Monday, April 13, 2009

An earlier Hillsborough disaster - Margin

Every few years in April a new headline anniversary reminds us of one of the greatest disasters of English football. This year it is 20 years since The Hillsborough tragedy in which Liverpool fans were crushed to death watching their team play an FA Cup semi-final.

English football still feels bitter about the sorrow of that day. And we all know why that is. The police screwed up; and with the help of the newspapers they blamed us. We football fans were accused of unspeakable horrors that I simply refuse to repeat. And plenty of normal human beings in this country believed it. Then when the truth became apparent the police who screwed up got off scot free for their criminal incompetence, largely thanks to the argument that it was an unprecedented situation.

But that argument was another lie.

I know it was a lie. I know far too many Spurs fans to think otherwise. It was a lie because in 1981 Spurs played Wolves in an FA Cup Semi Final at Hillsborough, and Spurs fans, like Liverpool fans eight years later, were allocated the now notorious Leppings Lane end.

Spurs fans, like Liverpool fans that went after them, felt that the ends were badly allocated. Leppings Lane was perceived to be the smaller end and should thus have been given to the team with the smaller travelling support. But this was probably just perception, and switching ends would sadly just have switched the suffering from one bunch of fans to another.

Spurs fans were sent through the concourses that led to the various pens behind the goal. And those directly behind the goal were the most popular. So just as pens 3 and 4 filled to dangerous levels in 1989, the same part of the ground filled dangerously quickly in 1981.

People were crushed not because of surging support or bad behaviour, but simply because the spaces between the large metal fences were too small. Indeed there was a feeling even before then, without benefit of hindsight, that the supposed capacity of Leppings Lane was overstated and unsafe.

Panic ensued and Spurs fans faced the prospect of a pain that Liverpool fans eventually had to suffer. Those at the front were bruised and battered well before kick-off and realised quickly they simply could not escape as things got worse. Some still speak of the crowd being packed so tight that their feet were off the ground as they moved.

But in 2011 there will be no Match of the Day special, and no retrospective interviews to mark thirty years since that semi-final. There will no documentaries made or reefs laid on Bill Nicholson Way at the gates to White Hart Lane.

And the reason for that is simple.

Unlike their counterparts in 1989 the police commanders in charge in 1981 were not in charge of their first match, were not ignorant and incompetent, and were seemingly not predisposed to assume all problems were the result of violent scum on the terraces who deserved everything they got.

Instead those in charge acted sensibly on the feedback of officers on the frontline. As a result they ordered the closure of the gates leading to the most crowded pens, and then directed incoming fans to safer areas. They acted somewhat late, but they did act. And many fans were helped out of the crowded spaces by fellow fans and police alike. They then sat along the edge of the pitch to watch the game unfold.

As a result of sensible policing more and more unaware fans could no longer pour into pens where they would innocently crush to death those at the front. My fellow Yids thus gradually adjusted to their tight space, regained composure, and despite a fair few injuries stayed alive to see Ossie and Ricky win at Wembley a month later.

The experience led fans to do something that few ever did back before the days when the internet made complaining so easy. They wrote letters to the authorities to express their severe concerns and to seek answers. And while they never heard back, the FA did take action.

It would of course be understandable that those in charge of football thought very little had happened that day. In fact very little did happen thanks to good policing that negated a need for countless funerals. But even so, Hillsborough was barred as a venue for major neutral matches and only allowed to do so again in 1987 after modifications were made to the pens. Those modifications were designed to make policing easier.

Which leads back to that bitterness.

For Spurs fans the defence of the commanders after 1989 that it was an unprecedented situation they couldn’t possible have seen coming was simply a lie. Fans had been through the precedent. They had been saved from the exact same tragedy by good policing. And the FA ordered the ground changed to make good policing easier in future. So to hear bad police pretend that good police would have done no better was sickening.

Of course very little of what I’ve just written will surprise Liverpool fans. And what really spurred me to write this was not really that people out there won’t know about a semi-final in 1981 that matters little in the grand scheme of football history. What bothers me is that it has just occurred after all this time that I have no idea whether this was a similarly isolated case.

I realise now, and am suddenly frightened by this. I have no idea how exceptional or commonplace the events of both days were. Were we all regularly just a bad police chief away from death for all those years? Or were Spurs fans incredibly lucky that of the two times it really mattered our coin toss landed heads, while Liverpool’s sadly fell to tails?

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