What do you associate with Saturday afternoons?
For some it may be the mowing of the lawn or maybe touching up the paintwork of a porch or a garden fence. Others may use the weekend to hit the high street, the supermarkets, or to get on the road for a short getaway. There are those who will stir at noon, groggily recounting tales of the night before, happy not to have missed lunch.
For many, and most certainly for myself, Saturday afternoons will forever be synonymous with BBC One. As one o’clock struck, I’d already be primed. I’d have had fair warning – calling in from the garden every ten or fifteen minutes after lunch to ask Mum what time it was. Then the time came – that unmistakable drum beat, the carnival trumpeting – Grandstand had started.
Twenty nine years ago this weekend, Grandstand aired like it did every Saturday. I wasn’t watching. Well, not to my knowledge. Nine months old, I’d like to think if he was any sort of father, my Dad had me perched on knee waiting to herald Bob Wilson into the tiny living room of our split-level bungalow – but I can’t be sure.
It was one of the good ones. Day one of the World Snooker Championship from Sheffield. Live racing from Newbury. Christ, even the Formula 3 racing was being shown from Silverstone. And with BBC cameras at both Villa Park and Hillsborough to capture the action from the FA Cup semi-finals, it was set up to be a memorable edition.
Infamously, it certainly proved that.
And whilst over the subsequent twenty nine years, there has been many questions and answers, many lies and truths, much furious finger-pointing and uncountable tender embraces, the haunting images of a police strewn field, an empty Leppings Lane and rubbish blowing in the wind – pierced only by the choked up words of John Motson – has been enough to stun even the most hardened into complete silence. Whatever the circumstances, ninety six Liverpool fans were dead – and football was about to change forever.
Tragedy. Catastrophe. Shame. Horror. The words are all there to describe how cataclysmic an event Hillsborough was. I think something I’ve struggled with, growing up as an avid football fan, is how something like that could ever have actually happened. Of course, myself and many fans like me, have grown up in the post-Hillsborough footballing age – the age of the Premier League, of jaw-dropping sporting arenas, of corporate hospitality. I wasn’t around for enough of the eighties to form my own opinion of it, or dare I say, be entitled to one now.
Like anything, Hillsborough happened in the context of it’s own time. Attending football matches in the seventies and the eighties was not an insouciant choice for one to make. The culture of hooliganism was prevalent in the English game.
Yes, this is the point, where any one who has committed to writing a piece on Hillsborough inevitably tenses.
The results of the latest inquest are clear. Unequivocally, we all can and must believe that Hillsborough occurred not because of the mindless acts of hooligan football fans, but because of a nightmarish cacophony of ill equipped facilities and policing negligence. Of that, we can have no doubt. At the same time, one must not shy away from other truths. Almost four years previous to the events of April 15, 1989, Liverpool fans were involved in another harrowing footballing tragedy. Thirty-two Italian football fans were killed, along with four Belgians, two French and east Belfast man Patrick Radcliffe, when Liverpool fans breached a fence and stormed the opposing Juventus contingent at the 1985 European Cup Final in Heysel, Belgium. In the aftermath, fourteen of these “fans” were convicted of manslaughter and English teams were banned from European competition as a result, for a five year period – Liverpool Football Club, itself, banned for six years.
Simply a fact. It is impossible to not consider Heysel, when understanding the context of Hillsborough.
There have been those who have always managed to parallel the two given the Liverpool connection, and I’m not going to be drawn into the rhetoric that surrounds two regrettable sporting tragedies. Certainly not on this forum.
But whilst media, historically, have often focused on the sensationalised attribution of blame directed at football fans when these tragedies happen, the real context of stadium disasters such as Heysel and Hillsborough centers around the impropriety of not only the football stadia throughout the seventies and eighties in dealing with major sporting events, but also of the stewarding of such large scale occasions by authorities – both state and governing bodies.
