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?


guitou said...

Well done Margin.
It won't happen again simply because of the conversion of all the major football stadiums in "all- seater" and because of the removal of barriers at the front of the stands-
As far as the accusations from the press, I remember the infamous and so disgusting Murdoch's Sun reporting of the disaster-
btw, the AC Milan fans singing "you never walk alone"during their european cup semi-final against Madrid, few days after the drama, was a refreshing moment.
And speaking about Europe, you still have a good chance for next year.Good luck.

Margin said...

It won't happen again for several reasons, at last not in England. And there were a lot of heartfelt tributes from clubs all over Europe soon after, as fans everywhere felt personally involved in it.

A friend of mine has also tracked down a Youtube clip of the 1981 game - and just after 9 minutes in you can see people being helped over the fences to sit on the touchline.

mountainstriker said...

I remember watching the Spurs/Wolves game on TV, and the fans coming on to the pitch, but until now had not made the connection with the events of 89 - so thanks for this. A real eye-opener.

In retrospect, I'm struck that mass fatalities didn't happen sooner at a British sporting event. One of my earliest sporting memories is of being lifted by my friend's Dad so that I didn't have to stand in the river of piss flowing down the East Terrace during a Wales/England rugby match in the early 70s. It wasn't that people wanted to piss where they stood, they just couldn't move.

My memory is that 'a bit of a shove' was regarded as part of the match going experience at that time. Indeed some actually enjoyed it without ever equating it with the possibility of fatalities - the '71 Ibrox Disaster simply didn’t register. It would never be tolerated today. That Hillsborough didn’t happen sooner is, as you say, down to more sympathetic policing at the time. Once that sympathy was lost however - the result of revulsion towards hooliganism and Thatcher’s political ire - the results were deadly.

Great article.

Mouth of the Mersey said...

Brilliant piece Margin.


Rooto said...

I can't add much to this excellent piece, except to show my appreciation. Thanks, Margin.
I suppose one of the reasons that Hillsborough resonates is the sensation of "there but for the grace of God..." that so many of us felt on eventually hearing the causes behind it. (I originally typed "on hearing the news", but of course the truth emerged slowly)

Rofko said...

Thanks for this great piece. YNWA.
Justice for the 96.

MWCIEC said...

Isn't the fact pushing and shoving had been going on for years in inappropriate stadia in England without anyone dying, precisely the reason that those police didn't wake up that morning thinking 'If I do my job badly today, people could die'.

Yes, they were incompetent, but criminally so? I don't think so.

mac millings said...

Terrific, Margin.

They just sat and watched from behind the goal. Because they were there to see a game of football.

mimi said...

I'm glad to see this piece here. Thank you Margin.

This morning there was a phone-in and several contributers rooted for the return of the terraces. Seems to me that misses the point.

Today I had to choose between, on the radio, following the ceremony at Anfield - which is part of my history of following the football, or following the ceremony in Aberdeen. Which is much closer in reality to me.

I really didn't know what to do. So I went with my heart and followed the ceremony at Anfield.

As I write, Jimmy McGovern's Hillsborough is on the telly. I have the tape of this from 96 and I'm still crying.

MotM said...

Mimi - I find Jimmy McGovern's film too distressing to watch.

mimi said...

Mouth - I know.

bluedaddy said...

A fine piece Margin, well written.

I'll never forget a particularly unpleasant event coming out of Wembley as a teenager, something the Hillsborough stories always awaken.

It is so disappointing that those in power now do not see fit to have the Hillsborough tragedy re-examined.

And you look at the way the Met has been acting recently and see that that same brutalism and contempt is still present in police forces.

It's never too late to learn lessons, and those poor bereaved families deserve some measure of justice.

Catmint said...

Wow. This was a real eye-opener. I had no idea about this earlier almost-disaster until just now.

I'm a devout Burnley fan. I've been to Hillsborough. I've walked down Leppings Lane. I remember being not at all surprised about the crush of bodies in '89.

This year's memorial service touched me deeper than previous anniversaries, because I could easily have been crushed to death in January at the Spurs-Burnley Carling Cup match. I don't want to be melodramatic, but it's only really been today that I've realised how close I came to not leaving White Hart Lane alive. Details in my LiveJournal.

