Two decades on from the Hillsborough disaster John Williams looks back to April 15, 1989 and how the day’s events came to shape the very identity of Liverpool FC

Twenty years. Is it really that long ago? Where exactly did those two decades go? Squandered, in the main, I hear Reds fans say, by Messrs Souness, Evans and Houllier, our chaotic managers, and by various erratic (and worse) board members and owners. The current manager – one European Cup already won, but by glorious default – is trying hard to show he is more than a free-spending complainer and fiddler: a match at last for the fearsome Ferguson. Maybe he really is.

That 20 year stretch means that I must have been a spritely 34 years of age when I set off for Hillsborough for the FA Cup semi-final on April 15, 1989. It was a beautiful spring day, just another Liverpool FA Cup semi-final in what was beginning to feel like it could be a never ending story. The brilliant John Barnes was doing in 1989 just what Peter Thompson had done for Liverpool back in the club’s first FA Cup win in 1965 and what Kevin Keegan had managed in humbling hapless Newcastle United back in 1974. Kenny Dalglish was now the manager after his incomparable playing reign in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But we had Beardsley and Aldridge to rip teams up instead, and even the great Rushie had come back home from Italy to score more goals. What could stop us in 1989? Not Forest, for sure.

History was rewritten later, but Hillsborough then was supposedly one of our great football stadiums, a regular FA Cup semi-final venue (though we found out later one with its own recent dangerous record). In Liverpool, the city of Sheffield was also regarded at that time as a pretty decent place to go to watch football. Good pubs, and not a town full of psychopaths (there were towns in the 1980s that could not easily say the same). Wednesday fans, especially, were serious football people, equable lovers of “proper” football and their club was admirably even-keeled, not the near basket case it would later become. It was a small but important part of the tragedy that Hillsborough would later stand for something else, something much darker, rather than a respected historic home for northern football.

Thank God, I am not one of those many Liverpool survivor fans who can only recall that terrible day today with reference to their desperate gasps for breath and the lifeless bodies standing grotesquely crushed around them. I was watching it all, aghast and safe, from the Liverpool stands. But hours afterwards, because I did some work then for the Football Trust, I had the ghoulish job of taking some dignitaries around the crime scene, now littered with twisted metal and discarded shoes and scarves. It was clear that things were not quite right here. The police had told us that fans had forced the infamous gate C to gain illegal entry, but already supporters were gathering to argue the toss: that the police were “liars” and that Reds fans had been let in to clear the streets. “I’ve still got me ticket, mate.” None of the officials took this claim seriously: after all, who could possibly mistrust the police?

As the despicable tale of deceit and official cover-up eventually unravelled, so the rest of the nightmare journey for the Hillsborough families in Liverpool began in earnest – two decades of struggle for justice. No Liverpool match anywhere takes place without the ritual distribution of yellow “Justice” stickers and without copious references – in fanzines, flags, websites, on the club crest – to the missing 96. They have become embedded into the very identity of the club and its new generation of supporters. The Sun is still satisfyingly blackballed in the city. At a televised FA Cup match a couple of years ago a “Justice” mosaic was organised on the Kop (pictured below) and for the first six minutes of the game – the Hillsborough semi-final was halted at 3.06pm – the entire end chanted the same as we held up our paper squares while, hidden from our view, Arsenal had already begun to dissect Benitez’s best laid plans. A co-ordinated 12,000 strong protest almost two decades after the event. It was an astonishing and moving demonstration of collective community solidarity, one rightly applauded by every other fan in the stadium.

And yet, ultimately, Hillsborough also served to obscure almost as much as it revealed. Football supporters had actually been abused by their clubs – and often by the police – for decades. Over the past couple of years in researching a book about the history of Liverpool FC, I found that hundreds of Reds supporters regularly left matches in the early 1950s – often before kick-off – because they feared for their own safety on impossibly packed terraces. The club did little to change their policy of cramming people in and hoping for the best: English football was desperately lucky more people were not killed. And as Liverpool later strolled around Europe in the Seventies and Eighties, too many Reds – out for adventure – merrily bunked into grounds with little or no care for their own safety or that of others. The awful outcome at Heysel in 1985 – our other great tragedy, but not enough remembered, respectfully, as also an important part of our historic fabric – thankfully served to slow the sometimes dangerous flow over walls and turnstiles when we eventually got back on the continent.

The appalling performance of the South Yorkshire Police back in 1989 had similarly threatened to bleach out some of the worst, corroding features of English football supporter culture back in the 1980s. In fact, when we finally got the great popular text about Hillsborough – Jimmy McGovern’s moving and emotional ITV drama – the depiction of fans and the events of that day actually looked a lot more like the gentrified version of the game that so many people later complained about than it did the sometimes chaotic and dangerous trips that were far too common in those days.

In McGovern’s account it seemed as if no Reds supporter had had a drink on the day and that there were absolutely no problems at all concerning the behaviour of some supporters at football at that time. The police and their venal bosses were, of course, neglectful, idiotic and cowardly at Hillsborough. But what was once one of our most beautiful sporting stadiums had been misguidedly turned into a death trap over two destructive decades for a reason. This, sad to say, was also part of “the truth”.

Today much has changed, of course. Top level football in England is more peaceful, certainly much safer; for some, far too boring and, for most, hideously expensive. At the Hillsborough service in April thousands will turn out in Liverpool – as they do every year – to remember that sunny spring day in Sheffield when some supporters set out for football but did not come home. Remember the 96 and respect the game: their terrible sacrifice helped to save it – for all its current ills – for all of us.

From WSC 267 May 2009

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