hour of confusion, during which many heroic acts of assistance were carried out, some by young members of the Sheffield Wednesday staff, I began a series of media interviews which lasted for days. Initially, I recounted the two stories I had heard: Duckenfield's and the opposing view given by fans, i.e. that the gate had been opened by officials. On BBC's Match of the Day that evening I said football should move fans' preference away from standing on the terraces.
The late Lord Justice Taylor, subsequently the Lord Chief Justice, was appointed by the then Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, to conduct an inquiry and to make recommendations about crowd control and safety. He rejected the police's claim that they could not have anticipated a large, uncooperative crowd in the final half hour before the kick-off, saying it was foreseeable that large numbers would arrive in a concentrated period. Though he accepted that the presence of an unruly minority, who had drunk too much, aggravated the problem, as did poor signage and ticketing. It was, he reported, "a blunder of the first magnitude" not to direct the inrushing supporters to the wing pens of the terrace, where there was plenty of space for them. There was inefficient monitoring of the crowd levels on the terrace, and nobody realised the danger of allowing too many people to rush into the central pens.
Many police officers, even some in the control box, failed to realise at first that they were contending with a safety issue; they were trying to prevent a pitch invasion, their minds conditioned by two decades of hooliganism. I made the same initial mistake from my seat in the directors' box. Indeed, there did develop a possibility of conflict as the Liverpool fans became angry at the uncomprehending jeers of the Nottingham Forest supporters at the Kop end, who also read it wrong. A line of police was deployed across the pitch to prevent confrontation.
Civil claims for compensation were later settled, mainly by the police, but also by Sheffield Wednesday Football Club, Eastwood and Partners (their consultant engineers), and the Sheffield City Council, who had responsibility under the Safety of Sports Grounds Act for issuing the safety certificate.
Chief Superintendent Duckenfield left the force on the grounds of ill health. The Police Complaints Authority declined to pursue a case against Superintendent Bob Murray, who was in charge of the control box, because it was thought unfair to proceed against the more junior of the two officers alone. However, the courts have recently given the go-ahead for a private prosecution of Duckenfield and Murray.
Lord Justice Taylor was very critical of the way football had treated its supporters, and his report was a wide-ranging examination of the state of the game, containing many measures designed to improve its future.
Notwithstanding the Judge's censures, the game was soon to find itself grateful for Lord Taylor's thoughtful consideration of its many problems, for he swiftly consigned to the dustbin the Conservative government's cherished identity card proposal. He thought it would simply be unworkable.
The Taylor Report contained many suggestions that have since helped to transform football into a safer family sport. Ticket touting was made illegal. Obscene or racist chanting became illegal, as did invading the pitch and throwing missiles. Effective stewarding superseded expensive policing. Medical services were vastly improved. Emergency access to the pitch has been improved as perimeter fences have been removed or reduced.
But it was Lord Justice Taylor's primary recommendation that acted as the real catalyst for football dragging itself towards the 21st century. He proposed that big matches should be all-seater. The Government quickly legislated to this effect and also reduced the Pool Betting Duty on condition the rebate was directed towards the installation of seats.
The scene was set for massive improvements in facilities at nearly every ground. The Football Trust channelled many millions of pounds into the game.
Hillsborough was the latest in a long line of football disasters. The 80s alone had seen deaths at Bradford City and Heysel, following the Ibrox and Burnden Park tragedies in 1971 and 1946 respectively. At Wembley's first ever FA Cup final in 1923 the attendance far exceeded the safe capacity of the stadium.
I pray there will be no recurrence in the new millennium. However, notwithstanding the many improvements in crowd control, when large numbers gather to follow a passionate encounter it is never possible to give absolute guarantees of 100 per cent safety. Organisers must always remain vigilant for, as Lord Taylor said, "Complacency is the enemy of safety."
Also, is it too much to hope that, given the subsequent influx of television cash, the top clubs might take just a little notice of Lord Taylor's wish that his recommendation would not lead to unwarranted increases in the price of tickets?
At the very least, football owes it to the bereaved of Hillsborough not to exploit the memory. England today would not be in a position to bid for an all-seated World Cup 2006 were it not for the disaster that led to the prompt installation of those seats.Reuse content