Justice for the 96. YNWA.

Margin said...

Thanks for the comments guys and girls. I can't bring myself to watch the McGovern film again either. Too distressing for me and I'm a Spurs fan who only watched events unfold on TV that day.

offsideintahiti said...

Excellent, Margin, thank you. Didn't see any of this in the mainstream media. Well done.

Kev said...

Margin - that is an excellently written piece and beautifully demonstrates how Hillsborough was a tragedy waiting to happen.

I'm working with a group of people dedicated to getting the real story of what happened on 15th April 1989 into the public domain. For more information visit

We would really appreciate it if you could get in touch with us on

Thanks very much indeed writing this and for your thoughts at this time.

Margin said...

Thanks for the link Kev - I've had a read through the site and sent an email offering support.

munni said...

Thanks Margin, very well done.

I suppose it was inevitable sooner or later, because no one was ever going to do anything to prevent a tragedy until after one happened. As with many other things in this world.

mimi said...

Like an addict, I sought out The Sun this morning, hoping to find an editorial apologising for what they wrote 20 years ago.

All I found was a dps of yesterday and stories of Hillsborough that ignored what they (the Sun) did.

I am disgusted with this paper that sells millions of copies.

Margin said...


many long ago gave up hoping that paper would act with decency toward the fans.


Isn't that always the way. It is just a shame that the near miss didn't spur longer lasting changes and save a lot of people a lot of pain.

Anonymous said...

Like a beer?
Drop me a line

mimi said...

I think I have heard that papers relating to Hillsborough are going to be released 10 years before the normal time.

I hope this will provide information that will allow families some justice but am not holding my breath.

Margin said...


I would like to think that will offer some answers, but I'd be surprised if anything revolutionary will be revealed early.

Margin said...

Hi Tony

I'd love a beer and you should have an email from Gavin Pearson (that's me) saying just that.

Let me know when and where you had in mind.

David said...

Just as liverpool fans argue they shouldn't be blanketed for some fans' drunken behaviour, the police shouldn't be for their actions.
As you pointed out, mistakes were made by those in charge but the constables on the ground did an amazing job in the horrific circumstances and were even abused while doing it.
My dad was a policeman that day and he says some of the liverpool fans acted like animals, and certainly played a part in what happened. He says it was only thanks to other liverpool fans who helped the police that so many people were saved. The actions of the police shouldn't be considered criminal, and to see to that the police are branded as covering up what happened that day is stupid. Why are people so desperate to blame one particular group? The disaster was a series of accidents and mistakes both by the police & liverpool fans & the authorities.

Margin said...


There is a difference between bundling all the police together as a group as you seem to have done - and criticising the people in charge for their incompetence. I mean some police were ordered to line up and protect the forest fans from attack.

David said...

I didn't bundle the police into a group. I said those in charge made mistakes but it should be made clear it was those in charge and not everyone, as is clear in my comment:
"As you pointed out, mistakes were made by those in charge but the constables on the ground did an amazing job."

As I read it you didn't just critise those in charge but all of the police: "The police screwed up; and with the help of the newspapers they blamed us.....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."

I think almost everyone agrees the police cheifs responded very badly. I just feel some recognition should go to those members of the police that didn't.

Margin said...

Maybe some police on the ground did a fine job - ignored their commanders - and helped out. Meanwhile many did a bad job and obeyed orders.

However - there isn't a lot of arguing that the police as a force made bad decisions, lied to the press, and failed miserably in their duty. And the ire for that is rightly directed through my article and by most fans at those in charge.

So I don't see a lot of point in a disclaimer stating a handful of police there might not have been rubbish. Not when 8 years before the same force did the job properly.

Robbie said...

