The Hillsborough Tragedy, 20 Years Later

Paul DeBrulerContributor IApril 15, 2009

Today is April 15.  For most US citizens, that means Tax Day and nothing else.  But for those of us here that follow English soccer, and for English soccer fans everywhere, April 15 is a much darker day. 

There are very few days that can claim to have changed a sport and a culture forever, but April 15, 1989 is one of those days.

For those of you who don’t know, in addition to the regular league season, in England every year there’s a tournament called the FA Cup. Imagine the NCAA tournament, stretched over an entire college basketball season and open to any Division I college team that wants to participate, and you have the FA Cup—all 92 professional teams in England, playing a single-elimination tournament, the championship of which is held in Wembley Stadium every year. 

It’s a cliche, but it’s bigger than the Super Bowl; the FA Cup final is the biggest event on the English domestic football calendar.

The main difference between the FA Cup and the NCAA’s is that teams don’t know who they’ll be playing next—there’s a draw after each round of the Cup to determine the next round’s opponent. 

This draw also determines who will be the home team; there’s no seedings, no home pitch advantage, it’s purely luck of the draw. This holds true for all the rounds of the tournament up to the semifinal and final. 

Before the new Wembley stadium was finished in 2007, the semifinals took place at other neutral grounds in England (Typically Aston Villa’s home stadium and one other large stadium, like Liverpool’s or Manchester United’s), and the final was at Wembley; now, both semis and the final are at Wembley.

In 1989, the semifinal was between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, and was to be played at Hillsborough, the home of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club. In those days in England, most stadia had only a few sections with seats—typically the upper decks were the only areas that had seats. 

Behind both goals and on the lower level sides, though, it was a free-for-all; clubs let as many people in as they felt comfortable with. This led to huge crowds being allowed into spaces that realistically couldn’t accommodate them—imagine an NBA arena with 50,000 people in it and you’ll get some idea of what the terraces at most football grounds were like.

Terrace culture was a large part of what made English football what it was up to that point—massive crowds of people all swaying, pushing, shoving, and singing in unison.  For the uninitiated, small, or timid, it could be and was terrifying, but if you grew up with it it was as much a part of your sporting DNA as shouting at the referee or berating your favorite enemy player. 

When on-pitch action would happen close to the terraces, the people on the terraces would surge forward to get a better look and then recede, creating an almost tidal mass of humanity.  

Here’s a picture of the North Bank stand in Arsenal’s old stadium, Highbury, showing what the terraces looked like.

The problems with this approach to spectating, from a club’s perspective, were obvious: how do you control 25,000 people that are shoehorned into a space designed to hold half that? 

What most clubs did, in those days, was to lock people in. 

They’d cram in as many people as humanly possible, then when the last few were wedged in, they’d lock the doors behind them, creating a captive audience for 90 minutes of football. 

There was fencing between the stands and the pitch, as well, which meant that people were basically herded into giant cattle pens and left there. 

There were no aisles, there was no easy way out; there was just a massive throng of boozed-up humanity, braying for blood and ready for action. 

Fortunately, they kept opposing sets of fans in separate stands, with separate entrances, but otherwise, once inside the ground it was a complete free-for-all.

So, back to Hillsborough. On this Cup semifinal day, fans came from Liverpool and from Nottingham; Liverpool being a bigger club at the time, they had a larger traveling fan contingent. 

The powers that be, however, decided that the Liverpool’s supporters should be placed in the Leppings Lane end of the stadium, the smaller of the two ends (capacity 14,600). Kickoff was at 3pm, and by 2.30, there was a massive throng of people outside the Leppings Lane end trying to get in, and only a few turnstiles to allow them entry. 

It got to 3pm, and there were even more people outside, trying to get in—most with tickets, but some without. As the teams took the pitch, the crowd outside started hearing the roars of the fans inside and started to press towards the turnstiles to get inside. 

As more people got inside, there was nowhere for them to go—people started being crushed against the front barriers of the pens, and even more people were getting crushed in the turnstile area as the people behind them started to get in—the people in the front had nowhere to go, and the people at the back were just following the herd.  Nobody at the front knew what was going on.

At this point, the police decided to open another set of gates to expedite the flow of fans into the stadium, with predictably disastrous results—once fans saw another set of gates being opened, they rushed towards them, exacerbating both the crushing of people in the pens inside and the trampling of those caught somewhere in between. 

The match had started at this point, and most people’s first indication of trouble was that fans in the Leppings Lane end had started climbing the fences to escape the crush, and the fence between the pens and the pitch had collapsed. 

Six minutes into the match, referees finally called a halt to play so the situation on the terraces could be dealt with.

By the time it was all said and done, 94 people had died, and almost 1,000 more were injured. Two more people—including a 14-year-old boy—died subsequently as a consequence of the injuries they sustained.

It is not my intent to use this space to assign blame for what happened—first of all, I wasn’t there, and second of all, many people have done that over the years (the search for truth is still ongoing, to this day). What I want to do is take a minute to memorialize those that died on that day, and to acknowledge that they did not die in vain.

After Hillsborough, there was a government inquiry into what happened. That inquiry produced what is known as the Taylor Report, which mandated several changes in English football stadia and crowd control, changes which completely changed the nature of football fandom in England. 

Those changes included:

- Requiring all stadia in the top two tiers of English football (formerly Division 1 and Division 2, now the Premier League and the Championship) to be “all-seater”, thus removing the standing areas that led to things like Hillsborough. This requirement has since filtered down to all professional teams.

- Banning the sale of alcohol in the seating areas of stadia.

- Improving stadium access, turnstiles, and entry/exit points.

- Improving stadium policing, crowd control, and segregation of supporters


It’s the first change that has been the most sweeping. I never got to attend a match with terracing—my experience is only with all-seater stadia—but the replacement of seats with terraces also came with two things: increased cost for those seats and, subsequently, a shift in the demographics of match patrons. 

In the terrace days, anybody with a few pounds in their pocket could get a prime spot on the terraces; with seats, though, came increased prices for the best seats, season ticket waiting lists and all the things that US fans take for granted. 

Remember that picture of the North Bank earlier?  Post-Taylor-Report, here’s what the North Bank looked like. Much less capacity, but much safer.

There are debates as to whether these changes have been good for the game. From an economic standpoint, it has been a success—Manchester United are the richest team in the world, and Liverpool, Arsenal, and Chelsea are right there with them—but the gulf between the haves and the have-nots has expanded to the point where it’s virtually unbridgeable. 

From a fan standpoint, the results are more mixed—grounds are definitely safer, but long-time fans bemoan both the increased costs and the decrease in atmosphere that comes with having no terraces. 

When people have seats, they sit down; the stand-up culture of a perpetual singing mass of fans is no more, and when fans get the urge to stand and sing now, they’re quickly reminded—by ushers, or by the guy behind them that paid close to £100 for his seat—to sit down and mind their volume. 

There’s still singing, there’s still heckling, but it’s different now. I don’t know whether it’s better or worse, but it is most definitely not the same.

But, what isn’t in doubt is that the deaths of the Hillsborough 96 were not in vain, and I hope that today, if you’re a sports fan, you take a minute to remember these people. 

They’re people you may not have known, in an event you may have known nothing about, but if you’re a sports fan and have ever been to a stadium, these people were just like you. They were parents, they were children, they were friends, and their loss is a loss for us all.


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