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Background to the Hillsborough disaster

by
28 September 2012

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From the Revd Stephen Cooper

Sir, - The Independent Panel report on the Hillsborough disaster ( News and Comment, 14 September) is absolutely clear that the police and club officials of Sheffield Wednesday FC made a disastrous decision to open the exit gates to allow the Liverpool fans into the ground quickly before the game began, without adequate direction to uncrowded areas of the Leppings Lane stands once inside, so causing the crush and the deaths.

It is equally clear that, in their efforts to cover up their failures in decision-making, some members of the South Yorkshire Police are culpable of tampering with evidence.

What is also clearly documented in the report, though it has received almost no coverage in the following media storm, is the degree to which decisions by the FA, Sheffield Wednesday FC, and its safety consultants, as well as the long history of football violence at that time, had created a situation in which Hillsborough was a disaster waiting to happen.

The "safety" cages in football grounds were installed in 1985 in part because of football's long history of violence and pitch invasions, and in part because previous calls to create all-seater, all-ticket stadia to reduce risks caused by crowd flows had been rejected by the FA, clubs, and fans in a desire to retain the atmosphere of stands.

Hillsborough had failed its safety certification because of known issues of crowd safety and overcrowding problems, especially at the Leppings Lane end, and yet it was still chosen by the FA to hold the semi-final. It was clear that it would be impossible to get the Liverpool fans into the ground through an inadequate turnstile system before the match started, but the officials would not delay the start of the match the 45 minutes that, it is estimated, it would have been needed to do so safely. This is perhaps, though I could not find reference to it, because of the TV scheduling, which would have been disrupted by such a delay.

None of this excuses the police and club officials for their disastrous decisions made on the day, nor the police's culpability in trying to cover them up by seeking to blame the Liverpool fans. Any halfway honest assessment of the Independent Report, however, would also make very clear that the historical and structural failures of football, and safety issues at the stadium, made such a disaster likely.

This was not something confined to Hillsborough, as many other grounds were similarly inadequate, often creating similar circumstances that were but a short step from what happened on that tragic day. My memories of policing football in the 1980s was that football grounds were scary places to be as an ordinary police officer, especially after the introduction of the "safety" cages. You never knew whether you would be with fans who were going to have a joyous afternoon supporting their club, or whether it would explode into violence. This inevitably had a significant impact on the mindset of those planning how to deal with fans at football matches, both police and club officials.

I have every sympathy with the families of those who died and were traumatised by the events at Hillsborough, and it is right that their quest for justice should be fulfilled. If that justice is to be fair, however, then football's historical, structural, and local failures, which created an inherently unsafe and dangerous situation, should also carry their share of responsibility in the public arena.

STEPHEN COOPER
St Mary's Vicarage, Goosnargh Lane, Goosnargh, Lancashire PR3 2BN

 

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