Football was not a nice place to be in the 1980’s.
We let narratives get created, we let groups of people in society become dehumanised, labelled, blamed. We let ourselves be guided to blaming the poor, or the sick, or those on benefits, or those who wear hoods, or those who take drugs. We slowly let our sense of collective be chipped away, until it’s Us VS. Them. And then we don’t think of Them as human anymore, and we don’t stop to help them.
Football fans were just such a social evil in the 80’s. Penned in, ignored, blamed, herded. Even at my young age, I could sense an atmosphere, an attitude towards football fans. I remember the cages around the pitch, fans penned in like animals.
Those of us who remember a time before the Rupert Murdock money came into the sport bemoan many of the changes, but if 96 football fans died at an F.A. Cup semi final in 2014, action would be taken. People would be prosecuted, locked up. Every victim and every hero would have a face and a name.
On the 15th of April 1989, fans of Liverpool and Nottingham Forrest converged on Sheffield’s Hillsborough stadium for the semi final of the F.A. Cup. As Liverpool fans amassed at their end of the ground, a gate was opened to herd them in, and thousands of fans poured into one area at the same time.
A short while later, 94 of them were dead. 2 other fatalities followed. In the days that followed, a massive cover-up operation went into full force, one that is only now being admitted to. Police reports were doctored. Video evidence went missing. Newspapers printed lies. The Sun ran a front page labelled, “The Truth,” in which they stated that fans were robbing the dead, were pissing on the police and were attacking people who tried to give CPR. All lies. All damaging. All deliberate.
In trying to make sense of it all, one thing is abundantly clear; How easy it would have been for it to not happen. If fans weren’t treated like shit. If those in authority didn’t cast off responsibility. If people were treated like people. There was also precedent, fans had been saying something like this would or could happen. My team, Wolves, played Tottenham Hotspur in a semi final at the same ground in 1981. There was a crush then, too. Tottenham fans were penned in and unable to move as more people where herded in behind them. Crucially on this occasion the police acted in time and opened the gates to the cage and let the fans out onto the pitch. But in 1989 the culture was different. Football fans had spent the decade being treated as the social menace. They were not to be trusted, not to be helped. They were not human. They did not need the help they were calling for, begging for. To read accounts of survivors of the crush is harrowing not just for the details of what was physically happening to them, but for the stories of Police standing by and doing nothing when football fans were calling for help. Crash barriers were torn up out of the concrete by the sheer weight of people being pressed onto them. By them time anybody came to help, people were dead.
We know the names of the 96 people who lost their lives, and today we remember them. The youngest was 10 years old. A boy who went to a football match and never came back. They’ll never be forgotten. But what is harder to do is to give name to all of the other victims. The family members whose lives were forever changed. The futures that were taken away. The football fans elsewhere who suffered as part of the system of lies and cover-ups and dehumanisation.
We've all heard the phrase "telling truth to power," but the problem is, the power already knows. Families, friends and football fans have fought for 25 years for that truth to come out. Mothers, fathers, brothers sisters- they’ve lived with this, grown with this inside of them, knowing their loved ones were being lied about. They’ve never given up, never stopped fighting even when the whole weight of the British establishment was against them, and a fresh inquest is now underway.
Watching the footage, reading the accounts or talking to survivors is a harrowing experience, but something else stands out, too. There are another group of people we will never be able to honour properly; the heroes.
Even in the midst of the crush, there were people saving lives. People who could barely move, people who surely suspected they were not getting out of it themselves, acted to help others. Teenagers were lifted up out of the crush by people below them. Some survivors talk of passing out in the middle of the mass of people, pressed down under all the weight, but then waking up on the pitch later, not knowing who carried them free.
Supporters in the stand above reached down to pull people up. People down at the front, who had gotten free of the cage and unimaginable horrors, went back to help. Strangers ripped advertising hoardings from around the pitch to carry other strangers to where they could receive medical attention. As those in authority and power did nothing, those who had neither stepped in and saved lives. Liverpool fans that day showed a courage, strength and basic decency that others had tried to steal from them. And the families of the victims have continued to show that strength and courage to this day.
Fans helped fans. People helped people.
We’re made to be scared, to be mistrusting. We made to treat other groups of people as less than human, as social demons. We help in robbing whole social classes of a voice, and then blame them when that voicelessness turns into something dark. We’re encouraged to walk by and ignore the person asking for help or crying in the street.
So as we remember the victims and fight for justice for them, lets also remember those who helped, whether we know their names or not, and learn from them. Authority comes and goes, uniforms fade and retire, those in power rise and fall. But people help people. Always have, always will.