Lessons of Valley Parade blaze were ignored as Liverpool fans found themselves fenced in four years later
They didn’t manage a single line about Hillsborough on the front page of the Daily Telegraph the day after it all broke. One of the biggest scandals in modern history and still not enough to get past a story about speed cameras or the obligatory picture of the Duchess of Cambridge. Which is funny because it is difficult to imagine they would not have cleared a few column inches if there had been 96 people killed in a disaster at, say, Lord’s or Twickenham.
Not the biggest issue, perhaps, at a time when, bar one obvious exception, there are actually plenty of reasons to look through the newspaper industry – a beleaguered industry right now, let’s be honest – and be lifted by the way certain journalists have made a difference since 15 April 1989. My colleague, David Conn, for one, who had always suspected a cover-up and set about trying to expose it. Brian Reade of the Daily Mirror. Tony Evans of the Times. Plenty of others, too.
Strange, though, that a national newspaper would stick a story of such magnitude back on page six behind, among other things, an item headlined “Thief hid 20 mobile phones in his tights” and what is commonly known in the trade as a fluff piece, namely a photo-spread of William and Kate touring a Rolls-Royce plant in Singapore. Later editions were changed to plug a “Sport Special” on the subject. Except Hillsborough was not a sports story, just as you would not expect to find 9/11 in the travel section, and it does leave the lingering sense that in some places football is still not quite free of its old stigmas, whereby the people who go to games are somehow not deemed as important, or worthy, as those who watch other sports, or engage in other activities. Even now, when the demographic has changed at football matches, with shinier, better-kept stadiums and less chance of a brick flying past your head.
Hillsborough was always a national disaster but it is now, officially, a national scandal that goes right to the top of the country, and the sheer scale of wrongdoing will never lose its ability to shock. Hillsborough is probably better described as not one scandal but a whole series of them, one after another. The collusion, the doctoring of statements, the lies and spin and political manoeuvring. The letters that were sent to the authorities – all ignored – from fans caught up in dangerous crushes at previous Hillsborough semi-finals, warning that it was “a deathtrap”, that fans had been collapsing, that it was so bad people were being sick and fainting, that someone’s umbrella had actually snapped in two against the metal barriers.
As for the alcohol-testing of the 96 corpses, purely to bend the story in favour of the South Yorkshire police, it takes a special kind of bastard to pass those orders when the victims included so many young. Thirty-seven of the dead at Hillsborough were teenagers. Jon-Paul Gilhooley, Steven Gerrard’s cousin, was the youngest who never came home. Ten years old. “A boy whose life was snatched away just as it was starting,” Gerrard writes in his autobiography. “Crushed to death in a stand unfit for human beings.”
Something else about Hillsborough, too. Something that isn’t in the report and goes back to what happened when Bradford City played Lincoln City, on the final day of the 1984-85 season, and the way football was too arrogant, too damned pleased with itself and utterly dimwitted to take on board the crucial lessons of what happened when a fire engulfed the old wooden stand at Valley Parade.
Fifty-six people died in the Bradford disaster, but it is difficult to imagine what the death toll would have been had the pitch not been an open and accessible escape route. Hundreds? Martin Fletcher, one of the survivors, is absolutely clear: “There’s never been any doubt in my mind,” he says. “The lack of fences that day saved thousands.”
Martin, to introduce him properly, is an old schoolfriend, someone I still see at the odd match and whose courage never ceases to amazes me. Goodness knows how he still goes to football matches after everything he has endured. But he does.
He was 12 at the time of the Bradford fire, sitting with his family when the smoke started to lick through the floorboards. When the flames took hold, Martin managed to get on to the pitch. His brother, Andrew, 11, their father, John, 34, uncle Peter, 32, and grandfather Eddie, 63, didn’t.
Four years later, on that sunny day in Sheffield, he was in one of the stands housing the Nottingham Forest fans. “The afternoon after Hillsborough I broke down in my mum’s car and asked her: ‘Why didn’t the fences come down after Bradford?’ It was obvious to me as a 12-year-old, let alone as a 16-year-old, that it was the one lesson that should have been learned.”
What ought to have happened – a complete overhaul of football-ground safety, akin to the one that followed Hillsborough – should have been obvious to everyone considering the gross negligence, bordering on criminality, that occurred at Bradford, what it said about our football clubs and stadia at the time and what subsequently happened 40 miles or so across Yorkshire.
Bradford, with a turnover in excess of £600,000, had the money in place to make their ground safe. They chose to spend it on creating a promotion-winning team, chasing the dream despite the potential fire risk of litter gathering beneath a timber structure being drawn to their attention by the Health and Safety Executive, twice, in 1981, and the county council in 1984.
After the fire, most likely started by a discarded match or cigarette, a charred copy of the Bradford Telegraph and Argus, from Monday, 4 November 1968, was discovered in the debris. An empty packet of peanuts was also found, costing six old pennies. Decimalisation being in 1971, it had been there at least 14 years. Valley Parade was a monument to neglect, a ticking time-bomb that should have told us football desperately had to change its ways.
Except football, more or less, carried on as it was. The Popplewell inquiry into Bradford did make safety recommendations, including that all grounds should require a safety certificate, and that fences must be designed to deal with emergencies. But they were not met. The politicians moved on to the next subject and, on Merseyside, they set off for a football match at a ground with no safety certificate, a history of crushes and a fence caging them in. Ten feet high, padlocked, with spikes on top.
“Two days after the fire,” Martin remembers, “the then Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, promised Parliament ‘there is no question of putting up a fence that would create a trap.’ For all the Tory contrition, the key question that remains unanswered is why did it take another 96 deaths for the Thatcher government to make good on that promise?” There is probably only one answer: they just didn’t care enough.
Daniel Taylor was present at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989, with Nottingham Forest supporters
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