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The Hillsborough Tragedy: The Greatest Coverup in Sports History

It was the worst disaster in British sporting history. 

On April 15, 1989 an FA Cup semi-final game at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield turned into a nightmare.

Behind one of the goals, a human crush developed, pinning scores of people against a metal fence.

As the match descended into chaos, 94 Liverpool fans died of asphyxiation, the life ebbing from them even as a horrified world looked on. 

In the aftermath, three more would eventually die of their injuries – the most-recent in July of 2021 – bringing the death toll of that awful day to 97.

But while an official inquest would find poor crowd management by the South Yorkshire Police was responsible for the tragedy, the truth wouldn’t come out for 27 years

Instead, senior officers colluded with the British state and sections of the media to obscure the facts. To construct a parallel reality where those who died weren’t innocents… but hooligans responsible for their own gruesome fates. 

Welcome to the story of Hillsborough: the greatest coverup in sports history.

Hillsborough Tragedy 1989
Hillsborough Tragedy 1989

Let’s explore

In April of 2016, the longest-running inquest in British legal history delivered its verdict. 

In a groundbreaking announcement, the jury concluded that 96 fans had been unlawfully killed at Hillsborough stadium nearly three decades earlier. That “a catalogue of failings” by police were to blame.

To the survivors’ families it was the end of a long, painful road.

But it also raised some serious questions.

Why had it taken 27 years for justice to be done? And why – given it was ultimately found responsible – had the South Yorkshire police force spent that time fighting the bereaved families? 

To understand the answers, we need to go back in time. All the way to 1989, and a very different era in British history.

This is the era of late-Thatcherism. Of striking miners, city boys, and – doubtless most alien of all – an unelectable Labour Party. 

It’s also an era when the reputation of English football is at an all time low. 

This was a time when the media routinely painted football supporters as drunken yobs; hooligans more interested in swilling larger and punching coppers than watching the game. 

But while hooliganism did exist, those who knew football knew the charge was exaggerated. Knew that most fans were ordinary, law-abiding people. 

And Brian Mole was someone who knew football.

As chief superintendent with the South Yorkshire police, Mole had a stellar reputation for handling crowds around Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield. 

He was a cop who knew and loved football, knew and loved the city, and understood how to deal with masses of people.

He was, in short, the perfect guy to have supervising the upcoming FA Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.

Sadly, the job would go to someone way less competent.

Just 19 days before the game, Brian Mole was transferred away – punishment for failing to discipline his men after a bullying prank. 

In his place was promoted a man who didn’t know football, didn’t know Hillsborough, and had all the crowd control skills of a yapping puppy: David Duckenfield. 

Like a sort of anti-Brian Mole made of concentrated incompetence, Duckenfield felt no need to read up on his force’s match day procedures. To learn how they’d previously dealt with overcrowding at Hillsborough. 

All he cared about was keeping the two sets of fans apart, so sure was he that everyone there would be a drunken hooligan.

It was an attitude that would soon lead to disaster. 

April 15, 1989 dawned with a festive atmosphere in Sheffield, as 53,000 fans arrived to watch the beautiful game. 

But below the surface, problems were already brewing.

Despite being the bigger club, Liverpool had been given the smaller end of the stadium. 

That meant over 10,000 standing ticket fans having to enter through Leppings Lane; a natural bottleneck with only seven turnstiles. 

Brian Mole had been all too aware of the potential for a crush to develop there. Duckenfield, by contrast, had no plan in place for overcrowding. 

By 2:15pm – 45 minutes before kickoff – it was clear not enough fans were getting through the turnstiles. 

By 2:30 a vast crowd had amassed in Leppings Lane. By 2:45, the sheer volume of people was turning it into a human crush. 

At this point, the police could’ve delayed the match. Calmed fans desperate to get in before kickoff.

But the newbie in charge outside – Roger Marshall – never called for a delay. 

Instead, he called Duckenfield in a panic, asking him to open Gate C – a large side gate that led around the turnstiles and to the tunnels leading into the stadium. 

