The Hillsborough disaster was a fatal crush of people during an FA Cup semi-final football match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, England, on 15 April 1989. With 96 fatalities and 766 injuries, it remains the worst disaster in British sporting history. The crush occurred in the two standing-only central pens in the Leppings Lane stand, allocated to Liverpool supporters. Shortly before kick-off, in an attempt to ease overcrowding outside the entrance turnstiles, the police match commander, chief superintendent David Duckenfield, ordered exit gate C to be opened, leading to an influx of even more supporters to the already overcrowded central pens.
In the days and weeks following the disaster, police fed false stories to the press suggesting that hooliganism and drunkenness by Liverpool supporters were the root causes of the disaster. Blaming of Liverpool fans persisted even after the Taylor Report of 1990, which found that the main cause of the disaster was a failure of control by South Yorkshire Police (SYP). Following the Taylor report, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) ruled there was no evidence to justify prosecution of any individuals or institutions. The disaster also led to a number of safety improvements in the largest English football grounds, notably the elimination of fenced standing terraces in favour of all-seater stadiums in the top two tiers of English football.
The first coroner’s inquests into the Hillsborough disaster, completed in 1991, ruled all deaths that occurred that day to be accidental. Families strongly rejected the original coroner’s findings, and their fight to have the matter re-opened persisted, despite Lord Justice Stuart-Smith concluding in 1997 there was no justification for a new inquiry. Private prosecutions brought by the Hillsborough Families Support Group against Duckenfield and his deputy Bernard Murray failed in 2000.
In 2009, a Hillsborough Independent Panel was formed to review all evidence. Reporting in 2012, it confirmed Taylor’s 1990 criticisms, while also revealing new details about the extent of police efforts to shift blame onto fans, the role of other emergency services, and the error of the first coroner’s inquests. The panel’s report resulted in the previous findings of accidental death being quashed, and the creation of new coroner’s inquests. It also produced two criminal investigations led by police in 2012: Operation Resolve to look into the causes of the disaster, and by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) to examine actions by police in the aftermath.
The second coroner’s inquests were held from 1 April 2014 to 26 April 2016. They ruled that the supporters were unlawfully killed due to grossly negligent failures by police and ambulance services to fulfil their duty of care to the supporters. The inquests also found that the design of the stadium contributed to the crush, and that supporters were not to blame for the dangerous conditions. Public anger over the actions of his force during the second inquests led the SYP chief constable David Crompton to be suspended following the verdict. In June 2017, six people were charged with various offences including manslaughter by gross negligence, misconduct in public office and perverting the course of justice for their actions during and after the disaster. The Crown Prosecution Service subsequently dropped all charges against one of the defendants.
Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, the home of Sheffield Wednesday, was selected by the Football Association (FA) as a neutral venue to host the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest football clubs. Kick-off was scheduled for 3:00 pm on 15 April, and fans were advised to take up positions 15 minutes beforehand.
At the time of the disaster, most English football stadiums had high steel fencing between the spectators and the playing field in response to both friendly and hostile pitch invasions. Hooliganism had affected the sport for some years, and was particularly virulent in England. From 1974, when these security standards were put in place, crushes occurred in several English stadiums.
A report by Eastwood & Partners for a safety certificate for the stadium in 1978 concluded that although it failed to meet the recommendations of the Green Guide, a guide to safety at sports grounds, the consequences were minor. It emphasised the general situation at Hillsborough was satisfactory compared with most grounds.
Risks associated with confining fans in pens were highlighted by the Committee of Inquiry into Crowd Safety at Sports Grounds (the Popplewell inquiry) after the Bradford City stadium fire in May 1985. It made recommendations on the safety of crowds penned within fences, including that “all exit gates should be manned at all times … and capable of being opened immediately from the inside by anyone in an emergency”.
