On Saturday 15 April 1989, Liverpool were drawn to play Nottingham Forest in an English FA Cup Semi-Final. It was a repeat of the 1988 semi between the same two clubs and the FA chose the same neutral venue that was a “success” the previous year: Hillsborough, Sheffield. However Liverpool fans were not pleased. South Yorkshire police would only agree to the 1989 game if they repeated the 1988 arrangement where Liverpool fans were held in the smaller “away” end of the ground so they could be funnelled quickly back to the motorway westward to Lancashire.
As a result Liverpool were allocated 24,000 tickets compared to Forest’s 30,000, despite the fact that Liverpool’s average home attendance was substantially higher than the Nottingham club. And because there was less standing room at the away end, Liverpool’s allocation was more expensive as well as smaller (the game cost £12 to sit and £6 to stand). Liverpool had tried to switch ends in 1988 but police were adamant. They said it would have involved rival supporters crossing paths and “creating a risk of disorder”. And when the two teams were drawn to play again in 1989, police held to the previous year’s precedent saying “any change would lead to confusion”.
However the one key change that did lead to confusion was in the South Yorkshire constabulary itself. In 1988, policing was the responsibility of veteran Chief Superintendent Brian Mole but he was replaced as local commander just three weeks before the 1989 game. His replacement was newly promoted Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield. On the day, the new man at the helm had control of 1,122 police officers (38 per cent of South Yorkshire’s total force). However Duckenfield had not personally policed a match at the ground in ten years before the game.
Sheffield Wednesday (Hillsborough's owners) also had 376 stewards on duty on the day. They were assisted by a computerised operation which issued a warning pulse when any section of the ground got to within 15 percent of its permitted capacity. However what the system could not do was monitor the distribution of fans in each pen within the section. Unlike the Kop end where the Forest fans stood, the away end at Leppings Lane was divided into pens so that home and away fans could be segregated in the event where both had to be accommodated at that end of the ground. Although in theory it was the stewards (representing the owners) who were responsible for seating arrangements at the ground, in practice it was police who managed it. And police procedure was to let the fans “find their own level” within the pens.
It was a warm sunny Spring Saturday that greeted those fans as they approached Hillsborough that day. The 3pm kickoff was a 54,000 sell-out and many more people came to Sheffield without tickets. Although some Liverpool fans drank heavily before the game, there was no sign of any alcohol trouble. The mood was good-humoured. An hour before the game, Forest fans greatly outnumbered Liverpool inside the ground. The one train from Merseyside arrived at 2pm and its 350 passengers were escorted to the ground by police. By now, those who drove to Sheffield were also in the area and the crowd was becoming congested in the narrow streets around Leppings Lane. There was no longer a separate queue for each turnstile but one great phalanx of people across the whole approach area.
But there was still no sign of panic. Police monitoring the situation on video cameras at 2.30pm still reckoned they could get everyone inside the ground in time for the 3pm kick-off. In any case, as Superintendent Duckenfield reminded his officers, a delay could only be authorised in the event of fog on the Pennines or traffic jams on the motorway. It would not be countenanced, he said, just because fans were arriving late to the ground - even in large numbers.
In the next 35 minutes it all went horribly wrong. As is usual, most fans wanted to congregate in the central pens behind the goal. By 2.50pm these two were seriously overcrowded although the wing pens still had plenty of room. Meanwhile the crush outside the gates grew worse as more people arrived. The seven Leppings Lane terrace turnstiles could not process the numbers quickly enough as people outside fretted they would miss the kick-off. As the pressure grew, some women and children began to faint.
At 2.45pm police outside the ground called for reinforcements. Appeals to the crowd to stop pushing were ignored. There were now 5,000 people trapped in the phalanx in the narrow area outside the ground. A constable radioed his superiors asking for the game to be delayed. His request was turned down. Seriously worried that fatalities could occur, a superintendent outside the ground requested Duckenfield three times for the gates to be opened. At 2.52pm Duckenfield finally acceded to the request.
In the next five minutes 2,000 people stormed through the central gate and most them headed straight on to the central pens. It didn’t help there was a subtle downward gradient easing their passage in that direction. Fans spoke of being swept off their feet and could not resist the push towards the already overcrowded pens. At 2.54pm the two teams emerged onto the field creating a great surge of anticipation among the crowd. Most fans in the two central pens were uncomfortable and many were in distress. Some were already finding it difficult to breathe. Still the flow continued through the tunnels. Those at the very front were being crushed against the perimeter fencing and began asking for the gate to be opened onto the field. In the deafening noise, police patrolling the perimeter did not realise there was a problem and ignored their requests.
More gates were opened outside the ground under intense pressure of the people outside, some of whom did not have tickets. The game kicked off on schedule at 3pm. Fans crushed inside the central pens began climbing the fence to escape to the less crowded pens. Others attempted to climb onto the field but were pushed back by police fearing a pitch invasion. Near the front, those weakened to the point of collapse were now dying on their feet.
