I haven’t posted a blog for a short while. I haven’t written about a non-Blades related subject for a long while. I have thought long and hard about posting this today but, after much consideration, I thought it best to be open, honest and truthful. Today has changed a lot of things for me. Most importantly, it changed my opinion of events in Sheffield just over 23 years ago.
I am a good lad, from a good family. Brought up with a strong moral code, I understand right from wrong. My parents taught me to respect the authorities, to do unto others and their property as you would want them to do to you and yours. This very same thinking is what I have tried to pass on to my children and hopefully they can live as happy, as successful and fulfilling life as I have to date but it is hard to feel quite the same about that code anymore.
Part of that respect was directed towards the Police. I grew up believing that you should be able to view the police as upholders of the law, there to prevent wrong-doing, to protect and serve the public.
I had grown up attending games with my Dad and, prior to that, my grandparents. We avoided trouble, sat in the seated areas and much of the problems of the time with policing of fans and hooliganism were unnoticed. Shoot and Match magazine, my reading of choice, did little to enlighten me of the issues. Out of sight, out of mind. Anyway, the police focused on the trouble causers – didn’t they?
Hooliganism was a shocking thing perpetuated by a mindless few that, which at its worst, you saw on the news. I remember visiting West Bar Police Station with the Boys' Brigade and seeing the collection of weapons confiscated at football grounds. I remember feeling shocked that such blades could be potentially used on opposition supporters and feeling thankful at the police doing their job and keeping me and other young fans safe.
Moving forward to the 15th April 1989.
I remember watching and listening as the Hillsborough tragedy unfolded. I was 14 at the time, laid on my bed, with the radio on for updates of United's game at Northampton, alongside Des Lynam and Grandstand on the portable TV on top of the chest of drawers. Then, as Grandstand unexpectedly transferred to pictures from Hillsborough and John Motson attempted to describe the unravelling horror, the radio was off. United’s match didn’t matter anymore and I was trying to comprehend the catastrophe unravelling on the small screen.
That night I did my usual walk to the newsagents to pick up the Green Un. The front page image that greeted me was so graphic, so emotive it is indelibly burned into my retina. Young fans, a similar age as to what I was then, crushed against the fencing, gasping for breath, screaming for help. A shocking image that still feels wholly inappropriate now, even in an age where the boundaries of acceptability have been widely extended.
Young fans just like me that had gone to a match, who had stood where I would stand at Hillsborough and were now dead, through no fault of their own. Their final desperate moments captured by someone who could have helped but continued to do their job; taking pictures when people were having the life squeezed out of them. That newspaper image will stick with me forever.
Then the timeline of the day started to unfold, pieced together on TV, on radio, in local and national newspapers and, in Sheffield, from stories passed from neighbour to friend to colleague. These immediately started to paint a picture of problems caused by fans outside the ground, shocking behaviour in it. Stories perpetuated by 4 senior police officers feeding, what are now confirmed to be, lies to a Sheffield news agency. The "strenuous efforts" of the police and authorities to, in effect, deflect attention away from their failings successfully paid off.
I wasn't some sort of anti-establishment rebel in my youth, I trusted in law and order and a code of right and wrong. It was a case of; the police are telling us that is what had happened, therefore it must be right. The belief in the stories was perpetuated by anecdotal evidence from locals claiming to have witnessed events in and around Hillsborough that day. These stories still appear now in forum threads and discussions whenever the tragedy and the justice campaign are discussed.
Over the next few years I started to follow United away from home and saw first-hand the brutal and aggressive way in which football fans were treated at the time. Whether you were a designer clad casual, or a "shirter" (as I generally was), you were spoken to and approached with utter contempt. So incensed was I by my experience, I wrote an article for the Blades fanzine Flashing Blade about it. From bully boy tactics of the West Midlands force at Aston Villa, to the threats of Greater Manchester Police at City and aggressive mounted police outside the Goodison Park turnstiles, I was angry and upset at being treated so poorly.
Since then there have been many further examples, not least being filmed by police drinking outside a pub in Nottingham, not being allowed to leave for the ground in plenty of time for kick off and being held there until shortly before kick off when we were marched with the rest of the pub customers the long way to the turnstiles, filmed all the way.
Over the years I have heard first and second hand of the attitude of South Yorkshire Police towards fans at Bramall Lane and Hillsborough. I heard it and despaired, but it still didn't change my view on the Hillsborough disaster.
For the police to be treating fans with continued contempt is one thing, but to treat the death of 96 innocent people with such contempt in a deviously constructed act to cover their failings was unthinkable. How naïve I was.
Before anyone suggests otherwise; I didn't read tabloid newspapers, so the sensationalised headlines in The Sun were viewed as headline grabbing slurs, rather than anything of any substance. This wasn't some petty points scoring based on football rivalries, or an attempt to stigmatise the people of Liverpool and the club’s supporters. It was a viewpoint arrived at from a fundamental (misplaced) trust in our authorities and the locally shared opinions of those who were in and around Hillsborough that day.
You only have to look on Sheffield football forums and read twitter today to see the maelstrom of opinions the disaster generates and even after the findings were made public, many still do not concur with what the independent report says. I have never expressed any opinions publicly, only within my circle of friends - some of whom agreed, others vehemently didn't. With such a sensitive subject, to do so would set me up for abuse and hassle that were just not worth it. Amongst peers my view was in the minority, locally it was much more prevalent.
Driving into work this morning I caught the end of an interview with the mother of one of the victims. She was hoping for truth and justice, but warned that people must be prepared for the fact that it might come warts and all. In my mind I agreed, I thought that yes the police and authority failings would be highlighted which was important, but Liverpool fans might be seen to remain partly culpable. A culpability that might not be welcomed. Today, the warts are firmly on the face of South Yorkshire; from the Police, to the coroner, from the council to the then administrators of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club.
This morning we had the news on the TV at home and, before I was asked the inevitable question, I explained to my son, in simple terms, what happened at Hillsborough. Thankfully he hasn't asked anymore since and I haven’t had to explain the context of the story. That strong moral code and respect for the work of the police force has been irrevocably damaged today. I would like to think that this is a one off incident, but I can't. Not when this malevolence towards the general public is on such a horrific scale. Detailed and damning in black and white. How much more have they lied about and got away with?
Today the Hillsborough Disaster has been shown to be far more than a human tragedy. Culpability is widespread and with many parties to varying degrees, but the confirmation of the wicked and disgraceful cover-up of police and authority failings is soul destroying. They are the sort of illegal and corrupt actions you might expect of a tinpot dictatorship, not from the guardians of law and order in our country. If this was an accident in a factory or business people would be facing criminal charges and I can only hope that it will follow here
Credit to all those who pursued Justice for the 96. They were right to. I was naively wrong and I am sorry for that.
Until today, I never quite understood what Justice they were after. What would it achieve? In reality, what good it would actually do? I understood the importance of the Coroner’s cut off point of 3:16 and could see why that caused much upset when evidence was demonstrating that lives could have been saved after that time and that the cause of death could not have been applied to all. Beyond that? Now it is more than clear to me and hopefully the criminal justice should soon follow.
They shouldn’t have had to wait 23 years for their beliefs to be confirmed as fact. They deserved the truth much sooner, the British public deserved to know the truth rather than let these lies be perpetuated into something many, myself included, believed in. If the MPs, the local authorities and the police are all demonstrably lacking credibility in modern society where the hell are we all heading? Who can we believe and trust? The answer in this case was the people I had turned a deaf ear to for 23 years.
May the 96 rest in peace