At first, Duckenfield ignored him. But when Marshall shouted that someone was going to get killed out there, the commanding officer relented. Gate C was opened. 

With just 8 minutes till kickoff, the crowd surged in, heading straight for the nearest open tunnel: Tunnel 2.

The most-prominent tunnel past Gate C, Tunnel 2 led straight to two standing-room only sections, pens 3 and 4.

The name “pens” was apt. The stadium owners had installed large metal fences not just between the fans and the pitch, but between other pens too. 

Once you were inside a pen, you were inside. Even on a good day, the press of bodies in there meant it was near impossible to get out the tiny back gate. 

And April 15, 1989 was not a good day.

Before Gate C was even opened, pens 3 and 4 were already overcrowded – something Duckenfield could see from his control box. Let more people in, and they’d have nowhere to go.

Procedure called for Tunnel 2 to be closed. To divert fans to other, emptier pens.

But Duckenfield never ordered the tunnel shut. He later admitted he didn’t even know crowd control was his job.

So when Gate C opened, a surge of 2,000 fans flooded into Tunnel 2. Into pens designed to only hold a few hundred people.

Almost immediately, it became clear something was wrong.

Fans in the two pens were scaling the fences, trying to climb out the growing crush. 

This was all in Duckenfield’s sight line. But he never reacted. Later, he claimed he’d “froze”. 

That lack of reaction turned the pens into hell on Earth.

The effects of being caught in a human crush is like a constrictor snake squeezing you. Your ribs crack. Your chest compresses so tight that you can’t breathe. 

People vomit, void their bowels. Faces turn purple. Blood vessels pop in eyes. 

And, through it all, the horrific, hopeless realization that you can’t move. That you’re dying and can’t do anything about it. 

Watch Hillsborough footage from that day, and it’s clear a disaster was happening. You’ll see fans on the upper terraces, trying to haul those trapped to safety.

But while you’ll also see individual cops trying to help, you won’t see a coordinated response. The sort of response that required leadership: a quality David Duckenfield never possessed.

At 3:06pm the game was finally abandoned.

By now, a pile of broken bodies lied pressed against the metal barriers. 94 victims – among them 37 teens and children – alongside 700 injured.

Yet still the mistakes kept on coming.

With the emergency services slow to declare a major incident, only a handful of ambulances made it to the grounds. 

Fans were left to try and make stretchers out of broken advertising signs. To try to give CPR to unconscious children. 

But rather than deal with the nightmare on the pitch, Duckenfield went into arse-covering mode.

Of all the shameful actions that day, perhaps nothing can equal Duckenfield telling the secretary of the Football Association that the fans had caused the crush – the same fans now dying just feet away from him.

Rather than admit he’d ordered Gate C opened, Duckenfield claimed drunk Liverpool supporters had broken down the gate, leading to the disaster. 

Even as bodies were being pulled out the pens, the accusation was broadcast on the BBC as fact.

By the time the Hillsborough gymnasium had been converted into a makeshift morgue, the lie had taken hold. The lie that would cause so much pain and trauma to the families of the dead. 

Those who’d died, it was claimed, were drunk hooligans. Yobs who’d broken down Gate C, and brought their deaths on themselves.

It was a lie South Yorkshire police would stick to for decades.

That same night, grieving families were aggressively questioned about their dead relatives’ alcohol consumption. 

Meanwhile, senior officers – including Duckenfield – went and got drunk at the Niagara social club.

There, they told the Conservative MP Irvine Patnick a litany of lies about the disaster: that the fans were drunk. That they’d assaulted police officers who’d tried to help. 

The very next day, Patnick would join the chorus of voices repeating this lie. A lie designed to do nothing but protect a force and commander whose incompetence had just killed scores.

Sadly, it was a lie that worked all too well. 

Just as the contemporary case of the Central Park Five struck a chord in America by preying on racial fears, the Hillsborough coverup played into English worries of a drunken, violent underclass. 

No matter that the Hillsborough dead had come from all walks of life. No matter that a 1990 report by Lord Justice Taylor would see through the smokescreen and place the blame squarely at David Duckenfield’s feet.

