FA Cup semi-final was site of worst mass death toll in British sporting history
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
“Don’t take life for granted. Ensure our police and media are held to account by telling the truth. That a good crowd control and safety plan is needed for any large gathering of people. Oh, and don’t read The Sun.”– Paul Chapman, Deputy Editor of The Province
April 15, 1989 was the day of the FA Cup semi-final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. It was held at a neutral site, Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England. Over 54,000 fans gathered to watch this exciting match. Unfortunately, the game would be secondary to the tragic outcome that unfolded.
After only six minutes, police and the referee stopped the match as large masses of people had entered the playing surface behind the Liverpool goal. A human crush had occurred due to overcrowding in the central pens and both teams were immediately sent to the dressing room. BBC News reported that a total of 96 people died—all except one were Liverpool supporters. More than 760 people were injured with the youngest fatality being 10-year-old Jon-Paul Gilhooley. The oldest victim was 67-year-old Gerard Baron with 38 of the victims aged 19 and younger; it was the worst mass death toll in British sporting history.
Former Liverpool goalkeeper, Bruce Grobbelaar, remembered the horror seeing the fans behind the net being crushed and suffocated. “I was near gate number 13 and there was this soft sound—like air coming out,” Grobbelaar said in an interview with The Guardian. “I saw the faces squashed against the fence. I went to get the ball and shouted to the policewoman: ‘Open the effing gate.’ She said: ‘I haven’t got the key.’ When the ball came back a second time, I shouted again. I saw they had a key and people spilled on to the ground. I kicked the ball out and ran to the referee. That’s when the barrier went over, and the bodies came down. I could hear the air coming out of them. One of the faces squashed against the fence belonged to a girl called Jackie. I had given her that ticket but luckily, she survived. I saw her last night at [my] book signing.”
Reuters reported that the families of the 96 victims were outraged by the police and their lack of accountability—and especially empathy. After the tragedy, police blamed it “on the supporters themselves, and had told lies and staged a cover-up of ‘industrial proportions’ to hide their mistakes in managing the crowd surging into the stadium.” Karen Hankin, whose husband Eric was among those killed, stated in a news conference: “The conspiracy and lies which began on the 15th of April 1989 and continued over the years involving police, politicians, and officials of high standing has been the most evil act of man’s inhumanity to man.” In addition, there would be a boycott of The Sun newspaper who published egregious false stories about Liverpool fans’ behaviour on the front page.
An inquest was conducted in 1991, with a verdict of accidental death ruled as the cause of the 96 fatalities—a conclusion that was disputed by the victims’ families. That ruling was overturned in 2012, after a long campaign by bereaved families. The BBC News reported that a second inquest into the Hillsborough Disaster began in March 2014 and lasted till April 2016. The jury ruled that the 96 people were “unlawfully killed.” Jurors found David Duckenfield, the man at the centre of the tragedy, “responsible for manslaughter by gross negligence” due to a breach of his duty of care. He was the former South Yorkshire Police chief superintendent and the then match commander at Hillsborough Stadium.
In November 2019, the BBC News reported that criminal proceedings had concluded. David Duckenfield was found not guilty of the gross negligence manslaughter of 95 Liverpool fans and was cleared after a seven-week retrial at Preston Crown Court. Because of the law at the time, there can be no prosecution over the death of the 96th victim, Tony Bland. This was due to the fact he died over a year and a day after his injuries were caused. The jury at Duckenfield’s first trial earlier in the year failed to agree to a verdict.
During the criminal trial, the prosecution alleged Duckenfield had a “personal responsibility” for what transpired at the Liverpool and Nottingham Forest match on April 15, 1989. The court heard that he gave the order to open the exit gates at the Leppings Lane end of the ground at 2:52 pm—eight minutes before the match started—after the area outside the turnstiles had become dangerously overcrowded. Over 2,000 fans then entered through exit gate C, with many fans heading for the tunnel in front of them. This led to the central pens of the terrace being overcrowded where the crush occurred. Footage captured the day of the match shows the side pens containing less people. It begs to wonder why Duckenfield did not have adequate police presence to control the crowd outside the stadium. And it poses more questions, like why were there no police helping direct fans instead to the lesser-filled pens? And why wasn’t the entrance to the central pens closed after they had filled to capacity?
Paul Chapman, Deputy Editor for The Province, was born in Liverpool and moved to Canada with his family in 1974; he is very familiar with the Hillsborough tragedy. “Like most people in the city, we were anxious,” Chapman said in an email interview with the Other Press. “Everyone knew someone who had gone to the match. English soccer was mostly ignored here in Vancouver, but the evening news covered this story, complete with the horrific pictures of bodies lying all over the pitch, survivors and police running around in chaos.” Chapman says the tragedy at Hillsborough speaks of how fragile life is: “Well, don’t take life for granted. Ensure our police and media are held to account by telling the truth. That a good crowd control and safety plan is needed for any large gathering of people. Oh, and don’t read The Sun.”
Over three decades have passed since the Hillsborough Disaster. It seems that time has not healed the victims’ families who were looking for justice for the 96 victims. The Duckenfield acquittal left the families with more questions than answers. Margaret Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son, James, died at Hillsborough expressed her anger with the not guilty verdict: “I blame a system that’s so morally wrong within this country, that’s a disgrace to this nation. When 96 people—they say 95, we say 96—are unlawfully killed and yet not one person is accountable. The question I’d like to ask all of you and people within the system is: who put 96 people in their graves? Who is accountable?”
Next week, Paul Chapman, Deputy Editor of The Province, shares a very personal story about the Hillsborough tragedy.