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Expert Comment: Remembering April 15th 1989

candle Wednesday 27 April 2016

Professor Michael Lavalette recollects his experience of being a football fan in the 1980s, and how Hillsborough changed everything.   

15 April 1989. A day that will always be remembered in Liverpool.

In 1989 I was living in Glasgow. On that sunny Saturday afternoon I was at a meeting and returned home in the late afternoon to be met with the horrific pictures being broadcast on BBC of the disaster in Sheffield. The following afternoon I made my way to Hampden Park to watch a Scottish Cup semi-final. The atmosphere was very subdued and the minutes silence before the game was one of the most moving I have ever been part of.

This takes some explaining. Football has had its share of tragedies. In my home city, the Ibrox Disaster of 1971 left 66 Rangers fans dead after a stair way collapsed at an Old firm game. In 1985 the horrific fire at the Bradford Valley Ground left 56 dead; that same year the Heysel disaster saw a wall collapse and 39 people die at the European Cup final involving Liverpool.

But almost from the beginning Hillsborough felt different.

In the years running up to Hillsborough football fans had increasingly been a crowd who had to be controlled. We were marched from train stations to grounds. Held for long periods after matches finished. Always treated as a problem – a potential threat to order.  

Further, during the 1980s the police were increasingly used as an almost paramilitary force to be used against strikers. At Eddie Shah’s plant in Warrington, throughout the miners’ strike and at Wapping there were violent confrontations between strikers and police. From some quarters there were increasing concerns raised at the direction of policing in the country.

When you went to the grounds they were in a dreadful state. Open terraces exposed to the elements. Terraces that were dominated by broken concrete or sometimes ash that turned to mud in the rain. Forced into ‘pens’ that treated you as caged animals.

The directors of clubs didn’t make a fortune, like they do today, but they were a ‘class apart’. They drank expensive wines, champagnes and whiskeys in the Board rooms, ran the clubs in near dictatorial ways and thought of most fans as, at best, the great unwashed.

As to the politicians, well this was the 1980s. Under successive Thatcher governments large crowds of working class people were to be treated as a threat. Football was viewed as a sport followed by ‘hooligans’ and northern cities as centres of opposition.

These factors form the social context within which the Hillsborough disaster took place. But they also explain why Hillsborough and the 96 became important to all football fans – not just Liverpool supporters: football fans across the country knew that what happened to Liverpool fans could have happened to any of us.

What we didn’t know on that fateful weekend was the extent of the cover up that was about to take place to cover the crimes of the powerful. We couldn’t have predicted the lies and abuse that would be heaped on supporters and their families by those in Government, by sections of the press and by official spokespeople of the police and ambulance services.

And those lies might have stuck if it had not been for the resilience and fortitude of the families. They fought against almost insurmountable odds to defend the memories and reputations of their loved ones. They deserve the utmost respect.

Their struggle has now revealed the truth: of 96 innocent fans who went to a game and never came home because they were let down by those in power.

The verdict of unlawful killing is a vindication of everything the families have fought for. But now the bigger questions – about lies, corruption and cover up - will need to be answered if there is any prospect of justice for the 96.


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