In the PR war, South Yorkshire police could count on powerful allies.

Four days after the disaster, British tabloid The Sun ran a sensational false story claiming Liverpool fans had assaulted ambulance staff and urinated on police officers trying to revive the victims.

The very same day the Sun published its smears, 14-year old Lee Nicol died of his injuries, becoming Hillsborough’s 95th victim. 

By now, though, Duckenfield’s version of the truth had taken hold.

The 1991 inquest would ignore Lord Taylor’s report, and its conclusion that “the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control,” instead issuing a verdict of accidental death. 

That same year, Duckenfield was allowed to retire early on a full pension. 

And so the pattern was set for a shameful quarter century. 

Although the families of the dead clubbed together, wiping out their savings to try and afford lawyers, they would fail to get a new inquiry opened.

Even as yet another victim died of his injuries, bringing the toll to 96. Even as evidence emerged that the police had doctored and falsified its officers statements to the earlier inquiry. 

In the mind of the establishment, the matter was closed.

The dead at Hillsborough were drunks who’d done this to themselves. 

Thankfully, this lie couldn’t last forever. 

In 2010, after two decades of campaigning by the victims’ families, the British government convened an independent panel to review evidence.

Free from old social prejudices, the Panel sifted the evidence with clear eyes. 

It found that the decision to open Gate C was the cause of the crush. That even after that, 41 lives might’ve been saved if Duckenfield hadn’t frozen.

Their review overturned the original verdict, opened the chance for a new inquest.

That was how, in 2016, the families were at last able to see Duckenfield admit in court that he’d lied. Were able to hear the jury’s verdict of 96 unlawful killings.

Were able, too, to hear the inquest exonerate the fans, and instead place all the blame officially on the police and emergency services.

It was a moment of truth, after 27 long years. The moment when one of the longest-running conspiracies in sporting history collapsed. 

Sadly, it was also the highwater mark for justice.

Today, over half a decade after the 96 victims were declared unlawfully killed, not a single person has been successfully prosecuted for the disaster.

David Duckenfield was acquitted of gross negligence in 2019. The senior officers who spread lies and altered statements had their trial collapse in 2021. 

While South Yorkshire police agreed in 2021 to pay damages relating to the coverup, no amount has yet been set.

Meanwhile, this long-ago disaster continues to claim more lives. 

On July 27, 2021, Andrew Devine – after a post-Hillsborough life plagued by disability – died of complications relating to injuries he received that day. The coroner officially ruled him the 97th victim.

Beyond that, there are the stories of PTSD. The suicides of those who were there that day, the self-destructive behavior. The trauma of the families who will now never see justice done. 

But perhaps the saddest part of the Hillsborough story happened away from the pitch. 

Many of those who died that day were ordinary, decent folk who trusted their government. Who thought their local police force were there to protect them. 

When disaster struck, though, that trust was betrayed. Completely and utterly betrayed, just so a handful of incompetents would never have to account for their actions. 

The story of Hillsborough may be over. But, for the survivors and the families of the dead, the pain of that fateful day – and the appalling coverup – will last the rest of their lives.

Sources:

Guardian, super in-depth article on the disaster: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/apr/26/hillsborough-disaster-deadly-mistakes-and-lies-that-lasted-decades 

BBC, Hillsborough’s Legacy: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-57281398 

BBC, How the Hillsborough Disaster unfolded: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-19545126 

BBC, Hillsborough timeline: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-merseyside-47697569 

BBC, The Sun’s infamous headline: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-36149489 

NYTimes, why Hillsborough remains important: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/29/world/europe/interpreter-hillsborough-charges-uk.html 

Police forces agree to pay compensation: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-merseyside-57356486 

Guardian, collapse of the 2021 Hillsborough trial: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/may/30/collapse-hillsborough-trial-legal-system-law-bereaved-family-trauma-court 

97th Victim dies, 2021: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2021/jul/28/liverpool-fans-death-ruled-as-97th-victim-of-hillsborough-disaster 

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