Hillsborough could have happened to any club.
That terrifying thought was almost immediately clear after the Hillsborough disaster to any football fan old enough to have attended games in the 1980s.
Among the disgusting lies told first by South Yorkshire police and then Margaret Thatcher’s football-hating government, it quickly became clear that Liverpool fans were not to blame for the deaths of 96 of their own fans.
But it’s taken an unimaginable TWENTY-SEVEN YEARS for the truth to be recognised.
“David Cameron is no friend of football. But he’s to be applauded for ensuring the Hillsborough inquest finally took place”
For supporters too young to remember Hillsborough at the time, the too-long-delayed inquest into exactly what happened on April 15 1989 must at times have seemed like ancient history.
In today’s pristine – or at least safe – stadiums, the idea of an FA Cup semi-final taking place in a rotting death-trap like Hillsborough is unimaginable.
But the fact that the truth about Hillsborough has taken an unforgivable TWENTY-SEVEN YEARS to be resolved has hung over the shiny world of the Premier League throughout its history.
Lurking in the shadows of the multi-million commercial world of top-flight football, what happened at Hillsborough and its aftermath is something that has shamed successive governments, who were all too spineless to admit that everyone involved in organising the game got it so horrifically wrong.
David Cameron is no friend of football. Forgetting which team he supports is proof enough of that. But he’s to be applauded for ensuring that the Hillsborough inquest finally took place.
“That police officers immediately sought to demonise the dead is evil”
It began almost exactly two years ago, in March 2014. Details of the crush as Liverpool fans tried to get onto the terraces, and the incompetence of police who idiotically assumed those same supporters were trying to cause trouble even as they lay dying on the pitch, have been relived in agonising detail by families of the 96 dead fans.
Now that we finally know just how criminal South Yorkshire police’s behaviour was that day, justice has finally been served to those families.
That the police laid the blame in all the wrong places was wrong. That the officers in charge immediately sought to demonise the dead was evil.
Sadly, with the way football fans were portrayed as virtually sub-human by the government and press in the 1980s, the police’s lies were all too easy to spread.
“For migrants today, read football fans in the 1980s: easy scapegoats for Britain’s problems”
For migrants today, read football fans then: easy scapegoats for Britain’s problems, at the time too powerless to fight back because two decades of hooliganism meant that any trouble must automatically be the fans’ fault.
Under the editorship of Kelvin MacKenzie, The Sun claimed Hillsborough was the fault of drunken Liverpool fans too pissed to care about their fellow supporters. The paper also claimed that those same fans urinated on the corpses.
Think about that for a minute: rather than assume that the ground was unsafe or that a fatal error was made by letting fans into the ground via the Exit gates, MacKenzie chose to believe that rampaging drunk Liverpool fans tore into their own. And then pissed on them.
“Hillsborough was unfit to hold a football match. But fans already knew that”
And in the intervening 27 years, MacKenzie has stuck by his story. He hasn’t changed his story a jot. Think about that for a minute and wonder what kind of man Kelvin MacKenzie is.
But, as well as loathing MacKenzie, don’t forget the blame lies higher up: all the way to the top, with a government that treated fans with contempt.
Hillsborough, as the jury ruled today, was unfit to hold a football match. But fans already knew that. Eight years prior to Hillsborough, Wolves fans were nearly caught in a similar tragedy at a crush at the Tottenham v Wolves FA Cup semi-final of 1981. It was only luck that prevented a similar number of deaths.
Plenty of Wolves fans protested to the FA about their treatment. But, rather than seeking to make stadiums safer, the institutionally complacent FA ignored them. Fans were only going to rip up seats and throw them at each other, the FA’s logic ran. Why bother to make the stadium any nicer when the fans didn’t deserve it?
“Although Hillsborough was supposedly the fans’ fault, authorities finally recognised something had to be done”
Going to football was a grim experience in the 1980s. My team Luton – then a solidly mid-table team in the pre-Premier League top flight – went as far as banning away fans altogether. Chelsea chairman Ken Bates wanted to herd fans behind electric fences, a move that had the support of Margaret Thatcher’s government.
Although Hillsborough was, for years, officially the fans’ fault, the authorities finally recognised that something had to be done.
Even though their was blood on their hands as they did so, the FA set up the Taylor Report. The enquiry into safety at games led to all-seater stadiums in the top two divisions. The Premier League came along just three years after Hillsborough, by which time England’s near-miss at World Cup 90 began to see football’s image finally transformed.
Today, as fans watch games in which the working-class families who attended Hillsborough have been largely priced out of being able to attend football altogether, there is at least thankfully almost no chance of another disaster similar to Hillsborough happening again.
But that is of no comfort to the families of those Liverpool fans, officially killed by police incompetence.
That it took 27 years for their grief to officially be recognised is unforgivable. Shame on the FA. Shame on a generation of governments. Shame on Kelvin MacKenzie. And most of all, shame on the officers in charge of South Yorkshire police in 1989.
Always remember those fans. And remember: it could have been your club.
Loaded’s deputy editor John Earls has covered entertainment and sport across a range of national newspapers, plus several football and music magazines, since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at @EarlsJohn