Margin, most of what you say is correct, but I was there in 1981, and I can tell you that at ten to three, a surge of drunken Spurs fans, straight out of the pubs, came into Leppings Lane. At that time I was a 6'3" 21 year old, fit and strong, and I could do nothing but pray. My arms were pinned to my sides, and I was crushed against a terrace barrier, resulting in a broken finger, and several bruises, as were many around me. Things were sorted quickly, and although packed, some normality returned. Then at kick-off, just 10 minutes later, there was another surge from the back, directly behind the goal. By now, the earlier surge had moved me away from the middle, and I watched as hundreds of people fell and got stomped and crushed. This wasn't the fault of the police, it was the fault of pissed up fans at the back surging, which as you know, was a perfectly normal thing to do back then. So those of us early, sober, arrivals, were crushed by later, drunk arrivals. Just like 1989.

Margin said...

Hi Robbie

Thanks for your comment. Always good to hear from a Spurs fan.

I tend not to assume drunk just because people have "rushed from the pub". I often have a couple of pints before kick off even now - and so rush from pub to ground at the last minute - but am definately not "drunk".

of course drunk or not - surging was normal and was thus predictable - which is why the police in 1981 were sensible in closing the gates off to that part of the ground - and in helping some people out from the front of the pens.

The police eight years later were sadly not so sensible, and incompetently failed to do so - killing far too many football fans.

Also worth noting, while the police played up "drunkeness" - tests taken at the scene suggested relative sobriety on the day. Also - with the crowd surge starting at about 2:30 outside the ground, it was always a little odd to assume significant drunkeness as they were people who left the pub before the last 15 minutes of pre-kick off time, and there were a lot of kids among them.

The earlier arrivers suffered the worst of it on both occasions. But the late arrivers were not in themselves to blame. (They could not know what was happening at the front of the pens - and their behaviour was pretty normal)

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Anonymous said...

Rob (Liverpool),
All this resonates so much more following today's developments. Lessons weren't learnt or, perhaps even worse, were forgotten or disregarded due to the regard for football fans at the time. I wish I could say nothing like this will happen again, but, given the way the seating is crammed in, I fear that something worse than Bradford could occur. Thanks for putting together such a thoughtful piece Margin.

Leon_96 said...

I was at this game too and was in the Tottenham end right behind the goal. I don’t remember any crush around me but do remember the crush on either side of where i was...i was just lucky i suppose….I did get to the ground fairly early and was infront of a barrier. I do remember even before kick off the police tried to put some Tottenham fans in the Wolves end. I do remember the attitude of the South Yorkshire Police. On arrival at the ground a young lad was asked to show his ticket to a police officer…the lad showed the officer his ticket. The police officer told the lad his ticket was a fake….the lad looked shocked and said it can’t be as he got it from Tottenham….the police officer again stated it was a fake and this went on for a couple of minutes…the lad was quite distraught…until the police officer ‘laughed’ and said he was only joking and gave the lad his ticket and pushed him into the turnstiles….Added to this the hostility that the South Yorkshire Police ha towards Londoners in general…..from general verbal abuse…’Can you smell the Cockney shit’….To being threatened by mounted police at Sheffield station after the game…’if one of you London bastards move you will get this [large wooden truncheon] over your head.’

So 1981 was a just a whisker away from disaster…and left me with a fear of Hillsborough and the South Yorkshire Police……Justice for the 96.

Kev said...

I was also at Hillsboro in 81, though fortunately sitting at the sides.
The one thing that doesn't seem to get mentioned is the behaviour of football fans in general, that had led to the fencing being erected behind the goals.
In 81 we got lucky, no fences meant it was easy to get on the pitch and escape, 89 the ground was fenced off making it nigh on impossible to escape.
Football fans all around the country share an element of blame for those fences being up and contributing to the sad events of 89.

Leon_1989 said...

Reply to Kev.

Yes football fans were their own worst enemy at times and as a consequence barriers were put up....however...that can never be used as an excuse for what happened at Hillsborough in 1989. The police cocked up and then with virtual criminal intent covered up their wrongdoing. In doing so they blamed the victims for the disaster and they did this with their friends in the media [the Scum. Giving the team with the larger travelling fans the smallest enclosure was a recipe for disaster.

I think it is wrong to blame the prevailing football culture for what happened in 1989.

Jessica said...

Thanks for this great piece. YNWA. Justice for the 96.

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