In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter whether it was through fire, incompetence or hooliganism. We must not forget those who went to watch a football match and never returned home. It doesn’t matter in which country that took place. And it matters not a jot if it happened decades ago. When we forget the lessons of history, we are likely to make the same mistakes again.
In the seventies, when watching football in England was the most miserable of experiences, I was crushed up against more brick walls than I care to remember, writes Vernon Grant. Always at out of date football grounds. Usually at venues more suited to hosting a cattle market. Rotherham United’s former home at Millmoor by far the worst in my experience. Showering you with verbal abuse on the way to and from the ground.
It was common place back then. Treating football fans as scum. Some were, of course. But by a country mile they were in the minority. And yet we were all treated the same. Police not opening gates to allow away fans to leave for anything up to an hour after a game. Police herding too many supporters into tiny pens.
Following football in the era when ABBA, Queen or Rod Stewart topped the charts was to put your life in the hands of others. People who, frankly, didn’t care if you lived or died. You were the lowest of the low.
Of course, it is not lost on me that 96 people died at the home of my own club. A friend who played for Sheffield Wednesday offered me a free ticket to attend the Cup semi-final between Nottingham Forest and Liverpool. I’m very glad I rejected that offer. I did so because I didn’t believe neutral fans should use tickets for such big games when there would be a Forest or Liverpool fan who needed a ticket. It was not because I foresaw the tragedy that unfolded. Though perhaps I should have.
Long before that fateful day at Hillsborough I wanted the Leppings Lane end knocked down. It was then, and remains today, the worst side to Hillsborough. The view from it is poor even when you don’t have to look through a wire fence (best not get me started on fences, we’ll be here all day). As a Sheffield Wednesday supporter I’ve only watched a handful of games from the end traditionally reserved for away fans. Each time I have done so I have been disappointed with the view and facilities on offer.
Hillsborough was a stadium transformed by a man possessing foresight unheard of in football back in the sixties. Eric Taylor was his name and his vision of what a modern ground should look like was way ahead of the times. Eric Taylor was the reason Hillsborough got to stage big games during the World Cup of 1966. The cantilever North Stand he dreamt up, and followed through to construction, was revolutionary back in the day.
While the Leppings Lane end has always been inadequate, you can’t blame the terracing as such for the fact that 96 people lost their lives through standing there. Herding football fans around like cattle was the norm in the 70’s and 80’s. On arrival at a local railway station you were met either by opposing fans who wanted to do you harm, or the local police force who, sometimes, wanted to do you harm!
Some police forces were friendlier than others. The South Yorkshire police force were strangers to public relations. Sorry if that offends some readers in Sheffield, but it’s true. They were far from alone.
Whenever the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster comes around there are dissenting voices. “Why should we keep on paying tribute to those fans?” “Didn’t they bring it on themselves?” “Get over it.” I find it incredible each time I read such heartless comments.
It could have been you or I left to die when it was self evident even to football players that people were vomitting due to being crushed, not because – as was alleged by police and politicians – they’d had one pint too many. It could have been you or I sworn at for insisting the gates be opened. For demanding access to the air we all need to breathe.
In the intervening years attitudes towards us have changed. Or have they? Football clubs still take us for granted, of course. That will never alter until such time as all football fans agree to go on strike, on one or more days during every season. Until such time as ludicrously high ticket prices are reduced and we cease to be treated as cash cows.
Five years after Hillsborough I sat at a football ground that had suffered its own tragedy. Working for Yorkshire Television at the time of the Bradford City fire in 1985, I had found myself very close to the aftermath of that disaster. Too close. Years later, when Valley Parade had been rebuilt and I was watching a friend play in a boring game, I went walkabout. I wanted to see if Valley Parade was complying with the recommendations of the Justice Popplewell report into the Bradford City fire. A document I could recite verbatim to this day.
I fully expected to find no problems. As it was, during the game, I found I could not leave had I wanted to. The emergency doors on the very same side of the ground that had been engulfed in flames did not open. To my disbelief I went on to find Bradford City falling down in other areas of safety. I was dismayed.
