Friday, 15 April 2011

Hillsborough - A 22 year legacy

For the first time in years I played football this week. I mean in a proper team in a league. Not just in the back garden with the kids or in a knock about in the park. All of the rest of my team was half my age and it was slightly annoying to be asked at regular intervals if I wanted to be substituted. I’m the one in training for a marathon. Not them.

I was asked by a couple of the lads if I was going to the Hillsborough memorial event at Anfield today. I’m not this time as I can’t have the time of work this year, but it turns out that a number of them are. These are a group of lads that weren’t born on April 15th 1989 and don’t have any relations or friends that were directly affected by the tragedy. Some of them aren’t even part of the Liverpool FC family, supporting other Merseyside teams both in the Premier League and also lower and non leagues.

It got me thinking about two things. First, why do they feel the need to go to the memorial service when the only link they have with the tragedy are seemingly very tenuous?

And secondly, and possibly most controversially, should we still be holding the memorial service over 20 years after the events in Sheffield? Should we now just be marking the significant anniversaries but allowing those affected to mark the intervening ones in their own private way? After all, we no longer have formal services to mark some of the significant actions of the two world wars. Is it right that Hillsborough should be marked annually? Are we just perpetuating the myth that Scousers love to wallow in a pool of self pity?

I was at Hillsborough on that fateful day. You can read about my experiences in a piece I wrote for the twentieth anniversary in 2009. It is something that, even all these years later, I find hard to talk about but still feel a need to do so.

One reason we should continue to remember the disaster, is the ongoing fight for justice. I attended the 20th anniversary memorial along side thousands of other football supporters of many different hues. The chants of “Justice for the 96” as the then minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Andy Burnham, stood up to speak on behalf of the government were more poignant than the choral rendition of the anthemic “You’ll Never Walk Alone” that day. I had a discussion with my uncle in a supermarket after that day. He is as big a Liverpudlian as they come, but he was disgusted by the chanting for  justice that day. He was a strong believer that the memorial service should have been just that. A service to remember the victims and to pay respects. I can understand that argument. But Andy Burnham was a politician who was speaking at the service. It was right that he should attend to represent the rest of the country, but as soon as he decided to speak at the service, he was then a legitimate target for a demonstration of the feelings of the entire crowd.

I have been asked in the past why there is still a clamour for justice all this time later. Scousers have a reputation as being whingers and wanting everything their own way in certain parts of the media, and the calls for justice is seen as evidence that this reputation was well deserved. The Taylor Report did exonerate the supporters after all, and placed the problems squarely on the shoulders of the organising authorities. What more do we want.

There are still those that believe that the supporters were to blame of course, but these tend to be those that believe everything that the tabloids say as it’s easier than thinking for themselves.

So what justice is needed? Although the causes of the disaster have been well documented by the Taylor Report, what hasn’t been dealt with is the individual stories of the victims. The inquest into the disaster victims ruled that all the victims were dead by 3.15 or had received the injuries that caused their death by this time. Therefore no evidence was taken into account that referred to anything that occurred after 3.15.

Whilst it is entirely possible that all the victims received their injuries prior to the infamous cut off time, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the injuries that they had at that time were fatal. Events that followed could have had an effect on the level of care received, and therefore the life expectancy of each of the 96. Each of the victims families deserves to know exactly what happened to their son, daughter, mother, father, brother, sister, husband, wife. And, further than that, they should know if the authorities knew what had happened and had decided that it wasn’t “in the public interest” to let these facts be known.

An independent panel has been set up subsequent to the 20th anniversary, to trawl through the mountains of evidence that was collected at the time of the tragedy, to see if there was any vital pieces of information that was missed during the investigation or even if there was anything that was allowed to be missed. The composition of the panel gives me hope that at last, there will be new evidence uncovered that will prove to be the catalyst to the families achieving the justice they deserve.

If (or more hopefully when) the families do receive justice, is there any reason to carry on with the memorial service then? Would it still serve a purpose? How many more years should it continue? In January this year, the 40th anniversary of the Ibrox disaster, in which 66 people died following an Old Firm game, was marked by a fairly low key ceremony on the morning of the anniversary. Many of the victims of this incident would have been in their fifties today, had they survived, and are likely to have relatives still living. And, like Merseyside, Glasgow is a hotbed of footballing passion. So why is there not a service in a similar scale to the one at Anfield, to commemorate this disaster?

In my opinion, the service should continue indefinitely. Not only does it comfort the families of the victims and ensure that the fight for justice reaches its just conclusion, it also serves as a reminder that football supporters are not just a commodity to be herded. Prior to 1989 and the subsequent Taylor Report, football fans were treated as the lowest of the low. Poor facilities in stadiums, every one was treated as a potential hooligan. Since then, a matchday experience, and more importantly, visitor expectations have improved immeasurably. Stadiums are now much safer, authorities are more organised and facilities are there to serve the customers rather than prevent disorder.

It could be argued that the current obsession with money in the game was born from the recommendations of Lord Justice Taylor and the likes of Sky have profited from the findings. And maybe it has changed the atmosphere within grounds from one of pure passion to a more subdued aura, especially at some grounds. But overall, the fact that we have had 22 years without any major safety incident is a positive thing. There has recently beendiscussion about re-introducing safe standing areas in Premier League grounds. The Hillsborough Memorial service each year will remind people why that is such a bad idea.

Those youg lads, who were not born in 1989, want to pay their respects to the victims of the tragedy. But more than that, they recognise that on that fateful day, football spectating changed for the better and they have been able to watch their team in comfort and safety ever since.

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