Therein lay my confusion. How was Hillsborough allowed to take place, not just four years after Heysel, or indeed the awful stand fire at Valley Parade, Bradford which claimed fifty six lives, but a full eighteen years after sixty six Rangers fans were crushed to death on a stairwell at Ibrox Stadium, Glasgow? Perhaps most shockingly, how was it allowed to take place after the Spurs Wolves semi-final of 1981 at the same venue, where supporters of the London club spilled out onto the playing surface after crushing in the Leppings Lane end? Surely by 1989, those in charge of organising and policing football, had learned something in way of avoiding a repeat of such incidents?
Hindsight tells us that it was Hillsborough that proved to be the milestone when it came to the discussion around the safety of patrons attending football matches in Britain. The Taylor Report, published in January 1990, into the causes, recommended that the age-old “two-thirds one-third” ratios in respect of seating to standing area in stadiums to be done away, with a focus on moving towards stadiums catering for seated only accommodation within a reasonable timescale. Standing at football was to become a thing of the past, and as English football stood on the precipice of a new dawn in the summer of 1992, two of the more iconic terraces in the game were torn down and replaced by folding seats. Old Trafford said ta rah to the Stretford End, whilst Highbury bade cheerio to the North Bank, in time for the kick-off of the Premier League era.
Twenty nine years on from Hillsborough and the standing debate has yet to go away. Undoubtedly, standing in a stadium makes for a more engaging experience, Not many people chant their favourite songs or tell the referee he’s a w****r from a sitting position. Followers of the blog will know I was at Celtic Park a couple of weeks ago for the visit of Ross County. In an otherwise, drab and processional affair, my experience was enhanced by getting access to the approved railed seating area at half time, where fans are given the option of taking a seat or standing at a rail, each with their own determined space. I bounced and sang and engaged the whole of that second half, and those forty five minutes proved to be the best moments of my day that didn’t involve alcohol in my right hand. The concept works really well, and neither I, nor any of the fans around me could complain in any shape or form about restricted viewing or movement. Thoroughly well stewarded and befitting of the footballing experience in 2018 – even if we did manage to sneak into the area without actually having a valid ticket to be there!
Unfortunately, Westminster hasn’t yet seen fit to reintroduce safe standing areas in Premier League grounds. Indeed, only last week, West Brom had their proposal to convert approximately 3,600 seats in their Smethwick End to rail seating, similar to that of Celtic, rejected by the government, despite the success of the initiative at Celtic Park and at many other stadiums throughout top-flight European football.
Danger inside and around football stadiums has not been confined to the past totally, however. We only have to look at the examples from the London Stadium earlier this season with West Ham fans encroaching on to the field of play, or the fact that Liverpool, themselves, were slapped with a UEFA fine, poignantly in this of all weeks, for the despicable scenes outside Anfield before the recent Champions League quarter final clash with Man City.
Nevertheless, the footballing world has come so far in the past twenty nine years and, in turn, has been able to understand and process the lessons that Hillsborough taught us, in a way that those governing the game back in 1989, did not, in light of stadium disasters. Indeed, a major football stadium disaster has not taken place in Europe since 1992, when a temporary stand collapsed at Bastia’s Stade Furiani before the start of a Coupe de France match against Marseille, killing eighteen.
Alas, my questions seem to be changing. I’ve begun to accept what happened on this day twenty nine years ago in the context of it’s time, realising that the direction of most things in this world, unfortunately, change more often as the consequence of a single, often devastating, event, rather than anticipating the signs history gives us. My confusion now? Why Hillsborough still holds such a grip over what happens in Premier League football stadiums, after almost three decades, and innumerable safety, technological and societal advances. As television and corporate hospitality intrudes increasingly nonchalantly into the modern football involvement, it would be nice for the week-in, week-out fan to grab back that little piece of kingdom for themselves.
Safe Standing Now!
Dedicated to all those who have went to a game, and haven’t come home.