Hillsborough hosted five FA Cup semi-finals in the 1980s. A crush occurred at the Leppings Lane end of the ground during the 1981 semi-final between Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers after hundreds more spectators were permitted to enter the terrace than could safely be accommodated, resulting in 38 injuries, including broken arms, legs and ribs. Police believed there had been a real chance of fatalities had swift action not been taken, and recommended the club reduce its capacity. In a post-match briefing to discuss the incident, Sheffield Wednesday chairman Bert McGee remarked: “Bollocks—no one would have been killed”. The incident nonetheless prompted Sheffield Wednesday to alter the layout at the Leppings Lane end, dividing the terrace into three separate pens to restrict sideways movement. This 1981 change and other later changes to the stadium invalidated the stadium’s safety certificate. The safety certificate was never renewed and the stated capacity of the stadium was never changed. The terrace was divided into five pens when the club was promoted to the First Division in 1984, and a crush barrier near the access tunnel was removed in 1986 to improve the flow of fans entering and exiting the central enclosure.
After the crush in 1981, Hillsborough was not chosen to host an FA Cup semi-final for six years until 1987. Serious overcrowding was observed at the 1987 quarter-final between Sheffield Wednesday and Coventry City and again during the semi-final between Coventry City and Leeds United at Hillsborough. Leeds were assigned the Leppings Lane end. A Leeds fan described disorganisation at the turnstiles and no steward or police direction inside the stadium, resulting in the crowd in one enclosure becoming so compressed he was at times unable to raise and clap his hands. Other accounts told of fans having to be pulled to safety from above.
Liverpool and Nottingham Forest met in the semi-final at Hillsborough in 1988, and fans reported crushing at the Leppings Lane end. Liverpool lodged a complaint before the match in 1989. One supporter wrote to the Football Association and Minister for Sport complaining, “The whole area was packed solid to the point where it was impossible to move and where I, and others around me, felt considerable concern for personal safety”.
BBC television cameras were at the ground to record the game for Match of the Day. As the disaster unfolded, the events were relayed live to the Saturday sports show, Grandstand. In Ireland, RTÉ also showed the disaster unfolding, as it was covering the match live through its programme Sports Stadium.
Condolences flooded in from across the world, led by the Queen. Other messages came from Pope John Paul II, US President George H. W. Bush, and the chief executive of Juventus (fans of Liverpool and Juventus were involved in the Heysel Stadium disaster) amongst many others.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Home Secretary Douglas Hurd visited Hillsborough the day after the disaster and met survivors. Anfield Stadium was opened on the Sunday to allow fans to pay tribute to the dead. Thousands of fans visited and the stadium filled with flowers, scarves and other tributes. In the following days more than 200,000 people visited the “shrine” inside the stadium. The following Sunday, a link of football scarves spanning the 1.6 kilometres (0.99 mi) distance across Stanley Park from Goodison Park to Anfield was created, with the final scarf in position at 3:06 pm. Elsewhere on the same day, a silence–opened with an air-raid siren at three o’clock–was held in central Nottingham with the colours of Forest, Liverpool and Wednesday adorning Nottingham Council House.
At Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, a requiem mass attended by 3,000 people was held by the Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Worlock. The first reading was read by Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar. Liverpool players Ronnie Whelan, Steve Nicol, and former manager Joe Fagan carried the communion bread and wine. David Sheppard, the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, on holiday on the Scottish island of Barra on the day of the disaster, was airlifted by RAF helicopter to attend.
A disaster appeal fund was set up with donations of £500,000 from the Government, £100,000 from Liverpool F.C. and £25,000 each from the cities of Liverpool, Sheffield and Nottingham. Liverpool donated the share of the money they would have received for the game. Within days donations had passed £1 million, swelled by donations from individuals, schools and businesses. Other fund raising activities included a Factory Records benefit concert and several fundraising football matches. Bradford City and Lincoln City, the teams involved in the Bradford City stadium fire, met for the first time since the 1985 disaster in a game which raised £25,000. When the appeal closed the following year, it had raised over £12 million. Much of the money went to victims and relatives of those involved in the disaster and provided funds for a college course to improve the hospital phase of emergency care.
In May 1989, a charity version of the Gerry and the Pacemakers song “Ferry Cross the Mersey” was released in aid of those affected. The song featured Liverpool musicians Paul McCartney, Gerry Marsden (of the Pacemakers), Holly Johnson, and the Christians, and was produced by Stock Aitken Waterman. It entered the UK Singles Chart at number 1 on 20 May, remaining at the top for a total of three weeks. Although Gerry and the Pacemakers’ earlier hit “You’ll Never Walk Alone” had stronger ties to Liverpool FC, it was not used because it had recently been re-recorded for the Bradford City stadium fire appeal.