By then I was an independent producer. A freelancer. Self employed, and with all the insecurity that comes with that title. Nevertheless, I resolved to go filming under cover at several football grounds up and down the country. At my own expense.
I wanted to discover if clubs from the Premier League downwards had taken on board Popplewell’s recommendations and were complying with the demands of Justice Taylor, who reported into the Hillsborough disaster.
I employed two other people to join me in filming with hidden cameras. I chose to film at my own club as I knew the place like the back of my hand. The Wednesdayite in me wanted to find nothing wrong. The TV producer was on the lookout for failings. Sadly, the TV producer won. But Sheffield Wednesday came nowhere close to being the worst offenders when I filmed there in 1994.
Despite avoidable tragedies at Hillsborough and Bradford, many football grounds were still not safe. The complacency I discovered in the boardrooms saddened me. And the attitude towards fans angered me. It was clear that we were still considered to be a necessary evil. A lower class of people. Cattle. Fodder. Get them in, rip them off for refreshments and get them out as fast as possible.
My documenatary, An Accident Waiting to Happen, opened a new series of ‘Dispatches’ on Channel 4 in October of 1994. Changes were made at certain grounds thereafter. If my work played a part in making some grounds that little bit safer, then I’m proud.
I didn’t enjoy upsetting contacts I had at certain clubs. I didn’t like embarrassing safety officers, including those I confronted with my evidence. And especially the one who, once we were filming officially and in the open, took myself and the cameraman on a tour of his wooden stand while he and stewards smoked as though they were in an ad for Marlboro.
I was asked during a radio interview if I felt guilty for pointing the finger at those who ran football clubs. I was not. I am not. It was they who were in the wrong. Including Bradford City. Without any checks the club readily employed as a steward a friend of mine who was deaf.
And those clubs who permitted smoking in wooden stands at grounds from as far south as Portsmouth and Fulham, and up the country to Sunderland. It was as though 56 people never burnt to death due to a discarded match or cigarette landing on rubbish that dated back decades.
In 1994 I crawled under such wooden stands during games. I was surrounded by flammable crap and I watched as cigarette stubs fell through the gaps in the seating. When the wife of the Grimsby Town chairman saw footage of the latter, she set about striking her husband while shouting: “You allow your own family to sit there with all that rubbish beneath!”
I captured a famous football chairman himself smoking in the wooden stand at his own club while underneath, and within easy reach of those having a half time drink at the bar, flammable furniture was piled high. Just waiting to be united with a discarded fag or match.
Why do I go on about this? After all, I made the TV documentary as long ago as 1994. We have plush new football grounds now. They may be soulless but they’re probably safe, I hear you say. Hopefully. Probably. Possibly. Who knows? And there are still plenty of ancient grounds in existence. At clubs run by relics. Complacency must not return.
One thing I learned while making that programme has stayed with me and proved to be true in subsequent, non football related disasters. It was a Professor at Aston University who had made a detailed study of avoidable disasters. He taught me that it is never one act that leads to a disaster. Never simply one mistake. But that tragedies such as those at Hillsborough and Valley Parade occur when a combination of factors collide. When existing faults and human failings combine to produce a chain of events that leads to the loss of lives.
For me the blame game is less important than us football fans playing our part in ensuring we are never again treated like a sub species. If we are treated like cattle, herded here and there, we must use the power of social media to be our voice of protest. We must not permit those in authority to point the finger at us at times when they themselves are to blame.
And we should unite to take more than one day of action should we ever again be treated as low life. If only football fans could put aside rivalry and every man jack of them not attend every English game played on at least one day of the season. If only. Words known only too well to the families of those who never came home in 1985 and 1989.
Football fans must be treated like human beings. They should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Just like anyone else.
During the making of that documentary I got to spend time with Trevor Hicks, who lost both his daughters at Hillsborough. It turned out we lived not far from each other in West Yorkshire. There are no words I have in my vocabulary that adequately sum up the admiration I have for that man.
I’m just glad that he and the families of the others who died at Hillsborough did not give up on seeking justice. They should be proud of themselves for taking on the establishment and winning.
It’s a pyrrhic victory, of course. It was always going to be. But it’s their victory and the loved ones they lost would rightly be very proud of them.