At 3.04pm Liverpool striker Peter Beardsley struck a shot against the crossbar at the other end of the ground. The Liverpool fans roared and began surging forward again. Normally after a surge, the fans retreat but this time there was nowhere to retreat to. The force of numbers smashed two crash barriers in one of the central pens and propelled many fans into the front fence. But police watching on video cameras assumed it was an attempted pitch invasion. So instead of summoning ambulances, they called for dog handlers.
Finally one senior policeman, Superintendent Roger Greenwood realised something was going horribly wrong. He tried in vain to ask those at the front to move back. When he saw that was impossible, he radioed his superiors for the game to be abandoned. The control tower did not receive the message and he signalled wildly with his hands. Finally without waiting for further orders, Greenwood ran on to the field and told the referee to stop the game.
Unbelievably the game was almost six minutes old before it was called off. The damage had already been done. The steps towards the central pens were congested with bodies alive and dead. Fans on the upper tier dragged up those they could. Police called in to preserve public order suddenly found a catastrophe on their hands. They were confronted with victims who were blue in the face and incontinent. Their mouths were open, eyes starting and vomiting. The dead and injured were laid out on the field. As the scale of the carnage unfolded, fans turned their hostility towards the police and began shouting abuse, spitting at them, and assaulting them. Press photographers who took photos of the dead were also a target.
Although St John’s Ambulance staff were on the scene, there was no public address call for doctors and nurses until 3.30pm. There were only six stretchers in the ground so fans improvised and tore down hoardings to take casualties off the scene. Throughout all of this Superintendent Duckenfield stayed in the control room, unaware of the scale of the disaster until he got the request for a fleet of ambulances. His boss Assistant Chief Constable Jackson was attending the game and went to the control room to ask Duckenfield what was happening. The Superintendent could not tell him. Jackson had to go down to ground level to find out for himself.
Duckenfield also deliberately withheld giving information out over the public address system for fear of everyone leaving together hampering rescue efforts. The problem was that the Forest fans assumed the problem was because Liverpool fans were causing trouble and began taunting them. This further infuriated Liverpool fans on the field who rushed towards the Forest end. Their path was blocked by a row of police officers who stood on the halfway line who otherwise did nothing. Those needing help regarded the actions of these passive policemen as further insensitivity.
Still the confusion continued. When fire officers arrived at the ground, no one knew why they were called. One Police Inspector told them “I don’t really think we need you”. And by the time they arrived on the field with resuscitation cylinders and cutting equipment, it was too late. At 3.56pm Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish spoke to the restive crowd and called for calm. After another fifteen minutes the game was officially abandoned and the entire stadium emptied in an orderly fashion. By 4.30pm ambulances had taken 172 people to two nearby hospitals.
Meanwhile, the Sheffield Wednesday gymnasium was transformed into a makeshift morgue and casualty clearing area. As more bodies were piled in, the atmosphere became gradually more chaotic and harrowing. Recriminations and scuffles broke out as people looked for missing relatives and friends. There was an atmosphere of utter shock. 95 people died on the day and one died four days later. All were Liverpool fans. Another 765 people were injured. Of those dead, blood samples showed that only six had more than 120 milligrams percent of alcohol.
Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar was the closest person on the field to the tragedy as the game kicked off. From behind his goal, anguished fans shouted at him for help while he prepared to take a goal kick. He could hear them say: "They're killing us, Bruce, they're killing us.” As Grobbelaar took the kick he wondered who was killing them. He looked around and saw the frightened faces through the fence and asked a policeman: 'Is there any chance that you can open the gate here?” But Grobbelaar had to concentrate on the game as Forest shot went towards the corner flag. Grobbelaar takes up the story:
“I went to retrieve it, and I said to the policewoman - I thought it was a policeman - 'Get the effing gate open. Can't you see that they need it'? And there were screams coming at the time. I kicked the ball upfield, and I went back and said, 'Get the fucking gate open'. I turned back and the ball went out of play on the left, and that's when I shouted to the referee. The policeman came on to the field, and the game stopped."
The Hillsborough disaster would ultimately revolutionise the game in England. Barely two days later, the Thatcher government set up an inquiry under Lord Justice Taylor with a remit to “"to inquire into the events at [Hillsborough] and to make recommendations about the needs of crowd control and safety at sports events". Taylor heard evidence from families of the bereaved, supporters, the football association, Sheffield council, Sheffield Wednesday staff and their insurers, police, fire and ambulance authorities, and a consultant engineer.
After 31 days, the Taylor Report recommended all top division stadiums in England and Scotland phase out their perimeter fencing and concrete terraces, and become all-seater. By the 1996 European Championships in England, the game and its grounds had changed utterly. 96 people had paid the ultimate price to make the game safer for all of Britain’s millions of football fans. Their sacrifice, while preventable, was not in vain.