A total of 96 people died as a result of injuries incurred during the disaster. Ninety-four persons, aged from 10 to 67 years old, died on the day, either at the stadium, in the ambulances, or shortly after arrival at hospital. A total of 766 people were reported to have suffered injuries, although less than half required hospital treatment. The less seriously injured survivors who did not live in the Sheffield area were advised to seek treatment for their injuries at hospitals nearer to their homes. On 19 April, the death toll reached 95 when 14-year-old Lee Nicol died in hospital after his life support machine was switched off. The death toll reached 96 in March 1993, when artificial feeding and hydration were withdrawn from 22-year-old Tony Bland after nearly four years, during which time he had remained in a persistent vegetative state showing no sign of improvement. This followed a legal challenge in the High Court by his family to have his treatment withdrawn, a landmark challenge which succeeded in November 1992.
The Taylor Report had a deep impact on safety standards for stadiums in the UK. Perimeter and lateral fencing was removed and many top stadiums were converted to all-seated. Purpose-built stadiums for Premier League and most Football League teams since the report are all-seater. Chester City F.C.’s Deva Stadium was the first English football stadium to fulfil the safety recommendations of the Taylor Report, with Millwall F.C.’s The Den being the first new stadium to be built that fulfilled the recommendations.
In July 1992, the government announced a relaxation of the regulation for the lower two English leagues (known now as League One and League Two). The Football Spectators Act does not cover Scotland, but the Scottish Premier League chose to make all-seater stadiums a requirement of league membership. In England and Wales all-seating is a requirement of the Premier League and of the Football League for clubs who have been present in the Championship for more than three seasons. Several campaigns have attempted to get the government to relax the regulation and allow standing areas to return to Premiership and Championship grounds.
On 12 September 2012, the Hillsborough Independent Panel concluded that no Liverpool fans were responsible in any way for the disaster, and that its main cause was a “lack of police control”. Crowd safety was “compromised at every level” and overcrowding issues had been recorded two years earlier. The panel concluded that “up to 41” of the 96 who perished might have survived had the emergency services’ reactions and co-ordination been improved. The number is based on post-mortem examinations which found some victims may have had heart, lung or blood circulation function for some time after being removed from the crush. The report stated that placing fans who were “merely unconscious” on their backs rather than in the recovery position, would have resulted in their deaths due to airway obstruction. Their report was in 395 pages and delivered 153 key findings.
On 19 April, four days after the disaster, Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of The Sun, ordered “The Truth” as the front-page headline, followed by three sub-headlines: “Some fans picked pockets of victims”, “Some fans urinated on the brave cops” and “Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life”. Mackenzie reportedly spent two hours deciding on which headline to run; his original instinct being for “You Scum” before eventually deciding on “The Truth”.
The information was provided to the newspaper by Whites News Agency in Sheffield; the newspaper cited claims by police inspector Gordon Sykes, that Liverpool fans had pickpocketed the dead, as well as other claims by unnamed police officers and local Conservative MP Irvine Patnick. The Daily Express also carried Patnick’s version, under the headline “Police Accuse Drunken Fans” which gave Patnick’s views, saying he had told Margaret Thatcher, while escorting her on a tour of the ground after the disaster, of the “mayhem caused by drunks” and that policemen told him they were “hampered, harassed, punched and kicked”.
After The Sun‘s report, the newspaper was boycotted by most newsagents in Liverpool and many readers cancelled their orders and refused to buy it from newsagents; and from then afterwards many in Liverpool refer to The Sun newspaper as The Scum. Some even refuse to say the name or spell it as The S*n. The Hillsborough Justice Campaign organised a less successful national boycott that had some impact on the paper’s sales nationally.
On 20 May 1989, a week after the disaster, Channel 4‘s After Dark programme broadcast a live discussion Football – The Final Whistle? Bereaved parent Eileen Delaney was a guest, along with her husband James. Extracts from what she said can be read online and in Hillsborough – The Truth by Phil Scraton (Mainstream Publishing 2016).
Remembering the 96 lost lives at Hillsborough on 15th April 1989.