Fresh light thrown on darkest day of British game
It is certainly apt that Liverpool's exonerated fans can revel in the real truth about Hillsborough in a match at Sunderland's Stadium of Light
How fitting that today Liverpool play their first game since the Hillsborough truth was finally exposed against Sunderland in the aptly named Stadium of Light.
Britain’s triumphant summer of sport came to a flag-waving end this week with a victory parade by the country’s Olympians, nicely topped off with Andy Murray’s historic win at the US Open.
But the celebrations were overshadowed by the findings of the latest Hillsborough tragedy inquiry that exposed the shameful catalogue of lies, unforgivable cover-ups and catastrophic incompetence that led to the deaths of 96 Liverpool supporters on that sun-kissed but death-filled day of April 15, 1989.
Any soccer fan remembers where he or she was and what they were doing when news filtered through of the unfolding hell on the Leppings Lane End terraces at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground, where Kenny Dalglish’s Reds were to scheduled to play Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forrest in an FA Cup semi-final.
In those days, news travelled more slowly, which made the inaccurate headlines and reports all the more damning as there was more than enough time to check the facts (The Sun newspaper was most culpable and took the scheming police at their word – it will never again find an audience on Merseyside despite its grovelling this week).
Back then, games were taped and shown as highlights in the evening. But there were previews, half-time reports and a wrap at full-time. On TV, the scene suddenly switched from the pundits in the studio to the commentators at Hillsborough.
High up in a gantry, they were struggling to comprehend what was happening. Fans were all over one end of the pitch, police were running about and there was not a player to be seen.
This was the tail-end of the vicious 1980s when hooliganism was rife. The high fences that claimed the lives of so many were erected to prevent violent pitch invasions. So it was the natural reaction of almost all who were not in the Leppings Lane End to assume crowd trouble was wrecking another game.
One of the commentators lambasted the fans, but soon the horror started to filter through.
At stadiums across the land, fans standing on the terraces tuned in to radio stations for commentaries and updates. On my car radio, it was announced the game had been abandoned because of a safety issue, but it implied crowd trouble. What else could it have been?
By early evening, the full scale of the tragedy became clear and that chilling afternoon has haunted the game since. The deaths were a defining moment in Liverpool and for soccer everywhere.
Moving on 23 years from the horror and the unimaginable grief of the relatives, the British game has changed beyond recognition. In the aftermath came the Lord Justice Taylor inquiry – one of several that failed – that sat for 31 days and published two reports. The final paper made general recommendations on ground safety. The fences were removed and we were soon ordered into seats.
The sterilisation and corporate carve-up of the game had begun. Grave-looking government men in suits wagged their fingers at fans who could not be trusted with one hand, and with the other they ushered in the decadence and greed of the money-men who had little interest in the game.
Hapless fans sat through it all, lamenting the loss of atmosphere and the increase in tickets which priced many out of the game while the executives and VIPs munched on prawn sandwiches and supped fizzy wine, the alien posh-nosh once famously derided by Roy Keane.
We sat and we watched all this as we tried to re-create the atmosphere before that terrible day. Most believed what we had been told – the fans could not be trusted so the state made us all sit still like naughty, guilty school children. Everyone believed the health and safety mantra, all that is except the courageous relatives of the Hillsborough dead and the city of Liverpool.
And now we have the truth. It was not supporters who heaped death and darkness on the beautiful game. Instead – as many on Merseyside had always suspected – it was an establishment that blundered on an industrial scale, those tasked with our taxes and trusted to look after us.
Worse, it then colluded in the fashion of an authoritarian state to lay the blame on its defenceless public, the innocent deceased and their fellow supporters.
It could not be a more tasteless affront to our cherished game and the civil society in which it is played. But truth will always win out and justice will now prevail.
Today, Liverpool fans will stand tall and proud and bask in their courage in the Stadium of Light, a shining example to anyone who cares about the game and its values. Supporters everywhere will be wise to stand with them.