We have already heard from Pete Sixsmith how the official approach to football supporters that was reflected when 96 people died at Hillsborough also threatened people attending at a Sunderland game, and how it nearly ended his own teaching career. Now, also discussing the historical context in which the tragedy was handled, Michael Goulding, lifelong Sunderland fan and occasional contributor to these pages, looks back on a day that affected all of us in different ways but especially those who, like him, were there …
It’s difficult to put into words how I feel in the wake of the Hillsborough Inquest verdict, so high are my emotions running. Twenty-seven years ago, me and my very good Liverpool-supporting mate Mark Grierson attended that game.
It wasn’t the first, or the last, time I’d accompanied him to big games to watch Liverpool. I developed a soft spot for Liverpool in 1962, the year of my first game at Sunderland as a nine-year-old, when we finished third (and failed to be promoted) in a Second Division which was won by a resurgent Liverpool under Bill Shankly.
Two years later, while we finally won promotion to the top flight with our famous 1964 team under Charlie Hurley, Liverpool were crowned English Champions. Merseybeat was at its height, and Liverpool soon changed their strip to the all-red version for which they’re famous. That strip, worn by Ian St John, Roger Hunt, Tommy Smith etc inspired me almost as much as The Beatles.
And so, as a lifelong and long-suffering Sunderland fan, Liverpool have always been the “other team” I like the most after Sunderland. And it was never hard to accept Mark’s hospitality and get away from constant failure at Roker Park, to enjoy “holiday” jaunts with Liverpool to Wembley, and to two FA Cup Semi-Finals at Hillsborough.
The first was in 1988, also against Nottingham Forest, when from our seats in the main stand we had witnessed a crush build up on the Leppings Lane terraces, causing Liverpool fans to be hauled up to safety into the seats above – an image which was to become horribly iconic a year later.
So in 1989 we were back, and this time were in the Leppings Lane End itself. Mark’s never been much of a drinker, and I was driving that day, so we omitted the pre-match drink which is my normal religious observance before all Sunderland games, and we went through the turnstiles early.
Never having been in that end before, we followed our noses straight ahead towards the only visible access to the lower terrace – which was through an awful, low-ceilinged, brick and concrete tunnel.
We then found ourselves in what was to become the infamous Pen 3, where most of the 96 deaths occurred.
We considered staying there, but remembered the previous year’s crush in that pen, and on looking around we saw that there was more space and a better vantage point to the sides, where the terraces nearer the corner flag rose up above the pens behind the goal.
So we got out, just a few minutes before it would have been impossible to do so. We knew from one previous visit that it was potentially dangerous in Pen 3 – so how, I reasoned half an hour later, could the authorities in charge not have known?
One of my last memories from before the problems started was looking down on where we’d just been and seeing happy and boisterous fans carelessly batting about those inflatables and beach-balls which used to be so prominent at matches in those days. Then it turned bad, and we watched people struggling and…..we all know the rest.
Like many fans of my age, I’ve been in big crowds before, where it can get scary when people move, you get squashed, and lose control of your feet. Those of us who remember the big games at the old Roker Park, when it held 60,000-plus, standing at the Roker End (which held 18.000 on its own) or the Fulwell, will know what I mean.
But I realised that this was an entirely different world, the moment a fan died in front of my eyes. The game had been stopped; fans were finally spilling onto the pitch after struggling to get over the fence; one fan staggered across the grass clutching at his throat, unable to breathe. He collapsed on the ground in front of us. Somebody knelt over him, tried to help, and finally put a jacket over his face. How could this be happening? At a football match? Hemmed in and unable to move, thousands of us watched in disbelief.
Then something happened which restores your faith in your fellow man. While the police, many of whom must have had at least basic First Aid training, threw up a uniformed cordon across the pitch and waited for further orders which never came, the fans, without assistance or prompting, took the situation into their own hands.
They created makeshift stretchers from advertising hoardings. They ran (ran!) the length of the pitch ferrying the dead and the dying and those in need of specialist help. They were the real heroes that day, while the police and ambulance people (barring a few notable exceptions) did nothing. The truth of these stories are all out now in the public domain, and finally justice has arrived on the scene – 27 years late – impeded on its way at every step by those whose job it was to ensure its speedy passage. The police, the politicians, in short – the establishment.
When we finally got out of the ground and started making our way home, our own inquest began.
We recalled that, on coming back out of Pen 3 through the tunnel (which still gives me a shudder down my spine when I think about it), it hadn’t been obvious how to get to the upper terracing to the side of the pens. We went through an opening and around a corner before we found the steps. What kind of design was that? Surely everybody on entering through the turnstiles would head straight for the tunnel in front of them? This simple fact was obvious to us even then, and we didn’t even know Hillsborough.
So I said it that very night, and continued to say it for years to anybody who’d listen, that the disaster could have been averted if the police had closed the entrance to the tunnel when Pens 3 & 4 were clearly full. This has been accepted for some time. But reading the evidence today from the inquest is the first time I’ve been made aware that there was at the time an existing, established “tactic” for doing just that – the so-called “Freeman tactic”. A simple tactic that wasn’t used on the day, while lies were spread by the police about what had happened, to divert attention. Lies which became such a part of the public consciousness, that only a couple of years ago people were still saying to me that it was all down to drunken fans pushing and shoving.
And yet despite always knowing the basic truth, I’ve been shocked and upset by some of the evidence which has come out today. The extent of the police culpability, and their appalling behaviour, both during and after a tragedy which destroyed lives; and the callous and despicable way they treated the victims and their families, has left me angry and uncontrollably upset.
Aided and abetted by Thatcher and her obnoxious press secretary, Bernard Ingham, the establishment closed ranks around the fabricated police narrative, happy to accept and believe it until it was absorbed into popular mythology. The despicable but top-selling establishment rag The Sun thought nothing of p***ing on people’s grief and slandering the dead and the brave alike with their lies and vile accusations. And the Editor responsible still gets invited onto BBC’s Question Time.
So there’s a wider social context here, which goes beyond Liverpool and Hillsborough. Older fans will remember how hooliganism in the 70s and early 80s (always a minority feature of football) allowed the authorities to create a world where all football fans became “animals”.
We should remember the hostility to working class communities from Thatcher’s government; the attitude of the police to what they saw as the working class ‘mob’, and the disdain in which fans were held even by their own club directors.
The history of policing in South Yorkshire, and in particular how they had policed the miners’ dispute, had a real bearing on Hillsborough. Their priority to protect themselves and those in power by lying, fabricating evidence and engaging in a cover up already had a precedent in that dispute. But this mindset was shared by others throughout “the establishment”.
As a Sunderland fan, I remember how Roker Park changed, and the awful place it became compared to what we have at the Stadium of Light now. But we shouldn’t get too complacent, just because we’re more comfortable. Football fans were treated like animals back then, and still are in certain respects (although health and safety and human rights ameliorates that somewhat). Cages were built then to keep fans penned in like cattle, and did their job horrifyingly well at Hillsborough. They’ve gone now, but we are still not treated with respect. As football fans we are still subjected to indiscriminate searches, having our movement restricted, and having our property confiscated without compensation – on the basis of laws which do not apply to any other sport.
I may be guilty of exaggeration or wishful naivety, but it seems to me that the Hillsborough Inquest verdict heralded more than justice for the 96. Its possible that a victory has been won in a wider context: which is that of ordinary people refusing to back down or buckle under establishment pressure.