Justice for the 96: The Thatcher administration wanted these 27 years of hurt

We’re often told that sport and politics shouldn’t mix. Muhammed Ali threw out that idea when he used his visibility as the heavyweight champion of the world to say that he “ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong”. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised a gloved fist on the gold medal stand to protest against segregation in the USA. Martina Navratilova showed us that the tennis court can be a leveller, undercutting gender, or even sexual orientation. Sportspeople can be a driver of social progress, making the world a better, happier, safer place.

Politics has intertwined with sport in the most suffocating and sickening way too.

In the hills of Sheffield, on a sunny day in April 1989, the insidious link between the ruling Conservative government and their demonisation of largely working-class football fans was to plumb to a new, bloody depth. A depth so dark that it would take 27 years for the light of justice to shine upon the truth.

Fans of Nottingham Forest and Liverpool converged on the gritty industrial city of Sheffield to attend the FA cup semi-final. The hosting stadium was Hillsborough, the home of Sheffield Wednesday football club, a hulking corrugated iron and steel 4 sided box, as weathered and battered as the city itself. On this day in spring however, it gleamed. Broadcast live on national television, the game between two of English football’s powerhouses was set to be a classic. The winner would be likely to win the cup.

The neutral venue in Sheffield however meant that over 40,000 fans were converging on a stadium that is packed into a residential neighbourhood, surrounded by industrial units, and crisscrossed by small roads jammed between terraced houses. And so at 2:40pm, 20 minutes prior to kick-off, the Liverpool end of the stadium was half-empty. Or to be more exact, some parts of the Liverpool end were half empty. The segregation of the fans into pens, ostensibly for supporter safety and to make the “football hooligans” easier to control, led to fans being funnelled into overpacked pens behind the goal, whilst the side pens remained empty, another silent witness to the tragedy about to unfold. And so, through what may now be the criminally-negligent action of the police service, the late-arriving Liverpool fans were allowed to enter en-masse. If you have ever been to the Leppings Lane end at Hillsborough you will know the sight that still awaits your entry, as it awaited those fans on that day – a single 10 feet wide tunnel leading directly to the goal. And its horrifically overcrowded pen.

Mums and Dads went down the tunnel with daughters. That evening they would return home to cry onto pillows in empty bedrooms. For 27 years. And their government, their elected representatives, not only hid the truth, but actively supported the police and media in their demonisation of the actions of the Liverpool supporters that day.

The groundwork for the governmental, police, and media response has been laid in the bitter industrial disputes of the 1980s. Many of the same people attending football matches were the same people who had their livelihoods torn away by Thatcherism. Through the Miner’s strike, many working-class communities of the English Midlands and the battered North were painted as raging uneducated thugs, unable and unwilling to allow the British economy to move on as they clung to the increasingly flimsy power of their trade unions. Thatcher cut he throat of the unions, the coal and manufacturing industry, and the communities they supported, and left them to bleed to death for the next 20 years.

The blood of the 96 is on the hands of Thatcher, her government and the insipid police culture she nurtured. It was no coincidence that many of the fans that day were working-class people, from the same places that were being destroyed by the Thatcher government. It was easy, in the aftermath, to paint them as mindless hooligans, so out of control as to crush their loved ones to death in their fevered support of a football team.

That narrative began the morning after the disaster. Tears were still streaming down the faces of parents as they tried to identify their sons and daughters in the temporary mortuary of the Hillsborough sports hall. In the week that followed The Sun knocked around the idea of going with the headline “You Scum” as they sat in their London offices. On the 19th April The Sun newspaper carried the headline “The Truth” followed by the bullets:

  • “Some fans picked pockets of victims”
  • “Some fans urinated on the brave cops”
  • “Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life”

The sources for this information? Sheffield police inspector Gordon Sykes, several other unnamed police officers, and the icing on the turd-sundae, local Conservative MP Irvine Patnick.

Other hacks jumped in whilst the funerals of those killed were taking place. In the Sunday Times, another Murdoch media machine, Edward Pearce wrote that

“For the second time in half a decade a large body of Liverpool supporters has killed people… The shrine in the Anfield goalmouth, the cursing of the police, all the theatricals, come sweetly to a city which is already the capital of self-pity. There are soapy politicians to make a pet of Liverpool, and Liverpool itself is alway standing by to make a pet of itself. “Why us? Why are we treated like animals?” To which the plain answer is that a good and sufficient minority of you behave like animals”.

The police services’ brutal actions on behalf of the state were observed many times. Undoubtedly the actions of the police officers during the mass arrests and police brutality at Orgreave coking plant were fuelled by the bile spewed by the media about the striking miners and by the government-sponsored overtime that allowed police officers to pay off their mortgages whilst their fellow working-men were living on the breadline. And so the same divisions were played out on the Hillsborough pitch. Whilst Liverpool supporters were crushed, the police oversaw the deaths. When emergency gates were forced opened, the bodies simply lurched forward and slumped onto the concrete. Fellow fans tore up advertising hoardings to use as makeshift stretchers. A number of police officers stood watch across the pitch and, unbelievably, prevented those fans from carrying their – often dead – friends and family to medical care.

Chief Superintendent Duckenfield, looking down from the control box, around 10 metres away from the front of the pens and the lifeless bodies, decided that the 44 ambulances waiting outside should not be allowed to enter the stadium. He chose to let people die. Many police officers acted as heroes. The most important ones, imbued with years of lies about the working-class mentality, acted at best in fear, and at worst with disdain. And they let them die. Of the 96 fatalities, only 14 ever arrived at hospital.

The police had their chance to recount the events of the day, to allow the victims the dignity of the truth. They sickeningly avoided this responsibility too. They were criticised as “defensive and evasive witnesses” by the Taylor report, and those with most responsibly refused to accept it. The Taylor report witheringly noted that “the quality of their evidence was in inverse proportion to their rank”. However, the powerful write history and so it was for Hillsborough for 27 years. The police blamed the fans for being late and drunk, unable to contain their excitement for the football and so crushing their fellow fan. The epitome of the noble savage, scooping up their fallen comrades even when hope was lost.

It took 27 years for these lies to be refuted. Far too late, for example, for the three fans who took their own lives, who couldn’t come to terms with what happened on that day in Sheffield. Journalists, politicians, and police had the opportunity to speak – to prevent further loss of life. But the pale hand of power guided the response along this path. 27 years of hurt.

On April 26 2016 a jury at Warrington Crown Court returned a verdict of unlawful killing. And now it is time for for someone other than the fans to take responsibility.

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