Pen portraits of Hillsborough victims show them as individuals again and bridge the gap in understanding an event 25 years ago
The Weekend Dossier: One of the causes was some police were scared of the fans, believing them to be hooligans
#Hillsborough Inquest: Patrick Thompson’s wife said what “hurts the most” is that only their two eldest of five small children can remember him.
Walter said he would have gone to Hillsborough with Paula but had only one ticket so let her take it. He said: “I often think if I had been there with her she would be alive today.”
Doreen: My pain is centred on what Richard and Tracey missed and what our lives would be like now if they had not been killed...
Ian Whelan, a young BNFL worker loved U2 and art. “My family feel they’ve had to defend his good name for the last 25 years,” says his dad
Of the many ways Twitter has entered into our lives, being moved to tears by a series of 140-character tweets about people you never met, and never will, seemed among the more improbable. Twitter is for jokes, breaking news and abuse, not heart-rending. That was until this week and the updates from the Hillsborough Inquest at Warrington, posted by, among others, the Liverpool Echo’s Eleanor Barlow, David Conn of The Guardian and The Independent’s Ian Herbert.
The families of the 96 victims were asked to deliver brief pen portraits of the loved ones lost on the deadly Leppings Lane terrace all of 25 years ago this month.
The tweets above referred to tributes paid on Thursday to Patrick Thompson, Paula Smith, Richard Jones and his girlfriend Tracey Cox, and Ian Whelan, who died at Hillsborough aged 35, 26, 25, 23 and 19 respectively. There were nine portraits delivered this week. With 87 all-too-brief lives still to be told, all those in court will be emotionally drained when the time comes to hear and sift the evidence.
It was a compassionate and wise decision by the coroner, Lord Justice Goldring, to open the inquest with these pen portraits. Suddenly the dead were not “the 96” but 96 individuals, each with their own quirks and interests, their own reasons for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As someone who had stood at the Leppings Lane end, and had been involved in a frightening crush at Grimsby Town’s Blundell Park a few years earlier (even small grounds can be dangerous when fans are fenced in), I felt a deep empathy with the Hillsborough victims. There was a real sense of “it could have been me”.
Every fan who watched football in the Eighties would have felt similarly, which is why Hillsborough had such resonance. This empathy with the victims is harder, though, for the modern fan, who usually sits in safety and comfort. Even those who still stand in the lower divisions do so in grounds whose capacities are much reduced and safety-enhanced. This weekend I will take a party of pre-teens to a game with no fears for their safety. That was not so back in 1989, as the Hillsborough Independent Panel devastatingly reported, when it came to stadium safety improvements: “There is clear evidence that SWFC’s primary consideration was cost.” And Sheffield Wednesday were by no means unique.
That has changed. A tragedy on the scale of Hillsborough is highly unlikely to happen in England now. And with “Justice for the 96” becoming a campaign which, because it has exposed a police cover-up, can at times seem to have more in common with other policing controversies, the events of 15 April 1989 seem ever more distant from modern football fans.
By giving the 96 their individuality back, the coroner has reminded us that the dead were “people like us”. This is important both for their memory and because their deaths are still very relevant. Unlike most previous football tragedies (Burnden Park, Ibrox, Bradford) things did change after Hillsborough, to the extent that the tragedy and its aftermath shaped the modern Premier League more than the revival in interest that followed Italia ’90 and Euro ’96, and the arrival of satellite TV cash.
Thanks, in large part, to the outstanding work of Lord Justice Taylor, the clubs, often against their will, were forced to change their grounds from places where spectators were corralled like cattle to ones where they were treated like customers. Had those grounds not been civilised, the new audience would soon have drifted away from the game, Sky TV might well not have prospered off the back of it, and the TV money that has transformed the Premier League not been pumped into it.
There have been other changes and consequences, not all for the good. All but seven of the dead were male, the vast majority aged under 25, many of them teenagers. They were exclusively white. There were university students and insurance salesmen among the lost, but many of their occupations – roofer, car assembly worker, machinist – are the blue-collar jobs of the traditional working class.
Crowds don’t look like that any more. The audience has expanded to include more women, more ethnic minorities and more middle-class fans, but prices have also squeezed out many of the young males who were once the bedrock of support.
Finally, one of the causes of Hillsborough was that some police were scared of the fans, believing all football supporters to be potential hooligans. This was a widespread view at the time; I can remember the father of a girlfriend reacting with horror to the suggestion that I take her to a game. Given the hooliganism that had marred football for more than a decade, this attitude was unsurprising. The appalling accusation that hooliganism contributed to Hillsborough has been shown by successive inquiries to be baseless, but the police’s perception of hooliganism was one reason they reacted slowly and insensitively to the tragedy.
It has taken a very long time for that attitude to fade, not least because there are still hooligans out there, as events in Paris showed this week. The fall in attendances in Italy and Eastern Europe, largely owing to poor facilities and rising hooliganism, is a further reminder of the need for vigilance. Hillsborough may seem ancient history to some, but its lessons remain apposite.
It would be trite, though, to suggest the improvements in safety mean the 96 did not sacrifice their lives in vain. “Sacrifice” suggests an element of choice.
There may well have been untold incidents of heroism as the lethal cages began to fill, but the sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives who perished did not travel to Sheffield to put their lives on the line. As Doreen Jones told the inquest of her son, Richard: “He had a bright future ahead of him. He only went to a football match.”
1. PSG 3, CFC 1, FFP ?
After their defeat in Paris, and having decided to take note of Financial Fair Play themselves, Chelsea will doubtless be watching as keenly as FFP advocates Arsenal and Bayern Munich to see how Uefa treats Paris Saint-Germain’s sponsorship deals with companies connected to their Qatari owners.
2. Blues may amuse Benitez
Having led Chelsea to the Europa League and rescued their Champions League qualification last season, all to a backdrop of fan discontent, Rafael Benitez may be observing the Blues’ recent collapse in form with a degree of schadenfreude. Currently, he is steering Napoli towards Champions League qualification.
3. Grounds for hope in Italy
Roma’s announcement of a 52,500-seat new ground is another sign that Serie A is stirring. Italian clubs have long been hindered by occupying dated municipal stadiums, but if Roma can follow the success of Juventus the Premier League may have a revived rival for players’ signatures and television cash.
4. Albion spring serious leak
The worrying aspect for West Bromwich Albion manager Pepe Mel after the draw with Cardiff is not that the players appear to have come to blows after – given the way victory was thrown away that is unsurprising – but that the incident was leaked to the press. That, not the fight, reflects a split dressing room.
5. Tottenham become rovers
Wembley, West Ham, Milton Keynes... expect every ground within 100 miles of White Hart Lane to be name-checked as Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy tries to drive down rent costs while Spurs’ new ground is built. If only the team defended as fiercely.
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